The state of emergency provides legal cover for the deployment of the army. According to Piñera, the aim of the measure is to re-establish “public order,” which has been “seriously” disrupted by “terrorism, drug trafficking, and organised crime.” Piñera —who is currently facing impeachment proceedings over the Pandora Papers and, in any case, is not running for re-election in the 21 November presidential election— claims the measure is not “against any people,” but hardly anyone believes him within the Mapuche movement. Indigenous organisations are calling for an end to Wallmapu’s militarisation, as well as for the granting of collective rights and self-determination for the Mapuche.
We spoke on these issues to two Mapuche academics: Verónica Figueroa Huencho, professor at the Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Chile, and Fernando Pairican, historian and academic at the University of Santiago de Chile. This is what they have told us.
The growing conflict between Chile and the Mapuche
The conflict’s deep roots date back to the 19th century, when the Chilean state completed the conquest of Wallmapu, and subsequently annexed and colonised it —the Spanish Empire had never fully subdued the Mapuche lands. The Mapuche people were stripped of their land, their rights, and their self-government, in a similar way to what they suffered in Argentina by the same time in the so-called Conquest of the Desert.
Over the 20th century, the Mapuche tried to reorganise their society, with a central idea: to recover their usurped lands. Verónica Figueroa Huencho summarises that: “The [Chilean] state has maintained a policy of taking over Wallmapu through the use of force and violence, and of taking away the political and representation rights of the Indigenous peoples.”
“The state has maintained a policy of taking over Wallmapu through the use of force and violence, and of taking away the political and representation rights of the Indigenous peoples”With the democratic opening of 1989 at the end of the Pinochet dictatorship, the conflict first became more visible, and then, it intensified. “Three variables help explain that,” says Fernando Pairican: “One, the development of a [Mapuche] movement for rupture and self-determination that has been using political violence as a tool since 1997; two, the Chilean state’s intense violence and militarisation over Mapuche territory since 2001; and three, land recovery actions that some Mapuche are doing autonomously, especially after Piñera,” Chile’s president since 2018, “has failed to keep his promises in this regard.”
“Another, previous breach,” Figueroa Huencho points out, “was that of the Nueva Imperial Agreement.” The deal had been signed in 1989 by several Indigenous organisations and Patricio Aylwin, then candidate of the Concertación (a centre-to-left alliance of parties), who was elected president of Chile a year later. The agreement included “a commitment for progress in the recognition of rights and an institutional framework for Indigenous peoples, but it ended up stagnating.” In 1993, Chile passed Law 19.253, also known as the Indigenous Law, which disappointed the expectations of the Mapuche movements. “The law set up a mechanism for Indigenous territorial expansion that was very different from the idea of territorial restitution, which was what the Mapuche movements were demanding. It was a very perverse mechanism in which the buying and selling of usurped lands prevailed, the state acting as a mediator.”
Within the current Mapuche movement, two main trends stand out. The first one is aimed at reforming the Chilean state, with a view to securing recognition for the Mapuche people and their autonomy. The second one seeks what its supporters define as the “reconstitution” of the Mapuche society outside the state. The Coordinadora Arauco-Malleco (Arauco-Malleco Coordinating Committee, CAM) follows the latter way. Since 1998, it has been a champion of political violence and of a strategy of unilateral land recovery “against forestry and hydroelectric companies as well as against farmers who have been taking over Mapuche territory since the 19th century. According to the CAM, the capitalist system is responsible for the Mapuche’s losses,” Pairican argues. The CAM engages in actions such as sabotage, or the burning of lumber trucks and landowners’ houses. “It has not decided to attack people, but when you use political violence, it can happen that civilians find themselves in the firing line.” A well-known example of this was the deaths of Werner Luchsinger and Vivianne Mackay in 2013, after the couple found itself trapped in its house in an arson attack. According to the Chilean authorities, such acts amount to terrorism; in the eyes of some in the Mapuche movement, they are legitimate actions of collective self-defence.
“Mapuche children have lived under such a scenario of violence; this pushes them to join the movement for radicalism [as a response] to what the state has brought about”However, the militarisation of Wallmapu by the state has also left a string of deaths among Mapuche activists: “Alex Lemun, Matías Catrileo, Jaime Mendoza, Pablo Marchant... are all victims of state violence against the communities,” recalls Pairican. The most recent case is the death of 23-year-old activist Yordan Llempi a few days ago in an incident with Chilean marines, which his family describes as murder. “Mapuche children have lived under such a scenario of violence; this pushes them to join the movement for radicalism [as a response] to what the state has brought about.”
Poverty associated with the Mapuche’s secular dispossession and the exhaustion after decades of conflict has also pushed some communities to disassociate themselves from the movement, and choose another path instead: to accept jobs offered by the logging industry or to reach private agreements with them for the use of some lands.
“Militarisation has been going on since the 1990s, and has not changed under any government,” says Figueroa Huencho. “In reality, Piñera is only legalising something that was already happening in Mapuche territory, which has been living under a de facto state of exception since the application of the anti-terror law in 2001,” says Pairican.
“What we see is the growth of the movement for rupture, self-determination, and territorial control. It cannot be denied that political violence has increased since 2020”Not only has militarisation not ended the conflict, but over the last 10 years “new organisations have appeared” apart from CAM, “such as Weichan Auka Mapu, Resistencia Lafkenche and Resistencia Malleco. What we see is the growth of the movement for rupture, self-determination, and territorial control,” explains Pairican.
The pandemic has only contributed to make things worse: “It has generated a labour crisis, because some Mapuche work as seasonal workers in the grape harvest outside their regions, and the pandemic has not allowed them to go there. Poverty has risen and this has led to more land and animal seizures, simply for the people to feed themselves.” In addition, “the radicalisation of the conflict also has to do with falsified evidence” against Mapuche activists. One of the best known cases is the so-called Operación Huracán, in which it turned out that the police had fabricated evidence against eight Mapuche leaders in order to be able to arrest them in 2017 on terrorism charges. Other Indigenous prisoners claim to have been victims of similar manipulations. As a result of this whole scenario, “it cannot be denied that political violence has increased since 2020.”
Demonstrations for the freedom of Mapuche prisoners are recurring. In the image, a 2007 protest. / Photo: The Future Is Unwritten @ Flickr
A matter of national sovereignty and world-view
“We have never renounced sovereignty,” says Figueroa Huencho. “The Chilean state has been in existence for 200 years, but the Mapuche’s own institutional framework goes back much further. We signed more than 20 treaties with the Spaniards in which Mapuche sovereignty was upheld. At the beginning, the Chilean state said it would respect it too. In the first Chilean documents, in fact, the idea of a Mapuche nation was reflected.”
The struggle for land recovery is closely linked to this Indigenous notion of sovereignty. “According to the Mapuche,” says Pairican, “land is not a merely material issue. This is not a peasant or agrarian revolution. The Mapuche understand land as the basis of their world-view —obviously a material space to live in and feed themselves, but also the place they share with animals, the rains, the winds, the sun, the moon.... This is the concept of Itrofil Mogen, which could be translated as ‘the whole without exclusion.’ To defend it, the Mapuche representatives at the Convention warn that it is necessary to stop the policies that are destroying it.”
“Some movements propose that the Mapuche nation should be endowed with a state of their own, but I would say that at the moment a large majority of the Mapuche are more in favour of seeking the recognition of our nation within the framework of a plurinational state”This land-sovereignty pair continues to bring together most Mapuche organisations today, whether they participate in the Convention’s institutional process or not. “Some movements propose that the Mapuche nation should be endowed with a state different from the Chilean one, under a pro-independence reasoning,” explains Figueroa Huencho. The CAM shares this idea of rebuilding a Mapuche institutional framework outside Chile’s, as one of its founders, Héctor Llaitul, has explained a number of times. This sector believes that Chilean institutions, even if it is the Convention, will not provide a solution to the root causes of the Mapuche people’s oppression. “But I would say,” Figueroa Huencho goes on, “that at the moment a large majority of the Mapuche are more in favour of seeking the recognition of our nation within the framework of a new, plurinational state, and a new agreement for the coexistence between nations: some of them pre-existing, like the Mapuche, and others, like the Chilean, which were born with the state.”
The Constitutional Convention is the arena in which Figueroa Huencho believes that such goal can be achieved. As the constituent body of the Republic of Chile, the Convention is charged with drafting a new constitution to be voted on in a plebiscite well into 2022. A large majority of its 155 members —the convencionales— place themselves from the centre to the left of the political spectrum, with 17 seats reserved for Indigenous peoples.
In the May 2021 Convention election, some 237,000 Mapuche —out of a register of just over 1 million — voted to elect the 7 representatives apportioned to them. “Those who voted did so for members of the Mapuche political movement,” explains Pairican. These elected convencionales include Natividad Llanquileo, former spokeswoman for Mapuche political prisoners; Rosa Catrileo, a lawyer for the movement; Adolfo Millabur, the historic leader of the Identidad Territorial Lafkenche organisation... and the one who has achieved the greatest notoriety: linguist Elisa Loncón, who received the votes of left-wing and Indigenous convencionales to become the president of the constituent body.
“Loncón symbolises another way of doing and exercising power. Indigenous women have been doubly discriminated against, excluded, and made invisible. In their resistance, Indigenous women not only have put up their fight, but also their bodies”“Loncón symbolises another way of doing and exercising power,” explains Figueroa Huencho. “In Chile, women have not had the opportunity to effectively take part in decision-making spaces and, if we look at it from an intersectional perspective, Indigenous women have been doubly discriminated against, excluded, and made invisible. In their resistance, Indigenous women not only have put up their fight, but also their bodies, systematically savaged by the state.” Loncón symbolises “an excluded figure in a state that continues to be colonialist and racist, in a society that is still built around a very racist collective imagination.”
Figueroa Huencho regards the Convention as a “window of opportunity” and emphasizes that the manifestos of centre-left and left-wing candidates to the November 21 presidential election contain “proposals to advance on issues such as territory, political rights of Indigenous people, autonomy, or plurinationalism.” “We know that all this will face strong resistance,” Figueroa Huencho admits, and for that reason the professor underlines the importance that the new Constitution contains “the recognition of Indigenous autonomies,” which must be both “functional and territorial.” Figueroa Huencho herself has brought some proposals before the Convention. “The Constitution will not solve the way in which these autonomous territories will be implemented, but it should set a mandate on how to move forward to establish them, for example through plurinational dialogue, in the medium term.”
Will the Mapuche movement end up lending broad support to that process? In Pairican’s words, “historically, the movement’s strategy has had two coexisting souls: negotiation and rebellion. What makes one or the other prevail? The relationship with the adversary. If the adversary neither listens nor keeps its word, violence will be the political line enjoying broader consensus. If agreements are reached, then diplomacy will have the upper hand. In the past, the use of violence has had very high costs on the Mapuche.”
A far-right president for the new Chile?
An apparent paradox in Chile’s current political moment is going through: at the same time that the rights of Indigenous peoples have broken into the constituent debate, a far-right lawyer, José Antonio Kast, is leading opinion polls to become the next president of Chile. “If Pinochet were alive, he would vote for me,” says this man who does not conceal his proximity to Jair Bolsonaro, who considers that the country is subjected to a “gay dictatorship,” and who sends greetings “to the friends” of far-right party Vox on the occasion of the Spanish national holiday.
José Antonio Kast. / Photo: Mediabanco Agencia
Little surprise that Kast opposed reserved seats for Indigenous peoples in the Convention, nor that he denies the existence of a political conflict in Wallmapu —a matter of “terrorism”, in his view. A neoliberal, Kast says he wants to “make the state smaller,” but only in some aspects: in his election manifesto he plans to provide more resources to the security forces and to build more prisons. His manifesto also advocates withdrawing from ILO Convention 169 on the rights of Indigenous peoples, intensifying the persecution of “terrorists”, and deepening neoliberal economic development in Wallmapu. Kast also promises that he will promote the cultural manifestations of the Mapuche. “He only sees us as domestic service,” says Figueroa Huencho.
Before summer, Kast had a 5% voting intention. It has now risen to above 30%. The candidate of the ruling right-wing alliance, Sebastián Sichel, is sinking. What is more significant: in the second round —which is scheduled for December 19, if no candidate obtains more than 50% of the votes in the first round—, opinion polls predict that Kast will defeat his most likely contender, left-wing Gabriel Boric.