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Publication

16 January, 2005

English :: Chile Cracks Down on Indigenous Activists - by Jason Tockman

Four indigenous activists and a supporter were recently sentenced to ten years in prison on charges of terrorism in relation to the Mapuches’ struggle to reclaim lands seized by the Chilean state and forestry companies, notably Arauco and CMPC. They will join a growing list of Mapuche prisoners in Chilean jails, including community leaders—“Lonkos” in the native language—while a dozen more await trial. Some have had to go into hiding to avoid facing a judicial system that they feel “criminalizes the indigenous cause and has a racist bias against the Mapuche.”

The five defendants were charged with “terrorist arson” under Pichochet-era anti-terrorist laws for allegedly setting fire to a CMPC pine plantation near the town of Ercilla. Once invoked, the laws allow the government to double jail sentences, conceal the identity of witnesses, and withhold evidence from the defense. But punishment does not yield when the prison sentence is complete; the “terrorist” is then restricted from participating in trade unions, business ownership, public office, journalism and teaching.

“They say that we are ‘terrorists’ for defending our rights,” said Pascual Pichún, 52, from a prison in Traiguen, where he and fellow Lonko Aniceto Norín, 47, are being held for five years. “The plantations have greatly impacted the community. We have lost medicinal herbs, native forests and water. The fumigation of the tree plantations has polluted the water and contaminated the lands and animals.”

An indigenous people numbering more than one million, the Mapuche were never conquered by Spanish invaders, nor militarily by the modern Chilean state. However, decades of government and corporate pressures have taken Mapuche lands and eroded their cultural bonds, leading to the dispersal of the people and their placement in reservations called “reductions.”

Chile, like all of South America, has a history of bloodshed and repression of native peoples. Unlike other South American countries, however, Chile has not made strides to rectify these conditions and has refused to ratify Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization, which attempts to protect indigenous rights and land, and requires states to consult indigenous peoples on any resource extraction that affects them.

Mapuche communities currently face severe hardship as a result of the extensive establishment of tree plantations. They have lost much of their land base, as biologically diverse areas previously used for food and medicine collection have been converted into biologically sterile monocultures. The quick-rotation plantations drain groundwater supplies, and the pesticides sprayed by forestry companies contaminate what is left.

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“The fumigation of the tree plantations has polluted the water and contaminated the lands and animals.”

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Resistance to these incursions has been met with brutality by the Chilean authorities, acting in tandem with the corporations. Native lands have been militarized, and many Mapuche people have been beaten and politically imprisoned. In November 2002, Alex Lemún, a 17-year-old Mapuche, was shot and killed for protesting in a plantation near his community. No charges have been brought against the officer.

Mapuche groups have taken their concerns to the United Nations, and after surveying the situation, a UN Special Rapporteur recommended that the state de-escalate its criminalization of the Mapuche, seek negotiated solutions, and respect the rights of indigenous people. But Chile has refused to comply.

“They do not recognize the Mapuche people, and they don’t accept our right to reclaim land,” explained Lonko Norín. “The state wants the Mapuche to be below the margin of their law, so that no one raises their hand in objection.”

Now, additional charges have been brought against the Lonkos, and they face as much as an additional 15 years in prison. But in Chile, little attention has been paid to their plight, or to the consistent repression against Mapuche activists more broadly. Many have turned to the international community for help, as pressure from abroad appears to be a critical strategy for bringing changes to a nation deeply plagued by racism, where citizens, and even public officials, can be heard to deny that any indigenous people exist in the country.

“I hope there is support for our families and for international judicial assistance,” said imprisoned Lonko Pichún, “because the Chilean justice system does not work for us here.”

**Jason Tockman is a globalization activist and writer about Latin American issues.

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