The Mapuche people, history, culture, and struggles have long been blanketed in silence. The few news items from southern Chile are almost always linked to repression or the Chilean government”s denunciations of "terrorism." The Mapuche suffer social and political isolation, and are left with few options beyond an arduous struggle for survival in rural areas or unstable, poorly-paid jobs in the cities. Yet they continue to resist timber and hydroelectric multinationals and seek to keep their traditions alive.

"The Chilean State considers me a criminal for defending my family and lands," writes 25-year-old Waikilaj Cadim Calfunao of the Juan Paillalef community in Region IX, Araucanía, in a brief letter from the high security prison in Santiago, where guards barred our entry for bureaucratic reasons. With slight variations, other Mapuche prisoners tell the same story. José Huenchunao, one of the founders of the Arauco Malleco Coordinating Group (CAM), was arrested on March 20 and sentenced to 10 years in prison for his participation in the torching of logging equipment.

"Prison is the place the Chilean State and its political and judicial operators use to punish those who struggle on behalf of the Mapuche people-nation," wrote Huenchunao on March 21 from Angol prison.1 Héctor Llaitul, 37, another CAM leader, was detained on Feb. 21 on the same charges as Huenchunao and began a hunger strike to denounce the political-judicial frame-up he found himself facing. The majority of the more than 20 Mapuche prisoners have resorted to hunger strikes to call attention to their situation or demand transfer to prisons near their communities.

Like most Mapuche organizers, Llaitul emphasizes the problem with the logging companies: "The Mininco Company along with one of our main adversaries, the hydroelectric company ENDESA, have changed their policy. It”s no longer just the use of violence. They are diversifying the repression: they study the areas where they operate and develop plans (for publicity, courses, etc.) tailored to each one, often financed by the Inter-American Development Bank, in order to create a security rim around their properties. They arm small farmers and hunting and fishing clubs, so they can form vigilance committees, which are legal in Chile, to defend themselves against “bad neighbors.” This is how they try to isolate the people who struggle."2

"My community has been severely repressed—every member of my family is imprisoned—my mother, father, brother, aunt, etc.," writes Calfunao, describing how his community”s lands of have been "stolen" by the logging companies and the Public Works Ministry. The theft has been abetted by the courts, which do not respect "our common law or our legal customs." Calfunao stands accused of unlawful seizure for blocking a road, of causing public disorder, and the destruction of tires on a truck transporting logs from the Mapuche region. Any activity communities undertake to keep the logging companies from stealing their lands is included by the Chilean government under the "antiterrorist" legislation inherited from the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.

South of the Bío-Bío

Arriving in Concepción, the landscape abruptly changes. Located 500 km south of Santiago, the narrow valley between the Andean mountain range and the Pacific is planted with the fruit orchards that make Chile an important agricultural exporter. Timber covers hill and mountain, highways turn into paths that snake upward and get lost among pine trees. Then suddenly, a dense white cloud of smoke announces a paper mill, surrounded by immense, extensive green farmland.

Lucio Cuenca, coordinator of the Latin American Observatory of Environmental Conflicts (OLCA), explains that the timber sector grows at an annual rate of over 6%. "Between 1975 and 1994 timberland increased by 57%," he adds. The timber and logging sector accounts for more than 10% of exports, with half sent to countries in Asia. More than two million hectares [five million acres] of tree farms are concentrated in Regions V and X, traditional Mapuche lands. Pine comprises 75%, eucalyptus, 17%. "But almost 60% of planted areas are in the hands of three economic groups," says Cuenca.

To explain this concentration of ownership, as with anything else in today”s highly privatized Chile, you must examine the 1970s and the Pinochet regime. In the 60s and 70s Christian Democratic and Socialist governments implemented agrarian reform that returned lands to the Mapuche and promoted the creation of farmer cooperatives. The government was an active participant in forestry policymaking.

Cuenca explains what happened under Pinochet: "The military dictatorship managed a counter-reform, modifying ownership and land use. In the second half of the 1970s, between 1976 and 1979, the State privatized its six main companies: Celulosa Arauco, Celulosa Constitución, Forestal Arauco, Inforsa, Masisa, and Compañía Manufacturera de Papeles y Cartones, all sold to private interests at 78% of their value.

Chile”s timber industry is now in the hands of two large national business groups led by Anacleto Angelini and Eleodoro Matte. In the rest of the continent the industry is in the hands of large European or U.S. multinationals. However, the owners” nationality is much less relevant than the high degree of concentration. In Chile, only 7.5% of timberland is owned by small landowners, while 66% belongs to large owners with at least a thousand planted hectares [2,500 acres]. The Angelini group alone has 765,000 hectares [1.9 million acres], and the Matte group”s property exceeds half a million [1.25 million acres].

"The areas where this lucrative business developed," Cuenca continues, "have become the poorest in the country." While Angelini is one of the six richest men in Latin America, Chile”s Region VIII and IX have one of the highest poverty rates in the country. "Profits are not distributed, and nothing stays in the area, except overexploitation, pollution, loss of biological and cultural diversity, and, of course, poverty," the OLCA coordinator concludes.

For the Mapuche, timber expansion means their death as a people. Each year expanding timber production absorbs some additional 50,000 hectares [125,000 acres]. On top of feeling literally drowned by the tree plantations, the Mapuche are beginning to experience water shortages, changes in the flora and fauna, and the rapid disappearance of native woodland. A report by Chile”s Central Bank confirms that in 25 years Chile will have no native forest left. However, everything indicates that timber expansion is unstoppable.

The Corporación de la Madera [Wood Corporation] predicts that by 2018 the 1995 timber production will have doubled. The rapid growth has prompted complaints of environmental and social deterioration; resistance by tens of Mapuche communities, fishers, and farmers; and even analyses by government agencies that warn of dangers in continued timber industry development. Further increases will be accompanied by the construction of new cellulose processing plants. Chile externalizes a range of labor and environmental costs, allowing it to produce a ton of cellulose for just US$222, compared to US$344 for Canada and US$349 for Sweden and Finland. This is the only argument that carries any weight.

Three Centuries of Independence

It is impossible to understand the current reality of the Mapuche people without reviewing their history. In contrast to the other great peoples of the continent, the Mapuche managed to maintain autonomy and independence from Spanish authorities for 260 years. They were conquered only at the end of the 19th century by the independent nation of Chile. For this reason, their history differs from other indigenous peoples.

It is estimated that at the arrival of the Spaniards there were one million Mapuche, concentrated in the Araucanía area (between Concepción and Valdivia). They were fishers, hunters, and gatherers, and subsisted on a diet based on potatoes and beans grown in forest clearings, and seeds from the giant araucaria or monkey-puzzle-tree that dominated the southern landscape. They were sedentary but did not establish towns, and each family had territorial autonomy. The abundance of resources in very rich lands permitted the existence of "a much larger population than one which a pre-agrarian economic system could support," according to José Bengoa, the main historian of the Mapuche people.3

This society of hunter-warriors had as its only permanent social institution the family or clan, grouped around chiefs or loncos. In this sense too it was completely different from other indigenous societies the Spanish found in America. From 1546 to 1598 the Mapuche successfully resisted the Spaniards. In 1554 Pedro de Valdivia, a General Captain of the Conquest, was defeated by Chief Lautaro near Cañete, taken prisoner, and executed for "having wanted to enslave us."

Despite typhus and smallpox epidemics that claimed the lives of a third of the Mapuche population, a second and a third generation of chiefs succeeded in resisting the colonizers” renewed attacks. In 1598 the course of the war changed. The military superiority of the Mapuche, who became great casino riders and had more horses than the Spanish armies, put the conquistadors on the defensive. They destroyed all the Spanish cities south of the Bío-Bío, among them Valdivia and Villarrica, which was refounded only 283 years later following the "pacification of Araucanía."

A tense peace was installed in the "border region." On Jan. 6, 1641, Spanish and Mapuche sat together for the first time in the "Parliament at Quilín." The Bío-Bío River became the border, and Mapuche independence was recognized, but the Mapuche had to return prisoners and allow missionaries to preach. The "Negrete Parliament" in 1726 regulated trade, which was a source of conflict, and the Mapuche promised to defend the Spanish Crown against the Creoles.

How to explain this Mapuche singularity? Various historians and anthropologists, among them Bengoa, agree that, "in contrast to the Incas and Aztecs, who had centralized governments and internal political divisions, the Mapuche had a non-hierarchical social structure. In the Mexican and Andean situations, the conqueror struck at the heart of political power and, seizing it, assured the dominance of the Empire. In the Mapuche case this was not possible, given that subjugation would entail conquering each of thousands of independent families."4 The continuation of this cultural practice also explains the enormous difficulty facing the Mapuche movement”s attempts to construct unitary, representative organizations.

Toward the 17th century and influenced by the Spanish colonies that had established extensive cattle-raising, Mapuche society began adopting a mercantile cattle-based economy. Soon they controlled one of the most extensive territories held by an ethnic group in South America, expanding to the Argentine pampa and even to what is today the Province of Buenos Aires. This new economy strengthened the role of the loncos and generated relations of social subordination that the Mapuche had not known before. "The greater concentration of cattle in the hands of some loncos and the need to count on leaders who could negotiate with the colonial power intensified social hierarchization and the centralization of political power," according to historian Gabriel Salazar.

The mining economy of the new independent republic required the expansion of agricultural production after the crisis of 1857. In 1862 the army began to occupy Araucanía, and a war of extermination was unleashed that lasted until 1881, when the Mapuche were definitively defeated. After subjugation, they were confined to reservations, and their 10 million hectares [25 million acres] were reduced to half a million [1.25 million acres], as the government auctioned off the rest of their lands to private interests. Thus, the Mapuche were turned into poor farmers and forced to change their customs, forms of production, and judicial norms.

A New Reality

Some one hundred kilometers south of Concepción, the small town of Cañete is one of the center points of Mapuche struggle. At Christmas in 1553, the Mapuche destroyed the Tucapel Fort built there by Pedro de Valdivia and executed him. Five years later, the great chief Caupolicán was executed in the town square that bears his name today. In that same square, on a rainy April morning this year, more than 200 Mapuche and students congregated to demand freedom for Huenchunao, a leader of the CAM, jailed weeks before as part of the government”s offensive that imprisoned CAM”s main leaders, including Llaitul and Llanquileo.

When the march ended, after proceeding for five blocks surrounded by the heavy presence of anti-riot police units, loncos Jorge and Fernando took us to their community. A short distance from one of the many towns in the area, in a clearing among pine trees, a handful of precarious houses make up the community named for Pablo Quintriqueo, "a Hispanicized indigenous man who lived in the area around 1800," explained Mari, a Mapuche social worker living in Concepción. Surprisingly to those who have visited Andean or Mayan communities, this one is composed of just seven families and was established only eight years ago. The community”s small garden cannot possibly provide for more than 30 people.

Passing around mate tea, they offer explanations. The families had left their ancestral properties, where they had been born and lived until a decade ago, and migrated to Concepción. Mari married a huinka (white man) and has two children and a good job. Many young people, like Llaitul, now imprisoned at Angol, graduated from the University of Concepción and later created organizations to defend their lands and communities. When the timber companies advanced onto their lands, they returned to defend them. "In this community alone, over 1,600 hectares [4,000 acres] are in dispute," they say.

Understanding Mapuche reality is not simple. Lonco Jorge, 35, one of the youngest in the group, gives a hint, stipulating that "the restructuring of the Mapuche people is based on recovering our territory." From this, we can conclude that the Mapuche are living a period that other indigenous peoples on the continent experienced half a century ago, when they achieved recovery and control over lands and territories that had belonged to them since the beginning of their history.

In the second place, everything indicates that the defeat of the Mapuche is still very close (only a century ago), in contrast to the three or five centuries since the defeat of Túpac Amaru or the Spanish invasion, respectively. The Mapuche memory of its loss of independence is still fresh, which could be the reason for a tendency that shows up in conversation after conversation: in contrast to the Aymara, Quechua or Maya, the Mapuche see themselves as unjustly made victims.

Huenchunao states that the communities are facing a new situation of desperation and fires off a warning that does not seem exaggerated: "If this political administration, if the actors in civil society do not address our situation, we”re on the brink of conflicts—already occurring in isolation—being repeated with greater force and more coordination. This can be much more serious and can have a much greater cost to this society than returning certain amounts of land, the minimum that the communities are demanding."5

Little Gain from Electoral Democracy

For the Chileans from "down below," it is not evident that electoral democracy has improved their lives. "The political strategy of the Concertation, over its 16 years in power, has been oriented toward the “least political and social change,” as well as the amplification and deepening of neoliberal capitalism in all social spheres. The Concertation administration has governed the market more than the society, thus worsening the unacceptable distribution of income and turning Chilean society into the second most unequal, after Brazil, on the Latin American continent," according to political scientist Gómez Leytón.6

However, there are clear symptoms that time is running out for the Concertation. It is also possible that Huenchunao”s prediction may come true. Not only has the Mapuche people”s long resistance not died out, it has been rekindled time and again, despite repression. In recent years south of the Bío-Bío, others besides the Mapuche have resisted the savage neoliberal model. Small fishers in Mehuin and farmers who discover their water polluted have already held several protests. At the beginning of May, the Carabinero police killed a timber worker, Rodrigo Cisternas, who was participating in a strike for wage increases.

Perhaps this event represents the beginning of the end for the Concertation. For more than 40 days, workers at Bosques Arauco in the Bío-Bío region, owned by the Angelini group, held a strike that was joined by three unions representing 7,000 members. Since the company had earned a 40% profit, the workers demanded wage increases of a similar percentage. After long and useless negotiations, they struck again and surrounded the plant where the company had concentrated its three shifts to break the strike. "When they saw that the Carabineros enjoyed destroying their vehicles, they defended themselves with heavy machinery, and the police shot and killed one of the strikers and seriously wounded several others," according to a statement by the Asamblea del Pueblo [Assembly of the People].7

In recent months, the government of Michelle Bachelet has opened too many fronts. On top of the conflict with the Mapuche comes the student protest against the new education law that sparked demonstrations last year by hundreds of thousands of young people. At the beginning of this year a still-unresolved conflict broke out regarding the restructuring of public transportation in Santiago, where the new Transantiago system underserves the poorer sectors. And now, the death of a worker in a hot area. It is possible that, as happened in other countries in the region, the Chilean people have begun to turn the page on savage neoliberalism.

Democracy Against the Mapuche

One of Pinochet”s ministers boasted that "in Chile, there are no indigenous peoples; everyone is Chilean." The dictatorship declared decrees to end legal exceptions for the Mapuche and introduce the concept of private property in their lands. However, "by depriving the Mapuche people of recognition as such, their ethnic identity was reinforced," according to Gabriel Salazar, recently awarded the National Prize for History.

At the beginning of the 1980s, a "social explosion" of the Mapuche people occurred in response to the 1979 decrees authorizing the division of more than 460,000 hectares [1.15 million acres] of indigenous lands. Salazar says: "The division did not respect areas that always had been considered communal and were fundamental for the Mapuche people”s material and cultural reproduction, such as areas set aside for forests, grazing lands, and religious ceremonies. The increase in population, together with the reduction in territory, contributed to the “emptying” of the communities of their people and culture."

As it turned out, democracy was not generous with the Mapuche people either. Whereas the dictatorship wanted to put an end to them, attempting to change them from Indians into rural farmers, the advent of the Concertation coalition in 1990 brought new expectations.8 President Patricio Aylwin created spaces and lent his support to a law under debate in congress. But, in contrast to what happened in other countries on the continent, in 1992 the Chilean National Congress rejected the International Labor Organization”s Convention 169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples, as well as constitutional recognition of the Mapuche as a people, which the United Nations had promoted.

Currently, "the rural indigenous world is a constituent part of structural poverty in Chile," says Salazar. In 1960 each Mapuche family had an average of 9.2 hectares [23 acres], though the government maintained that each needed 50 hectares [125 acres] to live "with dignity." From 1979 to 1986, each family had 5.3 hectares [13 acres], now reduced to only 3 hectares [7.5 acres] per family. Under the dictatorship the Mapuche lost 200,000 of the 300,000 hectares [500,000 of the 750,000 acres] that they still had. The advancement of the timber industry and hydroelectric companies onto their lands causes an exponential increase in poverty and emigration.

In desperation, many communities invade lands appropriated by timber companies and are subsequently accused of "terrorism." The dictatorship”s antiterrorism law continues to be invoked against Mapuche communities that set fire to forests, block roads, or fail to obey Carabinero orders. Currently, many Mapuche organizations oscillate between collaboration with the authorities and militant autonomy, with an increasing growth of new urban groups, especially in Santiago, where over 40% of the million Mapuche in Chile reside, according to the 1992 census.

End Notes

  1. José Huenchunao, "Carta abierta …".
  2. Alvaro Hilario interview with Héctor Llaitul.
  3. José Bengoa, Historia del pueblo mapuche.
  4. Ibid., p. 41.
  5. Sergio Maureira interview with José Huenchunao.
  6. Juan Carlos Gómez Leytón, "La rebelión … ".
  7. Posted May 5, 2007 on
  8. The Democratic Concertation is the coalition of the Christian Democratic Party, Party for Democracy, Radical Party, and Socialist Party that has governed in Chile since Pinochet left the presidency: Patricio Aylwin (1990-1995), Eduardo Frei Ruiz Tagle (1995-2000), Ricardo Lagos (2000-2006), and Michelle Bachelet (2006).