Sunday, 03 June 2007
Chile's Mapuche frustrated with government inaction.
Written by Benjamin Witte

Disappointed by President Michelle Bachelet’s perceived failure to adequately address the “legitimate demands” of Chile’s indigenous communities, one of southern Chile’s broadest Mapuche organizations decided last week to temporarily break off communication with the government.

The announcement by the Coordination of Mapuche Organizations (COM), an alliance representing some 35 Mapuche groups from Regions VIII, IX and X, is a significant setback for President Bachelet, who in early 2006 – in her very first presidential address – promised to create an all-inclusive “citizens government” and to make an effort “on behalf of our country’s indigenous people.”

As part of that effort, Bachelet invited numerous indigenous organizations, including the COM, to participate in a nationwide dialogue process. The president also set up an Indigenous Policy Committee, and on April 30, following months and months of poll taking, meetings and forums, Bachelet presented a formal list of indigenous policy initiatives.

Committing herself to improving political participation for Chile’s indigenous peoples, Bachelet insisted also that Congress must ratify the International Labor Organization’s Convention 169. Established in 1991, the Convention recognizes: “the aspirations of (indigenous peoples) to exercise control over their own institutions, ways of life and economic development and to maintain and develop their identities, languages and religions, within the framework of the States in which they live.”

Bachelet promised, in addition, to give special attention to Chile’s urban-based indigenous people, as well as to promote and preserve indigenous languages and culture.

“I’m certain that if we join forces, if we work together, if we stick to this agenda, we’ll be able to take major steps along the path toward what we all want: respect for and incorporation of multicultural values and diversity, values that for me are essential and fundamental,” said Bachelet.

Despite her plea for cooperation, the president’s speech was not well received by the influential COM, which characterized the initiatives as shallow and ambiguous. The president, COM indicated in a press release, “has continued to deny and ignore the Mapuche Nation’s legitimate demands.”

In January, COM and other Mapuche organizations formally presented those demands to Bachelet. Among other the things, the groups called on the government to guarantee indigenous political participation via a congressional quota system; to include in the Constitution a clause recognizing Chile as a “pluri-national” country; and to make indigenous language classes available in all of the nation’s schools.

While Bachelet’s April speech addressed some of those issues, it was nevertheless “generic, very general and imprecise,” COM spokesperson Galvariño Raimon told the Patagonia Times.

“The government’s announcements were important, but we also need (the government) to clarify what procedures (it plans to follow), to clarify how it plans to advance on these issues that are so important for Mapuche rights,” he said.

Frustration with the government’s position hit a breaking point last week when COM decided – at least for now – to remove itself from the Indigenous Policy Committee. Continued participation, COM explained, would simply “support indigenous bureaucracy rather than our autonomous (political) participation.”

COM’s announcement came just one week after the highly influential human rights advocacy group Amnesty International (AI) released its latest annual report. Included in its rundown of human rights problems in Chile, AI drew attention to continued mistreatment of the country’s indigenous people (PT, March 23).

Last July, AI reported, Carabineros (uniformed police) raided a Mapuche community in Malleco Province (Region IX) and then fired tear gas, rubber bullets and live ammunition on unarmed community members. As a pretext for the raid, police said they were in search of stolen animals.

“Children were affected by the tear gas and several escaped to nearby hills. Women and children were ill-treated. The community had been subjected to similar police actions earlier in the year. At the end of the year, no investigation was known to have been initiated into the July raid,” the report reads.

AI also noted that in December, police fired on Mapuche workers collecting their salaries in the city of Ercilla, also in Region IX. Six people were injured in the attack.

By Benjamin Witte (