Life loiters at a slow pace in the town of Ercilla, a seven-hour bus journey south of the Chilean capital, Santiago.
Jaime Huenchullan, 35, lives in a wooden shack on a plot of land outside the rural town’s limits. He grows his own vegetables in a small orchard and milks his sheep every morning at first light. Yet despite the bucolic scene, Mr Huenchullan is a protagonist in the South American nation’s longest-running and most acrimonious social conflict, pitting activists from the Mapuche indigenous population, to which he belongs, against the Chilean state.
On paper, the land where he lives – part of the autonomous Temucuicui community, according to the sign at the property’s entrance – belongs to Rene Urban. Mr Huenchullan, along with his wife, Griselda, and their two young children, has been occupying the land since March as part of an ancestral-land-rights claim. The set-up is basic; there is no running water or bathroom. “The colonial settlers can say that this territory legally belongs to them,” says Mr Huenchullan, a burly figure with shiny black hair tied in a ponytail. “But this land belongs to the Temucuicui community for historical and ancestral reasons.”
The dispute has its roots in the so-called “pacification” of the Araucania region, where Ercilla is based, which began in 1861 when the territory was incorporated into the Chilean state. Faced with the might of the army, the Mapuche people lost most of its land.
Chile fails to recognise ancestral land claims. Instead, it acknowledges legal paperwork from several decades later when the Mapuche population’s land had already been reduced. Successive governments have clamped down on activists campaigning for indigenous land rights.
Most controversially, an anti-terrorist law with its roots in Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship has been used to pursue Mapuche leaders through the courts – a move criticised by one of the UN’s top lawyers in July this year. The last three Mapuche leader deaths have all been in clashes with the police, while human rights groups condemn the effect armed raids have on Mapuche communities’ young children. “We’re seven siblings and we’ve all known the inside of a prison cell,” Mr Huenchullan, who is a community spokesman, says. “We’ve all had to deal with accusations and legal proceedings from the settlers, the police and the business sector. I’ve been accused of arson, threats, theft and public disorder.”
Mr Huenchullan’s older brother, Jorge, lives in a nearby settlement with over 100 families. He was one of several activists from Temucuicui who had the anti-terror law applied against him in 2009 when Michelle Bachelet was first in power. “I’ve passed almost all of my youth persecuted by the police,” he says. “There’s simply not the political will to find a solution to the conflict.”
Ms Bachelet, a 62-year-old doctor, looks likely to return to return as President with a win in the second round of elections this Sunday. She has vowed to never again enact the legislation against the Mapuche people.
But the Mapuche dispute has continued to intensify over the last decade with hunger strikes and violence.
In January, a married couple burnt to death in Vilcun after their farmhouse was set on fire. The Mapuche leader Celestino Cordova will go on trial in February, accused of their murder.
Activists such as Mr Huenchullan dismiss the trials, saying they are “staged”, pointing to the 80 per cent of Mapuches who are cleared in criminal cases. His claims are impossible to verify as the regional Public Penal Defender doesn’t keep specific figures on land-dispute cases. One public-sector source, who didn’t want to be named, said that acquittal rates were high but institutions didn’t want to publish the figures out of fear of the conservative land-owning elite who traditionally reject the Mapuche land claim.
Hector Urban – son of landowner Rene – paints a very different picture of the land conflict as he stands outside the property that Mr Huenchullan claims. He says Mr Huenchullan and his entourage are a group of highly armed, violent individuals.
“This property has been illegally usurped,” he says. “We don’t have anything to do with the issue because we bought the land in a legal and transparent way. Today in Chile there are organisations that are in charge of solving these problems – and one of them is Conadi.”
Conadi (the National Corporation for Indigenous Development) is the sole body charged with resolving the Mapuche land dispute and is based in Araucania’s capital, Temuco. When The Independent visited, neither the national nor regional director are available for interviews and a follow-up email goes unanswered.
For Veronica Figueroa Huencho, from the University of Chile’s Institute of National Affairs, Conadi is fundamentally flawed because it applies “market rules” to solve a political problem. The organisation is allotted a yearly budget to buy properties from landowners – if they want to sell – even if the price is heavily inflated. It has no power to fix prices or expropriate.
“Conadi is an organisation that ignores the desires of the indigenous population,” Ms Figueroa Huencho says. “It’s an organisation with very little legitimacy.”
The majority of Chile’s Mapuches, who represent 9 per cent of the population, according to a 2012 census, live in the urban centres of Santiago and Temuco – removed from the day-to-day conflict. Yet in the latter, many activists believe in the need for an autonomous region.
According to a study by Santiago’s Central University in August, 63 per cent of Chileans believe that the Mapuche people should have their own territory. Yet Chile’s political class looks unlikely to cede to this demand. So the chance of solving the country’s bitter land dispute remains slim.