Earthquake just the latest blow to Chile’s Mapuche

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The 7.8-magnitude earthquake and tsunamis that battered south-central Chile in February inflicted widespread suffering on that region’s native Mapuche. Yet for many Mapuche, the worst natural disaster to hit Chile in 50 years was just another setback in their decades of struggle to recuperate lost land and defend their culture.

For Pascual Pichún, the lonko (traditional leader) of the village of Temulemu, 30 miles north of the city of Temuco, the quake that jolted him and his family out of their beds in the early hours of Feb. 27 was a minor blow compared to the news that the police had arrested his youngest son the day before. His son, also named Pascual, who had recently returned from seven years of exile in Argentina, was arrested on a 2002 charge of setting a logging truck on fire – a crime that his brother Rafael spent five years in prison for. He is now one of approximately 70 Mapuche in prison as a result of a growing conflict between Native activists and the Chilean state.

Pichún, who has been arrested several times and has spent five years in jail, said that he and his sons are innocent of the crimes they’ve been charged with and that their arrests were in retaliation for his community’s occupation of land that belonged to a forestry company.

“I will continue to struggle so that my people can have a dignified life.” – Pascual Pichún, village of Temulemu lonko (traditional leader)

Pichún was one of the first people to be tried under an anti-terrorism law dating from the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet since the country’s return to democracy in 1990. Human rights groups have criticized the Chilean government for using the law – which allows anonymous witnesses, among other controversial practices – in its efforts to halt violence by Mapuche radicals.

“They used to say we were lazy and drunks, but now they call us terrorists,” said Pichún, who speculated that the anonymous witnesses who testified against him in his trail were paid to do so.

The farms of Temulemu are surrounded by pine and eucalyptus plantations that supply the country’s pulp, cardboard and wood-product industries. Between them, Chile’s two biggest forestry companies – Forestal Arauco and Forestal Mininco – own approximately 4.2 million acres, mostly in Mapuche territory, that are planted with non-native trees. That is more than four times as much land as Chile’s Mapuche communities have title to (less than one million acres).

The Mapuche, who constitute between five and six percent of Chile’s population, live in farming communities scattered across the country’s south-central region and in cities, primarily the capital, Santiago. Mapuche means “people of the land” in their language, Mapudungun, and their territory once stretched from the Pacific coast of Chile across the Andes into Argentina. They successfully defended their territory from the Incan and Spanish empires, but in the late 19th century, the Chilean and Argentine armies crushed the Mapuche in a series of battles.

According to human rights lawyer Juan Jorge Faundes, the Chilean government granted the surviving Mapuche communal “mercy titles” for approximately 1.2 million acres – less than one-tenth of their original territory – between 1880 and 1929. Subsequent laws facilitated the division of communal land, further reducing Mapuche holdings, especially during the Pinochet government. By the time Pinochet relinquished power in 1990, the Mapuche had half as much land as in 1930.

Faundes, who heads the Fundación Instituto Indígena, founded by the Catholic church in Temuco, explained that Pinochet’s policies to dismantle Mapuche communities forced Native leaders to organize themselves, and once the country returned to democracy, they began pressuring the government to recover lost land. Whereas democratic administrations passed a law recognizing Native rights, created the National Corporation for Indigenous Development (CONADI), and signed the International Labour Organization’s Convention 169, Faundes noted that the government’s slow response to Mapuche demands for land and police repression of Native protests and land occupations have resulted in a “spiral of violence.”

Dozens of Mapuche communities have occupied land that they claim ancestral rights to and members of radical groups such as the Arauco Malleco Coordinating Committee have set fire to tree plantations and logging trucks and harassed non-Native landowners. The national police have responded with force, violently evicting Mapuche squatters and arresting hundreds.

Last August, 24-year-old Mapuche activist Jaime Mendoza was fatally shot by police during an operation to evict people from “recuperated” land, and in 2008, 22-year-old Matias Catrileo died under comparable circumstances. In January, a military tribunal found police officer Walter Ramirez guilty of fatally shooting Catrileo in the back and sentenced him to two years of probation.

Pichún, who spent five years in prison for the crime of “terrorist threat,” said he hopes his son can avoid such a harsh sentence. Yet despite all that he and his family have suffered, Pichún says he never considered abandoning his struggle to recuperate Temulemu’s ancestral land.

“They can’t stop me because behind me there are a lot of people. The poverty here obliges us to fight.”

Pichún explained the sacrifices haven’t been in vain. The Chilean government purchased the land that he and his neighbors are occupying last year and CONADI representatives have told him that the state will transfer the title to the community this year. He said that aside from getting his son out of jail, his priority is figuring out how his community can make best use of that land, most of which remains covered with pines.

“I will continue to struggle so that my people can have a dignified life.”