ARAUCANÍA, TIRÚA – The indigenous Mapuche people, who constitute roughly a tenth of the national population, are one of Chile’s most vulnerable groups when it comes to Covid-19. Although accurate case counts and death statistics are not available for this community, long term socioeconomic deprivation, environmental discrimination, lack of access to healthcare, and cultural factors put them, and their way of life, at risk of disappearance if the disease spreads through their people.
“Mapuche people don’t have the capacity to cope with pandemics like this, yet we are the ones who will face the consequences,” Mapuche Public Health Ph.D. candidate Andrés Cuyul Soto told Chile Today. Could intercultural medicine and ancestral practices help them grapple with a crisis in which some feel the state has “abandoned” them?
More than 70% of older Mapuche live in rural areas, and, of those, nearly 64% suffer multidimensional poverty, that is to say, they are deprived in the realms of healthcare, housing, and work, charity Hogar de Cristo reported. Many rural Mapuche have informal jobs in the agricultural sector and depend on the land for income and subsistence farming. For these workers, staying at home puts them at risk of further poverty and starvation, yet many indigenous groups have voluntarily self-quarantined to avoid spreading the virus among their people.
After two weeks of quarantine in Tirúa, a coastal town in the Biobío region, only five people tested positive, and none died. Tirúa Mayor Adolfo Millabur, an avid supporter of the quarantine strategy, put this success down to the way they “put human life over the economy,” but, according to some Mapuche, this strategy did not consider their needs. “They have not offered any alternative to ‘stay at home.’ There are people who need to farm for work and for healthy food,” Cuyul said in response to Tirúa’s quarantine strategy.
In cities, many Mapuche are overrepresented in informal occupations where people are unable to work remotely, take time off, or receive financial support from the government (e.g., market sellers, street vendors, and domestic workers), all of which makes it harder for them to follow lockdown rules. These types of jobs can also be incompatible with effective social distancing, meaning those Mapuche who need to continue working are more likely to catch the virus.
According to Cuyul, Mapuche hortaliceras (fruit and vegetable sellers), who have continued to work in Temuco’s markets, are particularly affected by the state’s “abandonment” as they have been “persecuted by police simply for trying to survive in a pandemic.” Some police were filmed throwing the hortaliceras produce into the streets.
Lack of Resources for Mapuche Communities
Last year when cane crops failed, many Mapuche interpreted this as a sign of difficult times to come, and began to store resources in preparation, but, according to Cuyul, “they could not have prepared for months of economic paralysis.” Javier Tralma, a Mapuche living on the outskirts of Temuco, told Hogar de Cristo, “The little that we did save up, we have already finished.”
Mapuche communities also have high indices of diabetes and hypertension, which is a result of forced dietary changes after the loss of agricultural territory, digital news outlet Interferencia reported. Poverty and reduced land rights (which Cuyul describes as environmental discrimination) have meant that since the 1980s onwards, the Mapuche diet has consisted of an excess of carbohydrates, with little access to more nutritious foods.
This is also the result of the fact that many Mapuche live in areas without access to water for irrigation, stopping them from growing healthier crops (or indeed maintaining hygiene standards necessary for managing Covid-19). Those who do have access to water, often cannot use it due to contamination: Boyeco, a ten-minute drive from Temuco, was a landfill site for 20 years, and nearby residents can no longer grow crops on their land due to water pollution.
The remoteness of many rural Mapuche communities also means their immune systems may be less able to tackle novel coronavirus. In an interview with Reuters, Carolyn Stephens, a professor of global health at University College London, mentioned the first wave of European colonization in Latin America that introduced diseases like smallpox – resulting in millions of deaths among native populations – as an example of what could happen with Covid-19.
Furthermore, not even half of the Mapuche population has adequate access to the healthcare system, and for Alioska Salazar, manager of Hogar de Cristo’s housing programme in Tirúa, this is partially due to the language barrier: “Those who treat [Mapuches] rarely understand any Mapudungún [the Mapuche language], so the Mapuches get frustrated and end up not wanting to go back.” Issues like this have resulted in the development of Intercultural Hospitals nearer to areas with high Mapuche populations, a move which Cuyul says is “of huge value,” allowing Mapuches “to self-treat through Mapuche and biomedical healthcare.”
Rukas and Traditional Medicine
Many cultural factors also make the advice to “stay at home” especially incompatible with the Mapuche way of life. In rural Mapuche communities, individual house ownership is uncommon and often undesired, as homes usually have a communal importance. Traditional Rukas are often built by the whole community for shared use, with families often living between different spaces, and so advising Mapuche families to self-isolate at home “completely goes against our culture,” according to Cuyul. He adds that this guidance signifies “a form of neoliberal individualism which goes against what it means to be indigenous.”
Despite the problems associated with lockdown guidance, many Mapuches still follow the rules in order to stop the virus reaching community elders. Rural Mapuche populations in particular are preliterate, meaning their way of life is passed down the generations by elders through storytelling. Elders carry the accumulated wisdom which is essential for the continuation of their way of life, yet, as the Mapuches who are most at risk from Covid-19, there are concerns that the virus could wipe them out, and with them over 1,000 years of ancestral knowledge.
In response to such a grave threat, many Mapuche are turning to ancestral medicinal practices as a preventative measure. According to Cuyul, Mapuche medicine is “a vast system deeply connected with the five elements, which strengthens the body and the immune system.” The Ph.D. candidate confirms that Mapuche rituals alone are not enough, but he thinks they are an essential component in the community’s ability to manage the crisis autonomously. He adds that neoliberalism has “marketized the way wigkas [non-Mapuches] relate to the world” and believes there is value in the Mapuche’s ancestral practices for “relating to life and earth.”
Since as early as 600 BC, Mapuches have referred to medicinal rituals in the midst of colonization, ecological degradation, and previous epidemics, and they are doing the same during Covid-19. However, reduced land and resources are making it more difficult for them to practice their traditions. “Water, as a life source, is essential for many Mapuche ceremonies, and access to nutritious food is an essential part of preventative Mapuche medicine,” says Cuyul, but this community has increasingly less access to these resources, and Cuyul is aware of the severity of this. “If inequality has already surfaced amid this pandemic, then the toll on the Mapuches will be much worse,” he warns.
Shanti is a multilingual journalist, with a keen interest in Latin American politics, economics, and culture. Having studied languages and media at Cambridge University and Universidade de São Paulo respectively, she then gained editorial experience in the documentary film industry, with a specific focus on South American affairs. You can find her on Twitter @shantidurocher.