Current Affairs

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Chile’s Lucrative War Against Indigenous People

As multinational companies ravage Chile’s forests for profit, the Mapuche people are taking a stand.

Since colonization and industrialization commenced hundreds of years ago, indigenous groups in South America have struggled to protect their cultures and environments, both of which are essential to their (and the planet’s) survival. In recent years, much of the West’s attention has been focused on Brazil’s Amazonian tribes, but Chile’s indigenous Mapuche people have also been battling for their right to live on ancestral lands and protect forests essential for their cultural practices and the survival of the earth’s biosphere.

The Mapuche people’s home region of Southern Chile, known as Araucanía or WallMapu, is currently under siege by the country’s armed forces. A special military branch trained in the Colombian jungle by anti-narcotic specialist troops has been deployed to wage war against its own people. The unit, named “Comando Jungla,” was introduced in 2017 (to the dismay of local Mapuche) by Chile’s billionaire tycoon president Sebastián Piñera, named by Forbes as one of the world’s richest politicians. At the heart of this violent operation lies the perceived threat to the profits of the forestry industry that thrives thanks to a dark network of regional business and political interests, stemming from the brutal regime of General Augusto Pinochet.


The Mapuche have inhabited the southern regions that span across Chile and Argentina for millennia. Today they make up over 80 percent of the indigenous population and around 12 percent of the total Chilean population (which is 18.95 million, of whom 1.745 million are Mapuche, not including those of mixed heritage). Their language, Mapuzugun, has survived numerous genocides, being passed on orally through generations. Few documents have ever been written in Mapuzugun, making its survival even more remarkable.

The Mapuche have long been notable for their resilience. Since the arrival of Spanish colonists in 1520, the Mapuche have never been fully conquered. This has been a continual source of frustration to Chile’s ruling class. In 1881 during the onslaught of the “Pacification of the Araucanía,” Mapuche territory was violently annexed to the new Chilean nation-state. Their seized land was handed to foreign settlers, or sold off at auction, and the Mapuche people were incorporated by force into Chilean citizenship. Their lands were also reduced to around 6 percent of their original ancestral territory. The loss of lands and ancestral rights forced many Mapuche into large cities to seek work, often becoming laborers or housemaids in Chile’s larger cities such as Santiago, Temuco, and Concepción. This resulted in an erosion of their culture, including language and religion. Today just 20 percent of Mapuche people speak fluent Mapuzugun.

Over the years, the fate of the Mapuche has waxed and waned depending on the political leanings of government administrations. During the reign of deposed socialist president Salvador Allende (1970-1973), some Mapuche land restoration initiatives took place via land expropriations programs. Allende also passed an Indigenous Law, officially recognizing their culture and rights , but with the arrival of the brutal U.S.-backed Pinochet regime, these rights regressed significantly. Conditions for the Mapuche since the transition to democracy from 1990 have not improved much. To cite just one example, around 15 people were killed at the hands of the state in the struggle for ancestral land recovery and equal rights. Four of these murders occurred during the presidency of Michelle Bachelet—currently United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. 

Before that, things were even worse. Following the pacification of Araucanía, the pace of Mapuche dispossession accelerated due to the policies of General Augusto Pinochet, who ruled Chile from 1973 until 1990. The coup that overthrew the democratically elected Allende was financed and supported by the CIA. Then-President Richard Nixon contributed $10 million to efforts to stop Allende from wielding any power, aiding smear campaigns via the influential right wing newspaper El Mercurio, and financing the kidnapping of General Schneider, head of the army and Allende loyalist. Washington did not cease its anti-Allende actions until Allende was overthrown and General Pinochet was installed as dictator on September 11th, 1973.

The Mapuche fared about as well as one might expect under such a racist, authoritarian regime. Once in power, Pinochet immediately privatized state-run companies operating in forested land previously belonging to Mapuche farm cooperatives, selling them off at rock bottom prices to his supporters.  A 1974 government decree subsidized 70 percent of the operational costs of timber plantations—meaning that over the next 40 years the sector received millions of dollars in taxpayers’ money. Three-quarters of this cash went to the two companies that dominate the forestry industry in Chile today: Bosque Arauco and Compañía Manufacturera de Papeles y Cartones (CMPC). Arauco and CMPC’s combined annual sales are estimated to be worth over USD $10 billion. Private landowners now hold about three-quarters of Chile’s forests.

The ensuing loss of lands left the Mapuche people unable to maintain their hunting and fishing-oriented livelihood. Now they are effectively exiled in their own land. Because the claim to ancestral lands, cultural practices, and right to self determination and autonomy are central to Mapuche demands, the very attempt to recover their lands has criminalized their culture. To be Mapuche is to be at loggerheads with the state.

Earth Defenders at Risk

Latin America’s native forests are in a dire situation, with severe negative impacts on the global environment. In Brazil, 4,281 square miles of native forest were destroyed between 2019 and 2020. Chile’s vital forests are facing a similar fate. One-third of the world’s remaining large tracts of temperate forests—and the second-largest coastal temperate rainforest on the planet—are within its geographic boundaries, yet only 30 percent of Chile’s original native forests remain untouched.

Severe deregulation and rapid forestry industry expansion in the Southern and Patagonian regions has not only impacted the Mapuche, it has also impacted the environment. Native tree and plant species have been destroyed to make way for profitable pine and eucalyptus plantations.  From 1985 to 1995, Chile lost nearly 2 million hectares of native forest. As a result, the country now has some of the world’s most endangered native forests.

The impact of this plundering severely affects Mapuche communities who rely on unique native plants for subsistence and healing, and whose cosmovision is strongly associated with an attachment to nature. The practice of their religion and medicine relies on the use of native plants that are being destroyed to make way for commercial plantations.  The aggressive over-planting of pines has led to devastating outbreaks of fires, and the waste generated from pulp mills has contaminated precious lakes and rivers. Those who take a stand against the rapaciousness of national and international corporations pay a high price.

Alejandro Treuquil was a father to four children and community spokesperson (Werken). In June 2020 he was lured to a forest where he was killed by a gunshot to the back of the head. Days previous to his murder he’d given an interview to a radio station, U de Chile, detailing how local police were intimidating the community using tear gas and rubber bullets during raids on their lof (homestead). He said, “We don’t know why they are hitting us, why they want to stop us. Neither the Carabineros [national police] nor anyone else has specified why they are mistreating us, especially our children.”

After the killing of Treuquil, Héctor Cabrapán—another member of the settlement—told the Chilean press, “For three days and nights we were getting oppressed by police … my peñi [brother] received a death threat from them.”

In the interview, Cabrapán said over 20 people were involved in the ambush on Treuquil. “We don’t rule out the possibility that they had my peñi killed because he was threatened by the Carabineros, by the State, who wanted to kill him. We don’t rule out that it was them who ambushed my peñi.”

To date, very few of these crimes are investigated—and even fewer are penalized, as a culture of impunity prevails in the Chilean judicial system. In January of this year police officer Carlos Alarcón was sentenced to 11 years in prison over the killing of Camilo Catrillanca, a 24-year-old farmer and activist who was shot in the head in the small town of Temucuicui back in 2018. However, this is the very first time a conviction of this sort has materialized.

Criminalizing Culture

Though Pinochet is long dead, anti-terror legislation drawn up under his rule is a crucial tool to suppress indigenous dissent. The jails of Temuco, Angol, and Lebu in the Araucanía region hold scores of Mapuche prisoners accused of acts of terrorism for blocking highways or taking part in land reclamation actions. “The Law for the Internal Security of the State” (LES)  penalizes with prison those who “destroy or disable” means of transportation. Similar penalties await anyone who is seen to “incite or induce subversion of public order or revolt.” The same goes for those who “meet, arrange or facilitate meetings” that conspire against the stability of the government, and those who propagate “in word or in writing” doctrines that “tend to destroy or alter the social order through violence.” The law gives anonymity to witnesses in court, imposes higher sanctions and penalties for crimes, and allows for suspects to be held without bail before trial.

There are similarities between Chilean and United States anti-protest laws, recently strengthened by current hard right president Piñera in response to Chile’s social insurrection which began in October of 2019. Similarly, in the U.S. more than 90 anti-protest bills have been introduced in 35 state legislatures since May 2020. Some are as draconian as elevating the offense of “rioting” to a Class 4 felony, punishable by three years in prison. A number of laws, like those in Arizona, define “riot” so broadly that it includes joining two or more other people and recklessly using (or threatening to use) force that “disturbs the public peace.” Both in Chile and the United States, indigenous peoples have been targeted—either explicitly or implicitly—by such legislation.

The injustice is obvious to any impartial observer. Chile’s use of regime-era terror laws against the Mapuche has been widely criticized by human rights groups, including Amnesty International whose Americas Director Erika Guevara Rosas said,

The Chilean authorities must immediately desist from criminalizing the Mapuche people and their leaders under the Anti-Terrorism Law. The Chilean state has an obligation not to discriminate against Mapuche people and must guarantee their right to fair trials instead of labelling them as ‘terrorists.’

Imprisoned Mapuche activists have been on several hunger strikes, including shaman/healer Celestino Córdova. Córdova, along with Luis Tralcal Quidel, José Tralcal Coche, and José Peralino Huinca, was accused of starting a fire in 2013 in which an elderly couple whose land was at the center of a dispute were burned to death in their home. Evidence linking Córdova to the crime is yet to be discovered—but he is still serving time, eight years on.

Other Mapuche activists have also faced harassment and intimidation from the Chilean state. Hector Llaitul is the spokesperson for CAM (Arauco-Malleco Coordinator), an organization that “demands the autonomy of Mapuche communities, and the recovery of seized land in the struggle for the reconstruction of a dispossessed culture.” In 2009 Llaitul was imprisoned on a charge of attempted murder; the evidence used to incriminate him was later found to have been fabricated by undercover agents. He is the subject of continual police harassment and was prevented from leaving Chile to travel to the United Nations in 2018, having his passport seized by the authorities to prevent him from giving his testimony to the U.N.

In a statement sent to Current Affairs, Llaitul said;

We reject this [Sebastián Piñera] government’s attempt to criminalize and smear legitimate Mapuche struggles, Not just on our behalf but also those other communities and organizations in resistance. We hold this government and anti Mapuche organizations responsible. In the face of this dirty campaign, we reaffirm our path towards political and territorial struggles, in the continuation of the process of recuperation of ancestral land and against the [multinational] invasion of our forests.

One part of Llaitul’s statement is worth particular attention. Criminalizing the act of seeking the recovery of ancestral land could, in practice, allow the government to place all Mapuche activists in the terrorism category, as it is central to their key demands. This was not an oversight on the government’s part.

President Piñera is unlikely to concede to any Mapuche demands, as he is a direct ideological descendent of the dictatorial Pinochet regime. His brother is José Piñera, Pinochet’s ex-labor and mining minister, and architect of the notorious AFP pension system that forces Chileans to invest part of their salaries in volatile stock markets. Four out of five pensioners are rewarded with less than the minimum wage from the scheme. Piñera’s cabinet choices—such as  justice minister Hernán Larraín—also bode ill for the Mapuche. Larrain is a fervent Pinochet sympathizer with links to a notorious Nazi colony in Southern Chile called “Dignidad.” Piñera also appointed Pinochet’s great-niece, Macarena Santelices, to the role of Women’s Minister, but was forced to back down after an outcry from women’s groups.

Collusion Against the Mapuche

Other dark forces are at play in the battle for the Mapuche’s lucrative lands in Araucanía. Much like during the dictatorship when civilians with vested interests acted as accomplices in the capture and torture of Allende supporters, far-right groups are presently active in Araucanía.

The APRA (Association for Peace and Reconciliation of Araucanía) is a far-right lobby group headed up by Gloria Naveillán, a well-known Pinochet sympathizer. It represents the interests of those in the forestry and agricultural sectors in the region. While they claim to be searching for a peaceful solution to local tensions, their actions are rooted in hatred and racism. Naviellán’s Twitter account states her “loyalty to those that saved Chile,” referring to the Pinochet regime, and many of her tweets are anti-Mapuche, echoing the sentiment they are “terrorists.” Naviellan’s (and APRA’s) more inflammatory tweets were so nakedly racist that the platform forced her to delete them.

But Naveillán and the APRA have managed to get their point across regardless. In August 2020, Mapuche activists occupied four council buildings in the province of Malleco to demand the release of Mapuche political prisoners. Using its Twitter account, APRA coordinated an attack on the activists by directing baying crowds toward the occupied council buildings. Naveillán encouraged violence via her social media channels, saying: “How many are raising their hands to join us tonight in the Plaza? Bring sticks and everything you need to defend yourselves.”

The mob surrounded the municipal headquarters chanting anti-Mapuche slogans. Armed with baseball bats and knives they forced their way in, hurting children and the elderly. Not only were the Mapuche protesters assaulted by the mob, they were then arrested by police who appeared to be complicit in the action.  

Profit Over People

President Piñera’s latest threat to send troops to the Mapuche’s region demonstrates Chile’s failure to seek a peaceful solution with the country’s indigenous communities through dialogue. It also clearly indicates that Chile’s leaders are primarily interested in appeasing business and the forestry industry, to protect a lucrative trade that now accounts for around 14 percent of total exports—even if that entails destroying people and the planet.

The Mapuche struggle mirrors that of other repressed indigenous groups denied the right to live on their ancestral lands, such as the North American tribes of the United States and Canada, and aboriginal people of Australia. These are all unique manifestations of the same struggle, and a victory for the Mapuche people in regaining their territory would benefit the whole of humankind. It would signal that a different, better world is possible—one in which we put an end to the pillaging of the globe’s precious remaining native rainforests and all the species dependent on them. It would also signal that smaller-yet-still-important victories are possible, like putting an end to the catastrophic salmon farming responsible for the contamination of lakes and rivers, while spreading disease to other marine species. A victory for the Mapuche would mean a victory for hope.

Despite the plundering of their territories and the criminalization of their struggle, the Mapuche remain defiant. Exiled, impoverished, and vilified, they have nothing left to lose.

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