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CHILE: Bachelet Unveils New Indigenous Policy

Daniela Estrada

SANTIAGO, Apr 2 2008 (IPS) - Chilean President Michelle Bachelet has announced a new policy for indigenous people, which includes novel approaches to political participation and the protection of natural resources in the hands of the country’s native groups.

"Some say the problem facing indigenous people is just poverty, and that good targeting of subsidies would be the most appropriate policy. But we, on the other hand, maintain that it is a matter of rights, of a collective identity seeking expression in a multicultural society," said Bachelet at a ceremony Tuesday in the palace of La Moneda, the seat of government.

"We are making progress on indigenous affairs, but now is the time to go further, and above all at a faster pace. We have the will, the grassroots support, the resources, the commitment and the legitimacy to do so," she said.

The president announced the new policy for the nine ethnic groups recognised by the state, in the presence of ministers, members of Congress and representatives of indigenous communities, as well as former President Patricio Aylwin (1990-1994), who promulgated the 1993 Law on Indigenous Peoples and chaired the 2001-2003 Commission for Historic Truth and a New Deal.

A 2006 census known by the acronym CASEN found that 1,060,786 people identified themselves as belonging to native groups, equivalent to 6.6 percent of the Chilean population. The largest indigenous community is the Mapuche, who make up 87.2 percent of the country’s indigenous people.

The new "Social Pact for Multiculturalism" addresses three main areas: political systems, rights and institutions; integrated development of indigenous communities; and multiculturalism and diversity. These are to be added to the guidelines for action presented by Bachelet in April 2007.

In the first area, the president announced that she would promote direct participation by indigenous people in Congress, regional legislatures and local councils. "I want indigenous representatives in parliament," said Bachelet, to a round of applause.

"The proposal that has been analysed in greatest detail is to go back to a draft law presented in 1991 by two lawmakers, proposing the creation of an indigenous electoral district which would be entitled to elect a given number of members of both houses of Congress," Rodrigo Egaña, commissioner for Indigenous Affairs, said after the ceremony.

Egaña, appointed by Bachelet in February to coordinate and propose new policies for original peoples, said they hope to send several draft laws to Congress in three to five month’s time.

It is likely that the draft law on the indigenous electoral district will be combined with reform of the two-candidate or "binominal" electoral system, which is part of Bachelet’s government programme, as it has been for her three predecessors, all of them belonging to the centre-left Coalition for Democracy, since the return to democracy in 1990.

The binominal system, which benefits the two largest party coalitions, has not been eliminated because of opposition from the right, and because if affects the interests of sitting lawmakers.

The creation was also announced of a Subsecretariat of Indigenous Affairs within the sphere of the Planning Ministry (MIDEPLAN), a Council of Indigenous Peoples, conceived of as a representative body for consultation on policies affecting native communities, and a Ministerial Committee for Indigenous Affairs.

The present National Corporation for Indigenous Development (CONADI) is to be restructured, in order for it to implement policies. In addition, an Indigenous Affairs Unit will be established in each cabinet ministry.

In the second area, the president said that land would be restored in the immediate term to 115 indigenous communities, and decisions would be made with respect to the applications of another 308 communities. The Land and Water Fund, administered by CONADI, will be overhauled.

Programmes will be set in motion to boost the economic development of native groups, as well as the areas of communications, housing, drinking water, electricity and rural innovation, Bachelet said.

The special indigenous health programme will be strengthened, and actions will be studied to guarantee the right of indigenous peoples to have a say in the education of their children.

The third and final area of the new policy is aimed at "generating cultural change" among the Chilean population. The main novelty is that a "Code of Responsible Conduct" will be drawn up to regulate private and public investment projects in Indigenous Development Areas and on indigenous lands.

The Code "will include the right of indigenous people to be consulted about the projects, to share in the benefits, to be compensated for damages, and not to be relocated from their homes except under the conditions stipulated in the (International Labour Organisation) Convention 169 (on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples)," the president said.

"We are thinking of an indigenous communities’ impact assessment for investment projects," similar to the environmental impact assessment studies that are already required, Egaña said.

Lastly, policies fomenting multiculturalism and inclusion will be created, and specific programmes will be developed for indigenous people living in urban areas.

Although Bachelet launched an indigenous affairs policy in April 2007, intended to last until 2010 when her term of office ends, the resurgence of the Mapuche land conflict in the southern region of Araucanía forced her to announce further reforms.

The first five guidelines for action she proposed were strengthening indigenous communities’ participation in the political and social arenas, recognition and strengthening of their rights, improvement of the quality of life of indigenous people living in urban areas, empowerment of women, and promoting education and culture.

In January, however, Mapuche student Matías Catrileo was shot and killed by the police when, with a group of fellow activists, he trespassed on a private estate that the Mapuche claim as part of their ancestral lands.

Another activist for the Mapuche cause, Patricia Troncoso, who is serving a 10-year prison sentence for "terrorist arson", went on hunger strike for over 100 days.

Troncoso called off her fast when the government granted her prison privileges, including transfer to a prison farm and weekend leave, measures which were implemented in March.

Mapuche communities involved in conflicts over land have accused the police of repression and the justice system of persecution. These complaints, Egaña said, will be dealt with by the Presidential Advisory Commission on Human Rights, and by the courts.

Meanwhile, the country’s indigenous groups are opposed to the way Congress ratified ILO Convention 169, which it did with a controversial "interpretative declaration" on article 35.

The Convention and the appended declaration are now being studied by the Constitutional Court, after which the treaty could be approved by President Bachelet.

Another government promise that has not yet been fulfilled is a constitutional amendment recognising indigenous peoples, which is currently making its way through Congress.

Javier Mamani Castro, an Aymara town councillor in Colchane in the north of the country, told IPS he was pleased with the president’s speech, especially her announcement about introducing indigenous political participation in Congress.

But according to Paulina Acevedo, of the non-governmental Observatory for Indigenous Peoples’ Rights, who was invited to Tuesday’s ceremony, "there were no important announcements in what the president said," except for the social policies to do with health and education.

Acevedo said the announcements about political participation were "vague." "Nothing was said, for example, about a quota system for parliamentary representation. We’ll have to wait and see what mechanism is finally chosen to implement these measures," she told IPS.

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