Indigenization Of Politics: Mapuche Oppression In Chile And Argentina


Two high-profile cases of both the Chilean and Argentinian military killing Mapuche activists, during covert operations, have failed to escape the limelight. Camilo Catrillanca was shot in the back of the head on November 2018 by Chilean Special Police Operations Group (G.O.P.E), while he was driving a tractor through his fields in the Araucanía region of Chile. Another involved the shooting of Rafael Nahuel on November 2017 by special forces team within the Argentine Naval Prefecture, as he protested the forced eviction of his community from Lake Mascardi in Argentina.

Neither case has been officially closed and both are often a catalyst for further Mapuche protests. Telesur (a Chilean news network) reported that a Mapuche march for “self-determination and demilitarization” in Temuco, the regional capital of Araucanía, was provoked by the murder of Camilo Catrillanca. In the end, the march was blocked, and the protestors were violently dispersed by the police through the use of water cannons. Concerning the case of Rafael Nahuel, TN reports that a regional Court of Appeals in Argentina reviewed the case on 14 May 2019. The judge changed the charge against the soldier accused of killing Rafael from “excess in self-defence” to “aggravated homicide.” The Mapuche do not lack resolve when addressing issues that are detrimental to Mapuche communities; however, violent crackdowns by state forces have prevented many movements from gaining any real traction.

Unfortunately, these high-profile cases are only the tip of the iceberg regarding Chilean and Argentinian oppression of the Mapuche people. Both countries frequently consent to the dispossession of ancestral land from the Mapuche by extractive industries such as Forestal Arauco and Mininco S.A. These two are the largest timber companies in Chile that own 2 million hectares of land in historical Mapuche territory. There has been an increased militarization in Mapuche dominated areas such as Araucanía in Chile and Río Negro in Argentina; arguably a major factor in the two killings of Camilo and Rafael. Moreover, there is a lack of political representation for the Mapuche in mainstream politics, severely limiting any improvements upon intercultural education or political autonomy. The Mapuche have always had a hard time adjusting to the will of their respective governments, due to having been treated as culturally and ethnically inferior throughout history and to this day.

Historical Maltreatment

The Mapuche are the indigenous inhabitants of the region in South America they call Walljampu (Mapuche ancestral territory). It stretches from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean, in what is now Chile and Argentina. Archaeological evidence dates their existence back approximately 14,000 years, almost a millennium before the first contact with European settlers in the 16th century. Mapuche history has been one of sustained resistance from foreign invaders such as the Incas, the Spanish, and the countries of Chile and Argentina. However, since the formation of independent nation-states in the 19th century, the Mapuche have found it increasingly difficult to achieve any form of self-determination. Especially after the respective military campaigns of Chile and Argentina – “The Pacification of Araucanía” (1861-1883) and “Conquest of the Desert” (1878-1885) – which massacred over 100,000 Mapuche and forced them onto indigenous reservations. According to Patricia Richards, in her book ‘Race and the Chilean Miracle’, the new indigenous reservations in Chile only comprised “6.4 per cent of the original territory” occupied by the Mapuche before the Pacification. Nowadays, the majority of Mapuche either live on these historical reservations or have had to migrate to urban centres, such as Santiago and Buenos Aires, demonstrating that living conditions and access to resources have not radically improved for the Mapuche in the last 100 years.

Current Inequality

This history is firmly embedded in the social memory of the Mapuche. Mat Youkee, reports in the Guardian, that the Mapuche have appealed to the International Criminal Court (ICC) to take action against the Chilean and Argentinian government regarding “acts of genocide and crimes against humanity.” However, this is not only in reference to historical expropriations and violence but also to the current legislation and state oppression of the Mapuche. Arguably, the situation regarding autonomy and land reclamation is no better than it was 200 years ago. The current president of Chile, President Sebastian Piñera, has frequently used the anti-terrorism law — created in 1984 by dictator Augusto Pinochet to crush political dissent — to incarcerate Mapuche activists. Both Amnesty International and the United Nations have appealed to the Chilean government to repeal this outdated law, as it has repeatedly raised concerns over human rights abuses. The anti-terrorism law allows longer sentences for Mapuche compared to similar crimes by non-Mapuche; it gives authorities greater powers regarding interventions and detention; and allows the Mapuche to be charged with acts, such as arson, that do not qualify as terrorism in international law. Negative exceptionalism in legislation presents the Mapuche as a threat to national security; thus, justifying the increased militarization of Mapuche dominate areas.

Miguel Leone and Camila Ponce, in OpenDemocracy, argues that Mapuche demands for land reclamation usually centre around the protection of ancestral land and forests against mono-plantations and the dealings of multinational corporations. Nonetheless, these demands are interpreted as a threat by the state and corporations because they hinder the possibility of “capital reproduction”. Lena Gallager, in The Politic, shares this view. She argues that the “Argentine government often sells land to private corporations” in the interests of profit without any consideration of ancestral land rights by the Mapuche. The most well-known case being that of Benetton, an Italian fashion company, that owns over 2.2 million acres of land in Southern Argentina – “land historically inhabited by the Mapuche” says Gallager. National governments often view Mapuche demands as second to corporate demands; this is due to the increased neoliberal turn within governments, most notably the privatization of land. Since the global dissemination of neoliberalism in the 1970s, Mapuche land has been increasingly privatized in order to increase the profitability of land that was historically dispossessed from them. The Mapuche have tried to state their case to governments and corporations through violent and non-violent means; still, they always appear to be fighting a losing battle against an opponent that has greater military and political strength.

Increased Solidarity

Leone and Ponce argue that the Mapuche can find strength by fostering solidarity with other social movements within Chilean society, especially student and environmental movements. For instance, the murdered Mapuche activist Camilo Catrillanca was a “dynamic spokesperson…in the Ercilla region” during the Chilean student protests of 2011-2013, that demanded the replacement of for-profit education for a public education system. Furthermore, socio-environmental activist groups are sympathetic toward Mapuche demands for environmental conservation and many have demanded an “end to the violence and criminalization of the Mapuche.” Evidently, the Mapuche can find solidarity and a political platform through like-minded movements in order to tackle an increasingly militarised and neoliberal Chile and Argentina.

I agree that Mapuche activism requires cross-party collaboration; even so, there is a much deeper issue at play that is preventing the Mapuche from achieving equal representation in national politics – they are still seen as the backward, unchanging natives that colonialism believed them to be. Maintaining traditions and livelihoods that are perceived by governments as antithetical to modernization and neoliberal ideology, paints the Mapuche as an obstacle to the development of the nation-state. I am not advocating for the Mapuche to change their way of life; rather, for ‘Western’ countries, such as Chile and Argentina, to change their understanding of the Mapuche through the indigenization of politics. By this I mean, politics that should not solely act in the interests of capital accumulation or increased privatization but should also appreciate the varied demands of its people, namely the indigenous population. The killing of Camilo and Rafael may not be in vain if the Mapuche are given a greater voice in the political sphere regarding their demands for land rights and self-determination. Collaborations with other social movements is a positive start; by instigating a “bottom-up” approach for change, where people are preventing a government’s failures of letting human rights abuses go unnoticed.

Jonathan Boyd

I am a social anthropology undergraduate at the University of Manchester. I am interested in indigenous rights, international development and postcolonial theory.
Jonathan Boyd