In October 2019, mass protests began in Chile against what protestors described as rising inequality caused by privatization. At protest spots, the Mapuche Indigenous “Wenufoye” flag was prominently displayed, becoming a visible symbol of the community’s struggle and resistance.
The protests eventually paved the way to change the military dictatorship-era constitution and by the end this past October, in the middle of a global pandemic, Chile voted in a referendum overwhelmingly to change its social contract.
Internationally, the Mapuche are recognized under the ILO 169 Convention and by a 1993 Chilean law but have fought to be officially recognized under the country’s constitution.
“We have never been recognized in any of the previous constitutions either and this is very sad indeed, because the state of Chile had promised that from 2004 onwards, even before when we returned to democracy in the 90s,” explained Dr. Amaya Alvez Marín, a professor of law at the University of Concepción in Chile. “One of the political agreements was that indigenous people would be recognized and it has not happened so far.”
“It’s not 30 pesos, it’s 30 years,” became a popular protest slogan against the dictatorship-era constitution. Some described the social uprising as an “awakening” and for one Mapuche who has taken to the streets, Diva Millapan said hers began earlier.
Diva, who is 59 years old, recalled her childhood fondly. “Everything was beautiful and wonderful, the contact with nature, learning about medicine and self-healing, everything that was to do with our Mapuche world.”
From a young age, she says children learned about nature, from the hard work of tending the land to which plants were poisonous and which cured stomach pain or inflammation.
“I lived very happily alongside nature. In my community’s town, there were many trees with special aromas. There were rivers, estuaries, fruit producing trees, some of which were native and similar to blueberries, [and] the fruit of the Copihue [Chilean bell flower],” Diva said.
But over time, Diva recalled the outside influence on the community, remembering the establishment of Catholic and evangelical churches nearby, which she says impacted their spirituality.
Some also gave up speaking their native language. “My grandparents stopped speaking the language because they were persecuted at school and punished for speaking the Mapudungún language. We are new speakers, those that have learnt now.”
Heading to school outside of the community Diva said that it “prepared you for a hostile world,” receiving disparaging and “racist” remarks.
As Diva began to attend community meetings, she became more aware of the “constant issue” surrounding “the fight for land.”
“We were all part of one big Wallmapu ancestral territory,” Marín said.
Historically, the Wallmapu map was drafted from east to west across both sides of the Andes with rivers marking the border limits, in what is Argentina and Chile today.
“With the [Spanish] conquest and independence, we were divided into two different states and we have not been able to fight together,” Marín explained. “We are just starting to reconstruct the relationship between Mapuche people in Argentina and Chile. Along the years, there have been some differences. For a while, the territory that the Mapuche occupies in Chile were really not part of the Chilean territory.”
In the late 19th century, the Chilean state fought a bloody “pacification” war in Araucanía against the Mapuche, seeking to gain more territory.
Marín says Chile broke “all diplomatic agreements they had with the Mapuche people and they broke into Wallmapu just to take the land.”
After, the Chilean state sought to introduce “huinca” or outsiders—white settlers from Germany, Switzerland and Italy into the areas— which Marín described as “part of the conflict we have.”
“They needed to be very hard workers, clean, and all of these very racist reasons why they needed to replace the indigenous population with this very ‘civilized man’. So the relationship has been a very tense one,” Marín said.
Diva is also aware of the impact. “The state caused our impoverishment and handed over our lands to foreigners, and these colonies which settled in Chile were the ones who took more lands from us. They displaced us by deceit.”
In the 1960s. Latin America underwent an era of large agrarian reform. Huge areas of land were divided into smaller plots for those wanting to work, live on or own the land.
According to Marín, “this was part of the reasons why we had a coup d’etat in 1973.”
She said the military who seized power did not return the lands to the indigenous communities or farmers instead selling the land to forestry companies cheaply.
Today, forestry companies have introduced around 70% non-indigenous species such as pine and eucalyptus.
‘A Clash of Visions’
The government argues such projects bring development and opportunities to the areas. But Diva disagrees and says it has caused poverty and destruction to their “universal home,” accusing profits of ending up with big businesses and not benefitting Mapuche communities.
According to Marín, “the problem is the 1980 constitution, which was imposed by the dictatorship, proposed a model that is an extractivist model. It sees nature as an object to conquer in a way.”
She described it as “a clash of visions that has been imposed over the Mapuche people.”
In the Mapuche worldview, Marín said “nature is one thing in which we are part of. But we are not in charge and it’s not an object. It’s a subject. Everything that is alive is part of one perspective of things in the world. But we also think that trees, earth and water are living entities and because they are living entities you can’t just possess them. You can’t think of them only from an economic perspective.”
Many Mapuche have protested against this peacefully. Some have even carried out hunger strikers or symbolic land occupation. Reportedly, a small minority of Mapuche have resisted with violence. The Chilean state has militarized areas, seeking to prosecute those they label as ‘terrorists’ under a dictatorship-era counter-terrorism law. However, according to Amnesty International, both environmental defenders and Indigenous leaders “face constant criminalization and stigmatization” and “multiple forms of discrimination.”
Addressing the Past Under a New Constitution
Nevertheless, according to Marín, there are 10 indigenous peoples and one Afro-descendant group in Chile. Eighty percent of these are Mapuche, forming 12.8% of Chile’s population—and they are fighting for recognition under a new constitution.
Marín said drafting a new constitution must allow these communities “to have a voice in all kinds of agreements about how we want to live, not only the particular parts of the constitution that will affect us but also how we see nature.”
She added that the government should now “listen to indigenous people’s knowledge” especially as the Mapuche and other Andean communities like the Aymara, Colla, Atacameño have lived in a “sustainable” way with nature for thousands of years and as northern Chile today experiences significant drought.
According to Marín, the constitutional process is “an invitation to unlearn our Western ways, our extractive ways, our imperialistic ways,” which have not protected nature.
She asserted that the process should move away from a “paternalistic” approach towards recognizing indigenous communities and confronting the past.
For Diva, land recognition must be addressed, due to a “historic debt” and a lack of “restitution.”
Marín said that “there is a longstanding debt that the Chilean state needs to give back to the Mapuche people a lot of land—500,000 hectares at minimum. It was an agreement that was signed, called the ‘Títulos de Merced,’ and the state of Chile has never given them back. This is part of the problem with recognition.”
The Chilean state has not fully addressed the past, Marín voted. In 2000 “The Transitional Justice Process,” the “New Deal,” and the “Truth Commission,” which looked into the past concerning indigenous people, had issues due to “how bad the past was.”
“They wanted to start afresh without acknowledging the past. Without looking into the past and asking for forgiveness,” Marín said.
However, according to Marín, some issues are being addressed.
“Only white males have drafted our previous constitution. So in order to make a big difference, we already voted to make this constitutional convention to be paritarian—so half women, half men. And this is already a big change for the world, not only Chile. But also if this law passes and there are representations from all indigenous people, that will make a big difference I think in the type of conversation.”
“One of the challenges of this incoming constitutional process is to address our legal pluralism by making space for indigenous legal traditions,” Marín said.
“Admapu” forms the Mapuche’s traditions around laws, rights and norms.
“We need to make space for them to express their customs, their customary law and recognize it is a legal tradition at the same level as our civil law tradition,” Marín explained, adding that Chile should take a “broad perspective” in drafting its social agreement and away from the influence “global north,” and instead follow examples of Latin American comparative law, like Bolivia and Ecuador.
Both nations have plurinational states, where different nationalities coexist within a larger state—recognizing different peoples, cultures and world views.
Diva saaid that Chile should follow Bolivia’s “anti-discrimination law,” which “talks about undoing the patriarchal system which is important, decolonizing. These are things which need to be done to generate structural change.”
In 2018, Chile introduced its first two female indigenous lawmakers. However, one of them, Emilia Nuyado was later derided by a right-wing politician for greeting lawmakers in Mapudungún.
Diva emphasized that a new constitution must address such issues. “There are pre-existing nations. There are languages which are spoken which are different to Spanish and haven’t been made official. There isn’t a bilingual intercultural-education. This is why we need a plurinational state. We need there to be practical intercultural relations.”
On November 19, the Senate narrowly rejected a bill to guarantee reserved seats for indigenous communities. On December 8, a mixed commission in the Senate eventually approved 18 reserved seats for native peoples in the constitutional process.
“I don’t think there will be a new constitution without indigenous participation. I think it won’t be a legitimized text if they don’t integrate indigenous participation, and the right-wing parties and representatives don’t want that because they know they have this historical debt of dispossession and abuse. But this needs to end and I think that the citizens already know that, so we will see what happens,” Marín said.
For Diva, “the politics towards the indigenous population across the country have been totally insufficient.”
As such, she founded “Red de Mujeres Mapuche” in 2012. The network of 20 Mapuche women is a platform seeking to address and resolve such issues, even taking to the streets to campaign and raise awareness. They have also formed fraternal ties to other First Nation communities across the Americas to learn and exchange information.
Following the social uprising in Chile, Diva hopes a new constitution can eventually lead to greater inclusion, offering guaranteed indigenous political participation, recognition and equality for all.
Bala Chambers is a freelance multimedia journalist. You may follow him on Twitter at @BalaChambers.
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