April 30 2003 COLLIPULLI, Chile
Tribe seeks to reclaim land.
Because eucalyptus trees are thirsty, Victor Ancalaf became a rebel.

By Hector Tobar foreign correspondent

-Because eucalyptus trees are thirsty, Victor Ancalaf became a rebel.

Growing like cabbages in neat rows planted by one of the largest forestry companies in South America, the trees suck the water out of the ground, killing off streams and making wells run dry in this corner of Chile. For Ancalaf and other Mapuche Indian leaders, that is one indignity too many.

So every now and then, the Mapuche set ablaze the trees and the trucks of companies that plant them. Ancalaf is charged with burning five vehicles as part of a smoldering, low-tech war that also is being fought with slingshots, chain saws and homemade shotguns.

Just as often, however, the Mapuche fight back with peaceful means. Medicine women called "machis" pray for the spirits of the water and the earth to stand fast against the "exotic species" transplanted from North America and Australia. On the Internet, activists spread word of their struggles, making allies in Sweden, France and other countries where leftists have ties to Latin American compatriots.

"We've entered into a period of darkness of water, and this is bringing us to the brink of extinction," said Rayen Kuyeh, a Mapuche poet and playwright. "If wanting to defend the spirits of the water, the trees, the birds, the earth and the air makes me a terrorist, then go ahead and call me a terrorist."

The environmental impact of commercial tree farming in Chile has helped feed a renaissance of activism and cultural pride among the nation's 1 million Mapuche, the original inhabitants of what is now south-central Chile and parts of Argentina. The Mapuche held off European incursions onto their land for centuries, signing a 1641 treaty with the Spanish crown that was later thrown out by an independent Chile, before the tribe was finally vanquished in the late 19th century.

Relegated to reservations -- called "reductions" here -- most Mapuche now work as impoverished farmers or field hands or live as a marginalized minority in Chilean cities.

"Our objective is the recuperation of the territory of the Mapuche people," Ancalaf, 40, said in a jailhouse interview. "We want to control our destiny and shape our future according to the cosmology of our people."

Held without trial since November under anti-terrorism laws, Ancalaf and a dozen other militant leaders have become heroes to many Mapuche, even those who disagree with their tactics.

Activists have opened a Mapuche pharmacy in Temuco to dispense traditional herbal medicines that are disappearing in the wild in part because of the effects of tree farms, which now cover millions of acres of the Mapuche's ancestral land.

Impoverished indigenous farmers have formed tribal councils to draft town constitutions and lobby local governments for the return of communal land. In all, there are as many as 100 local and regional Mapuche organizations in this region of Chile.

"We are seeing a revitalization of all aspects of Mapuche culture, even of the Mapuche language, which was beginning to die out," said Alejandro Herrera, a professor at the University of the Frontier in Temuco.

Many farmers here are descendants of Swiss, German and Italian immigrants who settled in the region in the early 20th century. In the years since, descendants of the settlers have acquired more land thanks to a series of decrees and laws that have eaten away at indigenous communal holdings. Only in recent years have the Mapuche started to fight back.

"This is becoming like the Wild West," said Manuel Riesco, a sugar beet farmer and president of a growers organization in Temuco.

Smoldering for decades, the conflict over land began to catch fire again in the late 1990s. Like others here, Riesco says the globalization of the Chilean economy and the government's free trade policies were the cause. The grain and dairy farms that were once the cornerstone of the regional economy have been hard hit by cheaper American exports. A farmer who once employed dozens of Mapuche as laborers can find himself forced to leave land fallow or sell out to the forestry companies.

Hector Tobar writes for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Co. newspaper.