Chile: The nation that’s still waging war on Native Americans

The country’s refusal to recognise ancestral land claims has sparked a deadly conflict with the Mapuche people

Araucania

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.

News
The surrealist comedian at the Q Awards in 2010
people
News
Russell Brand arriving for the book launch in East London
peopleRussell Brand cancels his book launch debate due to concerns about the make-up of the panel
Sport
Christiano Ronaldo enjoys his opening goal
champions leagueLiverpool 0 Real Madrid 3: Ronaldo and Benzema run Reds ragged to avenge thrashing from their last visit to Anfield
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
Six of the 76 Goats' cheese samples contained a significant amount of sheep's cheese
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to American media group
Extras
indybest
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
art
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidate on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
News
Call me Superman: one of many unusual names chosen by Chinese students
newsChinese state TV offers advice for citizens picking a Western moniker
News
Wilko Johnson is currently on his farewell tour
people
Voices
New look: Zellweger at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
voicesRenée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity, says Amanda Hess
News
Let’s pretend: KidZania in Tokyo
educationKidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day
Life and Style
CHARGE BOOSTER: Aeroplane mode doesn't sound very exciting, but it can be a (phone) hacker's friend. Turning on the option while charging your mobile will increase the speed at which your phone battery charges
techNew book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone
Arts and Entertainment
Julianne Moore and Ellen Page are starring together in civil rights drama Freeheld
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Solutions Architect - Permanent - London - £70k DOE

£60000 - £70000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

General Cover Teacher

£110 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Reading: Great opportunities for Cover...

Maths Teacher

£110 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Reading: QTS Maths Teachers needed for...

Maths Teacher

£110 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Reading: QTS Maths Teachers needed for...

Day In a Page

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
The 10 best smartphone accessories

Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

Liverpool v Real Madrid

Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?