Do or Die

An article from Do or Die Issue X. In the paper edition, this article appears on page(s) 159-163.

Mapuche Land: Mapuche Life

Indigenous Resistance in Chile

Encompassed by the modern states of Chile and Argentina, in which they form sizeable minorities, the indigenous Mapuche people occupy territory on either side of the southern Andes. They live situated between the frozen wilderness of Patagonia and the scorched deserts of the north, and seem to exist along a continuum stretching between their former way of life and that of the dominant society.

While the Spanish slaughtered and enslaved their way southward through the Aztecs, Incas and other indigenous American peoples, and the Portuguese did likewise into the Amazonian interior, the Mapuche stood their ground. Consistently giving the invaders a run for their money, they were never colonised by the Spanish. Before the Mapuche were finally defeated in 1881 by a newly-independent Chile, the mighty Biobío river west of the Andes formed the frontier between European society to the north, and a free Mapuche nation to the south. Now the boundaries are less clear-cut, but territory is contested just as keenly.

"Arm yourselves!" urges a Mapuche grandmother, as her grandchildren scramble up the hillside behind her, gathering stones as ammunition for their slingshots. Mapuches from four neighbouring communities have banded together to occupy the road bridge which leads out of the tiny town of Ralco in Chile's XIII region (Biobío), a little over 500km south of the capital Santiago. This is late January 2002. It's a warm summer's day, and the hills are alive with the sound of tear gas and rubber bullets being fired. "We as Mapuches, we're prepared to give up our lives to defend the land, our territory", declares Carmen Rosa, the twenty-something spokesperson for Mapuches in the area. The road occupation is the first of a series of actions aiming to increase pressure upon the State to return lands currently under the control of the Mininco forestry company.

In their native mapudungun, 'Mapuche' means people (che) of the land (mapu). Mapuche identity tends to be defined through a trophic relationship with the land - or as Carmen Rosa's octogenarian neighbour Berta Quintreman puts it, gesturing at the soil, "We are born and created on this land... Father, Mother... Sacred land. If I don't have land, where am I going to be? I am not." This deep identification of the Mapuche with their land has come to seem increasingly ironic in the century or so since they were first robbed of the greater part of them in the late 19th century. Throughout much of that time, the Mapuches were progressively swindled and coerced out of many of the fragments they'd been left with; first by the migrant founders of a European-style, agricultural export economy, and latterly to make way for the industrial profusion of non-native, pine and eucalyptus trees. Around 60 percent of Mapuches in Chile now live in towns and cities, an urban Diaspora that contributes in no small way to their unease about maintaining a distinct national identity. The edge of desperation in Berta's voice stems from the $540 million, 570 megawatt Ralco dam project, which threatens to engulf her own community of Ralco Lepoy on the upper Biobío river.

The Biobío springs from the Icalma and Galletue lakes in the Andes and flows 380km through steep and narrow gorges, agricultural lands and cities, to the Pacific Ocean. The Pehuenches of this area are probably the least assimilated into dominant, 'Western' society: set amidst a vertiginous Jurassic landscape shrouded in coarse green forest, Ralco 'town' is in fact a 200-yard strip of houses served by a couple of local stores. A little higher on up the road from there toward the Argentinian frontier, the community of Ralco Lepoy lies hidden in the crook of a valley on the upper Biobío, but likewise hasn't escaped the effects of the State's favoured economic model. This is where the $540 million Ralco dam is currently under construction. Where once the river itself signalled the frontier between the Spanish empire and the beginning of Mapuche territory, now the tiny Collaqui community marks another frontline with the Spanish, in the form of the Madrid-based consortium ENDESA.

"I don't want the Spanish," insists Nicolasa, Berta's sextegenarian younger sister, and until recently a figurehead of the campaign to stop ENDESA. "I've listened to my grandparents, to my parents, who said that they came to make a war here, to punish us Mapuches; they leave us on the worst lands." Nicolasa and Berta have lived their entire lives close to one another, their houses separated by a kilometre of rough meadow, perched half-way up the river ravine. Now Nicolasa, quite understandably after holding out so long, has become the latest of the 98 Mapuche families who are affected to accept estates elsewhere in the mountains, purchased for them by ENDESA.

ENDESA's tactics undermine the possibility of considering the Pehuenches' interests as a community. ENDESA started building houses for the Pehuenche in El Barco, in the process employing many of the young Pehuenches who will later live in them. Before a decision has been reached on the suitability or otherwise of the land swap, the issue of community lands is muddied as it is de facto bound up with that of employment, pre-emptively enticing elements within the communities to favour whatever deal is then on offer. Pangue, the first of the Biobío hydro-dams was funded to the tune of $153 million by the private finance arm of the World Bank. In a rare mea culpa by the Bank, its former head James Wolfensohn acknowledged that ENDESA "appears to have taken a less than constructive approach to its environmental and social obligations."

The Collaqui community remains, for all this, typical enough of most of the rural Mapuche communities - Lofs - in the heartland of temperate, south-central Chile. Comprising one or two extended families, its residents inhabit a series of tiny farmsteads scattered amidst rolling fields. Threatened by infrastructural projects and the vast forestry monocultures now endemic throughout their territory, many such rural Mapuche households are struggling to survive, let alone maintain their way of life on a few meagre hectares apiece.

Scenes such as those on the hills at Ralco have become more common and Mapuches regularly invade the forestry estates to stage land occupations, or tomas. They haven't stopped there. In the district of Lumako, in December 1997, Mapuches from the 'Coordinadora' organisation ignited two lorries belonging to the Arauco forestry company, the first of an ongoing wave of direct attacks on the forestry industry in the region.

In the winter of '99, for example, in Collipulli town in the upper Biobío, 50 armed Mapuches destroyed two Mininco office buildings and a warehouse with molotov cocktails and torched two Mininco trucks. A general atmosphere of tension now grips the countryside in many areas. Forestry plantations are guarded by private security and carabiñeros, and their trucks travel with police escort to avoid ambush.

Such dramas make for titillating reading in the unfailingly indignant Chilean press, as well as in the 'radical ecological' journals of foreign activist movements. But whereas the forestry industry only gained its present stranglehold in the region within the last generation or two, the fire attacks form only the most visible and recent manifestation of a much longer history of Mapuche political activism.

Down by the coast, the Lafkenches form another of the territorial identities into which Mapuches of different regions fall. In the Hualacura community, not long before the events at Ralco, local Lafkenches were gathered for the ngillatu, the most important religious event of the Mapuche calendar. This is a ritual congregation of maybe one or two thousand people, involving the exchange of food and drink, and prayers for a good harvest. Mapuches have always seen the fight to regain their land as part of a wider struggle to maintain the culture for which the land is the material base, and this fight is nowhere more visible than here.

The people of Hualacura, like most rural Mapuches, have lived on the same lands for many generations, and their landscapes embody for them a history of family and community relations. Sometimes they talk of seeing and hearing their forefathers there in the mists or winds. And in precisely the Mapuches' offerings to those ancestors (and to the gods and to each other) at the ngillatun, lies the essence of the communities that comprise the bi-annual ceremony.

In this, we might get an idea of why the Spanish failed to ever get a handle on the Mapuche: their successful resistance in colonial times is attributed in part to their lack of any totalising social organisation through which the colonists could seek to take command. "Victory or peace was as elusive as Mapuche social structures", writes British anthropologist Sara McFall.

Instead, the Mapuche have a long tradition of autonomous, horizontal organising in which ad-hoc alliances were formed between groups of communities during crises, and disbanded when crises passed. Up until 1881, the Mapuche were living in the same bands as they were when the Spanish first encountered them in the 16th century. These bands weren't wholly nomadic, but had a territorial base on which they practised some form of horticulture. This way of life experienced a violent shock, however, with the Mapuche's conquest in 1881 at the hands of the Chilean forces. Now, through more than a hundred years of Mapuche interaction with Chilean society, the history of native resistance which Mapuches are so proud of has given us the newly-resurgent, and militant, Mapuche 'movement'.

At the town of Nueva Imperial, the Chilean state entered into an historic accord with Mapuche civil society. From 1993, the National Corporation of Indigenous Development (CONADI) began negotiating the purchase of pockets of land on behalf of Mapuche communities, along with the offer of training schemes in a system of 'Indigenous Development Areas'.

One of the few groups at the time to opt out of the 'Nueva Imperial Accord' was Consejo de Todas las Tierras (Council of All the Lands). From its office in Temuco, the regional capital, Consejo also had a hand in the actions up at Ralco, pushing an explicit agenda of political autonomy and beginning to foment tomas.

Not far up the Pacific coast lies the Tranaquepe estate. It's one of a number of haciendas local Mapuches have targeted in a recent wave of tomas centred around Lake Lleu-Lleu, and its history mirrors that of many others.

Tranaquepe was founded in the 1890s by a man named Ebsenperger, who arrived in Arauco province amidst the wave of white migrant colonists to whom the Chilean State was then offering land. At the same time, the Chilean political class faced the practical question of how to deal with the nearly 10,000 displaced and disturbed Mapuches. Pre-emptively in 1866, the state had arrogated to itself status of guardian of all Mapuche lands, in what was in part a paternalistic move aimed at preventing less 'lawful' expropriation by colonists. Following this and two subsequent laws in 1874 and 1883, the compromise reached within the state saw Mapuches organised, quite arbitrarily, into family groups, and assigned legal, communal land titles through deeds known as Titulos de Merced. These groups were then consigned to a system of eventually around 3000 fixed reducciónes.

The outlines of the state's policy were clear: 95% of Mapuche territory was expropriated, providing as much as 150 hectares apiece to immigrants from the US and Europe. Mapuches were assigned areas often of similar size, though having been settled in larger groups, this translated into far less than they had before. The entire Mapuche population had a mere half million hectares apportioned between them, which was equivalent to six hectares per person. Later, Indian Courts were established, supposedly to protect indigenous interests by submitting the transfer of land to a rational, legal framework; in practice this merely instituted legal avenues of theft to complement the more naked forms of abuse "Our land was usurped through very fraudulent sales", says Mapuche farmer Manuel Maribur. "It was taken by the landholders with the backing of the government." Indeed by 1950, half of the land that had been originally left in Mapuche ownership after the 'Pacification' of 1881 had been expropriated, transforming the Mapuche from a society of rich livestock-traders, into one of poor, ethnic minority, subsistence farmers.

Through the course of the 20th Century, the expropriated lands were utilised in accordance with the imported ideology of perpetual economic growth. First, clearance fires blazed the way for a monoculture of wheat crops to be planted. Then, as yields plummeted, this was gradually replaced by livestock farming. Production dropped again in the '50s and the clamour for agrarian reform grew more powerful. Around this time, the first aerophotogrametric map revealed the existence of nearly 12,000 ha of land suitable for forestry.

From the beginning of the '60s, Mapuches began occupying estates in Arauco. Agrarian Reform Laws passed in 1962 and 1967 were aimed first at purchasing, then expropriating lands from the larger estates. But they were enacted principally on behalf of inquilino tenant estate workers. Mapuche agitation grew more vigorous.

Things really kicked off immediately prior to Allende's election as President, by which time Mapuche tomas had spread across the entire region. Many co-ops were founded with majority or exclusive participation of Mapuches; amongst the estates that were taken back into Mapuche hands at this time was Tranaquepe. After Allende was overthrown in a US-backed coup in 1973, Mapuche dreams of regaining their territory yielded to the nightmare of military rule.

Under General Pinochet, southern lands were unceremoniously passed to the handful of forestry corporations that control them still. In 1974, Pinochet's Junta enacted a law that made plantations even more lucrative for forestry companies through tax exemptions and direct subsidies to the tune of 75%. For the owners of transnational capital, the Forestry Incentives Law wasn't a free lunch; it was a lunch they got paid to eat.

In many areas, communities have become little more than isolated islands, surrounded by the pine monocultures that have sprung up around them. "They're taking our lives away from us", Julio says. Julio lives in the community of Anadela, on the edge of Lumako, an unusually dense patchwork of tiny plots.

"Our machis [shamen] don't have remedies", explains Julio, husband of one of the Lumako weavers. "Where they go to look for the traditional plant remedies, they're not there anymore. Everything's lost."

As the fast-growing monocultured trees rob the land of moisture, remaining water rapidly drains off of ground compacted by heavy machinery. It's difficult enough for the local Mapuches to grow enough to eat when the plantations take up 41% of Lumako district. But the forestry chemicals also contaminate the water, the air and the harvest. 17 of the 23 chemical products used are illegal in developed countries.

Through the tomas, and other acts of resistance, the Mepuche are fighting to regain control of their land, and their political and cultural autonomy. For much of the 20th century, Mapuche strategy was to assume the form of winka [white] institutions, those of Chilean society, and reinscribe them with their own meanings. The younger generation in the '20s and '30s had confidence in the possibilities of integration offered by Chilean society. The first Mapuche Deputy was elected in 1927, a member of the Democratic Party, later joined by a Mapuche deputy for the Liberal Party. Both were vocal and relentless in denouncing the theft of Mapuche lands. However, with the rise of Pinochet in the 70's, their access to a political voice was curtailed and they were further dispossessed. Continuing their long tradition of resistance and autonomy, they created a strong movement of social opposition, this time with the preservation of cultural heritage at the forefront.

"When the children are taught about the time of Lautaro, I want them to be conscious of what they are, they themselves", says Magdelena of the Mapuche women's artisanal co-op in Lumako, invoking the name of one of the heroes of historic Mapuche resistance to the Spanish. "A people with no roots or history has no identity", warns one Temuco-based Mapuche group, "But", continues Magdelena, "they always learn about the colonisers, "America", all of that. Here in Lumako it's a 100% Mapuche population, and they don't have an inter-cultural school which teaches in both languages. That's the way cultures are lost." Out in the nearby fields, Fernando echoes her themes. "We have a traditional language - mapudungun", he affirms. "We don't want to lose it, so we teach it to the children. One day we'll organise ourselves to be able to teach the children proper Mapuche history."

Adolfo Millabur is the country's first Mapuche mayor. That is, a mayor elected, in his words "without talking to any political parties, running on quite an autonomist platform." As the tomas reached their peak in 1999, he and some other prominent indigenous activists forwarded a proposal to the government for a Commission of Truth and Historic Debt. "With the Historic Debt idea, we wanted to systematise and write a version of history", he says, "So that people would know why we were reclaiming a particular area of land and not another one." The idea was to determine the positive instances of injustice committed to Mapuches in the past, in order to rectify them, essentially with a view to settling accounts. In the hands of the Lagos government, however the plan became a Commission of Truth and New Treatment. In late 1999, "[We] were called for a meeting with the Minister who deals with CONADI, but nothing was properly explained to us. The next day a document was signed by a bunch of 'leaders' who didn't represent anybody, but were figures linked to the ruling government party. Lagos took our idea and copied the title, but he didn't copy the ideas and significance. We didn't want this document, we didn't sign it, we didn't participate."

According to Aníbal Salazar, one of those responsible for the arson attack in '97: Consejo and Coordinadora "are both organisations that work for the autonomy of the Mapuche people", he says, "but their methods are very distinct... Organisations like Consejo talk across the table with the government. Consejo had discussions that were very important for the nation [but] The Mapuche people don't have the power to confront the economic and political situation that exists. It's necessary to develop a level of resistance that will allow the Mapuche to talk to the government on an equal footing. It was important to have a plan B. It was important to burn trucks."

"At Lago Lleu-Lleu the government has used seductive policies', contends Manuel Maribur. 'They declared it an 'Area of Indigenous Development' where there are 'open doors' and 'opportunities' for the communities. But no land." Resistencia Mapuche characterises CONADI's efforts as one half of a 'good cop/bad cop' strategy aimed at neutralising Mapuche demands. "The persistent mania of the authorities of classifying our organisations [between] those leaders who opt for 'anti-systemic' means and those that opt for 'institutional' means, those that merit carrots and projects, and those that can only expect... sticks and police repression."

"In my position as mayor, there are certain things I can't do", Adolfo affirms. He continues; "Lots of people have invited me to discussions with the President, to appear in the media and on the TV shaking hands with politicians. It's dangerous, because... I know that these image-makers want to qualify the Mapuche movement in terms of goodies and baddies... if I appear with the President or governors, it's a signal that we're divided.' The late '99 meetings included "two or three leaders from each community. When we arrived in Santiago, they gave us hotels so we could rest and stay there, and we said "no thanks!" Sometimes the government would offer us plane tickets to Santiago, and we said "no thanks! We're never going to accept a single peso from you." Or sometimes they'd say "We've got food ready here for you." And again we'd say "No." Not even a biscuit. No thank-you. We wanted to conduct our business with dignity and clarity. Because we come from communities that support us with their minimal resources, and they paid for our tickets there. If we'd have accepted money or something, they'd have begun to domesticate and condition us."

"I don't negotiate. I don't negotiate with anybody. Because I'm not a leader - I'm a Mapuche mayor... It's our job to slip some of the moorings of the Western system", remarks Adolfo softly in his office. "That's our contribution.".

Do or Die DTP/web team: