ERCILLA, Chile -- As President-elect Michelle Bachelet prepares to take office in March, her previous government’s policies toward the country’s indigenous groups and her recent pledges on the campaign trail 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. But Bachelet, who won 62 per cent of the vote in elections earlier this month, won’t have an easy task. She inherits a tinderbox land rights conflict in southern Chile that has simmered for decades.
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.
“We think that Bachelet’s policy towards my people won’t change. In her first government, she went after many Mapuche leaders,” says Jaime Huenchullan, a 35-year-old Mapuche, standing outside the small wooden shack where he lives near the town of Ercilla.
Huenchullan’s distrust of Bachelet centers on the application of a controversial anti-terrorist law to clamp down on Mapuche leaders when she was in power from 2006 to 2010. Heavily criticized by one of the United Nation’s senior officials in July, Bachelet has vowed to never again use the law against the Mapuche people.
Huenchullan may not represent the majority of Mapuches but as an activist, he remains part of its most vocal contingent, determined to exercise land rights claims on territory he says was robbed from his people when the Chilean army invaded the Araucanía region in 1861. It was then that the Mapuche people lost the majority of its land.
“The state doesn’t recognize that there is an ancient culture here that existed before the formation of Chile,” Huenchullan said.
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, a key part of Huenchullan’s demands.
Huenchullan is spokesperson for Temucuicui, a community of more than 100 families. In March, he left the main settlement to actively “recuperate” another piece of land, along with his wife Griselda and their two young children.
The land in question legally belongs to René Urban, which has brought the Mapuche activist into direct conflict with regional landowners.
“This land has been violently usurped by a Mapuche community,” said Urban’s son Héctor, 42, standing outside the property where Huenchullan now lives.
“The state isn’t up to the task of finding a definitive solution to the problem for all parties involved,” he said, “whether it’s us, the victims or them [Huenchullan and other members of Temucuicui], the victimizers.”
CONADI, The National Corporation for Indigenous Development, is the sole body charged with resolving the Mapuche land dispute. It is allotted a yearly budget to buy properties from landowners — if they want to sell — even if the price is heavily inflated and has no power to fix prices or expropriate.
Héctor Urban says that Mapuche activists have created an “atmosphere of terror” and that he had to leave his property with a police escort in March when the occupation started.
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.
Héctor Urban points to a case in January when a married couple was burnt to death after their farmhouse was set on fire. Mapuche leader Celestino Córdova will go on trial in February next year, accused of their murder .
Mapuche leaders retaliate by saying that many of the trials of Mapuche leaders are “montages.”
For Verónica Figueroa Huencho from the University of Chile’s Institute of National Affairs, the problem goes to the core of Chile and its neo-liberal model.
“Chile’s political class doesn't intend to change the country’s economic growth model and the undervaluing of the indigenous people one iota,” she said.
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.
“Bachelet’s program contains proposals that are extremely ambiguous, very diluted and at times deceitful,” said activist Aucuan Huilcaman Paillama, 45.
Paillama — who, like Huenchullan and his sibling, has been imprisoned several times over land conflict issues — says all his energies these days are dedicated to forming a Mapuche government, a petition he intends to take to the United Nations.
But not all Mapuche activists want a rupture with Chile. The Wallmapu political party believes in working within the state for self-determination, campaigning for constitutional changes that will allow more indigenous participation in decisions about their future.
For Mapuche historian José Bengoa, the outlook remains positive.
“The most important thing is that Bachelet has vowed not to apply the anti-terrorist law,” he said. “On top of this, there’s a clear plan to dialogue with the Mapuche people.”
But Cristian Huaiquifil, who volunteers at a Mapuche library in Temuco, remains cynical due to Bachelet’s indigenous policies during her previous administration.
“The minimum she has to do is ask for forgiveness,” he said.