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

RIGHTS-CHILE: New Wave of Mapuche Land Conflicts

Daniela Estrada

SANTIAGO, Jul 31 2009 (IPS) - The southern Chilean region of Araucanía has been shaken in the last few days by occupations of land by Mapuche activists claiming it as part of their ancestral territory, attacks on vehicles, and the resurgence of an anti-Mapuche paramilitary group.

“In order for us to call off our actions, we would have to sit down to talk – the government, the business community and the Mapuche people – at a negotiating table,” Juan Carlos Curinao, a Mapuche “lonco” or chief, told IPS Friday, referring to the series of actions that began on Jul. 23, with no scheduled end date.

On Jul. 7, around 100 Mapuche activists travelled 680 km from Araucanía to the capital, hoping to meet with socialist President Michelle Bachelet.

But the president did not receive them, and they left her a letter warning that actions would soon be taken if their demands were not addressed.

As the activists explained on that occasion, they decided to directly show up at the seat of government after they received no response from the governor of the Araucanía region, Nora Barrientos, appointed by the president.

On Jul. 23, the Mapuche activists began to occupy private property that they claim as their ancestral territory, including land that belongs to a logging company. Both Mapuche activists and police were injured in the clashes that occurred when the police attempted to evict them.

The Mapuche, Chile’s largest indigenous group, number nearly one million in this country of over 16 million people. The struggle for their rights to what they claim as their ancestral lands in the south of the country has frequently spilled over into violence.

On Tuesday, a passenger bus heading from Santiago to Puerto Montt in the south was stoned by a group of hooded men, who also spray-painted it with Mapuche demands. In addition, two trucks were recently set on fire by hooded men in Temuco, the capital of the region of Araucanía. The radical Mapuche group Coordinadora Arauco Malleco (CAM) claimed responsibility for the incidents.

The government has brought legal action in connection with the incidents, invoking the harsh state security law.

The government sent Deputy Interior Minister Patricio Rosende to the area to oversee police actions and coordinate policies focusing on matters of interest to indigenous communities, such as employment plans, the provision of basic services like piped water and electricity to rural areas, and the improvement of irrigation.

On Thursday, government spokeswoman Carolina Tohá said that of the 2,800 indigenous communities in the country, only seven “are involved in violent actions.”

“We are not going to allow these actions, but at the same time, it is very clear to us that there are indigenous issues that the country must address, which have to do with much deeper policies and cannot be solved by security measures, because they are not limited to the realm of law and order, and have to do with social, political and cultural aspects,” said Tohá.

The government said that since 1994, more than 650,000 hectares of land have been transferred to indigenous communities – 35 percent since Bachelet took office in 2006.

On Thursday, 16 Mapuche students at the Alonso de Ercilla high school in Araucanía were arrested by the carabineros (militarised police) while they were holding a demonstration outside of their school.

At the same time, a paramilitary group in Araucanía that calls itself the “Hernán Trizano Commando” announced that it would become active again, and threatened Mapuche leaders with dynamite attacks starting on Aug. 3.

In response, Senator Alejandro Navarro, the presidential candidate of a new political party, the Movimiento Amplio Social (MAS – Broad Social Movement) announced Friday that he would file a lawsuit invoking the anti-terrorism law against the paramilitary group.

The Observatorio Ciudadano (Citizen Observatory, a local NGO) and the London-based rights watchdog Amnesty International expressed concern over human rights violations committed in the region of Araucanía in the last few days.

According to reports from Mapuche activists, “the police have made excessive use of dissuasive elements like tear gas and rubber bullets, and even buckshot, which they have shot from helicopters to crack down on protesters,” said the Observatorio.

Amnesty, meanwhile, said the Mapuche attacks on the physical and psychological integrity of unarmed people, private property, and free circulation were “unacceptable.”

This is not the first time in Chile that the slow, inadequate resolution of indigenous claims to ancestral lands and the impact of current and future projects of extractive industries and logging companies have caused tensions that have spiraled into violence, said Amnesty.

According to Curinao, “lonco” of the Guañaco Millao village, the Mapuche communities involved in the actions “are not a minority.”

He said the mobilisation is led by 40 traditional authorities or loncos from different Mapuche territories, who represent all of the subgroups of Mapuche people.

However, he marked a distance from organisations like the Consejo de Todas las Tierras (All Lands Council), led by Aucán Huilcamán, and the radical CAM.

“We do not recognise the authority of CAM. This is a people’s movement, not a movement of organisations. This is the demand set forth by the traditional authorities, although we also accept shows of support from different sectors,” he said.

“The Mapuche people who are demonstrating are not violent. We don’t carry weapons to go around hurting non-indigenous settlers, we are fighting for our culture. It is the state that has attacked us, shooting at us,” said Curinao.

“If I occupy property, it’s not violence; I am reclaiming my territory,” he said.

Curinao said “we are not responsible for the attack on the bus; we do not do those things. There are many ‘self-attacks’ staged here to frame our people. Whenever we step up our struggle, it fails because of things like that.”

There is no solution in sight yet to the latest series of Mapuche occupations of land and demonstrations.

But on Friday the authorities announced the creation of a working committee made up of representatives of the government and the association of truck owners to improve safety conditions for drivers around the country, especially in areas where indigenous conflicts have flared up.

A march in the capital in favour of the Mapuche cause has been called for Saturday, and on Aug. 5 the Senate will hold a special session to discuss “the security situation that is affecting the region of Araucanía.”

After 22-year-old Mapuche agronomy student Matías Catrileo was shot in the back by the police in January 2008 while trespassing on private land with a group of fellow activists, te co-director of the Observatory of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, José Aylwin, said “Violence begets violence.

“What we have here is historical violence, which began with the occupation of Mapuche territory by the state (in the 19th century) and continued with the policies of usurpation promoted throughout the 20th century, which continue today, through, for example, forestry plantations of exotic species planted on the lands of the indigenous communities, and the expansion of investment projects.

“There have been violent reactions by the communities, but it is the state that must put a stop to the spiral of violence,” he said at the time.

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