During the last presidential election, the original people of the south of Chile—denigrated as “the Mapuche problem”—were a central theme. Hardliners, such as right-wing candidate José Antonio Kast, suggested sending in the army. Leftist candidates called for conversation and more autonomy for the Mapuche people. The winner of that election, current president Sebastián Piñera, came up with a development plan, called “Plan Impulso Araucanía” and it will bring anything but peace.
Thursday, September 20th, just one day after the end of the Fiestas Patrias, an arson attack left five forestry machines burned in the Bio Bío region’s Los Alamos comuna. The attack was claimed by a movement that is part of the Coordinadora Arauco-Malleco (CAM), a Mapuche organization fighting for recovery of, and autonomy over, their ancestral lands; and it was both a specific demand for the release of some of their indigenous leaders, like the recently jailed lonko Jones Huala and machi Celesta Cordova, and a more general opposition to the Plan Impulso Araucanía.
AHORA: La Coordinadora Arauco Malleco (CAM) se adjudicó el ataque incendiario a 5 máquinas en Los Álamos, provincia de Arauco. ORT Leftraru aduce manifestación contra el Plan Araucanía @Cooperativa pic.twitter.com/s4UnXIoMou
— Cristofer Espinoza (@CEspinozaQ) September 20, 2018
According to a statement released by the movement, the plan “intends to install a false peace in our ancestral territory, and is an instrument for repression, militarization and political imprisonment, in order to safeguard the interests of big capital.”
But what is this Plan Impulso Araucanía? And what does the government promise? And why would the Mapuche people be against a plan that promises development in the region?
Araucanía and the Mapuche people
The southern regions of Chile are among the poorest in the country. Citizens often don´t have access to decent health and educational systems. In regions such as Araucanía, the poverty and crime rates are higher and the infrastructure is limited. The main sources of income in these regions are agriculture and forestry. And that´s what frustrates the Mapuche people.
The Mapuche people have been living in Chile south of the Bío Bío river for millennia. In fact, until Spanish missionary Pedro de Valdivia arrived in Chile in the 1500s, the Mapuche people inhabited the whole country (archaeologists have found evidence of Mapuche culture in Chile and Argentina that reaches back to at least 600 BC).
Spanish colonists subsequently forced the Mapuche people to retreat to the south of Chile, but no one ever conquered the Mapuche people. Until the 19th century.
It was then that additional military campaigns, raids on Mapuche settlements, and an influx of European settlers who formed their own colonies on Mapuche territory, resulted in the lands south of the Bío Bío river being brought under the Chilean flag.
Ever since, the Mapuche people have resisted the occupation of their ancestral lands, especially because state-owned companies exploit these lands for wood and agriculture, while the Mapuche people remain among the poorest people in the country.
Over the years, extremist movements have repeatedly made the headlines with arson attacks on forest machinery. Although such attacks keep Mapuche concerns in the news, their practical efficacy is questionable. Among other things, they inspired the Anti-Terrorism Law, a law designed under dictator Augusto Pinochet that gives the government more freedom to arrest and sentence people—after all, the definition of a “terrorist” is unclear, in Chile and worldwide.
Plan Impulso Araucanía: Reinstating peace or fortifying occupation?
Which brings us to the Plan Impulso Araucanía: its ostensible goals are to promote peace and stimulate development in the region through the following:
- The organization of a Council for Peace
- The establishment of a fund for victims
- The application of the Anti-Terrorism Law to “acts of violence and terrorism”
All three points are controversial (to say the least). First, the Council for Peace will primarily consist of the institutions and organizations that occupy lands the Mapuche people claim are ancestral. Second, although the Mapuche people feel they have been victimized through the loss of these lands—a loss they argue is immeasurably more valuable than a few burnt bulldozers—the fund for victims isn’t meant for them at all. Third, application of the vague Anti-Terrorism Law will only strengthen the Mapuche sentiment that they’re being dominated by an occupation force.
Plan Impulso Araucanía: Why the focus on the region, and not on the people?
On the other hand, the development part of the plan sounds promising, with ideas such as the promotion of local entrepreneurship and tourism, better schools, better hospitals, and greater access to drinking water. But the problem with the development of the region is that, at the end of the day, it won´t serve the majority of the Mapuche people.
The focus in the plan is on Mapuche people living in rural areas or Araucanía, although large communities of Mapuche people live in cities, such as Temuco and Los Angeles. If we take a look beyond the borders of the Araucanía region, from Santiago to the Bío Bío region, from cities all over Chile to the Aysén and the Los Lagos regions, Mapuche people are living and actively trying to maintain their culture. So, is this plan really meant for all the Mapuche people? And why this focus on the rural Mapuche people? Because of a very smart political tactic: framing.
As described by Diego Ancalao Gavilán, politician and Mapuche leader, “portraying true Mapuche people as being poor and living on the countryside, while walking around with a blanket, the conflict gets transformed into a rural and agricultural issue, to prevent that the cultural and historical force of the Mapuche does not interfere with the epicenter of power, ergo, with the ideology that administers the political and economic model.” An economic model that has made Chile into the most unequal country in the OECD, that aims to transform a few Mapuche people into rich landowners, while inequality in the region will grow, as it did in other parts of Chile – recall the Agrarian Reform in the 60s.
A continental problem that asks for drastic measures
To denigrate historical and cultural conflicts with indigenous people as a “problem,” like they are mosquitos in a bedroom, or by portraying them as poor, uneducated, and underdeveloped, you can present yourself to the people and the media as a hero, a savior. But what most governments all over Latin-America still fail to understand, is that they are dealing with cultures, histories, and peoples who don´t identify themselves with governments, borders, and institutes, but who seek recognition in all seven elements that make a culture:
- social organization
- customs and traditions
- arts and literature
- forms of government
- economic systems
So, if we zoom back in on the Mapuche people, we can see why a development plan, whether it is for the Araucanía region or the Mapuche people all over Chile, won´t work. Why would a Mapuche go to a government body where they recognize Mapuche language, if that government represents an occupying state? What more will a Ministry of Indigenous People be than an instrument of the Chilean government? Giving someone access in their own language to the institutions they are resisting is a mere palliative.
The solution to a conflict that is both historical, cultural, and socioeconomical, is likely more drastic than the average Chilean can imagine. If the government seeks peace and development, it should avoid implementing an economic model that will only benefit a few. Instead, it should allow Mapuche people to create their independent government bodies and it should offer Mapuche people all over Chile the freedom to express their culture in any of the seven elements. But only if the government of Chile, through its Plan Impulso Araucanía, is really seeking peace and reconciliation. Until then, the south will keep burning.
Editor-In-Chief Boris van der Spek is the founder of Chile Today. He worked in Colombia, Surinam and the Netherlands as reporter and works with international media during major events, like the social crisis, the elections and the Pope’s visit.