As dawn broke over southern Chile on July 30, smoke and flames rose from barricades blocking the main highway into the town Padre las Casas, 675 kilometers south of the capital of Santiago. About fifty members of the Paillanao Mapuche indigenous community had constructed the barricades to protest the fact that the government had not responded to requests to improve six miles of rural roads in their community.
The police reacted with force, firing water cannons to disperse the crowd and reopen the road. In the melee, a 68-year-old tribal chief, or lonko, Felicindo Huaquinao Huaiquimil, was struck by the cannons and hit his head against the ground. He remains in serious condition in an induced coma in the Regional Hospital of Temuco, where he has undergone surgery for traumatic brain injury, according to assistant medical director Manuel Vial.
On July 23, just a week before Huaiquimil was injured, police evicted sixty Mapuche protesters of the Temucuicui community from private land they had occupied to demand the return of their ancestral territory. Amnesty International reports that 200 police officers used tear gas, pellet guns and shotguns to disperse the occupation and a subsequent protest outside a hospital where injured community members had been taken. At least four children were wounded in the confrontations, including a 12-year-old girl who was shot in the back with pellets and a 16-year-old boy who was shot in the head with rubber bullets.
Huaiquimil and these children are only the latest casualties in an ongoing confrontation between the indigenous community and Chilean authorities in what has come to be known as the “Mapuche conflict.” At the root of the struggle lies the land the Mapuche lived on for generations, and which they are now seeking to reclaim from the private and corporate landowners who have taken it over.
500 Years of Resistance
Although the Mapuche, South America’s third-largest indigenous population, successfully resisted Spanish conquest for more than 300 years, Chile’s independence in 1818 marked a turning point for the community. The Chilean government has since encroached on Mapuche territory to build cities and secure land for natural resource extraction. Logging companies have replaced lush, native forests with rows of dry pine and eucalyptus trees. By the end of the nineteenth century, the Mapuche had lost over 90 percent of their original 100,000-square-kilometer territory. The 37.6 percent of Mapuche remaining in rural areas of Chile struggle to maintain their organization as small communities on what remains of their land.