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Chile: Mapuche People Take Back Their Land

Text and pics by Richard and Holly

Manuel Maribur looks up from the mammoth fly he has captured between his bulky fingers; "I think we're going to fight for our land. We're reclaiming it because it's in our nature. We're fighters, communists, revolutionaries." Manuel is an indigenous Mapuche farmer from Chile, but also a locally renowned communist activist, who was exiled with his father to Cuba during Pinochet's military rule. His vision of his people as communist revolutionaries may be idealised - but his acknowledgement of them as tireless fighters certainly isn't.

Manuel lives in the Elicura Valley, midway down the length of Chile. A lush mountain landscape surrounds his sunny and well-tended little farm, where he lives along with his 84 year old father, Juan. But it's not all peaceful amidst the hills. Mapuches from some of the nearby communities are staging occupations of the vast, neighbouring estates, reclaiming land that was taken from them a generation or more before. Now, most of the estates are owned by multinational forestry companies, and planted with monocultures of exotic pine or eucalyptus.

"We've been fighting to get our land from the big companies over there", explains Fernando Urbino, another Mapuche campesino. "But they still haven't given us a single part." 41% of Fernando's district of Lumaco is covered by tree plantations; native forest is all but vanished. His farm is a dusty plot: the effect is monochrome, with earth, skin, crops, and wooden shack all meeting in a shade of sandy brown. Far ahead, it's possible to see hordes of pine trees, maturing for the chainsaw.

"The forestry companies have a big effect on the communities," he explains. "The plantations are drying up all our water here." The exotic trees' fast-growth, which makes them such a great cash-crop, means that they absorb a lot of water from the ground. What water there is left is heavily polluted with agro-chemicals from the plantations. "We don't even have enough water to give to our animals", says Fernando. The industry provides few jobs, usually contracted to outside companies, while the locals are barely scraping by.

"100 years ago this Elicura Valley belonged completely to the Mapuches", Manuel explains. "Now we've got, I reckon, a quarter of that territory - the other three quarters belong to the forestry companies." The story of how the people of Elicura came to lose and win (and lose and win again) their territory, is illuminating. It is an almost perfect pattern for what happened to the Mapuche people in Chile in the 120 bumpy years since they were conquered.

The Mapuche - who are also in western Argentina - were never colonised by the Spanish, fighting them off at every turn. They were finally subdued in 1881 by a bloodthirsty Chilean army in a mass slaughter tactfully known as the 'Pacification of Araucania'. At this point, a people who had once roamed free, horse trading with European adventurers, were downgraded to subsistence farming on meagre reducciónes. Today the situation is so much worse that the Mapuche movement is still fighting to recover even these small parcels of land.

"Our land was usurped through very fraudulent sales", Manuel explains. "It was taken by the landholders with the backing of the government." Stories of illiterate Mapuches being swindled and bullied out of their community lands are as abundant as the horseflies, and it's still going on today. Eventually the reducciónes became so shrunken that the Mapuches became more militant.

Inspired by the Land and Freedom movement elsewhere in Latin America, in the 60s and early 70s Mapuches and other campesinos began to occupy the large, farming estates. Near Manuel's farm in Elicura, The Las Vertientes and Santa Elmira estates were handed over to Mapuche squatters under the government's Agrarian Reform programme. Juan, Manuel's father, remembers the period with fervent clarity. "Before Agrarian Reform one man would have 60 farms - just one foreign man. And we would have half a hectare." He gestures with his stick towards their tidy wooden house; "We had no water, no light."

While 95% of Mapuche communities recovered at least some of their lands through Agrarian Reform, that was also the time when the government began encouraging people to start the tree plantations. And when Pinochet took the lands back into the hands of private enterprise, he all but paid a few big corporations to plant swathes more. Juan, his voice rising, remembers Allende, Pinochet's leftie predecessor; "That dead president represented the Mapuche; he represented all the people. They killed him."

Of course, flashing forward a few years and into the present era of democratic government, things should have changed. Under the current socialist administration, a government agency - CONADI - buys land back on behalf of indigenous communities. A generous scheme? Oh no it isn't: there is no legal pressure for landowners to sell, and at market prices most of the lands are well beyond CONADI's limited funds. If you're Mapuche, this means that you'll be lucky to get your land in time to use it as a funeral plot.

CONADI's efforts miss the wider picture. Though Pinochet stepped down in 1989, his economic policies (moonlight and candles for the multinationals, a swift screwing for the rest) seem still unassailable. Many Mapuches accuse CONADI of helping divide (and rule) the communities it is supposed to serve. The government buys the co-operation of 'reasonable' Mapuches with occasional fragments of land, while the more rowdy ones are branded terrorists. "At Lago Lleu-Lleu the government used seductive policies", says Manuel. "They declared it an 'Area of Indigenous Development' where there are 'open doors' and 'opportunities' for the communities. But no land."

Beseiged by the forestry companies, as Mapuches have learned the value of the new Chilean model of democracy, they've began to get restless once again. In late 1997 Mapuches torched a couple of forestry trucks belonged to the Mininco company, and things kicked off. Land occupations are multiplying. During a confrontation over a roadblock in May 1999, police fired off tear gas, but were unprepared for the shotgun fire returned by the Mapuches. No-one was killed. It's not the first time Juan has seen his people in revolt. It's unlikely to end soon. "One day we will regain our lands", he says. "We, born here, in the land of our grandfathers."

See also www.mapuche-nation.org