Mapuche seek to Reclaim Land

tliouk office at
Sun May 25 19:24:27 BST 2003

author: By Héctor Tobar / LA Times Staff Writer 2003 
(news_2347 at 

Growing like cabbages in neat rows planted by one of the largest 
forestry companies in South America, the trees suck the water out of 
the ground, killing off streams and making wells run dry in this 
corner of Chile. For Ancalaf and other Mapuche Indian leaders, that 
is one indignity toomany.

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COLLIPULLI, Chile-- Growing like cabbages in neat rows planted by one 
of the largest forestry companies in South America, the trees suck 
the water out of the ground, killing off streams and making wells run 
dry in this corner of Chile. For Ancalaf and other Mapuche Indian 
leaders, that is one indignity toomany. So every now and then, the 
Mapuche set ablaze the trees and the trucks of companies that plant 
them. Ancalaf is charged with burning five vehicles as part of a 
smoldering, low-tech war that also is being fought with slingshots, 
chain saws and homemade shotguns. Just as often, however, the Mapuche 
fight back with peaceful means. Medicine women called machis pray for 
the spirits of the water and the earth to stand fast against 
the "exotic species" transplanted from North America and Australia. 
On the Internet, activists spread word of their struggles, making 
allies in Sweden, France and other countries where leftists have ties 
to Latin American compatriots. "We've entered into a period of 
darkness of water, and this is bringing us to the brink of 
extinction," said Rayen Kuyeh, a Mapuche poet and playwright. "If 
wanting to defend the spirits of the water, the trees, the birds, the 
earth and the air makes me a terrorist, then go ahead and call me a 
terrorist." The environmental impact of commercial tree farming in 
Chile has helped feed a renaissance of activism and cultural pride 
among the nation's 1 million Mapuche, the original inhabitants of 
what is now south-central Chile and parts of Argentina. The Mapuche 
held off European incursions onto their land for centuries, signing a 
1641 treaty with the Spanish crown that was later thrown out by an 
independent Chile, before the tribe was finally vanquished in the 
late 19th century. Relegated to reservations â€" called "reductions" 
here â€" most Mapuche now work as impoverished farmers or field hands 
or live as a marginalized minority in Chilean cities. "Our objective 
is the recuperation of the territory of the Mapuche people," Ancalaf, 
40, said in a jailhouse interview. "We want to control our destiny 
and shape our future according to the cosmology of our people." [In a 
manner presciently reminiscent of what the US is becoming:] Held 
without trial since November under anti-terrorism laws passed during 
the dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, Ancalaf and a dozen other 
militant leaders have become heroes to many Mapuche, even those who 
disagree with their tactics. "The Chilean state is criminalizing the 
struggle of the Mapuche," said Alfredo Seguel, a former government 
worker and a member now of Konapewman Mapuche, a group of university-
trained professionals who have forgone big-city life to return to 
their ethnic roots. "The movement to recuperate our territory isn't 
just political," he added. "It's also a social, cultural and 
religious struggle." In the last few years, the Mapuche have won 
mayoral and city council elections for the first time. In the city of 
Temuco, Mapuche university students have taken over abandoned 
properties and established communal homes. Activists have opened a 
Mapuche pharmacy in Temuco to dispense traditional herbal medicines 
that are disappearing in the wild in part because of the effects of 
tree farms, which now cover millions of acres of the Mapuche's 
ancestral land. Impoverished indigenous farmers have formed tribal 
councils to draft town constitutions and lobby local governments for 
the return of communal land. In all, there are as many as 100 local 
and regional Mapuche organizations in this region of Chile. "We are 
seeing a revitalization of all aspects of Mapuche culture, even of 
the Mapuche language, which was beginning to die out," said Alejandro 
Herrera, a professor at the University of the Frontier in 
Temuco. "Until recently, Mapuche parents wouldn't let their children 
speak Mapudungun because having a Mapuche accent when you spoke 
Spanish was a sign of backwardness," Herrera added. "Now, we see 
groups of young people forming study circles to learn the language." 
Pablo Huaiquilao is from a Mapuche family that left its impoverished 
rural village two generations ago. In college, he met other students 
who were starting to embrace their tribal identity. "I wanted to know 
who I was, where I came from," he said. So he sat down and talked 
with his grandmother. She spun a familial epic of land takeovers, 
massacres and the time Swiss colonists â€" sent by the Chilean 
government as homesteaders â€" set fire to the village's wheat 
harvest. "It was like putting together a jigsaw puzzle," he said. In 
the Chilean media, the modern "Mapuche conflict" is most often 
portrayed as a struggle between the order and reason of the country's 
European heritage and an indigenous culture dominated 
by "superstition" and violence. "Christian Group Attacks Machis," 
read a recent headline in the Temuco daily newspaper El Diario 
Austral, which detailed one religious leader's attempt to wean his 
followers away from indigenous remedies and healers. The Christian 
distributed fliers that read: "Brother, if you don't want to be in 
bad standing with the true God, reject these customs that the Mapuche 
culture offers you." Farmers See Threat For Manuel Riesco, a sugar 
beet farmer and president of a growers organization in Temuco, the 
indigenous movement is a threat to farmers, some of whom have had 
their homes burned down and their lives threatened because of 
property disputes with neighboring Mapuche. "This is not going to be 
the next Chiapas," he said, referring to the southern Mexican state 
where indigenous rebels have battled government troops. "We're 
talking about 200 hotheads, and those hotheads have 20 leaders who 
are now in jail." Many farmers here are descendants of Swiss, German 
and Italian immigrants who settled in the region in the early 20th 
century. In the years since, descendants of the settlers have 
acquired more land thanks to a series of decrees and laws that have 
eaten away at indigenous communal holdings. Only in recent years have 
the Mapuche started to fight back. "This is becoming like the Wild 
West," Riesco said. Smoldering for decades, the conflict over land 
began to catch fire again in the late 1990s. Like others here, Riesco 
says the globalization of the Chilean economy and the government's 
free-trade policies were the cause. The grain and dairy farms that 
were once the cornerstone of the regional economy have been hard hit 
by cheaper American exports. A farmer who once employed dozens of 
Mapuche as laborers can find himself forced to leave land fallow or 
sell out to the forestry companies. Thousands of former laborers have 
been thrown out of work and forced to migrate to the cities. Two-
thirds of the Mapuche in Chile now live in Santiago, the capital and 
largest city. As the Mapuche are forced to leave the countryside, 
trees seem to take their place â€" clusters of eucalyptus and pine 
planted in old wheat fields or where native forests stood. Harvested 
by machine, the pine and eucalyptus trees are processed into lumber 
and paper pulp for North American and Asian markets. The companies 
that own those trees are constant targets of protest, including the 
Santiago-based Mininco, which owns many of the trees around 
Collipulli. In November, Mapuche activist Edmundo Lemun, 17, was shot 
and killed by police during a protest at tree farms in Ercilla. On 
Jan. 20, more than a dozen hooded Mapuche with homemade shotguns and 
Molotov cocktails invaded a Mininco workers' camp outside the town, 
setting fire to the living quarters. In confrontations with police 
and forestry company guards, youths cover their faces with hoods and 
scarves and sometimes hurl rocks with slingshots, a traditional 
weapon used in battles past. "We're not in conflict with anyone," 
said Francisco Urzelain, a spokesman for Mininco. The controversy is 
ancient history, he said, as relevant to modern Chile as American 
Indian claims to Massachusetts. Corporate Stance "The Mapuche were 
here before the Spanish came. We bought this land 20 years ago. No 
one has presented any evidence in court to say we bought the land 
illegally," Urzelain added before declining further comment. Mininco 
and other companies also have become the target of a public relations 
campaign led by European and American activists, including the San 
Francisco-based group ForestEthics. Most of the trees planted in the 
region are Monterey pine â€" a species native to California â€" and 
eucalyptus from Australia, says Aaron Sanger of ForestEthics. The 
density of the planting causes ground water to disappear, he says. 
Often,the trees grow so close together that wildlife can't walk 
between them. "Those trees are like an army marching across Chile, 
consuming Mapuche culture," Sanger said. Native trees such as the 
canelo and the luma, both integral to Mapuche religious practices, 
are being driven toward extinction. According to one Chilean 
government study, all native trees outside national parks could 
disappear by 2015. Violent resistance to the tree farms first 
exploded in 1997, when Mapuche residents set fire to logging trucks 
outside the town of Lumaco, whose name means "waters of the luma 
tree." Herrera, the University of the Frontier professor, said the 
incident came after years during which the Mapuche tried 
unsuccessfully to lobby local government. "They exhausted all the 
procedures of the democratic system," Herrera said. "A week before 
they set fire to the trucks, they traveled to Temuco in a last effort 
to meet with the governor. But he wouldn't even let them in the 
door." Six years later, Lumaco's Mapuche residents are still 
seething. Last year, a group of men wearing ski masks and hoods used 
axes and chain saws to level eucalyptus trees at the nearby Alaska 
Tree Farm. Today, several leaders from the Lumaco area are behind 
bars, charged with destroying forest company property. As elsewhere, 
water shortages contribute to the conflict. "Twenty years ago, I 
don't think anyone in our community imagined that one day we would 
have to bring in water trucks to provide for the basic needs of our 
families," said Alfonso Rayman, a leader of the Nagche Mapuche, a 
subgroup that includes several communities around Lumaco. In an 
attempt to soothe such passions, the local government has provided 
town residents with cisterns to store water. But such programs, 
Rayman says, don't address the root cause of the problem. The village 
sits in a narrow valley surrounded by thick green clusters of trees, 
each a company farm. For the Mapuche to feel free, Rayman says, those 
trees must disappear. "The Chilean government understands the 
indigenous problem as a problem of poverty," he said. "But what 
drives us is the return of our land and the end of this invasion." A 
few days earlier, in a small act of defiance, a group of boys had set 
a fire in a hillside meadow near the town, Rayman said with a slight 
smile. The blaze ran up the hillside and killed hundreds of saplings. 
In the face of such resistance, the national government is trying a 
carrot-and-stick approach. It works to improve schools and other 
services in the region while adopting a get-tough attitude toward the 
most militant leaders. "We've worked very hard with the forestry 
companies and the indigenous communities" to resolve the conflicts, 
said Ramiro Pizarro, governor of Chile's 9th Region, which includes 
Temuco, Ercilla and Collipulli. "And there are people who want to 
destroy that work." For those militants, Chile is using its anti-
terrorism laws, which deprivedetainees of the right to a speedy trial 
and allow prosecutors to withhold evidence from defense attorneys. 
Ancalaf, the Mapuche organizer from Collipulli, remains defiant. "We 
call on all the Mapuche communities to begin a process of 
recuperating their territory," he said. "Whether they decide to do it 
with violence or without is a decision of each community." Still, he 
makes clear that he believes fire is an especially effective tool in 
advancing the cause. "If it hadn't been for that, the government 
wouldn't even be listening to the problems of the Mapuche people," he 

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