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Giovanna Dell'Orto
Associated Press

MELIPEUCO, Chile — Mist suddenly arose from the Truful Truful River as it flowed below the snow-covered Llaima volcano, and Victor Curin smiled at the sun-dappled water spray.

A leader in one of the Indigenous communities by the river’s shores in the Chilean Andes, Curin took it as a sign that the waterfall’s ngen — its owner and protector spirit — approved of his visit and prayer that mid-July morning.

“Nature always tells you something, always answers,” said Curin, who works as a park ranger in Conguillio National Park, at the river’s headwaters. “Human beings feel superior to the space where they go, but for us Mapuche, I belong to the earth, the earth doesn’t belong to me.”

In the worldview of the Mapuche, Chile’s largest Indigenous group and more than 10% of its population, a pristine river is home to a spiritual force to revere, not a natural resource to exploit.

That has led many Mapuche across Chile’s water-rich south to fight hydroelectric plants and other projects they see as desecrating nature and depriving Indigenous communities of essential energies that keep them from getting sick.

“Being part of nature, we cannot destroy part of ourselves,” said Lientur Ayenao, a machi or healer and spiritual guide who draws water from the Truful Truful for his ceremonies. “You have to keep the balance, and this is broken when one intervenes in natural spaces for a selfish purpose.”

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Some 200 miles to the south, another machi, Millaray Huichalaf, has led a sometimes-violent battle against hydroelectric plants on the Pilmaiquen River, which flows through rolling pastures from a lake in the Andes’ foothills.

After her resistance and cultural consultations with Indigenous communities, an energy company froze plans for a plant by a riverside sacred site and said it would return ownership of the land to the Mapuche.

But construction is continuing on another plant, so the fight isn't over — just as it isn't on the Truful Truful, where a proposed plant is under review.

“I am the river too, we’re as sacred as the river,” Huichalaf said as a thunderstorm pounded her wooden cabin. “At the same time as we’re fighting for the river, we’re in the process of territorial recovery and spiritual reconstruction.”

It’s on the question of rights over Indigenous land, a volatile issue in Chile’s politics, that spirituality gets entangled with ideology. Several Mapuche leaders say spirits appearing in dreams encourage the fight against capitalism in their ancestral territory.

Next month, Chileans will vote on a new and controversial constitution spotlighting Indigenous rights and land restitution. But they’re also dealing with growing violent attacks against agricultural, logging and energy industries, particularly in the Araucania region, including by some groups claiming Mapuche ancestral lands that were never fully conquered by the Spanish empire and only fell to the Chilean state at the end of the 19th century.

For most Mapuche, such violence further destabilizes the desired balance between people, the natural space they belong to and the spirits that inhabit it. A first step against it is to ensure non-Natives understand how nature matters to the Mapuche, Indigenous leader and mediator Andrés Antivil Álvarez said.

“The world is not loot. Everything that’s outside is also inside ourselves,” he said, sitting by the fire in his ruka, a traditional building outside his house near Araucania’s capital, a two-hour drive from the Truful Truful. “You have to understand that the spirit of this fire, present here, is as sacred as the Christ in a church.”

And trampling a crucifix — as some protesters did in 2019 mass uprisings — is as painful and evil as damming a river, he said. He cited as an example construction in the early 2000s of the Ralco dam, which flooded sacred compounds and generated an uproar that prevented similar massive projects and energized cultural resistance to smaller ones.

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Mapuche community members' reverence is evident when they walk alongside rivers like the Truful Truful, whose name means “from waterfall to waterfall” in the Mapudungun language.

On a chilly afternoon, Ayenao approached the river’s largest waterfall, the proposed site of a new hydroelectric plant, with a bag of seeds in his pocket. That would be a reciprocity offering for the river’s ngen should Ayenao decide to draw water to treat his patients’ physical and spiritual ailments.

“Ngen existed before us and it’s they who allow us to live in a place. And there are some predominant ngen to whom we need to pray” like the Truful Truful’s, he said.

Failure to ask the ngen’s permission to approach the water, or to explain the need to do so, means transgressing on the space, alienating the spirits protecting it and making you, your family and even your animals sick.

But if the ngen permits it, then Ayenao can use the falling water’s distinctive “energy power” for healing purposes, either in riverside ceremonies or by taking large soda bottles full of it back to his house.

Relocated to Temuco when he was 6, Ayenao eventually moved to Santiago, Chile's capital, to study and there got so sick he couldn’t walk or talk. His family realized the only remedy was to accept that the spirit of his great-grandmother, also a healer, was asking to come back in him.

He apprenticed for three years and returned to practice traditional medicine on a tiny plot of land in the broad valley downstream from the village of Melipueco, named for the union of the Truful Truful and three other waterways.

Now the spirit of a nearby river where a fish farm is planned has been asking in dreams for Ayenao’s help.

“The ngen asks me and demands of me that I need to protect it, and thus contribute to health,” said Ayenao, 28. “We as human beings ... are the messengers of the ngen mapu to stop” the extraction and sale of natural resources.

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More spiritual guides like Ayenao are needed to remedy the loss of environmental, medicinal and linguistic knowledge caused by enforced assimilation policies in the past, when many Indigenous people grew up alienated from their roots in marginalized big-city settlements, said Artemio Huenupi, a Mapuche elder.

“Our wisdom is entirely based on the territory of nature. We live in this space to take care of it. It’s other cultures that say that they own the land,” he added, speaking in the small museum of Mapuche culture he curates in Melipeuco.

At a July nighttime village concert to raise funds for Ayenao’s thatched-roof gathering space, community members recounted how they have banded together to oppose a hydroelectric plant on the Truful Truful.

After nearly a decade of multiple environmental and cultural evaluations, as well as legal appeals, the plant has been temporarily blocked in court, said Claudio Melillan, a Melipeuco city councilor who recently returned to his ancestral lands for what he called “a stage of reconstruction” of his Mapuche identity.

The community hopes a final ruling will definitively scuttle the project, which threatens to harm the waterfall that’s considered a crucial source of spiritual energy, said Sergio Millaman, the attorney who won the latest appeal.

But some human impact is already evident, from an increase in tourism to the diminished flow compared with the powerful river many remember from their childhood.

Despite this winter’s abundant rain and snowfall, Chile is facing a worrisome climate change-driven drought, which has compounded tensions over water use, said Juan Pablo Herane, a hydrology expert with the Global Change Center at Santiago’s Catholic University.

In April, after more than a decade’s legal wrangling, the country’s water code was updated to better protect various rights including the use of water at its source for conservation or ancestral customs, said Juan José Crocco, an attorney specializing in water regulation and management.

It’s unclear, however, if a new constitution might alter that and how the code will be implemented in the case of hydroelectric plants that technically don’t extract water but reroute it to create energy, said Benjamín Bulnes, a water rights attorney who worked on the new code and has fished on the Pilmaiquen River.

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The first hydroelectric plant on the Pilmaiquen, built in the mid-20th century, sits across the road from a Mapuche-administered botanical garden spotlighting native trees.

A bitter battle under Huichalaf’s leadership started a decade ago to stop three other plants several miles downstream. Like Ayenao, she got seriously ill as a child in the nearby city of Osorno until her family realized it was an ancestor’s spirit wanting to come back in her as a healer.

During years of training to assume that role, she started having dreams about Kintuantü, a ngen living by a broad bend of the Pilmaiquen.

“I am a medium of energy. Through dreams and visions in trance, Kintuantü told me that I had to speak for him because he was dying,” Huichalaf said.

A plant would have raised the river right to the cliffside caves where the ngen lives. Atop the cliff is a Mapuche ceremonial compound, including a cemetery, from where souls are believed to travel via underground water flows through the caves, into the Pilmaiquen and on to eventual reincarnation.

Huichalaf led an occupation there. A private home burned down, and protesters clashed with police. More protests and lawsuits followed, dividing the Indigenous communities around the river.

Huichalaf was jailed for several months. But she said she doesn’t fear prison because she managed to save the site, where she gathers medicinal herbs and performs sacred ceremonies: “The ngen is still there.”

Statkraft, the Norwegian state-owned energy company that bought the Pilmaiquen projects, is working with the Chilean government to return ownership of the ceremonial compound. Construction was stopped after the company realized the proposed plant’s cultural impact was “unacceptable,” said Statkraft’s Chile manager, María Teresa González.

González said the company learned the importance of understanding the Indigenous worldview and engaging different communities from the start, and it’s doing just that with another plant being constructed on the Pilmaiquen.

But she condemned ongoing violence such as the recent burning of a truck carrying a half-dozen workers. Nobody has been charged in the late June attack.

For Huichalaf, the fight continues: “Our big goal is that the companies on the river will leave."

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Back on the black volcanic field crossed by the Truful Truful, as a snowstorm approached a nearby peak with thousand-year-old araucaria trees, Curin defined his people’s goal in more essential terms.

“What does the Mapuche world fight for? What does the Mapuche world protect? Not a world of money,” he said. “Mapuche culture is very spiritual, very much of the heart. It’s not random that we’re still here.”

Then he knelt to sip from the river’s water and got back to his park ranger post.

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