As regional violence flares again, Chile's Mapuche eye a political path
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As regional violence flares again, Chile's Mapuche eye a political path

A chaotic mix of roadblocks, occupations and shootouts between indigenous communities, criminals and heavily-armed police: it’s a familiar scene for many countries in Latin America. But the latest outbreak of violence involving indigenous Mapuche communities is happening in Chile — regularly viewed as the continent’s only ‘first world’ country.

Chile is often considered a world away from the rest of South America. But recent events some 400 miles south of the capital, Santiago, have offered a stark reminder of a problem Chileans share with their neighbors to the north and east.

The main issues at stake are the return of ancestral lands and greater autonomy for Chile’s 1.5 million Mapuche people, who make up nearly 10 percent of the population. Most are concentrated in the Araucanía, Bío Bío and Los Lagos regions in the south-central part of the country — an area they inhabited for centuries, long before the arrival of the Spanish.

It wasn’t until the 1860s, after centuries of fierce resistance, that military conquest broke Mapuche power. The state handed territory to waves of Chilean and foreign settlers, who converted them into huge agricultural estates. Since then, low-level conflict has continued, and Mapuche communities have fragmented into those seeking a negotiated solution and those pursuing direct action and, occasionally, violent activities. The issue is further complicated by the activities of the multi-billion dollar lumber industry that critics claim are destroying local ecosystems.

Escalating tensions

Tensions boiled over on October 1 when an occupation of an estate in an Araucanía village turned violent and a Mapuche activist was crushed to death by a worker on a tractor.

“He ran him over two, three times. It was murder,” one witness told local radio.

In response, Mapuche protesters launched a wave of destruction which included burning several timber trucks. Violent arrests of several of those responsible raised temperatures even further, with community leader Jorge Huenchullán anticipating a “mass uprising.”

“This is a reaction by Mapuche communities in the face of an empty rhetoric of compromise and territorial devolution. We don’t want to be in this situation, but the state has forced us by not taking our demands into consideration,” Huenchullán said.

Dozens of roadblocks sprang up in protest against logging. Local police attempted to dismantle one on October 5, only to be met with a hail of high-caliber bullets; 13 were wounded, and images circulated of one officer (of Mapuche ancestry) rushed to the hospital, eyes bleeding from a shotgun blast to the face. Authorities claimed that illegal loggers themselves were behind the confrontations, using the Mapuche issue as a shield.

Within 48 hours, hundreds of GOPE officers — the SWAT equivalent of the Carabineros, Chile’s police force — were on the scene, patrolling the region’s highways in armored vehicles and bulldozing blockades.

In recent weeks, landlords have faced further occupations and anonymous online threats. Farmers complain of being intimidated and pressured to sell up and move away. Leaflets from right-wing self-defense group Patria y Libertad have circulated, raising the specter of vigilante violence.

Taking the battle to the ballot box

If the violence seems extreme, the anger felt by Mapuche communities is understandable. The return of ancestral lands, overseen by state indigenous development organisation CONADI, has been agonizingly slow. Some have argued that the body is irretrievably politically compromised and needs fundamental reform. The state has been heavy-handed with activists, imprisoning some through an antiquated antiterrorism law that dates back to the Pinochet dictatorship.

Read more: After subway bombing, Chile invokes controversial anti-terrorism law

But, paradoxically, the prospects for progress on the Mapuche issue — and peace for the region — have never been better. For the first time in Chile’s history, a representative of the government (in this case, the Governor of Araucanía)  issued a formal apology in March to the Mapuche for the taking of their lands, calling it “mistake after mistake.” He also expressed regret for the historic colonists brought from afar to “an unsuitable place at an inopportune time.”

Talk is cheap, and militant Mapuche organization CAM labeled the apology as mere “rhetoric,” a way of skirting substantive indigenous demands. Still, the tide of public opinion, especially among young Chileans, is turning. The recent formation of a more moderate Mapuche group, intending for the first time to take their battle to the regional and national ballot box, heralds a new alternative to destructive violent action or dispiriting one-sided negotiations.

Wallmapuwen, an organization dedicated to regional autonomy but open to non-Mapuche people, will find it hard to ever win a national contest, and bureaucratic obstacles to its formal recognition as a political party remain. But if the organization can spread a coherent, inclusive vision of change for the region, they may be able to drum up enough votes to field representatives to regional councils, or even the state legislature.

There, with the leftist government of President Michelle Bachelet holding a narrow majority, they could spread their message, and use their leverage to speed up the process of land reform and self-determination.

A broad movement of Mapuche and allied non-indigenous people demanding change, together? That really would make Chile unique.