On 8 August, Argentina’s government announced that a reward of US$27,000 would be issued in return for information regarding the whereabouts of Santiago Maldonado, a young activist from La Plata in the state of Buenos Aires, who went missing when security forces evicted a group of Mapuche Indians from land in Patagonia owned by Italian clothing company Benetton. His disappearance has prompted pleas for information from ex-President of Argentina and current senatorial candidate Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.

Maldonado is the latest victim of a conflict that has waged for generations. His kidnapping may be a high profile disappearance, but the uncomfortable juxtaposition of indigenous and Euro-descendant communities in Latin America has long caused friction in the Southern Cone, as it has elsewhere on the continent.

The origins of the conflict

In a joint offensive undertaken by the armies of Chile and Argentina between 1860 and 1885, 100,000 Mapuche were massacred and hundreds more evicted from their ancestral lands. Then, in the 1880s, the Chilean military invaded and occupied Mapuche territory. The land that Mapuche leaders demand to be returned today amounts to a swathe of 81.5 million acres straddling the border between Argentina and Chile.

Scarcity of land for traditional agricultural practices saw a mass rural-urban migration begin in the 1930s, and the conflict was reignited when Salvador Allende’s government passed Indigenous Law 17,729 enshrining the rights of Chile’s pre-Columbian cultures.

The law began the process of restoring communal Mapuche lands, but following the military coup in 1973, momentum was reversed under the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990). The military junta called for the “liquidation of the Indian communities”, and many indigenous leaders were ‘disappeared’ or tortured. New legislation was signed in 1993 after Chile returned to democracy, recognising the Mapuche’s collective land rights and the need for bilingual education in Spanish and indigenous language Mapuzugun.

A map showing the territory claimed by the Mapuche. Photo Credit: New York Times.

The first guerrilla-like attacks on rural landowners, the de facto enemy in the fight to regain the territory, took place in 1997 when the Chilean government gave the go-ahead for the construction of the Ralco hydroelectric plant in the heart of Mapuche country. A number of incidents throughout the 2000s have kept the conflict alive. In July 2006, the Carabineros (Chile’s nationwide police force) entered a Mapuche community – allegedly in search of stolen animals – firing tear gas, rubber bullets and live ammunition on unarmed community members.

Lack of political representation has bred discontent

Examples of political representation for members of the Mapuche community at national level have been few and far between. There were several Mapuches in possession of municipal council seats in the southern regions and representatives in Congress by the 1950s. The creation of the National Corporation of Indigenous Development, CONADI, in 1993 allowed Mapuches to become involved in politics.

Nowadays, Domingo Namuncura, a Mapuche, serves as Chile’s ambassador to Guatemala – and President Ricardo Lagos’ (2000-2006) Secretary of State, Francisco Huenchumilla, was also of Mapuche origin. In 2014, the latter became the first man of indigenous descent to be appointed as an Intendant of Araucanía in 2014, making him one of 15 government-appointed regional leaders throughout the country. Such appointments are rare, however. Finally in 2008 the Mapuche began the process of formally registering a political party, Wallmapuwen, meaning “people of the Mapuche land.” One of its main goals is to achieve Mapuche self-government.

A return to the national agenda with elections coming up?

Since 2014, the situation has deteriorated. In a high profile attack in March 2016, 12 trucks from a logging company were ambushed by a group of men who fired on them before burning six vehicles. This has led to recent governments invoking an anti-terrorist legislation from the Pinochet era against the Mapuche. There are signs however, at least from incumbent President Michele Bachelet, of a more conciliatory tone.

In June, Bachelet announced the inauguration of Plan Araucanía, named after the state at the heart of the Mapuche’s historic territory. “I want to apologise to the Mapuche people for the errors and horrors that the State has committed in our relationship with them,” Bachelet announced as the plan was unveiled. It paved the way for a ministry for indigenous affairs, called for the participation of Mapuches in Congress, and inaugurated a National Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

With an election coming up in November, the Mapuche conflict has shuffled back into the national consciousness. Sebastián Piñera, who occupied the presidency from 2010 until 2014, is leading in the polls as he hopes to get back into the Palacio de La Moneda, Chile’s presidential palace. He was a strong exponent of Chile’s anti-terror law in his dealings with the Mapuche during his first stint in office

Thus far, little has been said about the conflict in the campaigns, and none of the seven candidates have yet travelled to the Mapuche’s region to attempt to win votes. This is disappointing but not surprising. The conflict is unlikely to be resolved over the course of the next presidency, particularly if Piñera wins the contest.

The fact remains that the Mapuche conflict is something that, for many Chileans, is confined to a region far to the south of the capital, Santiago. Without a sharp rise in national-level representation for Chile’s indigenous, opportunities for dialogue will remain scarce. It is difficult to envisage the country’s indigenous communities regaining their ancestral lands in the near future, and they may never do so.


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