A man with a Mapuche flag stands outside a major Chilean TV station at a protest on October 24, 2012, against a special report aired the previous day. The report focused on the Mapuche-Chilean conflict, but the protesters contend it did not provide historical context or mention the prisoners then on hunger strike for nearly sixty days.
Your family’s land was seized before you were born, and the new owner, a forestry company, isn’t going to return it because it is more powerful than you. Your community holds peaceful demonstrations to recover the land because bureaucratic processes have proved unsuccessful. Police raid your community at night. You get angry and go to confront police officers when they show up to guard the company’s equipment one morning. You are arrested and convicted for attempting to murder a police officer because you shot a pistol at his helicopter. You know his testimony has no basis—how could you have intended to kill a person by shooting at an armored helicopter?—but it doesn’t seem to matter. You are given over ten years in prison. The truth is almost never acknowledged in these kinds of cases, because like all those convicted before you, your political power is nothing compared to that of the company, and the government.
What would you do?
In southern Chile a dramatic sixty-day hunger strike that left four young Mapuche prisoners near death ended in celebration last week. The four prisoners belong to the Wente Winkul Mapu indigenous community over 350 miles south of Santiago, where Mapuche (meaning “people of the land”) have been mobilized for years in a struggle against private estate owners and multinational corporations to recover their ancestral territory, much of which was seized in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries by the Chilean state.
Despite the deep, historical roots of this struggle known to indigenous tribes all over the world, constructive efforts at resolution in Chile are non-existent. The country’s economic stability and strong climate for foreign investment has come at a high cost for the indigenous populations, leaving natives with little land and the tough decision to migrate or face rural poverty. The lack of political will for a solution that can rectify previous land seizures has inspired radical mobilization efforts by young Mapuche as they fight to reclaim their ancestral land.
Without much government reform, the conflict unfolds on a daily basis between tribe members and police officers as they break up land occupations and raid rural communities as methods of “preventative warfare”—a national security doctrine established under former Chilean dictator Pinochet and since carried out under democratic administrations. During these raids, officers often search for unauthorized weapons in Mapuche homes on the suspicion that resistance groups and communities are arming themselves for guerilla warfare, based on anonymous arson attacks on private properties in the area. Critics argue these raids are used to intimidate the communities from mobilizing.