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The Mapuches: Chile's Overlooked Security Problem

Diego Solis
Field Researcher, Stratfor
7 MINS READMar 26, 2017 | 13:01 GMT
Chile's largest indigenous group, the Mapuches, protest in Santiago on Oct. 12, 2015. The group is working to reclaim land taken from them during the country's military dictatorship.
(CHRISTIAN MIRANDA/AFP/Getty Images)
Chile's largest indigenous group, the Mapuches, protest in Santiago on Oct. 12, 2015. The group is working to reclaim land taken from them during the country's military dictatorship.

By Diego Solis

There's no shortage of militant movements in Latin America, including left-wing colectivos in Venezuela and right-wing paramilitary squads in Colombia. But one group in southern Chile receives less attention than the rest — not for any lack of fierceness or importance. Chile is one of the most geographically isolated countries in the world. In the country's north, the Atacama Desert has prevented the establishment of large human settlements. East of Santiago the Andean mountain chain has hampered political and social coordination with Argentina. And to the west the vast Pacific Ocean separates Chile from all but a few far-flung islands, including Easter Island. South of the Bio Bio River, a human rather than physical encumbrance has hindered settlement. The Mapuche tribe, through guerilla warfare, prevented the Spanish conquistadors from uniting their Chilean settlements and still wages war on the Chilean state today.

Nation Building

Pressured to expand its agricultural base and territory, between 1860 and 1890 the Chilean government conquered and annexed what the Spaniards had been unable to for roughly 300 years: Mapuche land, south of the Bio Bio River into the Strait of Magellan. The government could have seized the region much earlier, but it had little impetus to do so, thanks to a difficult war of independence that ravaged Chile from 1810 to 1826 until the conquering of the Chiloe archipelago. But in 1860, a French lawyer who became a staunch advocate for Mapuche independence, Orelie Antoine de Tounens, was named king of La Araucania and Patagonia, a kingdom that the Mapuche claimed for themselves so as to protect their territory and identity from Spanish influence. Chile, of course, would not allow so much of its territory to be lost without a fight — especially given its growing population and need for the arable lands in Mapuche territory.

In 1862, King Orelie Antoine I was apprehended by the Chileans and later deported to France. Without their king, the Mapuche stuck to their cause and fought a guerrilla-like war against the Chilean military. But the movement was weakened by its lack of a strong leader and organizational cohesion, and in 1883 the Pacification of Araucania came to an official end. The Mapuches lost the war, their bid for independence, and much of their autonomy but not their territory. That would come later.

At the Mercy of Politics

In the late 19th century, having successfully annexed Mapuche lands, Santiago sought to govern the conquered areas through several laws and decrees. Later, in 1979, the Chilean state, under military dictator Augusto Pinochet, enacted the 2568 decree and ceased to identify the Mapuches as an independent ethnic group and began to grant individual pieces of land to Chilean settlers in the Mapuche regions of Bio Bio, Araucania and Los Lagos. The move unsurprisingly stirred historical resentment and reignited the long-dormant conflict between the Chilean government and Mapuche indigenous groups. According to some estimates, under Pinochet's rule Mapuche land was reduced from roughly 10 million hectares to less than 400,000.

Things improved after the fall of the military dictatorship. In 1993, the government of President Patricio Aylwin enacted the Indigenous Law, which among other things recognized the Mapuche as an ethnic group, granted them the right to protect their ancestral lands and awarded them restitution for some of the territory they lost under Pinochet. Aylwin's government also established the National Corporation for Indigenous Development (CONADI) to oversee the development of the country's indigenous communities. But the concessions were limited: Aylwin left the task of returning Mapuche land to the group up to the next administration, which slowed the restitution process considerably and stoked Mapuche mistrust of CONADI.

Then a new flashpoint emerged in 1995. In order to construct an energy plant at the banks of the Bio Bio River, engineers planned to flood ancient Mapuche burial grounds. In 1997, after years of worsening tension, the Mapuche conducted their first attack in years, burning an Arauco Corp. truck in Lumaco that was transporting wood from a disputed track of land. The objective was clear: recover ancestral lands and establish an autonomous state, to be known as Wallampu.

Modern Conflict

In 1998, Mapuche groups banded together under the Arauco Malleco Coordination (WEFTUN) to combat and resist the Chilean state's perceived encroachment. President Ricardo Lagos rose to meet the challenge, applying Pinochet's anti-terrorism laws against the WEFTUN and arresting many of its leaders. In a more conciliatory gesture, the president promised to grant the Mapuches 150,000 hectares of land — of which less than 30,000 were actually granted. Lagos' crackdown in La Araucania set a precedent that endured through the next two presidential terms and that the Mapuche argue is a violation of their human rights.

Today, WEFTUN — which is highly decentralized into Territorial Organs of Resistance — is actively and violently fighting back against the Chilean state, employing arson, vandalism and large-scale protests to fight what they see as oppressive and unjust laws targeting them. According to the Araucania Business Association, between 2012 and 2016, armed cells linked to WEFTUN have committed an average of roughly 300 attacks each year. However, the issue goes beyond a simple matter of indigenous rights. Because of the Mapuche's historical struggle against the Chilean state, eco-terrorist groups such as the Individualists Tending Toward the Wild and former members of the Manuel Rodriguez Patriotic Front have joined Mapuche resistance movements to advance their own leftist agendas. According to Chile's National Intelligence Agency, the Individualists Tending Toward the Wild were linked to the bombing of the Santiago Metro System in 2015 and an attack against the Physical Sciences and Mathematics Faculty at the University of Chile in May 2016. Most recently, in March, one of WEFTUN's Territorial Organs of Resistance burned 19 trucks in Araucania.

Despite the attacks, the movement does not pose an existential threat to the state. The Chilean government, marked as it is by the Pinochet legacy, is proficient in combatting violent social movements. The bigger challenge will be justifying to the Chilean people and to the international community its use of anti-terrorism laws against Mapuche groups when not all are violent. In fact, U.N. special rapporteur on human rights and counter-terrorism, Ben Emmerson, criticized Chile's anti-terrorism law in 2013, saying it had been used arbitrarily by the state. Chilean President Michelle Bachelet is working to reach a settlement with Mapuche leaders. But even if a settlement is reached, its terms likely won't be easy to abide by.

The Mapuche conflict is likely only to intensify in the years to come. As Chile grows, its people will push south. Right now, Chile's second largest metropolitan area, Greater Concepcion, is just three hours away by car from Temuco, capital of Araucania. Then, there's water. Most of Chile's vast water resources are located in Mapuche territory. As mining and demographic pressure stretches the north's water resources, there will be more pressure to exploit and distribute the water resources in Mapuche territory.

Eventually, as the conflict escalates, Mapuche groups could again stage an uprising. Yet, given the logistical difficulties and the risk of doing so, it is more likely that the Mapuche will continue partnering with human rights and environmentalist groups to strengthen their presence in the region they consider rightfully theirs. And though the Chilean government might concede to some Mapuche demands, it will not do anything to jeopardize the country's territorial integrity. 

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