Alberto Curamil, “Green Nobel Prize” Winner Behind Bars

SANTIAGO – Lonko Alberto Curamil remains in jail after the first part of his robbery trial was held earlier this month in Temuco. The Mapuche leader led the fight against hydroelectric projects in Cautín River, earning him the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2019. The Mapuche community claims he is innocent, and many say the real reason for his imprisonment is his political resistance to environmental abuse in the region.

Alberto Curamil is a Mapuche leader and activist, dedicated to the defense of the Cautín River over the last year. He is lonko (chief) of lof Radalko, in Curacautín, Malleco Province, and a leader and spokesperson for the Alianza Territorial Mapuche against private initiatives like logging and hydroelectric projects, including illegal occupation of Mapuche territory that damages the surrounding ecosystems and communities.

In 2016, Curamil spearheaded the effort that stopped the construction of the Alto Cautín and Doña Alicia hydroelectric projects that were being pursued without the consent of surrounding Mapuche communities

His restless fight for these causes and indigenous rights earned him the Goldman Environmental Prize—aka the “Green Nobel Prize”—which recognized him as Central and South America’s most important environmental activist in 2019.

Despite these accomplishments, in August 2018 the lonko was detained and imprisoned for an alleged robbery in Temuco. His imprisonment caused shock, controversy, and rage among national and international communities. 

Now, over a year later, he still waits behind bars for the conclusion of his case, and other activists claim he was locked up for different reasons: his political and environmental resistance.

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Curamil Behind Bars

According to the Goldman Prize Organization, the Mapuche leader was previously arrested on public disorder charges during demonstrations in 2014, and, in connection with that incident, police beat him while in custody, badly bruising his face. They also attacked his pregnant wife.

Fast forward to April 2018, the Safe Complaint Program of the Interior Ministry received an anonymous call, saying that Curamil and three other Mapuche people were involved in a robbery at Caja de Compensación Los Héroes. 

Then, four months later, in August, Curamil was identified, arrested, and put behind bars while the investigation continued.

The accusation and actions against the lonko upset the Mapuche and activist communities, which then organized a movement of marches and demonstrations to demand his freedom—a movement that continued to grow as the investigations continued to drag on month after month.

According to Diario Uchile, witnesses and relatives of Curamil deny the accusations, saying the lonko was not even in the vicinity during the robbery. Moreover, the only evidence found consisted of genetic traces at the crime scene, but none belonged to the lonko. 

In El Mostrador, Curamil’s lawyer, Rodrigo Román, said the measure was “a political persecution against [Curamil], originated from the Interior Ministry.” 

The Movement for the Defense of Water, Land and Environment Protection (Modatima) also affirmed their support saying that Curamil was “subjected to a criminal investigation with no foundation, which looks to intimidate his work as a defender, and stigmatize Mapuche people.”

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International Controversy

Curamil’s fame grew after he was awarded the “Green Nobel Prize.” He was the first Mapuche leader to ever receive such recognition, and was also awarded it while he was in prison.

For this reason, his daughter Belén Curamil was the one who stepped to the podium at the San Francisco Opera House on the night of the ceremony. According to Diario U de Chile, she declared: “We know that the Chilean government has unfairly imprisoned my father, hence this international recognition shall open the world’s eyes to realize that [in Chile] there is a fight for life. We will set him free. We, just as our father did, assume his political imprisonment with dignity. And I repeat – we will set him free.”

On Nov. 13, a year and three months after his imprisonment, Curamil’s case finally started trial. It is expected to last another month. The prosecutor’s office is requesting that he be sentenced to 46 years in prison. The Chilean Government wants an even longer term: 50 years.

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