Oct 11, 2011

Mapuche Protest Draws Ten Thousand Supporters

Around 10.000 people marched peacefully through the capitol of Chile on Monday in support of the indigenous Mapuche people.

Below is an article written by UNPO


The Mapuche activists marched peacefully through the centre of Santiago on Monday, 10 October 2011, dressed in traditional costumes and carrying flags.

The protest march marked the 519th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the Americas - the start of the Spanish conquest. For the Mapuche, “[i]t signifies the arrival of the Spanish usurpers and all they brought with them, colonialism and imperialism,” Manuel Diaz (spokesman for the organization Meli Witran Mapu) told the Spanish news agency Efe. For indigenous groups such as the Mapuche, it is considered a day of mourning.

With a population of 1.3 million people, the Mapuche make up almost 10 percent of Chile’s 15.8 million inhabitants. They are the largest of the indigenous peoples of Chile. The Mapuche are also among the poorest and most marginalized groups in Chilean society; the rural Mapuche population lives in conditions of extreme poverty.

The march was intended to be “… a mobilization to repudiate the invasion of more than 500 years ago, but also a mobilization that criticizes the role of the state and of the economic model toward the indigenous peoples,” organizers said in a statement. The indigenous peoples demand “the freedom of all the Mapuche political prisoners and the return of the ancestral lands,” Diaz said.

Until 1881, the Mapuche nation was completely independent, territorially and politically. With the independence of Chile, however, the Mapuche lost control of their territory to Argentina and Chile. The Mapuche were settled on relatively small ‘reducciones’ or reserves that were separated from one another by areas settled by Chileans and European immigrants. Their ancestral lands have been expropriated by tree farming companies, leading to the plantation of thousands of monoculture eucalyptus and pine trees where there were once native forests. The environmental impact of commercial tree farming has acted as a catalyst for a rise in Mapuche activism in recent years. The Mapuche are currently fighting for land which they have for decades collectively and effectively managed.

These issues of territory and environment together with governmental politics and development projects have slowly eroded the way of life, identity and culture of the indigenous Mapuche people. A UNPO project funded by the Nando Peretti Foundation, currently underway in Chile, aims to halt this progressive loss of the Mapuche language and cultural heritage.

Despite their recognition as an indigenous people in Chile and Argentina, the Mapuche face social and economic marginalization and in spite of the democratization process in Chile, human rights violations against the Mapuche continue. They daily suffer racism, repression and social exclusion, but they keep their struggle alive.

From March to June 2011, four indigenous Mapuche political prisoners went on a hunger strike that lasted 87 days in an effort to bring attention to their unjust persecution under a Pinochet-era anti-terrorism law. The draconian legislation, described by Human Rights Watch as one of Chile’s harshest laws, allows prosecutors to use tactics such as anonymous witnesses and calls for harsher sentences than would otherwise be allowed. In June 2011 UNPO joined Mapuche representatives in a meeting at the Chilean Embassy in the Netherlands to petition for the reversal of the prisoners’ convictions.

The end of the hunger strike coincided with the formation of a Commission on the Rights of the Mapuche People, which includes both Mapuche and non-Mapuche individuals who will work together to ensure the protection and realization of rights for the Mapuche people. Thus far, details on precisely how the Commission on the Rights of the Mapuche People will function and its relationship to the Chilean Government remain unclear.

After the conclusion of the march, disturbances broke out when a group of masked youths clashed with riot police, who responded with tear gas and water cannons and arrested a number of youths. Trouble broke out again hours later outside the University of Chile.

Contrary to new reports that the disturbances were connected to the Mapuche demonstration, city authorities stated that the violence was not directly linked to the indigenous march. The Santiago provincial governor, Cecilia Perez, praised the “responsibility, commitment and coordination” of the march organizers in preventing the disturbances from spreading. Street clashes such as these have been a frequent feature of a bitter dispute between student groups and the government over Chile's education system that has been going on since May.