August 24, 2006
A series of investigative articles in Chile’s El Mercurio newspaper regarding government-bought land granted to Mapuche groups in southern Chile has sparked a fierce debate over land use and the government’s responsibility for indigenous development.

Citing recent statistics from Conadi (National Corporation for Indigenous Development), the articles last week revealed that ten percent of the land bought by the government and restored to indigenous Mapuche groups is rented commercially to its former owner, a practice that violates the Indigenous Rights Law under which land is granted.

The investigations revealed that many groups rent the land for an average of 75,000 Chilean pesos (US$125) per hectare (2.47 acres) each year. The investigation also found that in the majority of cases the land is rented back to the previous owners for agricultural purposes.

Between 1994 and 2005, Conadi purchased and returned 491,638 hectares of land to over 19,000 Mapuche families. The Conadi investigation showed that the Mapuches’ subletting the land back to its former owners is most common around the Valdivia region and the Panguipulli zone in Region X.

The practice has received close public scrutiny, with many calling for legal action against the indigenous groups. “It is absolutely illegal. The purpose of the land granted is not to make a profit,” said Sen. Alberto Espinosa of the National Renovation Party (RN). “This violates the intention of the law.”

The legal clause in question is Article 13 of the Indigenous Law, which stipulates that indigenous landholders are not to lease or loan their lands to third parties. However, the defense for this practice is that new Mapuche landholders have little to no access to capital, and therefore no way to make money from the land except by renting it.

“Capital and technical assistance are required to cultivate the land,” said Sen. José García Ruminot, of the National Renovation Party (RN). “These are things to which the Mapuche inhabitants have limited or no access to. For this reason I feel (that by leasing) they are not transgressing the law.”

Conadi has promised it will take steps to clarify the situation. “These cases will be investigated,” said Conadi director Jaime Andrade. “The situation needs to be examined, and it’s possible that, in extreme cases, land will be confiscated.”

In related news, Gastón Caminondo, President of the Society for Agricultural Growth (Sofo), recently claimed that half of the land granted to Mapuche groups is abandoned. Although no official statistics exist, Caminondo cited the areas of Alaska (Traiguén), Ginebra (Collipulli), California (Pitrufquén) and Santa Verónica (Traiguén) as prime examples of land granted by Conadi that hasn’t been developed due to lack of resources. Occupants survive on subsistence farming and often abandon their plots in search of better opportunities.

He called for the government to cease granting further land to Mapuche groups and instead to use the money to help the current Mapuche landholders to farm. “Otherwise, they are just landholders forced to live in poverty,” he said.

By Caitlin Sandercock (