Course:CONS200/2021/The rise and impact of Indigenous environmental activist and land defenders in Chile

From UBC Wiki

The Mapuche (Che meaning people, and Mapu meaning land), are a group of indigenous people who reside in an area known as the Province of Arauco (Araucanía). Beginning in the 1860s, the Mapuche have had to defend their land from colonizers, private businesses, and the governments of Chilé and Argentina [1]. Araucanía is a highly desired piece of land, due to the fertility of the soil and the coastal access. The Mapuche have a strong cultural connection to the land, and the fact that they have needed to defend it has made the land even more important [2]. Current reconciliation efforts are tainted by the past mistreatments by the government, and are often corrupted by opportunists who would like to exploit the land for its natural resources [3] [4]. The Mapuche are now more involved in the government conservation efforts, but many Mapuche view the current conservation efforts as not far enough [1].

Government and Indigenous Conflict

Map of Mapuche Territory

Occupation of Araucanía and its Impact(1862-1900s)

The Mapuche people have an extended history of defending their land from Incan, Spanish, and Chilean forces [1]. In the 1850’s, the Chilean state attempted to gain more control over Mapuche territory, creating the Province of Arauco (or Araucanía). The land of Arauco was fertile, and the Chilean state intended to sell the land to buyers and use it to stimulate their agriculture export economy. The Chilean government began gradually occupying the Mapuche territory in 1862. By 1883, the Chilean military successfully occupied the entire region [5]. With their victory, the Chilean government began the assimilation process for Indigenous peoples. Mapuche land was redistributed to non-Indigenous buyers, leaving the Mapuche people with only 5% of their original territory [1].

Despite the loss of land and power, the Mapuche people slowly worked to restore their power. Demonstrations and land seizures on the Chilean occupied lands were met with violent state suppression. Mapuche leaders eventually found positions as district judges, giving the Mapuche people some influence over local army regiments. In the early 1900s, Mapuche members became more politically active, collaborating with the budding communist party of Chile [5].

Agrarian Reform (1962-1973)

Efforts to reconcile with the Mapuche people began with land reform in the 1960s and 1970s in response to land demands and demonstrations. Agrarian reform was started by Eduardo Frei Montalva and land distribution continued under Allende who succeeded Frei in 1970 [3]. The land reform resulted in nearly 70000 hectares of land being restored to Indigenous ownership [1].

These efforts were inefficient, however. Leaders in Mapuche communities were not satisfied with the reconciliation efforts and organized protests and land seizures in response [1]. Allende’s administration was set back by the opposition, slowing reconciliation endeavours. Additionally, Allende’s administration rejected policies put forward by Mapuche activists such as Rosendo Huenuman who had joined Allende’s Communist Party in hopes of refining the Agrarian Reform. Huenuman campaigned to make the Agrarian Reform legislation better meet Mapuche demands, but the party had voted against him, furthering the rift between the government and the Mapuche people [3].

Military Dictatorship (1973-1990)

All land reform efforts ended abruptly following the military coup in 1973, leading to a dictatorship under Augusto Pinochet. Many of the land reforms introduced the past decade had been reversed in a process known as the Agrarian Counter-Reform, taking 84% of the land that had been restored to the Mapuche communities. In 1979, Decree 2568 was issued, stripping Mapuche people of their communal lands and privatizing them for exploitation. Along with the 1974 Decree Law 701 which allowed companies to build plantations on formerly Mapuche land, Pinochet had stripped the Mapuche people of their land for economic exploitation [1]. The division of Mapuche land into individual plots of land left communities divided and rural Mapuche impoverished, causing many to migrate to the cities [6]. In addition to recolonizing the land, many Mapuche people were persecuted via imprisonment, torture, exile, or death [3]. The 1981 Antiterrorist act allowed the Pinochet government to punish Mapuche activists [7].

Despite Pinochet’s efforts to suppress the Mapuche, Indigenous activism in Chile still persisted throughout the military dictatorship. Leaders of the Mapuche forged alliances with various organizations. Non-governmental organizations aided the Mapuche with legal aid and workshops; meanwhile, the Catholic church—who also opposed the military dictatorship— helped establish the Ad Mapu (originally the Mapuche Cultural Centre) in 1978. The Ad Mapu helped organise activism for Indigenous rights throughout the 1980s [1].

In 1988, the Pinochet government introduced a plebiscite that allowed for electoral opposition. The Concertación championed Indigenous rights in their campaign. Patricio Aylwin, the Concertación’s presidential candidate, introduced the New Imperial Act which promised to restore Indigenous land rights and strengthen Indigenous rights. While some Mapuche leaders were skeptical of the party’s promises, others joined the party in hopes of resolving the injustices their people had faced. In 1990, the party was elected, formally restoring democracy in Chile [1].

Concertación Party and Reconciliation (1990-2010)

Following the restoration of democracy, the Concertación party began implementing pro-Indigenous commissions and laws. The Special Commission for Indigenous People (CEPI) was created, comprised of equal government and Indigenous representatives, and a three person directorate. CEPI worked on Indigenous Law from 1990 to 1993. In 1993, the Indigenous Law was passed, promoting development of Indigenous spaces and culture. The National Corporation for Indigenous Development (CONADI) was established by CEPI to help better involve Indigenous leaders in politics. Additionally, a Land Fund was launched to start buying Mapuche land that had been privatized by the Pinochet dictatorship [1].

Along with restrengthening Indigenous rights, the Concertación party also worked on environmental law and institutions following Pinochet’s unrestricted exploitation of Chilean land. Aylwin (1990-1994) and his successor, Eduardo Frei Ruiz-Tagle (1994-2000), strengthened sustainable practices through the 1994 Environmental Framework Law to ensure that those who contribute to pollution or environmental harm are held accountable. Additionally, two commission were established: The National Environmental Commission (CONAMA) and the Regional Environmental Commissions (COREMAS) [1].

Despite strides to treat the Mapuche people better and to use the land more ethically and sustainably, the Concertación party did not completely deliver on its promises. While some efforts to restore land rights to the Mapuche were underway, the Concertación had continued to fund timber production on land that had been stolen and privatized by the Pinochet dictatorship [1]. Additionally, many private companies pushed back against restoring land rights to the Mapuche people. Mapuche leaders became increasingly distrustful of the government after witnessing their support for private companies over Indigenous rights [1].

The hydroelectric projects, Pangue and Ralco, caused even more tension between the government and Indigenous environmental activists [1]. The construction of Pangue began during Pinochet’s dictatorship by the National Electric Company (ENDESA). This dam was squarely in Mapuche territory. Its construction was the source of much controversy, with claims that the project was contributing to the ethnocide of the Mapuche. Since the project was underway before new Indigenous and environmental law was enacted, the construction of Pangue continued. However, as the Ralco dam would prove, the laws put in place would do little to stop controversial projects [1].

ENDESA proposed a second hydroelectric project—the Ralco. The dam would be constructed in Mapuche highlands, the Upper Bío Bío River, where the Pehuenche resided. This project would result in the relocation of the Pehuenche people, prompting some government commissions and activist groups to step in. CONAMA and CONADI also raised concerns over the project [1]. In 1996, CONAMA rejected the Environmental Impact Study (EIS) for Ralco as it did not sufficiently evaluate the impact on the environment and Mapuche culture. Frei pressured both CONAMA and CONADI to support the project. In 1998, CONADI had discovered that Raclo construction had begun before proper approval was given and demanded that construction was halted. Frei reacted by replacing CONADI members with appointees who would vote in favour of Ralco, including replacing the appointed directory with CONADI’s first non-Indigenous director. Construction of the dam was completed in 2003, resulting in Pehuenche families being completely removed from their homes and tensions between the government and Mapuche activists rising [1].

In response to the Concertación party’s failing to deliver on their provinces, Chile experienced an increase of radical groups. These groups, such as the Consejo de Todas Las Tierras (All Lands Council) used land-seizure strategies. Aylwin used the antiterrorism laws in response, resulting in 144 Mapuche land activists being imprisoned by 1992 [1]. The use of the antiterrorist law would become common as more conflicts began between Mapuche activists and companies following CONADI’s failed restoration agreement in 1999. Clashes continued through 2000. Mapuche leaders accused the government of militarizing Mapuche land following incidents of police brutality and imprisonment. CONADI attempted to open up peaceful negotiations over land rights and freeing protestors between Mapuche leaders and Frei, however Frei refused to meet with Mapuche leaders [1].

In 2000, Ricardo Lagos became the new leader of the Concertación and promised to better respond to Indigenous issues. CONADI received an increased budget resulting in 50000 hectares of land being returned to Mapuche groups. Additionally, the Historical Truth and New Deal Commission was enacted to depict the historical treatment and recognition of Indigenous peoples more accurately in Chile. Throughout his presidency, Lagos still used the dictatorship era antiterrorism laws to persecute Mapuche protestors [1].

Current Reconciliation Efforts

Policy Evolution

Official Presidential Portait of Michelle Bachelet 2014-2018

The argument for protection of Chile’s natural resources versus monetization of these sectors has shaped much of the conflict between Indigenous groups and the current government [7]. The constant back and forth between these two groups was largely to question the government’s legitimacy, while also preventing the loss of Indigenous land area. There is an ongoing disconnect between government concern for Indigenous land rights, and actual legislation which accuses these groups of posing security threats [7]. Mapuche Indigenous territory experienced terrible treatment from active and previous governments due to projects that had severe impact on their lands. Moreover, these project proposals often made their way through all levels of government without consultation of the Indigenous land owners [8]. Chile was also one of the last Latin American countries to constitutionally recognize its Indigenous communities [9].

Bachelet Presidency (2006-2010)

Michelle Bachelet was the first female president of Chile and held office from 2006-2010 and again from 2014-2018 [4]. This meant that she was at the forefront of most modern policy surrounding the treatment of Indigenous communities in Chile. A year into office, Bachelet proposed that 5 topics of Indigenous policy undergo reform: participation, rights, the urban Indigenous, Indigenous women, and education. Along with these areas of general reform, Bachelet wanted to focus on establishing female representation in the CONADI as well as officially acknowledging the Mapuche Indigenous group in the constitution [4]. Adoption of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and the ILO Convention concerning Indigenous rights was a cornerstone in Bachelet’s attempt to aid Indigenous groups. Under this presidency the Mapuche were attempting to establish their own political party, the Mapuche Nationalist Party or Wallmapuwen. Their hopes were to govern their ancestral land independently as they felt they had a right to do so. Unfortunately, they never achieved the goal of political party recognition and Chile remains a country where Indigenous representation is still not a part of politics. This political hypocrisy of Bachelet sent her presidential era into a tailspin. She continued to act in recist ways towards Chile’s Indigenous population and often blatantly disregarded political policy surrounding proper treatment of their land [4].

Piñera Policy (2010-2014)

Official Presidential Portrait of Sebastian Piñera

Sebastián Piñera is Chile’s current president and began leading after Bachelet’s term. His first term was from 2010-2014 and the second began in 2018 and is still underway. Piñera chose to promote policies very similar to that of Bachelet with the continued hopes of getting the Mapuche constitutionally recognized. The early years of Piñera’s term were plagued by violence and unrest in Chilean Indigenous communities. There was noticeable dislike of a slightly more right wing government and protests began early and often within Chile but also on an international scale [4]. Piñera support of hydroelectric projects on Mapuche land was one of the major factors contributing to these aggressive protests [10]. Unfortunately, Piñera continued to support the use of Anti-Terrorism legislation against Mapuche protests, something that was also used in the Bachelet government. In 2014 Chilean mistreatment of Mapuche individuals was recognized by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights [4].

Bachelet's Second Term (2014-2018)

One of the policies that Bachelet entered office with for her second term of presidency was that she would no longer use the Anti-Terrorism act to prosecute Mapuche people. This statement brought with it constant backlash from the booming forestry industry in Chile that many corporations relied on for economic gain. Unsurprisingly, this led to a second term where Bachelet went back on her word and continued to mistreat the Mapuche Indigenous community in the name of monetary gain. Protests continued to occur regularly and sometimes violently throughout Bachelet’s time in office [10].

Piñera's Second Term (2018-Present)

A recurring trend amongst Bachelet and Piñera’s presidency is the mistreatment of Mapuche people and land, this did not change during Piñera’s second and current term. Early on in Piñera’s second term a farmer named Camilo Catrillanca died at the hands of Chilean police officers. Piñera attempted to seek justice in the public eye yet was continuously ridiculed for supporting the use of force despite the lack of cause. This instigated a slight shift in the dynamic between the Mapuche and the government, where Mapuche were now experiencing aggression from police as well as mistreatment in the judicial system. Overall, the modern day conflict still centers around land and resource depletion at the hands of the Piñera government. As expected protests to protect Mapuche lands are still common and still quite violent in nature, and if governments continue to neglect proper policy changes, this situation will remain [4].

Case Example (2013)

The death of Werner Luchsinger and Vivianne Mackay took place in January 2013 and is an important example of the exploitation of Indigenous communities by the Chilean government. Werner and Mackay passed away in a fire that was believed at the time to have been started by a Mapuche protester defending land area A Mapuche individual was shot in the neck by Luchsinger on the night of the incident and managed to survive the whole ordeal. This individual however was immediately prosecuted under the Anti-Terrorism act that was popular under the Piñera government at the time. The use of this legislation brought forth disagreement across the country, and investigations revealed that there was no grounds for prosecuting under the Anti-Terrorism act in the first place. The Mapuche individual who was shot was eventually sentenced to 18 years in prison for arson [7].

The Anti-Terrorism act was used to prematurely prosecute 11 more individuals but all charges were dropped when no evidence justified any of the charges. Lastly, the case was reopened by Piñera in 2018, and evidence came to light that all evidence against the Mapuche individuals was based on testimony taken by brutally detaining and torturing one of the suspects[7]. Unfortunately this story took place all too recently and proves that the current legislation is actively used to mistreat and harm the Indigenous communities of Chile.

Conservation Efforts in Chile

Protected Areas

As a country Chile is expanding its National System of Protected Areas (NSPA), as a whole, the inclusion of ecoregions not yet present in the NSPA is the main priority [11]. This is a popular strategy amongst countries all over the world to better preserve biodiversity and improve conservation techniques [11]. To increase the overall presence of protected areas in Chile, private protected areas (PPA’s) are prevalent throughout the country and controlled by powerful wealthy individuals. These PPA’s are another program that is beneficial to the Chilean economy yet quite costly to the Indigenous community. Because of ongoing turmoil between the government and Chile’s Indigenous communities, the continued focus on using natural resources for monetary gain is very upsetting to communities surrounding PPA’s. For example, Indigenous people who live nearby Oncol Park, a large PPA in Chile, felt that the owner of the PPA had more power with the state, and that their perspectives were largely ignored in conservation efforts. The detrimental effects of PPA’s on terrestrial land is often felt by Indigenous communities in the form of continued soil degradation and toxic runoff into local water sources [12]. Privately owned marine ecosystems are also of high concern amongst Indigenous communities. These marine areas are also experiencing overuse in order to reap the economic benefits they provide. To combat expanded salmon-farming activity, local Indigenous groups have begun creating Indigenous Marine Areas (IMA’s) to preserve traditional uses of certain coastal ecosystems. The implementation of IMA’s is crucial for promotion of conservation as well as protection of sacred Indigenous areas [13].

Water Sources in Chile

Chile has highly variable water conditions with arid areas in the north and wet areas in the south. Due to topography and being a thin country, Chile is made up of many rivers but central Chile diverts and streams are often polluted. Chilean water has gotten much better although it still has a high concentration of metals and nitrates while water in the south is relatively unaffected and quite abundant. Overall, Chile has a challenging landscape to allow for adequate water management. This is tough because over 70% of the country's exports depend on a constant water supply [14].

Holistic Approach to Water Management

For Indigenous Communities, their relationship with water is most important. As a result, water holds a distinct spiritual relationship with these communities. The Indigenous peoples hold plenty of knowledge on how to protect and preserve water sources. Indigenous groups generally carry an holistic view and an interconnected view of nature opposed to the utilitarian western view. In Latin America Indigenous rights to natural resources are central to many decisions in the inter-American court of human rights. In these courts, it is generally emphasized that Indigenous groups have the right to own and possess both their land and natural resources. Presently, they are included in the management decisions for these lands [14].

Indigenous Water Rights

Indigenous peoples water use has no mention in the Chilean legislation or policy framework but they are recognized somewhat in the allocation of water use. Indigenous groups must prove historical use of water and future intended use if they hope to own the land [14]. The Chilean government only wants to support the economic use of water. As a result, there is still ongoing uncertainty amongst Indigenous water users. There is some protection of water, although limited Indigenous people do technically have constitutionally protected water rights. This is because the state was hoping to protect water for the benefit of Indigenous communities. However, the Chilean government was accused of failing to consult Indigenous peoples and then this proposal failed as the government changed to a right wing focused leader who took Indigenous mentions out of the bill altogether. This lack of change sparked social protest in 2019. This sparked the need for a change whereby discussions were postponed due to Covid-19 and are still ongoing to this day [14].

Land Policies

In Latin America, government land policy traditionally understands land to be an economic resource capable of facilitating development [9]. However, since the 1990s, land policy in Latin America has been increasingly shaped by the demands of Indigenous peoples. In Chile, Mapuche people are the ones adversely affected by land policies where historically policies prioritize the economic utility of land and economic interest. This was evident when logging was promoted over the protection of Mapuche lands [15]. This is due to anti-terrosism policy being used unjustly against Mapuche people. Indigenous groups have begun to call for the recognition of the economic, social, political and historical components of territory [9]. The mobilization of Indigenous groups shows an alternative conceptualization of land runs which counters the development of land markets. Indigenous communities are making demands for the recognition of territory. This stems from their belief that the utility of land stems not from its economic utility, but rather from a deeper relationship between indigenous peoples and land [2].

Logging and the Mapuche People

The forestry industry is one of the greatest causes of conflict between Chile and the Mapuche. Under the neoliberal regime Mapuche land was given to logging companies and the land was taken over by tree plantations [15]. Monterey pine and eucalyptus trees plantations were placed all over Mapuche land but these species are not native and consume large amounts of water and fertilizer. This monoculture is destroying sacred Mapuche land but is continually used because all Chile wood export comes from the southern Mapuche region of Chile [16]. This has detrimental effects to the local environment. An organization was formed in 1998 by the Mapuche nation to support communities involved in conflicts over land and was called the Arauco Malleco Coordinating Group of Communities in Conflict (CAM). This group underwent many different types of peaceful to more aggressive resistance. In opposition, small armies were made to protect logging company land from Mapuche resistance and the government invoked the anti-terrorism act. Over 200 Mapuche people were arrested under the anti-terrorism act for land protests. Furthermore, illegal investigation and detainment were allowed. Mapuche people are exhausted with struggle as the Mapuche and logging companies can come to no mutual agreement [16].


  1. 1.00 1.01 1.02 1.03 1.04 1.05 1.06 1.07 1.08 1.09 1.10 1.11 1.12 1.13 1.14 1.15 1.16 1.17 1.18 1.19 Carruthers, David; Rodriguez, Patricia (June 2009). "Mapuche Protest, Environmental Conflict and Social Movement Linkage in Chile". Third World Quarterly. 30 (4): 743–760. doi: Check |doi= value (help).
  2. 2.0 2.1 Davis, Shelton; Wali, Alaka (December 1994). "Indigenous land tenure and tropical forest management in Latin America". Ambio. 23 (8): 485–490.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 Carter, Daniel (June 2010). "Chile's Other History: Allende, Pinochet, and Redemocratisation in Mapuche Perspective". Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism. 10 (1): 59–75. doi: Check |doi= value (help).
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 4.5 4.6 Brey, Cecilia (2020). "Land Rights and Regime Change: Trends in Mapuche Territorial Conflict from 1970 to Present in South-Central Chile". Proceedings of GREAT Day. 2019 (7).
  5. 5.0 5.1 Crow, Joanna (January 2013). The Mapuche in Modern Chile: A Cultural History. University Press of Florida. p. 19-82. ISBN 9780813045023.
  6. Echeverría, Andrea (September 2018). "The land inside: Mapuche memory and territory in Adriana Paredes Pinda's Parias Zugun". Latin American and Caribbean ethnic studies. 13 (3): 282–304. doi:10.1080/17442222.2018.1499594.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 7.4 Balasco, Lauren Marie; Bauer, Kelly (October 2020). "Political contestation within the human security paradigm: the state and indigenous rights in Peru and Chile". Revue canadienne d'études du développement. 41 (4): 561–579. doi:10.1080/02255189.2020.1784107.
  8. Acevedo, Paulina; Aylwin, José; Didier, Marcel; Silva, Hernando; Karina, Vargas (May 2020). "Indigenous World 2020". International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs. Citizens' Observatory of Chile.
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 Bauer, Kelly (March 2015). "Land versus Territory: Evaluating Indigenous Land Policy for the Mapuche in Chile". Journal of Agrarian Change. 16 (4): 627–645. doi:10.1111/joac.12103.
  10. 10.0 10.1 Grossrau, Mckenna (2009). "The Mapuche and Chilean State: An Analysis of the State Reaction to Mapuche Protests". Croft Institute for International Studies.
  11. 11.0 11.1 Squeo, Francisco; Estévez, Rodrigo; Stoll, Alexandra; Gayner, Carlos; Letelier, Luis; Sierralta, Leonel (March 2012). "Towards the creation of an integrated system of protected areas in Chile: achievements and challenges". Plant Ecology & Diversity. 5 (2): 233–243. doi:10.1080/17550874.2012.679012.
  12. Serenari, Christopher; Peterson, M. Nils; Wallace, Tim; Stowhas, Paulina (January 2017). "Indigenous Perspectives on Private Protected Areas in Chile". Natural Areas Journal. 37 (1): 98–107. doi:10.3375/043.037.0112.
  13. Araos, Francisco; Anbleyth-Evans, Jeremy; Riquelme, Wladimir; Hidalgo, Carlos; Brañas, Francisco; Catalán, Emilia; Núñez, David; Diestre, Florencia (June 2020). "Marine Indigenous Areas: Conservation Assemblages for Sustainability in Southern Chile". Coastal Management. 48 (4): 289=307. doi:10.1080/08920753.2020.1773212.
  14. 14.0 14.1 14.2 14.3 Macpherson, Elizabeth; Weber Salazar, Pia (November 2020). "Towards a Holistic Environmental Flow Regime in Chile: Providing for Ecosystem Health and Indigenous Rights". Transitional Environmental Law. 9 (3): 481–519. doi:10.1017/S2047102520000254.
  15. 15.0 15.1 Rohter, Larry (August 2004). "Mapuche Indians in Chile Struggle to Take Back Forests". New York Times.
  16. 16.0 16.1 Miranda, Chandler (2013). "Neoliberalism and the Mapuche". Department of History senior seminar thesis paper, Western Oregon University.

Seekiefer (Pinus halepensis) 9months-fromtop.jpg
This conservation resource was created by Course:CONS200. It is shared under a CC-BY 4.0 International License.