|august 11, 2004
Mapuche indians in Chile struggle to take back forests.
By LARRY ROHTER
RAIGUÉN, Chile - Before the conquistadors arrived, and even
for centuries afterward, the lush, verdant forests of southern Chile belonged
to the Mapuche people. Today, though, tree farms stretch in all directions
here, property of timber companies that supply lumber to the United States,
Japan and Europe.
But now the Mapuches, complaining of false land titles and damage to the
environment and their traditional way of life, are struggling to take
back the land they say is still theirs. As their confrontation with corporate
interests has grown more violent, Chile's nominally Socialist government
has sought to blunt the indigenous movement by invoking a modified version
of an antiterrorist law that dates from the dictatorship of Gen. Augusto
Pinochet, 1973 to 1990.
Despite international protests, 18 Mapuche leaders are scheduled to go
on trial soon, accused under a statute that prohibits "generating
fear among sectors of the population." The charges stem from a series
of incidents during the past seven years in which groups of Mapuches have
burned forests or farmhouses or destroyed forestry equipment and trucks.
"Clearly, this is a conflict in which some fairly serious crimes
have been committed," said Sebastian Brett, a representative of Human
Rights Watch in Chile. "But that does not mean you can call the people
involved terrorists. These are crimes, not against human life or liberty,
but basically against property, and they stem from a wide sense of grievance
among the Mapuches that they have illegally been deprived of their lands."
To many Mapuches, the current dispute is merely the continuation of a
conflict that has existed since the arrival of the conquistadors in the
16th century. Retreating south of the Bío-Bío River, they
succeeded not only in fending off Spanish control but also in having their
independence formally recognized in treaties, and were only incorporated
into the Chilean state in the 1880's as the result of a series of violent
After that, in a conscious imitation of the American method of dealing
with indigenous peoples, Chile put the Mapuches onto reservations so that
German, Italian and Swiss colonists could settle in the region. But by
the 1920's, policies had changed, and the Mapuches lost title to all but
a tiny fragment of their ancestral lands through procedures they now describe
"From the moment the Chilean state annexed Mapuche territory, and
used violence to do so, the rule of law has never existed south of the
Bío-Bío," said Aucán Huilcamán, a leader
of the Council of All Lands, a Mapuche group based in the city of Temuco,
south of here. "The state refuses to recognize that we are a people
with rights that were in force even before Chile existed as a nation and
which remain in force today."
During the past decade, "the Mapuches have seen this country's economy
growing rapidly" as the result of free market policies that have
led to an export boom, said José Bengoa, Chile's leading historian
of the Mapuche, who account for one million of Chile's 15 million people.
"But they are themselves in a state of misery, with an awareness
of their situation that drives them to desperation and exasperation."
Though Japanese and Swiss interests are active here in the region that
the Mapuches call "Araucanía," both of the main forestry
companies are Chilean-owned. On land the Mapuches claim is theirs, the
firms have planted hundreds of thousands of acres with Monterey pine and
eucalyptus trees, species that are not native to the region and that consume
large amounts of water and fertilizer.
"Many Mapuche communities have risen up and said, 'We don't want
any more tree farms here,' '' said Alfredo Seguel, a leader of a group
of young Mapuche professionals called Konapewman. "Productive fields
have been turned over to a monoculture that hurts other activities, helps
destroy the land, employs very few people and pays low wages."
Yet the signs of a landscape transformed are everywhere here. Highways
with billboards that proclaim, "If the forest grows, Chile grows;
obey the forestry law," run for mile after mile past fragrant groves
of trees that are uniformly spaced and nearly identical in height.
Chilean exports of wood to the United States, almost all of which come
from this southern region, are about $600 million a year and rising. Though
an international campaign led by the conservation group Forest Ethics
resulted in the Home Depot chain and other leading wood importers agreeing
late last year to revise their purchasing policies, to "provide for
the protection of native forests in Chile,'' some militant Mapuche leaders
are not satisfied.
"The big companies and the big landowners are usurpers who profit
at our expense, and we want them to leave," complained José
Huenchunao, a Mapuche leader in an area east of here who is among the
18 scheduled to go on trial. "We are a people who have been defrauded,
who have exhausted every legal means of attaining redress, and we have
the right to recover what was stolen from us, even if that means incorporating
violence within our struggle."
In an effort to defuse tensions, a special government body, the Commission
for Historical Truth and New Treatment, issued a report late last year
calling for drastic changes in Chile's treatment of its indigenous people,
more than 80 percent of whom are Mapuches. The recommendations included
the formal recognition of political and "territorial" rights
for Indian peoples, as well as efforts to promote their cultural identity.
President Ricardo Lagos has hailed the document as an effort to "correct
the errors, at times inevitable, that the Chilean state committed in its
treatment of ethnicities." But neither Mapuche leaders nor forestry
interests seem satisfied, and despite Mr. Lagos's promise to push for
adoption of the measures, the Chilean Congress has taken no action.
Some Mapuche leaders, including Mr. Huilcamán, who was a member
of the commission, oppose the report because they think it "a colonialist
document" that does not go far enough. But landowners believe that
the self-determination provisions of the plan will encourage Indian uprisings
like the one in Chiapas, in Mexico, or even lead to separatist Indian
movements like those that have sprung up in neighboring Bolivia, Peru
"Carried to an extreme, this could lead to the dismemberment of the
Chilean state," said Juan Agustín Figueroa, a former agriculture
minister and Supreme Court justice who is a leading spokesman for property
holders in this region. "National unity is a great achievement, won
at great cost, and it is folly to talk of granting autonomy to 'Mapuche
Mr. Figueroa's family has owned a 3,000-acre farm here since the 1940's
and he said that "we always had a good neighbor policy with the Mapuches."
But late in 2001, after what he described as "first threats and then
forest fires, a group of radical Mapuches burned down" a manor house
on the property.
Though he said he recognized that Mapuche organizations had nothing in
common with "groups like Al Qaeda or those in Iraq," Mr. Figueroa
argued that use of the antiterrorism statute against them was appropriate
on both judicial and political grounds. But it is precisely that two-pronged
campaign against the Mapuches that worries their advocates.
"In the 1990's, the Mapuche cause had more support among the Chilean
population than it does today," said Rodrigo Lillo, a lawyer who
has defended Mapuche leaders in military tribunals. "By using the
terrorist law, the government has not only succeeded in disarticulating
Mapuche groups, it has also robbed them of the moral prestige and sympathy
they once enjoyed."
New York Times