The Mapuche in Chile

The Mapuche people, their history, their culture, their struggles, have been covered by a veil of silence.  The little news that arrives from southern Chile is almost always related to acts of repression and accusations of “terrorism” made by the Chilean state.  Weighed down by social and political isolation, faced with either a difficult rural lifestyle or precarious, low-paying jobs in the cities, the Mapuche continue resisting the multinational timber and hydroelectric companies, fighting to keep their traditions alive. By Raul Zibechi (trans. Jesse Barnes)

See Action Alert below for ways you can help the Mapuche struggle



“The Chilean state considers me a criminal for defending my family and my land,” points out Waikilaj Cadim Calfunao, 25 years old and a member of the community Juan Paillalef in Araucania, Chile’s 9th Region, in a short letter which he sent to us from the High Security Prison in Santiago, where the guards didn’t allow us to enter for bureaucratic reasons.  With minimal differences, other Mapuche prisoners deliver the same message.  Jose Huenchunao, one of the founders of the Arauco Malleco Coordinator (CAM), arrested last March 20th, was sentenced to ten years for having taken part in burning forestry machinery.

“The prisons are a place of punishment where the Chilean state and its political and judicial operators have sent those who fight for, or represent, the Mapuche people-nation,” wrote Huenchunao on March 21st from Angol prison.1  Hector Llaitul, 37 years old, leader of the CAM, arrested on February 21st on the same charges as Huenchunao, began a hunger strike to denounce the political-judicial sham assembled against him.  The majority of the more-than-20 Mapuche prisoners have resorted to hunger strikes to denounce the situation or to demand transfer to prisons closer to their communities.

Like almost all Mapuche leaders, Llaitul puts an emphasis on the problem of the timber companies: “Mininco Forestry, together with the ENDESA hydroelectric company, one of our principal adversaries, has changed their policy.  It’s no longer merely about the use of violence.  They are diversifying repression: they study the zones where they operate and adapt their plans to each area, often financed by the Inter-American Development Bank, with the goal of creating a ring of security around their properties.  They arm the share-crop farmers and the fishing and hunting associations to form vigilante groups (legal in Chile) to defend themselves from the ‘bad neighbors.’  That’s how they attempt to isolate those who struggle.”2

“My community has been heavily repressed, such that everyone in my family is prisoner (mother, father, brother, etc.),” points out Calfunao in his letter, as he describes how his community’s land has been “robbed” by the timber companies and the Public Works Department, a theft endorsed by the courts, which don’t respect “our common laws and legal customs.”  He is accused of kidnapping for having carried out a roadblock, of public disorder and of the destroying the tires of a timber company truck which carried wood out of the Mapuche region.  Any activity performed by the communities to try and stop the forestry companies that continue to rob their land is included by the Chilean state under “anti-terrorist” laws, legacy of the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.

Chilean Paper Mills

Arriving in Concepcion, 300 miles south of Santiago, the narrow valley between the Andes and the Pacific, traversed by the fruit groves which have converted Chile into an important agro-exporter, the countryside suddenly begins to change.  Timber farms cover hills and mountains.  The highways change to roads which snake into the mountains above and lose themselves in the pines.  Suddenly, a dense white smoke announces the paper mill, always surrounded by immense, extensive green crops.

Lucio Cuenca, coordinator of the Latin American Environmental Conflict Observatory (OLCA), explains that the forestry sector grows more than 6% yearly.  “Between 1975 and 1994 their crops increased 57%,” he adds.  The forestry sector contributes more than 10% of all exports; about half are sent to Asian countries.  Slightly more than five million acres of timber plantations are concentrated between the 5th and 9th Regions, traditional lands of the Mapuche.  Pines make up 75%, eucalyptus 17%.  “But about 60% of the planted area is in the hands of three financial groups,” reports Cuenca.

Explaining such concentration of property requires—as is the case with almost all structures in this hyper-privatized Chile—looking back to the 1970s, particularly the regime of Augusto Pinochet.  In the 60s and early 70s social-democrat and socialist governments put in place agrarian reform measures which returned lands to the Mapuche and supported the development of farm cooperatives, and the state actively participated in shaping timber policies, both the crops themselves and industrial development.

Cuenca explains what happened under Pinochet: “Later the military dictatorship carried out a counter-reform changing both property and the use of the land.  In the later half of the 70s, between 1976 and 1979, the state privatized its six major businesses in the area: Arauco Paper, Constitucion Paper, Arauco Forestry, Inforsa, Masisa and the Paper and Cardboard Manufacturing Company, all sold to business groups for 78% of their true value.”

The influence of Pinochet marks this difference: the timber industry in Chile is now in the hands of two large national business groups, headed by Anacleto Angelini and Eleodoro Matte.  On the rest of the continent the industry is in the hands of large European and North American multinationals.  But here the nationality of the owners is irrelevant.  In Chile only 7.5% of the timber plantations are in the hands of small owners, while 66% belongs to large owners who have over two thousand forest acres.  The Angelini group alone has 1.9 million acres while the Matte group has over 1.2 million acres.

“The regions where these lucrative businesses are located,” according to Cuenca, “have been converted into the poorest in the country.”  While Angelini is one of the six richest men in Latin America, in the 8th and 9th Regions, poverty is over 3%, the highest levels in the country.  “The earnings aren’t shared and nothing remains in the region except exploitation, contamination, the loss of cultural and biological diversity and, of course, poverty,” concludes the OLCA coordinator.

For the Mapuche, the timber expansion signals their death as a people.  Each year the borders of the timber companies grow by 125 thousand acres.  In addition to being literally suffocated by the crops, they begin to feel the lack of water, changes in plants and animals, and the rapid disappearance of native forests.  A study by the Central Bank shows that in 25 years Chile will be without native forests.  They conclude, nonetheless, that the expansion of the timber companies is unstoppable.

Despite complaints about social and environmental deterioration, and ignoring not only the dozens of Mapuche communities in resistance but also the local farmers and fishermen, and even an analysis by state agencies of the dangers of continued timber industry expansion, The Wood Corporation declares that by 2018 it will have doubled the amount of wood that was available in 1995.  Without a doubt this will mean opening new pulp mills.  Chile outsources many costs (labor and environmental) which allows it to produce a ton of pulp for only 222 dollars, much less than Canada (344) or Sweden and Finland (349).  It’s the only argument that matters.

The Secret of Resistance

It is impossible to understand the reality of the Mapuche people without going back to their history.  Unlike other indigenous peoples on the continent, the Mapuche were able to maintain autonomy and independence from the Spanish Crown for 260 years.  Only recently at the end of the 19th century were they forced to give in to the independent Chilean state.  This noteworthy exception marks the history of a people who, from many points of view, have demonstrated enough differences with their fellow indigenous peoples to force us to avoid generalizing their histories and realities.

It is estimated that when the Spanish arrived there were one million Mapuche, concentrated mostly in Araucania (the area between Concepcion and Valdivia).  They were fishermen, hunters and gatherers, whose nutrition was based on potatoes and beans that they grew in forest clearings, and on the Araucanian Pinon, the giant tree that dominates the geography of the South.  Although settled, they did not live in villages; each family had its own autonomous territory.  The abundance of resources in these rich lands is what allowed for “a population much greater than what a pre-agrarian economic system could support,” maintains Jose Bengoa, a major historian of the Mapuche people.3

This society of hunters-warriors, where the family, the only permanent social institution, was in turn grouped by chiefs or lonkos, was very different from the other indigenous groups the Spanish encountered in America.  Between 1546 and 1598 the Mapuche successfully resisted the Spanish.  In 1554 Pedro Valdivia, General Captain of the Conquest, was defeated by Chief Lautaro near Canete, taken prisoner and killed for “having wanted to enslave us.”

Despite epidemics of typhus and smallpox which killed a third of the Mapuche population, a second and third generation of chiefs successfully resisted new attacks from the colonizers.  In 1598 the course of the war changed.  The military superiority of the Mapuche, who had developed into excellent cavalry and had more horses than the Spanish soldiers, put the Conquistadors on the defensive.  They destroyed all the Spanish cities south of the Bio Bio River, among them Valdivia and Villarrica, which was only recently rebuilt 283 years after the “pacification of Araucania.”

A tense peace settled in along the “border.”  On January 6th, 1641, the Spanish and Mapuche met in the Quilin Parliament for the first time: the Spanish recognized the independence of the Mapuche south of the Bio Bio, and the Mapuche allowed the presence of missionaries and returned the Spanish prisoners.  The Negrete Parliament, in 1726, regulated commerce, which had been a source of conflict, and the Mapuche committed to defending the Spanish Crown against the Chilean separatists.

How can one understand the uniqueness of the Mapuche?  Various historians and anthropologists, among them Bengoa, agree that “unlike the Incas and the Mexican indigenous, who had centralized governments and internal political divisions, the Mapuche had a non-hierarchical social structure.  In the Andean and Mexican cases, the Conquistadors took over central political power and, having accomplished that, gained control of the Empire.  In the case of the Mapuche, this wasn’t possible, given that their submission had to occur in each one of the thousands of independent families.”4  Of course, it must be added that the nature of this culture also explains the enormous difficulty that the Mapuche movement has had in creating unified representative organizations.

Around the 17th century, influenced by the Spanish colony, which had extensively spread cattle farming, the Mapuche society was converted into a commercial cattle-raising economy which possessed one of the largest areas controlled by an indigenous group in South America: they had expanded onto the Argentine plains and arrived at what is today the province of Buenos Aires.  This new economy strengthened the role of the lonkos and created relationships of social subordination previously unknown to the Mapuche.  “The concentration of cattle in the hands of a few lonkos and the need to have leaders who could negotiate with the colonial powers intensified the social hierarchy and the centralization of political power,” points out historian Gabriel Salazar.

After its mining economy fell into crisis in 1857, the new Chilean republic required growth of its agricultural sector.  Beginning in 1862 the army began to occupy Araucania.  From then through 1881, when the Mapuche were definitively defeated, a war of extermination was unleashed.  After their defeat, the Mapuche were crammed onto “reductions”: from 25 million acres they were forced onto 1.2 million, the remainder repossessed by the state and given to private owners.  Thus, they were converted into poor farmers forced to change their customs, their means of production and their legal norms.

Who are the Savages?

Some sixty miles south of Concepcion, the small town of Canete is one of the centers of the Mapuche conflict: on Christmas Day 1553 the Mapuche destroyed the Fort Tucapel, built by Pedro de Valdivia, and executed him.  Five years later the great chief Caupolican was also executed in the square which today bears his name, where imposing wooden statues now rise up in homage to his people.  In this same square, one rainy April morning this year, 200 Mapuches and students gathered to demand freedom for Jose Huenchunao, leader of the Arauco-Malleco Coordinator of Communities in Conflict (CAM) arrested weeks before as part of a state offensive which also imprisoned other leaders of the CAM, among them Hector Llaitul and Jose Llanquileo.

When the march breaks up after covering five blocks surrounded by a large group of riot police, two lonkos, Jorge and Fernando, bring us to their community.  A short distance from one of the many towns in the area, in a sort of clearing among the pines, a handful of precarious houses make up the community of Pablo Quintriqueo, “a Hispanicized indigenous man who lived in the area until 1800,” explains Mari, a Mapuche social assistant who lives in Concepcion.  Surprising to someone has visited Andean or Mayan communities, this one is made up of only seven families and was formed only eight years ago; the small garden behind the houses wouldn’t support more than 30 community members.

Passing around a mate, they explain.  The families had migrated to Concepcion and left behind the properties where their ancestors had been born and lived until a decade before.  Mari married a huinka (white person), and had two children and a good job.  Many young people, like Hector Llaitul, now prisoner in Angol, graduated from the University of Concepcion and later created organizations defending their lands and communities.  When the timber companies advanced onto their lands, they returned to defend them.  “Altogether there are 4,000 acres under dispute in just this community,” they tell us.

It isn’t easy to understand the reality of the Mapuche.  One lonko, Jorge, 35 years old and one of the youngest in the group, gives a clue, pointing out that “the project of rebuilding the Mapuche community begins by recovering land.”  From that one can deduce that the Mapuche live in a period which other indigenous groups on the continent passed through half a century ago, when they guaranteed the recovery and control of land and territory which had belonged to them for as long as they can remember.  Secondly, everything indicates that the defeat of the Mapuche is still too recent (just one century ago), unlike the two or three centuries that have passed since the invasion of the Spanish or the defeat of Tupac Amaru, depending on which timeline one prefers.  The memory of the Mapuche’s loss of autonomy is still fresh, and this can be motivation for a habit which is repeated in many conversations: unlike the Aymara, the Quechua or the Maya, the Mapuche place themselves in the position of victims which, while justified, is uncomfortable.

Jose Huenchunao assures us that the communities are experiencing a new situation with their current desperation.  And he sends a warning that does not sound empty: “If this political administration, if the authors of civil society don’t take our situation into account, we’re at the threshold of having these conflicts, which have been isolated, reoccurring with much more force and better coordinated.  This can be much more serious, can have a much greater cost to society, than just giving back a certain amount of land, which is the minimum that the communities are demanding.”5

For the “lowest” Chileans, it is not obvious that electoral democracy has improved their lives.  ” The political strategy of the Concertacion party, during its 16 years of governing, has been directed towards ‘minimal political and social change’ and the opening and deepening of neoliberal capitalism in every aspect of society.  The Concertacion administration has governed more for the market than the society, widening the terrible distribution of wealth, and causing the Chilean society to become the second most unequal—after Brazil—on the entire continent,” points out political scientist Gomez Leyton.6

But there are signs that the time of Concertacion is running out.  It is possible, moreover, that Huenchunao’s warning is right.  The lengthy Mapuche resistance has not died off, but has been reborn again and again despite repression.  Without a doubt, in recent years it is not only the Mapuche who are resisting the model of savage neoliberalism south of the Bio Bio River.  The artisan fishermen of Mehuin and the farmers who have seen their water contaminated have also carried out several protests.  In early May the military killed a timber worker, Rodrigo Cisternas, who took part in a strike for increased salaries.

Perhaps this represents the beginning of the end of the Concertacion political party.  For more than 40 days the workers of Arauco Forestry, a property of the Angelini Group located in the Bio Bio region, carried out a strike that included three unions representing seven thousand workers.  Given the profits of 40% that the company had earned, the workers demanded a similar percentage in salary growth.  After fruitless negotiations, they resorted to the picket line.  They surrounded the factory where the company had concentrated its three shifts to defeat the strike.  “Seeing the military enjoy themselves destroying the [worker’s] cars, they defended themselves with heavy machinery, and the military shot and killed one striker and seriously wounded several others,” claims a press release of the People’s Assembly Movement.7

In the past months, Michele Bachelet’s government has opened too many fronts.  In addition to the Mapuche conflict there are student protests against the education law, which last year provoked demonstrations of hundreds of thousands of young people.  At the beginning of this year a still unresolved conflict began around the restructuring of public transportation in Santiago, since the TranSantiago project under way is harmful to the popular sector.  Now, on top of all this, is the death of a worker in a volatile region.  It’s possible that, as has already happened in other countries in the region, the Chilean population has begun to turn the page on savage neoliberalism.

The Democracy that’s Against the Mapuche

One of Pinochet’s Ministers once boasted that “in Chile there are no indigenous, everyone is Chilean.”  Consequently, the Dictatorship issued decrees to erase legal exceptions for the Mapuche and introduce the concept of private property onto their lands.  But “by denying the Mapuche people recognition as such, their identity was strengthened,” claims Gabriel Salazar, recent winner of the National History Prize.

At the beginning of the 80s there was a “social explosion” of the Mapuche in response to the decrees of 1979, which allowed for the division of over 1.1 million acres of indigenous land.  “The division,” says Salazar, “didn’t respect places that had always been considered communal land and were fundamental for the material and cultural survival of the Mapuche people, such as areas designated for forests, grazing, and religious ceremonies.  Population growth, combined with territorial reduction, contributed to “emptying” of the communities of their people and culture.”

Nor was democracy generous with the Mapuche.  While the dictatorship sought to finish them off, betting on their conversion from Indians to farmers, the Concertacion government (beginning in 1990) created new expectations.  President Patricio Aylwin opened spaces and promised his support for a law being debated in Parliament.  Nonetheless, unlike other countries on the continent, in 1992 Parliament rejected Bill 169 of the OIT and the constitutional recognition of the Mapuche as a people, despite the encouragement of the United Nations.8

Currently “the rural indigenous world is one component of the structural poverty in Chile,” argues Salazar.  In 1960 each Mapuche family had, on average, 22 acres, although the State claimed that they needed 123 acres to live with “dignity.”  Between 1979 and 1986 each family’s share was 13 acres, which in reality was reduced to only 7 acres per family.  Under the dictatorship, the Mapuche lost another 500-750 thousand acres which they had retained.  The advance of the timber and hydroelectric companies onto their lands, provoked an exponential increase in poverty and migration.

Desperate, many communities invaded lands stolen by the timber companies, for which they are now accused of “terrorism.”  The Anti-Terrorist Law of the dictatorship continues to be applied to communities that burn timber plantations, block roads or show contempt for the military.  At present there are dozens of Mapuche organizations that go back and forth between collaboration with the authorities and militant autonomy, not counting the birth of new urban groups, particularly in Santiago, where more than 40% of the one million Mapuche in Chile live, according to the 1992 census.


1 Letter from prison. José Huenchunao.
2 Interview with Héctor Llaitul
3 José Bengoa, History of the Mapuche People.
4 Idem, p. 41.
5 Interveiw with José Huenchunao.
6 Juan Carlos Gómez Leytón, ob. cit.
7 Communiqué from May 5th, 2007 at www.piensachile.com
8 Democratic Concertación is the name of the alliance between the Christian-Democratic Party, the Democratic Party, the Radical Party and the Socialist Party, which has governed in Chile since Pinochet gave up the presidency: Patricio Aylwin (1990-1995), Eduardo Frei Ruiz Tagle (1995- 2000), Ricardo Lagos (2000-2006) and Michelle Bachelet (2006).



Action Alert


There are many ways you can help support the Mapuche people’s struggle for land and autonomy.  Simply learning more about their struggle, and sharing that information with your friends, family and organizations is a great start. 


1)     WEBSITES: There’s a list of websites in English and Spanish below with more information about the Mapuche struggle.

2)     FILMS: Copies of “Mari Chi Weu,” a 2001 documentary about the Mapuche by French filmmakers Stephane Goxe and Christophe Coello, will be available soon.  Email Jesse.Barnes@umassmed.edu for more information.


There are also two more immediate concerns about which the Mapuche have asked for international support:


1)     The community of Rocanando, recently rebuilt on land recovered from the Mininco Timber Company, is now being threatened with eviction due to the presence of valuable minerals, including uranium, on their land.  They’ve asked that international pressure be placed on the regional government as well as the Mininco Forestry Company, both of whom would have to approve any mining project.  See sample letter below.


–Mininco Forestry Company: email forestalmininco@formin.cmpc.cl

          –Mining Ministry of Chile: email pmunoz@minmineria.cl

                   (attn: Karen Pollak, Minister and Carlos Latorre, Director 8th Region)



2)     Hector Llaitul, one of the leaders of the Mapuche resistance, is in Angol Prison, with the first of his trials scheduled for December 2007.  The case against him is based on testimony by only one witness, which was obtained under torture.  He’s asked for international solidarity to investigate and denounce this accusation of torture and demand that charges based on such methods are dropped immediately.  See sample letter below.


–DA’s office: fnacional@minpublico.cl (attn: Ximena Thumala, 8th Region DA, Guillermo Richard, 9th Region DA)

–Judge’s office (no email): Juzgado de Garantia de Nueva Imperial, Urrutia 546, N. Imperial (telephone # 613349)

–Chilean President: Michele Bachelet (www.gobierno.cl/contacto/contacto.asp)



Sample Letter/Email to Forestal Mininco and Ministerio de Mineria de Chile:


To whom it may concern-


I’m writing to voice my concern regarding the recent attempts to establish heavy metals mines near the town of Rocanando, on the shores of Lake Lleu Lleu in the 8th Region.  I would like to express my full support for the inhabitants of Rocanando and the neighboring communities, and hope that you will agree that neither timber nor mining enterprises should interfere with the right of the Mapuche to live on and farm their traditional lands in accordance with numerous national and international laws.  My organization and I eagerly await confirmation of your support for these human rights both in words and actions.





Sample Letter to Offices of Judge, DA and President Bachelet


To whom it may concern-


I have read with great concern of the recent arrest of Mapuche leader Hector Llaitul, and of the mistreatment he received while held at Temuco Prison.  I was furthered disturbed to read of the circumstances surrounding the testimony from Robert Painemil Parra against Mr. Llaitul; it is alleged that Mr. Parra was detained by a paramilitary group, tortured and then forced to give false testimony before a lawyer.  The presence of paramilitary organizations and the use of torture are absolutely incompatible with a government that claims to support human rights.  It is widely reported that the Timber Companies in southern Chile have indeed organized Vigilante Committees, which have been responsible in the past for similar acts to those committed against Mr. Parra.  I strongly urge that you fully investigate these latest reports and take serious action to eradicate paramilitary groups from the area.  I further demand that all charges against Mr. Llaitul based on testimony gathered with the use of torture be immediately dropped.  My organization and I eagerly await confirmation of your support for these human rights both in words and actions.





English Language Mapuche Websites

From Human Rights Resource Center Website (http://www.hrusa.org/indig/reports/mapuche.pdf)


1) Ñuke Mapu: Mapuche Documentation Center. Up-to-date press releases and publications about the Mapuche peoples’ struggles in South America and in international forums. Most of the website is in Spanish, though there are some links in English. http://www.mapuche.info/novedades/present01.html


2) Mapuche International Link (MIL) is an organization which brings together Mapuches from Chile and Argentina living in Europe, and is a member of the Mapuche Inter-regional Council. http://www.mapuche-nation.org/english/frontpage.htm


3) Derechos Human Rights is an umbrella organization for human rights organizations in Latin America. In English and Spanish: http://www.derechos.org/


Spanish Language Websites

Aukiñ Wallmapu Ngulam (All Lands Council):  www.mapuche.info

Arauco Malleco Coordinator (brief history): www.puntofinal.cl/544/estatierra.htm

Meli Wixan Mapu (Four Corners of the Earth): http://meli.mapuches.org

Mapuche Electronic Daily: www.nodo50.org/azkintuwe

Mapuche Information: www.mapuexpress.net

Mapuche Information: www.redchem.entodaspartes.org



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