Civil Society, Headlines, Human Rights, Indigenous Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

CHILE: Indigenous Rights Activist Ends 111-Day Hunger Strike

Giannina Milich

SANTIAGO, Jan 29 2008 (IPS) - The president of Chile’s bishops’ conference highlighted the effort made by indigenous rights activist Patricia Troncoso, who called off the longest hunger strike in Chilean history, to draw attention to the plight of the Mapuche people.

“I am calling for an increased ability to value a people who have a history, culture and cosmovision that differ from those of the mainstream. We must know how to live in a multi-ethnic culture,” Bishop Alejandro Goic told IPS.

Goic, who announced Monday that Troncoso was calling off her 111-day hunger strike in response to a government offer of prison benefits, reiterated that dialogue and respect are the most reasonable alternatives for resolving the Mapuche conflict.

Imprisoned since 2002, Troncoso and several Mapuche activists were sentenced to 10 years and a day in prison on charges of terrorist arson, and ordered to pay a fine of 840,000 dollars to the Forestal Mininco company, near Temuco in southern Chile, owned by one of the country’s wealthiest families.

In December 2001 a fire burned 100 hectares of pine plantations that officially belong to the logging company but are claimed by the indigenous people as part of their ancestral territory.

When the activists were tried, the Ricardo Lagos (2000-2006) administration invoked a controversial anti-terrorism law dating back to the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990).

The law allowed some 100 witnesses to conceal their identity while testifying. Human rights defenders and the activists’ families say the trial was flawed.

Troncoso – who was hospitalised with an IV drip on Jan. 13 – and four Mapuche activists began their hunger strike in October, drinking only water and mate, a traditional herbal infusion. But the others stopped fasting after two months.

The hunger strikers’ demands are the release of some 20 Mapuche “political prisoners,” the easing of military pressure on indigenous communities that are fighting for their traditional lands, and a review of the Forestal Mininco arson case.

The Mapuche’s ancestral territory spans the southern tip of South America across Argentina and Chile. According to 2006 statistics, the Mapuche – who make up 87 percent of the country’s indigenous people – number nearly 923,000 in this country of 15.6 million.

Laws adopted during the Pinochet regime offered incentives like land and subsidies to forestry companies and other firms interested in setting up shop in undeveloped parts of the country. Mapuche communities, who generally have no formal title to their ancestral property, were forced off most of their land.

Since the end of the dictatorship, some families have been compensated with new plots of land. However, the property is generally inferior to the farms from which they were forcibly removed.

The Mapuche communities also complain of police brutality, discrimination, extreme poverty and the destruction of the southern Chilean wilderness.

The bishop said he was confident that the Interministerial Committee created by the centre-left government of Michelle Bachelet in mid-January would make significant advances along with other sectors.

A similar view was expressed by lawyer José Aylwin, co-director of the Observatory for Indigenous Rights. “I believe it is positive that there is a coordinating instrument to make dialogue possible, as long as it is accompanied by other measures,” he told IPS.

On Monday, the Bachelet administration named former presidential adviser Rodrigo Egaña as presidential commissioner for indigenous affairs. His main task will be to promote dialogue among the indigenous community, the National Commission on Indigenous Development (CONADI) and provincial governors.

Working in conjunction with the Planning Ministry, the Interministerial Committee will also assess the reach and enforcement of public policies related to indigenous communities, and will work with parliament to achieve full constitutional recognition of Chile’s native peoples.

But ruling coalition Senator Nelson Avila told IPS that he did not have great expectations of the Interministerial Committee as long as the political will to tackle the underlying problems is lacking.

With respect to the government’s offer of certain concessions to Troncoso, he said “It is a proposal that has emerged at a time of desperation, where the tension has reached a limit.” Early this year, Avila asked the Organisation of American States (OAS) to mediate in the Mapuche conflict.

In Aylwin’s view, the offer “is a minimal step towards discussing other underlying issues. If the petition had not been accepted, Patricia’s risk of dying and the climate of inter-ethnic tension could have possibly triggered outbreaks of violence.”

Troncoso, who has lost over 25 kilos, remains in critical condition in the hospital in the city of Chillán, 400 km south of the capital. When her health improves she will be transferred to the hospital in Temuco, the capital of the province of Araucanía, 670 km south of Santiago.

“Yesterday she was in very bad condition, and her doctor told me that this could not go on any longer, and that a solution had to be found,” said Goic.

The government’s offer would include the transfer of the 38-year-old Troncoso – who is not herself a Mapuche Indian – and Mapuche activists Juan Millallen and Jaime Marileo, who were also sentenced in the same case, to a special rural Education and Labour Centre (CET) penitentiary.

Troncoso and Millallen would also be granted home leave on weekends, and Marileo on Sundays, starting in March.

The right-wing opposition alliance, made up of the National Renovation (RN) and Independent Democratic Union (UDI) parties, said the government’s proposal is a bad signal.

UDI Senator Jovino Novoa said Tuesday that the granting of concessions to Troncoso represented a defeat for the government and a threat to public order. “When violence is in any way rewarded, the only thing obtained is more violence,” he argued.

But the president’s chief of staff, José Antonio Viera-Gallo, said the anti-terrorism law was inappropriately applied in Troncoso’s case, and that the government’s offer does not infringe existing legislation.

“She will continue to serve her sentence, and has not been pardoned because that is not possible” in the case of those sentenced under the anti-terrorism law, Viera-Gallo told the Agricultura radio station, which announced that the controversial law might be reviewed once the heat of the moment had passed.

Troncoso and the other imprisoned activists held an earlier hunger strike, in 2006, setting forth the same demands. On that occasion, they called off the strike when it looked like a draft law that would have granted the prisoners parole was about to be passed by parliament.

However, the proposed legislation was voted down in Congress, which drew harsh criticism from social organisations.

The Mapuche conflict has drawn wide attention and concern from activists in Europe, the United States and Australia, where demonstrations have been held in solidarity with the hunger strikers.

Unrest and violent clashes with the police increased in the region of Araucanía after 22-year-old agronomy student Matías Catrileo was shot and killed early this month in an incident between Mapuche activists and Carabineros police officers on a private estate.

“The wounds run deep,” said Aylwin. “The state has used violence, and there has also been a reaction on the part of the indigenous people, who have occasionally used force in response to the police violence.”

Goic said the responsibility is shared. “If we are not capable of resolving this, the problem will continue, and will be taken advantage of by radical minority groups, which are sometimes very anarchistic and want the conflict to be a violent one.”

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