25 August 2008
Written by Natalie Hart

Military-style police a constant presence in small southern Chile town, Tanks Called In To Protect Forestry Companies Under Seige.

The small town of Tirúa in Chile’s picturesque Arauco region is home to around 10,000 people, a sizeable Mapuche community and an armored tank. With an idyllic coastal setting, the beautiful Lake Lleu Lleu and Pinochet’s dictatorship now decades behind, life in the town should be tranquil. Instead, it is a conflict zone.

The Mapuche indigenous people that inhabit the region receive poor coverage from the Chilean national media. Often portrayed by right wing publications as violent delinquents, their poignant plight is clouded by tales of alcoholism, felony and alleged radicalism. Even those who dare to speak out about the stigmatization of the race, and attribute the criminal offenses to a small minority, still frequently fail to confront the reasoning behind the ongoing conflict with police forces and altogether omit the excessive persecution to which the Mapuche community is subjected.

At the root of the conflict is land. First battling against the Spanish conquistadors, then Chile’s newly independent government, and finally Pinochet’s military government, the Mapuche have a history of fighting for their territory. Their latest enemy comes in a more commercial form, in the shape of forestry companies who are exploiting Mapuche land to feed the booming Chilean lumber trade. A recent PricewaterhouseCooper study ranked two Chilean businesses, Arauco and CMPC (owner of Tirúa based Mininco) as the largest forestry companies in Latin America, and they look on course to keep growing.

Don Ignacio Maríl, an astute Mapuche elder and charismatic community representative has lived through around 80 years of indigenous land disputes. Following Allende’s “The land is for those who work it” campaign, much of his land was restored by 1971. However, after the arrival of Pinochet, the struggle soon began anew and the 1,170 hectares that belonged to his community were reduced to just 383 hectares.

Today the Mapuche’s principal struggle for their right to land is against Mininco Forestry, part of the CMPC group owned by Matte, which is now proprietor of much of the land surrounding the town of Tirúa, leaving the Mapuche with minimal terrain to support their agricultural lifestyle.

“We are four brothers and have just nine hectares of land,” commented one member of the community. “On this we have to grow food for ourselves, provide grazing for our animals(…) It is not enough.” Don Maríl explained that many Mapuche youth are forced to leave their homes in search of employment in the big cities, “abandoning their family and community.” Those who remain are forced to fight for their territory.

At the heart of the Mapuche identity lies a strong connection to their territory, the word “Mapuche” itself means “People of the land” in their native Mapudungun language,

“The Mapuche without land are not Mapuche,” said Don Ignacio.

The Tirúa situation took a turn for the worse in April this year when Mininco introduced a camp of around 50 Chilean police and Special Operation Forces (GOPE) onto their Labranza forestry estate, not far from Mapuche community residences. The reasoning behind what Chilean Commissioner of Human Rights Sergio Aguiló described as the “militarization” of the area was the alleged need to protect the forestry land and company from theft and assaults from the Mapuche people.

The camp is a grisly sight to behold. From the air it is two large buildings and an ominous tower amongst acres of burnt out forestry land, and the view from close up is not much better. The track up to the camp is hazardous and thick with mud, while the camp itself is surrounded by a double layer of high barbed wire fencing, with one main gate providing restricted access to the police barracks.

The special forces on patrol are dressed as though under constant ambush. With helmets, bullet proof vests and multiple firearms, it is more like a scene from a war torn country than a site on the outskirts of a rural Chilean community. Perhaps the most shocking addition to the camp is the resident military tank, discovered during a surprise visit made to the camp by Mayor Adolfo Millabur, President of the Human Rights Commission of the Chamber of Deputies Sergio Aguiló, and Deputy Manuel Monsalve earlier in July.

“To have a military tank in my municipality left me indignant,” said Mayor Millabur, of Mapuche descent himself. “It affected me a lot because it is not something common in Chile at this time. In a dictatorship they do these things. But, as the Mapuche are indigenous people, ‘democracy’ allows it. They wouldn’t do this in the big urban population of Santiago, there would be scandal!”

Deputy Aguiló also displayed his outrage at the camp. “It is an unacceptable provocation. This practically military presence, with tanks, a police bus, helmets, submachine guns, rifles, is something that I have never seen in the three terms I have spent as a parliamentarian and as president of the Commission of Human Rights. This situation is not tolerable in a diplomatic state.”

The deputies’ visit to the region, which took place on Monday 21 July, followed correspondence between Mayor Millabur and Interior Minister Edmundo Peréz Yoma in which the mayor alerted the minister to the escalating incidents between police and Mapuche. In the letter the Mayor gave details of excessive violence against Mapuche people by the police, to which he had personally born witness.

According to the mayor, he felt that the situation would continue to escalate in gravity if action was not taken.

“I believe, unfortunately, that if things don’t change there will be an awful ending - the communities are going to be in such a rage. It’s likely that I, too, will participate in this action, because it is not acceptable that this type of conduct goes on in our land, which we recuperated with our rights. The problem will not be solved like this, with police. This is why I invited the deputies to Tirúa, to alert them to what is going on. Because at the end of the day, whatever the outcome is, the Mapuche will be guilty. This is the conclusion that will be drawn.”

“The Mapuche are born guilty” is a sentiment that is echoed by many people in the community.
One of the incidents detailed by Mayor Millabur in his letter was the case of César Parra, a youth in the Esteban Yevilao community in the sector of Choque, Lake Lleu-Lleu. On June 10 Mayor Alcalde received a distressed phone call from a local woman saying that police were firing weapons on her patio.

“She was crying,” said the mayor, “And saying ‘Please, an ambulance!”

Mayor Millabur arrived at the location with the municipality ambulance and found the young male severely injured with a bullet wound to the leg, abandoned on a neighbour’s patio. According to witnesses at the scene, the police had chased him while shooting at him and throwing teargas bombs – in the presence of women and children, and just 1.5 kilometres from the local primary school.

Following the incident the police officers abandoned Parra, who was taken to Cañete Hospital in municipality transport. It was only once he was receiving medical treatment in the hospital that police reappeared, and arrested him on charges of aggression against police officers.

According to current legislation, any incidents that involve alleged violence against uniformed authority must be heard in a military court rather than through standard judicial proceedings. Mayor Millabur commented there has not been a single incident of a Mapuche person winning their case in a military court. The fate of Parra, the youth shot and then abandoned by the police, is yet to be decided.

According to the press spokeperson of theTirúa municipality, press coverage of the incident was practically non-existent. What was reported, however, was the resulting confrontation between angry members of the Mapuche community (including women and children) and the police.

This incident is just one of many that occurred in recent months. The Mapuche communities, who have been branded ‘terrorists’ themselves, live in constant fear. According to local reports, the tank in the camp is frequently fired during the hours of darkness as part of the police force’s intimidation tactics. Many members of the community also complain about losing precious livestock, as they are too scared to follow the animals that wander across the forestry site’s perimeter. Other frequent reports are of individuals being detained for long periods of time, without physical harm but subject to unwarranted and distressing threats from police.

The presence of the common uniformed enemy has doubtless strengthened the sense of solidarity within the community. Members of the municipality frequently receive calls alerting them to police movement outside of the camp, particularly sightings of the plain clothes officers that patrol in the town itself.

Mayor Millabur can only hope to improve the conditions of his community through political and public pressure for the removal of the camp. “I am Mapuche,” he said, “And I will bear the flag of my town.”

By Natalie Hart ( patagoniatimes@gmail.comThis e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it )
Last Updated ( Monday, 25 August 2008 )