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Chilean Natives to Fight for Better Lives

By Anthony Faiola, Washington Post,
Sunday 6 June 1999; Page A17

DIDAICO MAPUCHE COMMUNITY, Chile—Five centuries ago, Mapuche Indians armed with sticks and stones repelled the Spanish conquistadors in an uprising known as the huchen, or resistance. Now, warned a Mapuche elder sitting outside a wooden hut in the brisk autumn air, the time has come for another.

Impoverished Mapuche factions have launched a high-profile and occasionally violent protest movement in this ruggedly beautiful region of southern Chile, reoccupying parcels of land from farmers and lumber companies that acquired them in the years since the Chilean army finally subdued the Mapuche nation in 1881.

In the most serious bout of internal unrest since Chile restored democracy in 1990, Mapuches wielding sticks, axes and sometimes rifles have ambushed police units, lumber workers and private farms, causing a number of injuries but so far only one death. Police are responding with tear gas and rubber bullets against protesters manning roadblocks and occupying land.

The conflict has echoes throughout Latin America. As democracies have replaced military dictatorships in the region, indigenous leaders in Chile, Ecuador, Bolivia, Argentina, Brazil and other countries have become emboldened in their fights to recover land and win better living conditions for their people, who suffer much higher rates of poverty than other Latin Americans.

Indigenous groups have been excluded from politics and marginalized in society ? they have not even been consulted as governments have allowed foreign investment, such as logging and mining, to take place in their traditional lands, said Melina Selverston, director of the Washington-based Coalition for Amazonian Peoples and Their Environment. Now you see that democracy has created an opening for them in Chile and elsewhere. And they are taking advantage of that opening.

Since the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet relinquished power to a democratically elected president in 1990, the indigenous movement in Chile has been freer to push its demands. As with indigenous groups in many nations, the Chilean movement has aligned itself with left-wing opposition groups, labor unions and environmentalists.

Critics argue that the Mapuches are being manipulated by those groups. Some government officials and business executives contend, for instance, that Mapuche families now refusing to leave their homes to make room for a massive dam on the rushing Bio-Bio River have been provoked into action by environmentalists ? a charge that both Mapuches and environmental groups deny.

Chile's center-left ruling coalition has found itself caught in the middle of the conflict. On the one hand, the government has allowed heavy logging near Mapuche territory, and supported the private dam project. On the other, it has launched a program to buy back some of the contested land and turn it over to the Mapuches.

In the meantime, authorities insist that the conflict is not as grave as the intensive Chilean media coverage suggests. This is not the Chilean Chiapas, said Rodrigo Gonzalez, director the government's office on indigenous issues, referring to the indigenous guerrilla movement in southern Mexico. And it won't become that because the government is paying attention to the needs of indigenous groups here. The government, he said, has purchased land in conflict for 1,561 families since 1994.

But for many of the 400,000 rural Mapuches, who view this whole region as historically theirs, such efforts are too little, too late.

The name Mapuche means 'people of the Earth' in our language, said Carmelo Pichincura Catriman, 63, the chief of the Didaico Mapuche Community, an impoverished settlement surrounded by mist-covered green hills that recall the landscape of the Pacific Northwest in the United States. We are tied to our land spiritually. We will not wait anymore to get it back.

The encroachment of modern agriculture and timber industries have been eroding ancient Mapuche traditions for decades. In this community of 380 people, whose dirt-floored huts lack electricity and running water, only a handful still use their brightly colored traditional clothing. The Mapuche language has taken a back seat to Spanish in everyday conversation, and many of the sacred medicinal herbs central to their ceremonies have disappeared as the region has been deforested by lumber companies.

An estimated 60 percent of Chile's 1 million Mapuches have migrated to urban areas to escape the desperate living conditions here. But many younger Mapuches are staying on their traditional land, or returning from cities and towns to participate in the struggle. Elders here are using the opportunity to wage their own campaign to restore pride in what remains of the Mapuche culture.

I see this as a rebuilding period, said Ancamilla Nahuelpi, 69, the Machi, or spiritual leader of the community. She became a Machi as a child, after having dreams in which, she says, she could see the future. In her long, flowing cape, she says she sees the future now: I see that there will be more violence yet to come, but that we will prevail with the help of the young.

But while the new generation is once again embracing the ancient Mapuches language and culture, its fight is more about economics. The protesters want more land for crops, compensation from lumber companies ? which they say have dried up their land by overplanting exotic pines ? and better access to education and medical care.

They also want political clout. In Ecuador, for example, Indian rights groups have won special recognition, protection and land rights, and more than 100 elected indigenous legislators serve there. By comparison, in Chile, there is only one Mapuche congressman, and until the conflict began, indigenous voices were largely unheard.

The taking back of our land is like taking back our culture, said Marina Pichun, 20, who returned to this rural enclave to join the struggle after giving up her teaching job in town 90 minutes away ? and recently suffered a broken arm in a clash with police. I think young Mapuches have realized that it is time for us to be brave again, but in different ways. We need our voice to be heard in Santiago, the Chilean capital.

The conflict has been brewing since the national army overran Mapuche territory in the 1880s. In the following years, the government divvied up the land, granting a portion to Mapuches but also allocating large tracts to European immigrants and wealthy Chilean landowners.

During the early 1970s, the government of President Salvador Allende, an elected Marxist, initiated a land reform effort that returned much of the purloined property to the Mapuches. But after the 1973 coup that brought Pinochet to power, the Mapuches were forced to give back the land they had recovered. Soon afterward, the regime began encouraging large-scale logging with massive tax breaks and subsidies, a policy extended by Chile's new democratic government last year.

The Mapuches claim that policy has cost them even more land, saying lumber companies have tricked older Mapuches ? many of them illiterate ? into selling their property at a fraction of its value. Lumber companies deny such claims. They are attacking properties that have been rightfully titled to forestry companies, said Emilio Guerra, regional manager of the National Association of Lumber Producers. They are not good at raising crops, and they were starving here, so many decided to leave.

To Mapuches, however, that sounds preposterous. The white man has stolen and dried our land for their lumber, said Catriman. They've forced us to leave in the past. But no more.