Amid fire and clashes, Chile's Mapuche see road to reparations
Dozens of trucks carrying lumber have been set alight in furious protest. Hunger strikes have grown common. So have clashes with racist chants.
Southern Chile is known for its acres of fragrant eucalyptus and pine, the core of its lucrative timber industry. But the lands where those trees grow were taken from an indigenous group known as the Mapuche. As the country reckons with a series of acute challenges -- inequality, the legacy of dictatorship and covid-19 -- indigenous claims and acts of resistance are also front and center.
Chile is the richest country in South America and often hailed as a success story. But when subway fares in Santiago were inched a year ago, an outbreak of destructive protests revealed extraordinary pent-up rage. At many of the protests, Mapuche flags flew high.
As part of an agreement to end the unrest, Chileans will vote this month on whether to ditch their constitution, a legacy of the Pinochet dictatorship in the 70s and 80s, and draft a new one. A new charter could clear the way for reparations, return of lands -- and uncertainty for forestry companies.
"We definitely need recognition in the constitution," said Elicura Chihuailaf, a Mapuche poet who won this year's National Literature Prize. He wants something similar to Bolivia's constitution that promotes "inter-cultural democracy with equality."
About 1.7 million, 10% of Chileans, identify as Mapuche, according to the National Statistics Institute. Some speak the language, practice rites and remain attached to the land. But most are urbanized and poor and seek recognition of their loss and suffering as well as of the bigotry against them seen on social media and at some counter-demonstrations.
The government of billionaire president Sebastian Pinera acknowledges that it owes something to the Mapuche, while trying to separate those claims from the arson attacks, which it describes as terrorism.
"We are aware that there is a debt and that we have to advance," said Karla Rubilar, minister of Social Development, last month. "It is something that has been expected for many years, not only by the native population but by all Chileans."
The constitution says Chile's sovereignty "resides with the nation." A new one could refer to several nations, the way Bolivia's and Ecuador's do, according to Salvador Millaleo, a Mapuche lawyer and member of Chile's National Human Rights Institute. What he and other activists seek, he said, is collective territorial rights.
Such rights would clash with the forestry industry which accounts for 8% of the country's exports. Chile's forestry companies have planted about 5.9 million acres (2.4 million hectares), most of them in Mapuche lands violently seized in the late 19th century.
Since the 1990s, the government's indigenous affairs office, Conadi, has bought 220,000 hectares (544,000 acres) from farmers, landowners and timber companies that it's returned to Mapuche communities. Conadi doesn't break down how much came from which source.
The companies sell the land to improve relations with the Mapuche but also to secure access to international markets, according to Noelia Carrasco, an anthropologist at Universidad de Concepcion who studies relations between the forestry industry and indigenous groups.
"To get their international certifications they have to comply with rules for sustainable forest management, and those include indigenous community relations," such as International Labor Organization's convention 169, Carrasco said. It requires that indigenous groups be allowed to participate in decision-making processes that affect their rights.
Forestry companies Empresas CMPC and Celulosa Arauco declined to comment, and forestry association Corma didn't reply to requests for comment.
The battle over Mapuche land rights has a long ugly history. When Spanish colonizers arrived in the 16th century, the Mapuche pushed them back and an uneasy truce came into effect. In 1883, the Chilean government violently annexed the land.
Like many other South American countries, Chile recruited European immigrants, granting them rights to the lands. The Mapuche were subjected to racism, dismissed as lazy, violent or drunk. Many changed their surnames to Spanish variants.
That trend ended in the 1990s, the post-Pinochet era, a period of rapid growth and development in Chile. But many say what was happening was the solidification of a Pinochet economic elite. The Mapuche attacks began in 1997.
That decade, "younger Mapuches started to see the Chilean state as just another instrument of oppression," said Veronica Figueroa, a professor of indigenous policies at Universidad de Chile and a Mapuche activist.
Attacks have continued to jump. Last month, trucker associations struck in protest for a week. They say that 104 trucks had been burned this year.
Many on the right oppose a new constitution, and reject granting special rights to minority groups. To "seek over-representation of some groups is contrary to the popular will," said Alvaro Pezoa, a law professor at Universidad Los Andes and member of the board of Ideas Republicanas, a conservative think tank. He says there may be steps needed to better integrate the indigenous.
Integrating is something that most Mapuche have been doing for a long time. Pablo Antillanca is one of them. A 46-year-old descendant of Mapuches and an electronic engineer who grew up in Santiago, he's a first generation professional. But he's not ready to abandon his roots. He says recognition for his ancestry in the constitution would be a major step forward.
"There's an opportunity to solve a historic issue with this constitution, handing some autonomy and recognizing a multinational state," Antillanca said. "The details can be negotiated, but one thing is clear: the Mapuche people have to feel they are getting recognition."