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Chile aims to end decades of violent land disputes with the Mapuche people

Chile aims to end decades of violent land disputes with the Mapuche people

ERCILLA, Chile — Chile is taking new steps to end three decades of land disputes with the indigenous Mapuche people that have turned so violent some officials classify the actions as terrorism.

President Michelle Bachelet plans to announce later this month the government’s latest approach to quell growing anger among the Mapuche. She is sifting through a long list of options handed to her in January after six months of discussions by government officials, the lumber industry, local farmers and the Mapuche over the controversial southern territory that has changed hands countless times.

The proposals in the 45-page report range from reserving more congressional seats for the Mapuche — who make up nearly 10% of Chile’s population but hold only two seats — to creating a reparation commission that would distribute owed land, money and education scholarships.

“Understanding has prevailed over confrontation,” Bachelet said about the talks. She said the process can bring “a durable solution for everyone and anyone who wishes to live in peace” in the Araucania region.

The dispute began in the 1990s when the Chilean government tried to make amends for mistreatment under former dictator Augusto Pinochet by starting a land reparation program to compensate the Mapuche, the largest indigenous group in Chile with 1.5 million people.

The long-running conflict has been marked by fires, shootings and kidnappings that officials have downplayed or openly denied for years.  More recently, Chile has experienced some of the worst forest fires in its history that had spread over 3,000 square miles, killed 11 people and resulted in more than 40 arrests, some for suspected arson tied to land disputes.

Minster of Interior and Public Security Mario Fernández has labeled the latest violence terrorism. “Is there terrorism?” he said during a speech to the lower house of congress. “Of course there is terrorism, of course. Who denies that?”

Bachelet promised during her 2013 campaign to address the issue but made only two visits to the Araucania region in the first two years of her term. She had requested the list of proposals now on her desk as a way to fulfill that promise. At the least, they’re an attempt to revise the government’s current policies that some claim exacerbate the problem.

The discussions sparked arguments over the property each person should receive, and often got swallowed up in negotiations with non-indigenous farmers who don’t want to sell disputed land.

At the same time, Chile’s lumber industry — one of the country’s largest exporters — continues to flourish in the fertile southern regions of Bío Bío and Araucania that were once entirely occupied by indigenous people.

Many Mapuche, still in poverty, said they have no choice but to defend their traditional way of life by actions that are often violent — intercepting lumber trucks on the highway, burning farmland and shooting at uncooperative residents.

“We don’t want to kill anyone,” said José Huenchucan, 45, a Mapuche living near the coastal town of Tirúa. “But also, it happens.”

In 2016, 227 acts of “violence” were reported in rural areas through November, including 61 buildings set on fire, according to the district attorney offices in the Bío Bío and Araucania regions. Sixteen of those burned buildings were churches or other religious structures.

Huenchucan said death and injuries during attacks are “products of a much larger fight” that is no different than the casualties suffered by their Mapuche ancestors when Chile was expanding in the late 1800s.

That’s why many Mapuche want the Chilean government to return all land stolen during the expansion, so the people can create a separate, independent nation called “Wallmapu.”

Lawmakers “don’t want to recognize that this is terrorism, although it fits perfectly into the definition of terrorism,” said Rojo Edwards, a congressman in Chile’s Chamber of Deputies, or lower house of congress, before the talks began. “They don’t want to be seen as a government that is not fighting terrorism, so they call it common delinquency.”

Few Mapuche are prosecuted or convicted for the violence. In November 2013, for example, some Mapuche started slaughtering livestock and burning forests owned by small-time farmer Rosenda Araneda, 71, of Pidima.

She was given 24-hour police protection from the state, but gunfire, homemade explosives and forest fires persist as often as three times a week, and no attacker has been detained or tried.

“There’s no justice in Chile,” Araneda said. “No (government official) seems to understand what I’m going through, and at my age, how am I supposed to move somewhere else and start over?”

The report delivered to Bachelet argues that violence and corruption can be stopped through continued “intercultural dialogue.” One way to begin that dialogue, the report suggests, is for the government to issue an apology.

“It is up to the state to recognize its mistakes, to ask for forgiveness and to implement short-, medium- and long-term policies to repair the region,” the report said.

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