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The struggle of the Mapuche in Chile continues

Nicolesa Quintreman, a Mapuche Indian leader, has died.

The Associated Press reports, “With her sister Berta, Quintreman became a national figure in Chile during protests against the construction of a hydroelectric dam on tribal land in the forested mountains of southern Chile. They led a public fight against the European power company Endesa at a time when Chile’s environmental enforcement was lax and its indigenous protection law wasn’t closely followed. …The project authorized by the centre-left government of President Eduardo Frei Ruiz-Tagble then flooded the Mapuches’ valley, generating more of the electricity Chile needed to power a growing economy.”

Araucania is the homeland of the Mapuche Indians. Map from the Economist.

“The Quintreman sisters remained known as the founders of a new environmental movement in far southern Chile, one that now counts on the support of many international civic groups, which have gone to court to stop the construction of more dams. Among those being challenged is the HidroAysen project, which would block some of the world’s last free-flowing rivers and carve a path through the forests for high-tension power lines running for thousands of miles.”

Quintreman was 73 years old and reportedly slipped and drowned in a reservoir.

In the present-day context, the Miami Herald notes, “As President-elect Michelle Bachelet prepares to take office in March, her previous government’s policies toward the country’s indigenous groups are being increasingly scrutinized. Among the center-left leader’s many pledges is recognition of indigenous groups within the constitution, which she wants to overhaul. Chile remains one of the few countries in Latin America that does not acknowledge individual native populations in its charter.”

“The epicenter of the conflict is the Araucanía region. It’s here that many of Chile’s Mapuche people live, the group at the heart of the dispute and 9 percent of the population, according to a census last year. …The Chilean army invaded the Araucanía region in 1861. It was then that the Mapuche people lost the majority of its land. Key to the dispute is an indigenous law that dates to 1993 that only acknowledges indigenous land rights claim based on legal paperwork from several decades after the army’s invasion — and when the Mapuches had already lost the majority of their land. It fails to recognize ancestral claims…”

“The Mapuche activist movement has intensified in the last decade as the state has failed to recognize key parts of the Mapuche claim, including autonomy. Successive governments’ response has been to clamp down with the use of force and the last three Mapuche leader deaths have been in clashes with Chile’s notorious Carabineros police force.”

“Bachelet has insisted on broad changes. She has discussed autonomy and self-determination for indigenous populations but without much detail. She is likely to get push-back from the most radical activists on her idea to create an indigenous affairs agency because they want the Chilean state to leave Mapuche territory altogether.”

Map: Araucania is the homeland of the Mapuche Indians. Map from the Economist.