Monday, 07 September 2009
Bachelet’s Cabinet Members Met By Violence And Protests

Five members of President Michelle Bachelet’s cabinet were met with violence and heightened protests over the weekend during their visit to the country's troubled Region IX.

Violence and standoffs around the Region's highways, farms and government offices marred the occasion, as representatives of the central government announced new plans to help the economic recovery of the country's most depressed region.

Region IX, known as the Araucanía, is also on the front lines of the conflict between the central government and native Mapuche, who say they have been displaced and marginalized by the state.

Tensions have resulted in land occupations and even violence, like the eruption of gunfire on a farm in the northern Araucanía on Friday, just as cabinet members arrived in the regional capital of Temuco. A landowner fired a shotgun at a group of Mapuches who began starting fires on his property, injuring at least three of them, according to the local Diario Austral newspaper. Masked men later burned down a nearby warehouse, destroying agricultural supplies worth more than US$20,000.

Masked men also set fire to two trucks and a passenger vehicle on the highway between Angol and Collipulli, saying their attack was in the name of Mapuche political prisoners. On Sunday police said they had apprehended and interrogated a 25-year-old in connection with the attacks, according to the newspaper La Tercera.

“I would say the immense majority of indigenous communities and organizations are in favor of dialogue. There are minority groups that provoke these acts of violence,” said General Secretary José Antonio Viera-Gallo, the coordinator of indigenous issues who headed up the ministers' trip.

Recent violence has been focused around communities in the northern Araucanía, known as the Malleco province. Malleco is also suffering the worst of the southern region's economic ills and was the focus of several announcements for government ministers focusing on the road to economic recovery.

Several of the measures focused directly on Mapuche communities in distress, such as direct subsidies to indigenous wheat farmers, nearly US$1.5 million of seed capital with preference for indigenous entrepreneurs, and 1,500 new emergency employment positions directed at communities with the highest unemployment levels and Mapuche populations.

The announcement drawing the most attention came from Viera-Gallo, who said the government would restructure its government land program, which has purchased and returned some 650,000 hectares to indigenous communities. Viera-Gallo said a new process was needed to increase transparency and cut down the speculation that has lifted land values throughout the region.

Visits by Viera-Gallo and other ministers throughout the region on Friday were met with protests and seizures of government offices, including the National Commission for Indigenous Development in Temuco.

But a new study makes clear that the indigenous issues referred to in the Chilean press as "the Mapuche conflict" are not the only challenge confronting Region IX.

In a regional competitiveness ranking by the Center for Business and Enterprise Research, the Araucanía region fell three positions in 2008 to last place in economic competitiveness, averaging .21 in the development measures compared to .86 in the Santiago region. Researchers cited shrinking access to credit, the worsening quality of roads and infrastructure, and limited scientific training in Region IX as reasons for its falling behind.

The result has been a nation-high unemployment rate of 14.1 percent in the Araucanía, with the official rate rising above 17 percent in some parts of the Malleco province. The study's director said that the region's indigenous issues were not directly addressed in the study but may be contributing to deteriorating perceptions and investments in the region.

Those perceptions have worsened in recent weeks after a uniformed police officer killed 24-year-old Jaime Mendoza Collío, one of several Mapuche who were occupying an estate in the north of the Araucanía region (ST, Aug. 31 ). Indigenous activists have responded to the shooting with protests and violence, shutting down highways in the IX Region and occupying universities, rural estates and municipal buildings.

By Brad Haynes ( editor@santiagotimes.clThis e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it )