Che = People - Mapu = of the land
The Mapuche people are the largest ethnic group in Chile and constitute approximately 10% (more than 1.000.000 people) of the Chilean population. Half of them live in the south of Chile from the river Bío Bío until the Chiloé Island. The other half is found in and around the capital, Santiago. There are also around 300.000 Mapuches living in Argentina. The Mapuche people call themselves differently according to where they live, for example the Huilliche, people from the south, the Lafkenche, people from the west or the Nagche, people of the valley. Pehuenches, people of the pehuen tree (auracaria) area, is one part of the Mapuche people, who live in the Andes and alongside the Bío Bío River.
Today the situation of the Mapuches in Chile is still vulnerable. Chile is a strongly pronounced class society where the Mapuches belong to the lowest class. All through history, the State and the Church have carried on strategies to assimilate the Mapuches into the Chilean society. During the Pinochet era, all Mapuche land was privatised and to a large extent sold out to wealthy landlords and foreigners. Pinochet also introduced new laws, which declared that there were "no indigenous people in Chile, only Chileans". The loss of a large quantity of their land resulted in migration to the big cities. Mapuches who move to the cities soon forget their culture in order to be able to get a place in the society. They face difficulties in getting jobs, education and are less paid than their Chilean colleagues. It is not an uncommon phenomenon to change a Mapuche name into a Chilean, and avoid passing on Mapudungun to the children, in order to get a chance to climb the social ladder.
The last years’ governments in Chile have taken another standpoint towards the indigenous people. In 1993 the Indigenous Act, Ley Indígena (no 19.253), was introduced, which will provide protection, promotion and development of the indigenous groups in Chile. With this law the indigenous cannot be forced to move from their land. If the Government or a company wants to move indigenous from one place to another, they have to offer a piece of equal land. This is called the permuta. If the owner does not accept the permuta, no transfer can take place. According to the law, if only one single person does not agree, there cannot be an agreement.
Besides establishing the Indigenous Act, CONADI (Corporación Nacional de Desarollo Indígena) was formed. It is a state authority, with both Chilean and indigenous representatives, which task is to control that the cultural development of indigenous people is protected, provided and respected. Its duty is also to conserve Mapuche land, so that it is being used in a proper way, that will say maintain an ecological balance. For the first time in Chile’s history, it is officially accepted that Chile is a multiethnic society.
At the same time however, Chile has a high pressure to develop fast according to the neo-liberal model. Large-scale development projects, which were initiated during the Pinochet era, go on today. There are roads being built through Mapuche areas, the forest is being felled in at fast speed and big power plants are being constructed in the rivers. When it comes to these large-scale projects the Mapuches still feel infringed on their historical and cultural rights.