The Mapuche Struggle for Autonomy

Mapuches fight for Land Rights

On August 17, dozens of Mapuche communities in southern Chile united to form the Mapuche Territorial Alliance to continue their struggle for political autonomy. Many of them had carried on angry protests, most recently on August 12, when a police operation to evict the Mapuches who had seized land left one dead and eight injured. Mapuche demonstrators sought to regain their ancestral lands by any means possible and their simmering discontent had finally boiled over, yet Mapuche demands continue to be ignored and negotiations remain at a standstill.

The indigenous people of Chile were demonstrating that their community was no longer willing to remain silent after decades of being disregarded, exploited, and forcibly removed from their lands. However, although authorities were taken by surprise by the growing stream of violent reactions against the police and logging corporations, they have shown no signs of allowing the Mapuches to return to their land nor have they offered them any reparations for human rights violations during the Pinochet regime. Instead of reaching out and seeking a solution, the government criminalized these actions. While this may temporarily quell the protests, it has done little to resolve the issue. In order to come to a resolution that will satisfy both sides, serious negotiations between disaffected communities and the national government need to take place.

The Tipping Point

Like most of Latin America, class divisions in Chile are highly defined by race and ethnicity, with the Mapuches occupying the lowest rung of the social ladder. In comparison to other indigenous groups in the hemisphere, the Mapuche hold a strong legacy of resistance. For over three hundred and fifty years, they vehemently fought against the Spanish conquistadores before they were ultimately defeated in 1881 by the long established nation of Chile. The Mapuche were then forced to assimilate to the European way of life as their beliefs, religions, and political and social practices were replaced.

The current Mapuche situation in Chile is complicated. While the Mapuche have committed violent acts to reclaim land that had been seized by logging, mining and hydroelectric industries, the police typically have been excessively brutal. Their response has rarely been proportionate to the violence of which the Mapuches are accused. After years of unsuccessful non-violent demonstrations that were met with suppression by police, it is not surprising that the local population resorted to violent measures in order to make their concerns heard.

The passage of time has rarely been kind to the Mapuche, the largest indigenous group in Chile which constitutes about ten percent of the Chilean population. Half of the Mapuche nation live in the southern region of the country (between the Bío Bío River and Chiloé Island), but many have relocated to Santiago, the capital city and its surrounding districts. While prospects for land reclamation were optimistic with the country’s transition to democracy in 1990, the new coalition party, the Concertación, did little to improve their situation. Despite the new government’s efforts to compensate some families with land, the plots were small and the soil was infertile. As the Pinochet regime implemented free market policies, the price of agricultural products began to decline. This was detrimental to many Mapuche who relied on farming as a source of income and a means of subsistence. Furthermore, expanding forestry industry in southern Chile resulted in the degradation of Mapuche ancestral lands. Over time, water resources have dried up and caused permanent droughts. The water that remains has grown contaminated due to excessive use of pesticides and herbicides. Native plants were replaced with invasive foreign species that had been originally introduced for their commercial utility. This continual disregard for Mapuche sovereignty and their traditional way of living, has forced over half the population to move to Santiago.

The Difficulties that Lie Ahead

The Mapuches face an uphill battle when it comes to reclaiming their lands. Many are skeptical of trusting the Chilean legal system given that they have suffered repeatedly under the hands of the law. While other Chilean citizens can access the legal system to protect their civil rights, it is difficult for the Mapuche. Legal redress is made difficult as they face all but insurmountable obstacles. Primarily, due to an inadequate access to education, the Mapuche lack knowledge about the legal system. For those few who do, the cost of legal counseling is too high. Even if they do possess the necessary funds, many communities live too far away from where the proceedings take place. Many are unable to obtain competent representation. Finally, negative encounters with law enforcement officials have caused many to mistrust judges, juries, and all others in the criminal justice system.

The government initiated the Commission on Historical Truth and New Testament in 2001, with the objective of laying a foundation for the equal treatment of the Mapuche, while aiming to integrate them into the national society. However, the Mapuche remain on the fringe of Chilean society. Moreover, some conservatives have accused indigenous organizations, such as the Coordinadora Arauco Malleco, of having ties to the Colombian FARC. These claims are highly suspicious given the distinct differences behind their respective actions. The comparison between the Mapuche and the FARC suggests that the Mapuche protestors are terrorists. As Father Fernando Díaz of the Pastoral Indígena states, “the reality of the Mapuche people is a lot more complex. It is a history of struggling, working, and trying hard to keep going to overcome poverty, marginality, and injustice. The reality has to be contextualized, violence always has two faces.” Although demonstrations for land rights and equality have occasionally been violent, these outcries are not without reason.

The Mapuche protests have initiated continuous, though often fruitless, attempts for dialogue and negotiation at both national and international levels. From August 14-15, a group of Mapuche leaders traveled to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination to testify on accusations made in 2007 against the Chilean government. The leaders accused the government of “environmental racism” directed toward the Mapuche people. Their complaints focused on the government’s plan to build landfill and wastewater treatment plants on Mapuche territory in Region IX, which has led to an increase in tensions in the region.

Terrorism or Trying to Reclaim Rightful Lands?

The Chilean government prosecutes the Mapuche under the statute of anti-terrorism, which under legal procedures dating back to the Pinochet era, allows suspects to be held for up to a year in pre-trial proceedings. This is problematic because being charged under such legislation harms the impartiality of the jury when, and if, the case is brought to trial. This law leaves the Mapuche vulnerable to persecution. In contrast, police officers are routinely protected for crimes they committed against the indigenous. Many are protected under military jurisdiction, which allows them to evade persecution.
Most recently, a protester, Jaime Codozo Cullío, was shot and killed while occupying a Region IX farm with 50 others. The police report stated that he was killed in self-defense; however, an autopsy confirmed that police officer José Patricio Jara Muñoz shot Codozo in the back. Codozo was part of a group of demonstrators fleeing from the police, all of whom were unarmed aside from a few sticks. Such violent reactions are typically instigated by the police. Only because of the publicity that this particular event received, military authorities were forced to press charges against Muñoz.

Recent Rise of Indigenous Movements throughout Latin America

Mapuche demonstrations in Chile are part of a greater struggle for indigenous rights in Latin America, of which Peru and Bolivia are also a part. The election of Evo Morales, the first indigenous president of Bolivia, brought indigenous perspectives and issues to the political forefront across the region. All are fighting the same battle: denial of land ownership rights and the privatization of their ancestral lands. Large-scale business projects that occupy indigenous territory have not benefited the indigenous communities at all, but instead have triggered a series of protests. In Honduras and Ecuador, indigenous communities have stood in opposition to the mining industries, while the native population of the Brazilian Amazon continues to struggle for land rights. President Morales has proven to be the champion of the indigenous community. His commitment to the indigenous people of Bolivia has motivated native populations in other countries throughout Latin America to follow suit.


Nancy Yáñez, a lawyer from the NGO Observatorio Ciudadano stated: “I am worried about the Mapuche’s marginalized position and connection being made to certain radical groups. But once the convention on its future status takes effect, Chile’s government will be obligated to finally face its historical debt with respect to land ownership issues.” The Mapuche ask the world, and especially the Chilean government, to recognize and respect their right to equality. They are fighting for their homeland, often at the cost of their own lives. Violence is never something to be endorsed, but at this point the indigenous have been left with few options. Promises of future negotiations should no longer be tolerated; solutions that satisfy both the Chilean government and the Mapuche must be found.