The Mapuche situation and social protest in Chile today

Blaise Pantel
Citizens' Observatory, Chile
Civil Platform for the Freedom of Mapuche Political Prisoners, Barcelona
Blaise Pantel

Blaise Pantel

Two decades have passed since the end of the dictatorship and Chile's "democratic transition" in 1990, with four successive governments of the Concertación coalition of center-left political parties, and the current right-wing government of the businessman Sebastian Pinera. From an overall perspective, Chile has gained a positive image – there has been economic growth with a steady increase in GDP, a reduction of poverty and extreme poverty, institutional stability, and low levels of corruption. It has been thought of as the laboratory for North American capitalism, based on the doctrines of the "Chicago Boys" who were asked to create a neoliberal model governed by the law of the market. This involved privatised education, health and pension systems, minimum social and employment protection and privatisation of natural resources (rivers, lakes, the sea, minerals and subsoils), to give just a few examples.

Chile has become a major international producer of raw materials and industrial products such as copper from the mines in the north of the country, wood from the forests and plantations of pine and eucalyptus in the south, including the pulp industry, and salmon with the development of fish farming in rivers, lakes and the sea. The development of Chilean energy production has been focused on hydropower, using mountain lakes and rivers from the south of the country as far as Patagonia to generate electricity and explore new sources of energy, such as geothermal energy.

In fact, the image of a successful economic model and a triumphant democratic transition, culminating with the country's membership of the OECD in 2010, hides serious inequalities, exclusion, discrimination and violation of human rights, as well as large-scale social and environmental effects. The country's nine indigenous peoples, which in Chile account for at least 10% of the total population, and civil society in general, have over the years rejected the imposition of an economic model that is harmful to the environment, lucrative for a few, which prevents the effective participation of citizens in decision-making, and which aggravates the territorial plunder to which local communities are subjected, who are not guaranteed access to natural resources such as water.

As a result, over the last twenty years, the Mapuche, which is the most important indigenous group in the country because of its history and culture, and human rights and socio-environmental organisations in civil society have constantly protested and complained to defend territories threatened by mining industries due to their serious environmental, social and cultural impact. This market-based logic and privatisation of natural resources being imposed is one that threatens both the existing ecosystems and the inhabitants of the territories concerned, which in many cases, belong to indigenous peoples.

In this situation, the Mapuche people have played a key role in the defence of the threatened territories, claiming ancestral rights to natural resources that Chilean law grants as a concession to private individuals and to large industrial and energy companies from Chile and abroad. The case of the Ralco dam, in the Bio Bio region, is a prime example of how the multinational company Endesa received favourable treatment from the Chilean government and was allowed to build a hydroelectric dam that flooded Mapuche lands, with their cemeteries, leading to a pre-planned cultural massacre of these communities and irreversible damage to the basin. Despite the Indigenous Peoples Law enacted in 1993, which among other objectives aimed to protect indigenous lands, private economic interests prevailed over the rights of indigenous peoples. Over the last decade, the number of cases has increased sharply and Mapuche communities are on the frontlines against of these "new conquistadores."

In a classic case of a stick and carrot policy, with the implementation of supeficial public welfare policies based on heavy doses of patronage, the other response of the Chilean state to the demands of the Mapuche people was to criminalise protest. For the last decade, special laws inherited from the dictatorship such as the Antiterrorism Law have been used as legal instruments to silence indigenous demands and stigmatise tens of Mapuche leaders as terrorists. This tactic has been denounced by many Chilean and international indigenous people's rights and human rights organisations. Furthermore, several United Nations agencies have expressed concern over the use of the Antiterrorism Law and its failure to meet international standards of human and indigenous rights. They have demanded that the Chilean government stops using these special laws within the Mapuche conflict and called on it to apply the international treaties ratified by the country, such as Convention 169 of the International Labour Organization concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries.

As a result of this situation, the Mapuche leaders imprisoned and convicted under the Antiterrorism Law staged two hunger strikes in 2010 and in 2011, to denounce the ongoing criminalisation of their demands and the violent police repression to which their communities are subject, involving deaths that unfortunately all go unpunished.

It is in this context that various citizens' groups and support groups for the Mapuche people have demonstrated recently in Spain, and in Catalonia in particular, to raise the profile and condemn the situation of the Mapuche people and to question the construction of enormous hydroelectric plants in Chilean Patagonia within the controversial HydroAysén project. Since May 2011, there has been a broad-based plural and diverse movement of citizens, students and indigenous people, which is calling for major structural changes in the country: a new constitution to replace the Fundamental Charter inherited from the dictatorship; greater participation by citizens in decision-making; the release of Mapuche political prisoners; and free high quality education, among other demands. If these great opportunities are available in Chile today, let us ask ourselves about the political will to implement them in the future.