Columna Word Politics Review, 09.05.2022 José Aylwin, profesor adjunto (Escuela de Derecho-U. Austral de Chile)
Chile’s recently inaugurated president, Gabriel Boric, campaigned on a platform emphasizing urgent reforms to shore up social rights in Chile, particularly health care, education and pensions, all of which were a focus of the protests that erupted across the country in October 2019. He also emphasized the need to establish a new relationship with Chile’s historically marginalized and oppressed Indigenous peoples, which represent around 12 percent of the country’s population. But to do so, he will have to overcome formidable obstacles, including the daunting prospects facing the Constituent Convention that is currently drafting a new constitution which is central to Boric’s government program, as well as the increasing confrontation with Mapuche radical organizations in southern Chile.
Chile’s Indigenous peoples have become critical political actors in the transformation the country is currently undergoing. While there has been long-standing historical conflict between the Chilean state and Indigenous peoples—especially the Mapuche, by far the largest of the country’s 10 Indigenous groups—the relationship has become increasingly conflictual in recent decades. Violence carried out by both state agents and some Mapuche groups that question the legitimacy of the Chilean state and oppose extractive investments in their traditional territory has drastically intensified, with victims on both sides.
Unlike elsewhere in Latin America, the Chilean Constitution does not recognize Indigenous peoples’ existence. A so-called Indigenous Law, enacted in 1993, acknowledged them as “ethnic” groups and accorded them cultural rights. It also established a market-based mechanism to return lands from which they had been dispossessed. Chile also endorsed the United Nations’ and the Organization of American States’ declarations on the rights of Indigenous peoples in 2007 and 2016, respectively.
However, the neoliberal policy framework imposed by the 1980 Constitution promulgated under former dictator Augusto Pinochet, together with the privatization policies applied since then, have limited the implementation of these rights. Indeed, neoliberalism in Chile has fostered the expansion of an extractive economy on Indigenous territories. The mining industry in the north, forestry in the south and salmon farms in the far south occupy their traditional territories, with severe impacts on Indigenous people’s livelihoods.
The Mapuche have strongly opposed such investments, especially forest monocultures. In response, the Chilean state has used the police and even the army in 2021 to violently repress what were initially peaceful mobilizations demanding the restitution of traditional lands currently under corporate ownership. Indigenous leaders involved in such protests have been prosecuted and incarcerated under antiterrorist legislation that dates back to the Pinochet regime.
Boric’s program emphasizes the need to foster a “plurinational dialogue” with Indigenous communities. Several incidents, however, have demonstrated the limits of this strategy.
In this context, several Mapuche organizations have taken up arms to claim de facto control of corporate properties. They have also attacked trucks and machinery belonging to the forestry industry as well as agricultural properties. Although some of these organizations limit their violence to property, others use violence indiscriminately, including against individuals. Casualties on both sides have increased steadily over the past two years.
Indigenous peoples did not play a key role in the massive protests of October 2019 that pushed back against growing social inequality and corporate abuses, and in turn triggered the constituent process currently underway. However, they are centrally engaged in the Constitutional Convention elected in May 2021, with 17 Indigenous representatives elected to the special seats reserved for them, out of a total of 155. Since the convention’s inauguration in July 2021, these representatives have worked to make visible Indigenous peoples’ main demands: to declare Chile a plurinational state and to recognize their collective rights, including self-determination and autonomy; their rights to the lands, territories and resources they traditionally used or occupied; and their cultural rights.
Boric is aware that the new relationship with Indigenous peoples he seeks will only be possible through the constituent process that his coalition supports. His program in the meantime emphasizes the need to foster a “plurinational dialogue” with Indigenous communities. The central topics of this dialogue include land restitution and the implementation of autonomy for Indigenous peoples. Boric has also committed to implementing the International Labor Organization’s Convention 169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples, which Chile ratified in 2008 but never enacted, and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Additionally, there are plans to create a Truth Commission to identify the victims of violence in the context of the conflict involving the Mapuche and to propose reparation mechanisms.
Since taking office in March, Boric has already withdrawn military forces from Mapuche traditional territory in Araucania and surrounding regions, which were sent by his predecessor, former President Sebastian Pinera with congressional approval in 2021. He also instructed Interior Minister Izkia Siches to lead a dialogue process with Indigenous peoples, especially the Mapuche, as well as with non-Indigenous victims of violence in the region.
Several incidents, however, have demonstrated the limits of this strategy. On Siches’ first visit to an emblematic Mapuche community, she was greeted with gun shots and barricades, preventing any dialogue. Other radical Mapuche organizations—particularly in the provinces of Arauco and Malleco, the heartland of forest monocultures—have also rejected any dialogue with the new government, declaring that they will continue using violence against forest conglomerates and exercising what they call territorial control.
Notwithstanding conservative media opposition to his initiative, Boric has insisted that his government is willing to engage in a dialogue with all Mapuche organizations that want to achieve peace. Government officials have already engaged in territorial dialogues with Mapuche communities in an attempt to solve urgent land and social conflicts. But so far these have not diminished violent attacks by radical Mapuche organizations.
Given the magnitude of the conflict and the historical mistrust between the parties, and considering the examples of similar ethnic conflicts in other parts of the world, there are good reasons to believe that a third party will be needed to facilitate or observe a constructive dialogue between the state and radical Mapuche organizations. In a deep-rooted and long-standing conflict such as the one in the Araucania and surrounding regions, it may be necessary to entrust this task to international entities or personalities, in order to guarantee their impartiality. It is worth noting that some Mapuche organizations have themselves proposed the need for international facilitators. Another basic premise for such a dialogue is that the organization or person that arbitrates it be chosen by mutual agreement of the two parties.
In the meantime, the Constitutional Convention has made significant progress, approving several provisions concerning Indigenous peoples as part of the constitutional text to be voted on in a referendum this September. These include the declaration of the Chilean state as plurinational and intercultural, and the recognition of Indigenous peoples’ right to self-determination and autonomy; their right to special representation in the legislature; their rights to their lands, territories and traditionally owned resources; and their cultural and linguistic rights.
Radical Mapuche organizations have nevertheless rejected the constituent process as a “colonial” imposition and are not participating in the Constitutional Convention. However, if approved in a referendum scheduled for September, the new Constitution will be instrumental in establishing a new relationship between the state and the Mapuche, as well as with other Indigenous peoples, based on recognition, respect and recognition of human rights.
Boric is central to this process. Although he has abstained from intervening in the constituent process, respecting its autonomy, he and his Cabinet clearly expressed support for this process as well as for the provisions of the text already approved by the Convention, in which, as mentioned, Indigenous people’s rights are central.
But if current opinion polls are any indication, the text faces long odds for being approved in the September referendum. If it is rejected, it is likely that the conflictual relationship with the Mapuche, and probably with other Indigenous groups, will become more violent.