Mapuche: Land Repatriation Announced by Chile
President Michelle Bachelet's special envoy for indigenous issues, José Antonio Viera-Gallo, traveled Friday to the southern region known as the Araucanía to announce the major land deal. Current landowners will be compensated more than 39 billion pesos (US $70 million) for land to be distributed among more than 1,000 indigenous families.
Most notably, the government will pay 2.6 billion pesos (about US $5 million) for 458 hectares owned by local farmer Jorge Luchsinger, which includes the Santa Margarita estate where a Mapuche university student was gunned down in a clash with police last year.
In a scene that has played out repeatedly in the Araucanía, neighboring Mapuche Indians claim original rights to the land now owned by the Luchsinger family, citing a 100-year-old title in which they say the Chilean state recognized rights that were later denied. Taking the matter into their own hands, some residents of the native community have repeatedly occupied and vandalized the Luchsinger estates, burning down two family homes in roughly 30 incursions since 2000.
The violence on the Luchsinger property culminated in January 2008, when 20-year-old Mapuche activist Matías Catrileo was shot and killed by police at the Santa Margarita estate (PT, Jan. 3) . The shooting was echoed this August when another young Mapuche, Jaime Mendoza, was gunned down from behind by a police officer during confrontations at another estate, reigniting protests and violence in the region (ST, Aug. 17 ).
In handing over the Santa Margarita estate, Viera-Gallo highlighted the progress made and said local Mapuche leaders agreed to speak with the government and ignored the more radical actions of some residents of the community.
But to return the Luchsinger land to native communities, the government resorted to paying nearly 6 million pesos per hectare – a record-setting price, reflecting the near tripling of average land values in the Araucanía since last year. Viera-Gallo said the soil quality and infrastructure of the farms justified the cost, but acknowledged rising prices and flaws in the government's indigenous land program.
"The process until now has not been clear or transparent, and we will soon announce changes to the system for the adjudication of lands," said Viera-Gallo. A new land bank, he explained, will establish standard prices, end the speculation surrounding lands under protest and reduce direct dealings between native communities and landowners.
Since 1999, the Chilean state has returned more than 650,000 hectares to indigenous peoples, according to Viera-Gallo. Less than a fifth of that land was purchased from private owners, with the rest coming from public property.
Rightist Sen. Alberto Espina (RN) – who represents part of Araucanía - sharply criticized the announced land purchases, saying the government had buckled to pressure exerted by the indigenous groups.
“The signal that the government is giving is that, in order for indigenous groups to receive property, it is best to burn down farms and equipment, and attack the farmers,” said Espina.
But Independent Sen. Roberto Muñoz Barra – also representing Araucanía – had a much more positive take on the government’s land buying activities. He said it was a step in the right direction, but needed to be accompanied by loans or equipment so that the new Mapuche owners could make the land productive.
While visiting the Araucanía, Viera-Gallo also sought to explain the larger reorganization of the government's indigenous agency, assuaging the concerns of indigenous groups that rejected the reforms announced last week.
President Bachelet proposed the creation of an Indigenous Ministry and a Council of Indigenous Peoples, with 44 members chosen by popular vote to represent eight ethnicities within the country. But native groups protested that they had not been consulted about the reform and filed a constitutional challenge, which an appellate court rejected last Friday.
Whatever the shape of the government institution, the government is faced with deeper questions about its underlying policies, says Lohengri Ascencio, a spokesman for the employee association of the current indigenous agency. "What are the real goals for Chile's indigenous peoples?" he asked in an interview with the Santiago Times. "Just handing over land is not, in itself, development."
Indeed, doubts about the efficacy of the land purchase deal were underscored early Sunday morning when two groups of masked men (23 individuals in total) assaulted Route 5 tollbooths in the Araucanía region, burning one truck, robbing a car and shooting at three vehicles, including a patrol car. Similar violence flared late last month.