Chile Seeks Solutions to Mapuche Tensions
Chile is wrestling with unrest in its south. Its roots lie in the longstanding grievances of the indigenous Mapuche people, which have resulted in intermittent violence for many years. The election last year of President Gabriel Boric led to expectations of a new approach to the Mapuche, but so far, there is no solution in sight.
A Painful Past
The history of relations between the Mapuche and the Chilean state is complex. As the Spanish struggled to expand southward from Santiago in the 16th and 17th centuries, they accepted the Mapuche as an independent people and maintained relatively peaceful trading relations. In the 19th century, however, the authorities in Santiago, now representing an independent Chile, once again pushed southward, attracted by the potential farmland in the largely temperate rainforest. From the 1860s to the 1880s, the region was absorbed into the state, the Chilean government encouraged colonization, and the Mapuche retreated to communal settlements in remote areas.
The situation remained stable for much of the 20th century. But after the 1973 coup d’état that brought to power Augusto Pinochet, Chile’s military government adopted a new approach to the south. The regime encouraged large-scale pine and eucalyptus plantations for pulp and paper and the privatization of communal lands. Those investments produced a successful industry; Chile now contributes seven percent of inputs to the pulp and paper industry globally and the sector accounts for 8 percent of Chile’s exports. However, the increased economic activity generated bitter territorial disputes, disrupted Mapuche traditions, and poisoned the community’s relationship with the central government.
Increased economic activity generated bitter territorial disputes, disrupted Mapuche traditions, and poisoned the community’s relationship with the central government.”
A New Militancy
Chile’s return to democracy in 1990 opened space for Mapuche activism. The government gave the Mapuche language more prominence. Maps circulated delineating “Wallmapu,” a claimed Mapuche historic homeland extending north beyond Santiago and east to the Atlantic. Mapuche leaders demanded greater autonomy, improved social services and the return of land. To promote this agenda, extremist groups emerged, most notably the Coordinadora Arauco-Malleco (CAM), whose most prominent figure, Héctor Llaitul, earlier belonged to a Marxist guerrilla group. The CAM demanded the complete removal of the Chilean state from Mapuche lands, and Llaitul sought regional support, meeting on one occasion with the Venezuelan foreign minister. He has dismissed the young leftists that Boric would lead to power in 2022 as “hippies, progressive and cool” and mere “social democrats.”
Bringing in the Army
The CAM – and similar, smaller organizations – have specialized in destroying logging equipment and intimidating workers. Chilean police have struggled to address that violence, given the complicated geography and strained relations with the local population.
The CAM is thought to fund its operations by hijacking logging trucks and clandestinely selling stolen timber. It is blamed for the destruction of churches, schools and community centers; Llaitul has denied involvement in those attacks, though he said he “understands” the motives. A particularly gruesome episode involved the burning of the home of a landowner in 2013, killing two individuals and drawing renewed attention to this conflict. Near the end of his term, former President Sebastian Piñera, Boric’s predecessor, declared a state of emergency and ordered the Chilean Army to assist the police in maintaining order in the south. He also sought an increase in development assistance in the region and to expedite the return of some Mapuche land. The increased police and military presence created a greater sense of security on southern highways, but it did not end the violence. Meanwhile, relations between the Piñera administration and the Mapuche were tense; in 2018, after Camilo Catrillanca, a Mapuche, was killed in a government raid on a communal settlement, his death became a rallying cry for opposition to the government.
Today, the military is again active in the south, though its mission is generally limited to guaranteeing free transit on highways.”
A Different Approach
Piñera’s military deployment was heavily criticized by then-Congressman Gabriel Boric, who campaigned on promises of a less militarized approach to the conflict, including a “Plan for Good Living” that would increase spending on water, health and internet connectivity in Mapuche communities. He also promised to accelerate the return of disputed land. The new strategy, however, got off to a rocky start when Boric’s interior minister sought to visit Catrillanca’s family and was driven off by gunfire. After withdrawing the military from the south, Boric’s government reversed course amid continued violence and public criticism. Today, the military is again active in the south, though its mission is generally limited to guaranteeing free transit on highways. Every two weeks, the Boric administration asks Congress to renew the state of emergency, over the objections of important members of the president’s coalition. For its part, the CAM sees little difference in the Boric approach.
A Constitutional Solution
The Boric government has also seen constitutional reform as a path to solving the Mapuche issue. Boric strongly supported the Constitutional Convention that met from September 2021 to July 2022, with 11 percent of its seats reserved for indigenous individuals and an academic of Mapuche heritage as its first chairperson. The convention proposed self-government for indigenous peoples in a “plurinational” state that would include separate court systems, guaranteed seats for indigenous communities in the national legislature, and land restitution. However, voters soundly rejected the proposed constitution in a nationwide referendum, in part over these reforms. Debate over a new constitution continues, but the next proposal is expected to stop short of a “plurinational” state.
It appears clear that the Boric administration, like its predecessors, will not find quick solutions to the Mapuche issue. Social improvement and land reform are likely to come slowly, and building trust among the Mapuche will take time.”
In the meantime, Boric has adopted tougher language in describing the violence in the south. After activists burned down a church, the president denounced “terrorist acts” and compared them to Nazis burning synagogues. At the same time, Boric is looking to implement the “Plan for Good Living” and the return of land to the Mapuche. His special commissioner for relations with the Mapuche has promised to conduct a detailed survey of the legal status of land, an effort that will undoubtedly prompt legal challenges from the forestry industry. Even so, it appears clear that the Boric administration, like its predecessors, will not find quick solutions to the Mapuche issue. Social improvement and land reform are likely to come slowly, and building trust among the Mapuche will take time. The politics are also challenging, with many Chileans focused on security and increasingly skeptical about Mapuche demands. With three years left in office, Boric still has time to make gains on this issue. But he is finding that good will is not enough and there are no easy solutions to problems deeply rooted in Chile’s history.
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