19 2005

July 19, 2005
The Mapuche struggle today: An interview with Vladimir Painemal Morales

by Derrick O'Keefe

The Mapuche people have a long and proud history of resistance to colonialism. Today, the Chilean state and multinational corporations continue in their long-standing efforts to steal the resources of the Mapuche and to subdue their ongoing struggle.

Vladimir Painemal Morales, a youth leader of the Mapuche people, recently completed a speaking tour in Canada. He took some time to meet with Seven Oaks, to discuss the reality that his people face, fighting racism, marginalization, and the latest invasion of their tradition territory.

Derrick O'Keefe: The process in the Americas that today we call neo-liberalism is really, in many ways, just the latest phase in a five hundred year process of colonization and exploitation. Could you explain the history of the Mapuche people’s resistance to this process?

Vladimir Painemal Morales: Historically, the Mapuche people have faced different invasions, empire-building invasions. Before the Spanish, in fact, we faced the Inca Empire. For this reason, we have an image as a ‘warrior nation.’ I like to say that we have been in resistance, in self-defence, for many, many years. It’s different than us being a warrior nation because, say, we like violence or we are a violent people. We have had to resist these incursions by the various empires over the centuries.

Speaking specifically about the Spanish invasion, we fought a very strong war against them. The Mapuche territory is called the Spanish cemetery, because they suffered huge losses in their wars against us. The Spanish Empire, therefore, realized that they were taking very heavy losses, and they agreed to sign treaties with us, which allowed us to keep our autonomy for centuries. From 1641 to 1881, we were an autonomous nation.

So there is a bit of difference between the Mapuche and the other indigenous peoples of Latin America. So our history of loss of autonomy only goes back 125 years, and we are in the process right now of trying to recuperate our autonomy from the Chilean state.

In current times, the struggle of the Mapuche is not the same as in the past with armies invading our territories. It is an invasion of multinational companies that we’re facing today. So again -- although in the media we are often portrayed as a people always in conflict – they are the ones that are invading our territories and they are the ones who have started a conflict between us and them.

O'Keefe: In 1973, Salvador Allende’s democratically-elected government was overthrown by elements of the army with the backing of U.S. imperialism – which wanted to maintain its hold on Chilean copper, among other resources. What are the multinationals after in Mapuche territories, what are the key industries and resources that they are aiming to control?

Painemal: In both Argentina and Chile we had dictatorships, and now a so-called democratic process, democracies. But the dictatorships put in place an economic model, a neo-liberal model that opens up our markets to multinational investors. In Chile, after our lands were divided up and taken by the state, we were left with the worst little pieces of land in our traditional territories.

Later on, they realized those lands that they had left us with were actually very rich in resources, in mineral resources, in gold, in gas. As well, the economic policy of the Chilean state was to diversify their economy – it’s a nation that has been mostly dependent on copper as their main staple of production. Now, they are trying to open up forestry as another main export industry.

When the land that was taken was assigned to European colonialists, it was held in small tracts of agricultural production. But in recent years, these colonists have been selling their lands, particularly to forestry companies. So we have huge tracts of land being used for forestry, and planting trees that are not native to the area. For the example the eucalyptus tree, each one which absorbs 100 litres of water per day. So we have that problem, and there are huge amounts of contamination by fumigation. They’ve created a massive environmental problem with the incursion of forestry companies into our territory.

That’s just the forestry industry. We could talk for days if I was to tell you each aspect of each different sector of exploitation by multinational companies. And the state and multinational companies, today, go hand in hand

O'Keefe: And your people and your leaders have obviously come into conflict with this state. Could you explain on what basis 18 of your leaders faced charges last year, and also how the ‘socialist’ government of Chile has used ‘anti-terrorist’ laws from the period of the dictatorship against the Mapuche?

Painemal: For the most part, the indigenous people that were arrested and continue to be in jail have been arrested for the struggle against the forestry companies. There’s another leader, Victor who has been condemned to 5 years in prison through the use of the anti-terrorist law. He was an activist against the construction against the Ralco hydroelectric dam.

Another thing that is important to highlight is that there are hundreds and hundreds of Mapuche that are incarcerated today, who are perhaps not directly related to the struggle against multinational companies, but who were detained for social causes – stealing animals, drug addiction, endemic situations that we believe are connected to the oppression of the Mapuche people.

Another issue is that the Chilean state has embarked on a policy of assimilation of the Mapuche people to the Chilean society at large. So the state is utilizing the anti-terrorist laws as one of their tools in this. In the early 1990s, right after the so-called end of the dictatorship and the beginning of a democratic process, the Mapuche communities were part of negotiations with a coalition of political parties that would form government. We had high hopes that there would be a change in the structure and positions of the state vis-à-vis the Mapuche people. But those agreements that were put into place were not followed up by the government, by the political parties. The agreement was that the Chilean state would recognize the Mapuche as a nation in its Constitution, and that they would sign Covenant 169 of the International Labour Organization (ILO). Those promises were broken by the coalition government, and in 1997 there was an abrupt break in this relationship, mostly because of the neo-liberal economic policies of the Chilean government. Since then, there has been an upsurge in the Mapuche struggle.

O'Keefe: On the question of assimilation, what are the demographics of the Mapuche with respect to Chilean society?

Painemal: In Argentina, for example, they haven’t done a census to document the Mapuche people, but the number fluctuates approximately between 300 and 400 thousand in Argentina. In Chile, the numbers are a little bit contradictory depending on where they come from, but they fluctuate between 600 000 and 1 million Mapuche people, close to 10% of the Chilean population. It is important to note that this is only the percentage that self-identify as Mapuche.

Today, because of the scarcity of land in our traditional territories, the Mapuche people are mostly concentrated in urban areas. About 85% of the Mapuche population lives in urban areas. With respect to ‘mixed blood’ peoples, mestizos, the majority of people living in Chile are mestizos, 80% of the society. But the mestizo population don’t identify themselves as a political and social group, so that is not a political reality per se, in terms of organizations or representation.

Another important point is that the number of Mapuche people is decreasing. We have a negative growth rate at this point, and mostly it has to do with migration of the Mapuche from rural areas to urban areas, particularly of women who go to the cities to find work. So there is a scarcity of women in traditional rural areas.

O'Keefe: So much of the ‘demographic problem,’ then, is related to the problem of racism in the larger Chilean society?

Painemal: That’s right, there is a huge problem of racism in our society, particularly in the education system. There’s not a bilingual or bicultural education that includes the Mapuche in any kind of positive sense. They are still teaching that the invasion that took place against the Mapuche, they still call it the ‘pacification of the Araucania.’ So there is no education whatsoever in terms of what’s happening to us as a people and what took place in colonial times.

O'Keefe: There must be great difficulties in winning genuine solidarity from Chilean society. What tactics, in general, do the Mapuche use today to raise awareness of their struggle against both the state and the multinationals?

Painemal: We’re very self-critical, as Mapuche, of how we have approached this issue of reaching out to Chilean society. Within our organizations, sometimes there’s a bit of confusion, because we tend to blame the Chilean society for the positions of the Chilean state. We sometimes don’t distinguish between the state and its policies and the society at large.

Another important aspect to highlight is the role of the media. From the appearance of the first newspapers in Chile, the media has been racist against the Mapuche people. Nowadays, they talk down about us, they call us lazy people, drunks, you name it, any negative qualification that they can think of. That’s why we believe today that the communications aspect of our approach is of crucial importance. It can allow us to start to bring down those stigmas and those misconceptions in Chilean society vis-à-vis the Mapuche people.

So we are trying to educate, and to bring down those stereotypes. Not only against the Mapuche people, though, because there are many issues in Chilean society with respect to discrimination, against gay people, against indigenous Peruvians and Bolivians who come to Chile to work, against the poor. There is classism and racism across the board, so one of our missions is to try and educate the Chilean society at large with regard to that.

Translated by Claudio Ekdahl.