"On one side is a government with a history of military overreach and ethnic cleansing. On the other is Chile’s poorest and most disenfranchised group rising up after centuries of mistreatment"
From the autonomous region of Bougainville in Papua New Guinea, where eco-warriors declared war on mining companies, to the Australian outback, where Aboriginal tribes have reclaimed sovereignty from the Commonwealth, I have reported on the struggles and aspirations of indigenous nations.
At the outset, the Mapuche conflict of Chile seemed to fit into the same “David and Goliath” narrative. On one side is a Latin American government with a history of military overreach and ethnic cleansing. On the other is Chile’s poorest and most disenfranchised group finally rising up against their colonial overlords after centuries of mistreatment.
Even as I flew into the capital, Santiago, last November, parts of the city were on lockdown. Tens of thousands of angry Mapuche indigenous people rioted on the streets after police admitted to covering up the killing of Camilo Catrillanca, the grandson of a prominent Mapuche leader in Araucania, a restive region 400 miles to the south.
“Chile police chief asked to resign over Mapuche killing,” read a headline on the BBC. “Indigenous Chileans Defend Their Land Against Loggers,” read another in the Guardian. I assumed my dispatch would be cut from the same cloth. But after spending a month in Araucania, I uncovered another side of the Mapuche conflict that had escaped the world’s attention: a politically awkward narrative about an indigenous movement hijacked by mercenaries and fanatics who use arson to force farmers off their land.
The narrative made brief headlines in 2013 when an elderly couple, Werner Luchsinger and Vivian McKay, were burned alive while defending their home during a Mapuche raid. The ringleader was sentenced to 18 years under tough anti-terrorism laws and the event was seen as a one-off.
But six years on, Araucania is still on fire. Churches in the region are routinely torched or defaced with graffiti denouncing imperialists and winka, the Mapuche word for whites and thieves. Incendiary attacks against trucks on the Pan American Highway are so commonplace that many lorry drivers will only travel in convoys at night, while vast swaths of the region have been declared “red zones” where travel is not advised. Farmers in Araucania also claim that Mapuche “mercenaries” and “terrorists” are forcing them off their land in the name of indigenous land rights.
The Mapuche conflict has its roots in the pacification of Araucania in the 1880s, when Chile sent its army to end resistance by indigenous people and clear the way for settlers from Europe. Within a decade, war, famine and disease had reduced the population of Araucania from half a million to 25,000. Those Mapuche who remained were shunted onto reserves or became inquilinos — peasants who toiled in semi-feudal conditions and lived in abject poverty on their employers’ marginal lands.
Nearly a century would pass until Chile attempted to redress the injustice. Between 1971 and 1973 the socialist government of Salvador Allende expropriated 4,303 farms — about a third of all productive farmland in Chile — and gave them to the inquilinos in the form of small plots of land.
But the inquilinos lacked the skills, capital or incentives to raise cash crops. Food staples began disappearing from shelves and people had to queue for hours to buy milk and bread. Radical socialist interventions forced by Allende and his apparatchiks on other parts of the economy bore the same rotten fruit, creating Venezuelan-style shortages of everything from petrol to toothpaste.
On September 11, 1973, army chief General Augusto Pinochet staged a successful coup. Allende died in the Moneda presidential palace, the constitution was annulled and thousands of actual and alleged supporters of the Allende regime were executed or disappeared. In the months that followed, nearly all the inquilinos sold the small farming plots they had been given by the Allende government. They were then sold on as timber concessions.
“Pinochet saved this country. One of the ways he did that was by selling millions of hectares of land in southern Chile for next to nothing to powerful industrial families that planted vast pine and eucalyptus plantations,” says Sven Bergstrom, a wheat farmer in Araucania. “Logging is now the second biggest export earner in Chile after copper, but it employs fewer people than grazing or farming. So the Mapuche or inquilinos were left with no land and no jobs.”
Many Chileans share Bergstrom’s view that Pinochet saved Chile from becoming what Venezuela is today. It’s Latin America’s most stable and prosperous nation, leading in terms of competitiveness, income per capita, freedom of speech and transparency. But Chile also has the continent’s largest gap between rich and poor, with the Mapuche firmly entrenched on the wrong side of the tracks and Araucania remaining the country’s poorest region despite its agricultural riches.
In the 1990s, after Pinochet ceded power and democracy returned to Chile, the country made a second attempt to return some land to the Mapuche. But instead of taking it from existing landowners as Allende had, it bought the land. Between 1996 and 2014, Chile’s National Indigenous Development Corporation (Conadi) spent a billion US dollars acquiring half a million hectares of land in the south, creating dwellings for 16,000 Mapuche families.
But the massive buy-in sent land prices spiralling, with the average cost per hectare purchased by Conadi increasing twelvefold in 20 years. And that, according to Araucania cattle farmer William Reichert, has incentivised Mapuche “terrorists” acting as buyers’ agents for Conadi to expropriate farmland by force.
“The Mapuche come to your farm and say they want to buy it, but you tell them no, things are going well for me here,” he explains. “A week later, your barn burns down. Then the same guys come back and ask if you want to sell now, and you say no, and the next week your tractors catch fire. So you can’t harvest your crops and you start missing your repayments. Your bank doesn’t care, they warn you they’re going to foreclose and you have no choice but to sell.”
Mapuche leader and national counsellor for Conadi Marcial Colin denies that the indigenous corporation is connected to arson attacks or coerced land acquisitions. “They say Mapuche are doing this, but who specifically do they mean? I’m Mapuche but I’m not setting fire to any houses. And if so many farmers have been attacked, there should be a larger number of deaths. But most of the deaths in this conflict are Mapuche. I’ve heard some people are setting their own trucks on fire to get insurance money.”
He adds: “What I think is happening is people are going to farmers and saying this is our land — there’s scientific evidence our people lived here for 3,000 years. That’s not a threat, it’s a social movement.”
Colin says a direct chronological arc exists between the massacres of the 1880s and the violence that exists between Mapuche, police and farmers today. “Before, they killed us in groups, burned down our houses. The soldiers who came here, they were all rapists,” he says. “Now they kill us one by one. The violence, the racism, it’s in the schools, it’s institutionalised and it condemns future generations.”
The Mapuche’s endgame? “We don’t really have the geographic conditions to allow us to have our own country,” Colin says. “It could be autonomy, though it’s up to the people to decide. But what we want is to take control of our development and use of the resources in our territory, which is not happening now.”
A German migrant who owns a 175-hectare seed farm in Araucania, Erik von Baer is remarkably calm for a person living under siege. Last year, he lost six acres of his farm to an arson attack. Only days before our interview, he answered the call of a neighbour whose house was burned to the ground. “It’s not one or two isolated incidences,” he says. “It’s like being in a war zone. You never know when they’ll strike next.”
Von Baer also believes the government’s attempt to solve its indigenous problem by buying land and giving it away to the Mapuche has only escalated the conflict.
“They’re making the same mistake the socialists did in the 1970s — trying to impose the idea of collective property inside a free market economy by buying productive farms and subdividing them between 20 or 30 Mapuche families,” he says. “And just like during the socialist period, none of these new owners have the right to sell their plots or use them as collateral, so they can’t borrow money from the bank to buy seeds or equipment to make their plots productive. And all those Mapuche who missed out on land now feel victimised, so we have a new group of aggrieved people, and that’s created an opportunity for mercenaries and fanatics to infiltrate the Mapuche movement.”
In the two months since I left southern Chile, arson attacks, vandalism and road closures continue to increase, according to Francisco Roth, a member of the group Women of Araucania, which documents incidents on social media.
“My father told me when the day comes that you need security to protect our farm, it’s time to pack up and leave,” she says. “We’ve already come to that point.” But her husband, Sven Bergstrom, refuses to leave, adding: “We’re armed to the teeth and out there in the fields doing target practice every day. They’ll take this farm over my dead body.”
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