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CHILE: Indigenous Protests on Several Fronts

Daniela Estrada

SANTIAGO, Oct 7 2009 (IPS) - The tense relations between the Chilean government of Michelle Bachelet and the country’s large indigenous minority are far from easing up.

While the conflict between Mapuche Indians and the police in the south is escalating, members of the Atacama community in the north are protesting a geothermal energy project, and Mapuche leaders have filed an injunction against the president and a government minister.

Mapuche – the main Amerindian group in the country, numbering around one million people in a total population of over 16 million – communities launched a new wave of land occupations in late July aimed at recovering their ancestral territory in the southern region of Araucanía.

The Mapuche Territorial Alliance’s protest demonstrations and occupations of privately owned land that the indigenous communities claim as their own have led to new clashes with the Carabineros (militarised police).

While the centre-left Coalition for Democracy, which has governed the country since 1990, says that more than 650,000 hectares of land have been transferred to indigenous communities since 1994 – 35 percent since Bachelet took office in 2006 – the native activists complain about a slow response to their demands.

On Sunday, the Alliance denounced that seven Mapuche youths and two children, who were not involved in the protests, were injured by buckshot fired by the Carabineros. One young passerby, Pablo Catrillanca, was hospitalised after being hit by buckshot and is at risk of losing the sight in one of his eyes.

The communities of Temucuicui – one of the most active in the Mapuche land movement – and Rofue complained Monday that they were the victims of violent raids by the Carabineros, who even used helicopters in the operation.

Some Mapuche areas in southern Chile have a long history of conflicts over what the native communities claim as their ancestral land.

An international mission convened in 2007 by the non-governmental Observatory for Indigenous Peoples’ Rights, which included representatives from groups like Amnesty International, Norwegian People’s Aid and the Argentine Centre for Legal and Social Studies (CELS), documented dozens of complaints of abuses, such as violent raids of Mapuche homes in which the police often destroy household goods and objects of cultural value, mistreat elderly people, women and children, and hurl racist epithets.

René Urban, a farmer who owns an estate which the Temucuicui Mapuche community claims as their own, built a trench to keep out native activists, a measure that sparked an outcry by local indigenous residents. Due to the large number of attacks on his property in the past few years, he has been provided with permanent police protection.

The Observatorio Ciudadano, a local non-governmental organisation, reported that a 14-year-old boy who was gathering herbs for the “machi” (traditional healer) of Rofue was shot at by the police, seized and dragged onto a helicopter. The NGO said the police threatened to throw him out of the helicopter if he did not confess that he was taking part in a land occupation.

In a press release, the Chilean branch of Amnesty International expressed its concern over reports indicating that the tension between some Mapuche indigenous communities and the authorities has flared up again in recent days. The rights watchdog also complained about “excessive force” used by the police, as well as indigenous attacks on private property and individuals.

The Ethical Commission against Torture, an NGO that links 13 human rights groups and a number of prominent human rights advocates who fought against the 1973-1990 military dictatorship, reported in late September that 99 indigenous people and other activists involved in the Mapuche cause are in prison or facing prosecution in Chile, according to a count of cases between Jan. 1 and Jun. 25, 2009.

On the other side of the conflict, agribusiness leaders met with Supreme Court president Urbano Marín on Tuesday to express their concern that some judges have released Mapuche activists after they have been arrested on charges of involvement in violent protests in southern Chile.

Protests up north too

But it is not only the Mapuche who have mobilised in the last few weeks. Atacama Indians have held demonstrations to protest the possible damages caused to the El Tatio geyser field, a tourist destination in the northern Chilean region of Antofagasta that is managed by two native communities.

In early September a water vapour plume spouting to a height of between 30 and 60 metres erupted from one of the exploration wells drilled by the Italian-Chilean consortium Geotérmica del Norte to evaluate the area’s potential for energy generation. The plume of water was just a few km from the El Tatio geyser field.

The Atacama protesters complained that no one listened to their warnings that the geothermal energy project would cause irreversible damages to the fragile highlands ecosystem.

On Wednesday, the communities filed a motion seeking a court stay that would force Geotérmica del Norte to bring its exploration operations to a halt, even though the vapour plume has disappeared.

Reform of indigenous affairs institutions questioned

A controversy has also broken out over two draft laws that will create a Ministry of Indigenous Affairs, an Indigenous Peoples Council and an Indigenous Development Agency.

On Sept. 29, the president signed the draft laws establishing the three agencies, which will absorb and replace the National Indigenous Development Board (CONADI), which is accused of being bogged down in red tape and of having an overly politicised bureaucracy.

Bachelet said the new institutions on indigenous affairs emerged from “a national consultation process that we conducted early this year and from the work that we have carried out since the start of our government.”

The reforms were introduced in line with the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention 169 concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples, which went into force in Chile on Sept. 15.

But on Tuesday, Aucán Huilcamán of the Council of All Lands and other Mapuche leaders filed an injunction against Bachelet and minister of the presidency José Antonio Viera Gallo, who is also coordinator of indigenous affairs.

The Mapuche leaders argue that the government has failed to fully comply with the Convention 169 clause on the right to “prior consultation,” which must be carried out “in good faith and in a form appropriate to the circumstances, with the objective of achieving agreement or consent to the proposed measures,” such as logging, agribusiness or mining projects in indigenous territories.

According to Huilcamán, the two draft laws “were not the product of a consultation process and do not have consent, as required by article 6 of Convention 169. We see it as extremely serious that three weeks after the Convention entered into force, the spinal column of this international instrument has been violated.”

Government spokeswoman Carolina Tohá responded that the government already carried out a nationwide consultation process on the creation of an Indigenous Peoples Council, and that the need for more comprehensive reforms – contained in the two draft laws signed by the president – emerged from the process itself.

Tohá added that a new consultation process would take place during the congressional debate on the two laws.

Warning about problems of this kind, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms of Indigenous Peoples James Anaya recommended after his April visit to Chile that the country should carry out “a consultation process on the consultation process.”

At an international seminar held Monday and Tuesday in the Chilean capital to analyse the challenges faced in the implementation of Convention 169, the participating indigenous representatives were divided over the treaty.

Some of them called for it to be studied in-depth and to be extensively employed, while others questioned its effectiveness and the government’s will to carry out the reforms required for its full implementation, considering, for example, the repressive policy followed in response to land claims, occupations and protests in Araucanía.

“The skepticism and frustration over the question of the full implementation of the Convention is normal because the process has been plagued with deception and systematic human rights violations,” Alfredo Seguel, with the Mapuche Working Group on Collective Rights, told IPS.

“We believe Convention 169 is a powerful tool, which does not stand on its own but forms part of a set of collective human rights that must be interpreted in line with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Convention 169 is the bare minimum, and the Declaration is the maximum,” said the activist.

There are already several examples of the successful use of the ILO Convention in Chile, like the case of a Machi Indian woman who brought legal action to protect a plot of land with herbs used for medicinal purposes, which was threatened by the forest industry.

But some of Chile’s Amerindians are worried that the conflicts over land will end up getting bogged down in the courts.

Besides the difficulties of regulating and overseeing the consultation processes on public policies, legal initiatives and investment projects, serious struggles are expected over the modification of sectoral laws that collide with the rights of indigenous peoples, such as the water and mining code.

“The country’s legal, political and administrative framework must be brought into line with Convention 169, not the other way around, as the government has tried to do,” said Seguel.

“The underlying question is that this ‘ultra-neoliberal’ country is still controlled by vested interests, and profits and business are still above human rights and the environment,” said the activist. “There have been substantial modifications, but not in-depth changes.”

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