Chile, a country of 18 million inhabitants, is composed of ten native peoples recognized by the Indigenous Law 19,253. According to the 2017 census, they represent 12.8% of the population. Of these, the Mapuche are the most numerous, totaling around 1,745 million people, more than half of whom live in the Santiago metropolitan area. In their ancestral territory, the Araucanía region, 700 kilometers south of the Chilean capital - land of sea, forests, rivers, mountains, pumas and snow - live just over 314 thousand. It is the place of origin of the Mapuche people, who for almost 300 years resisted the Spanish empire.
Today that region faces serious problems of public order because the Chilean State, since the consolidation of the Republic in 1818, has not respected the rights of any of the indigenous peoples. The Mapuche territory or “Wallmapu” in the Mapudungun language, extended from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean and was "pacified" by the Chilean army between 1860 and 1883, in a cruel war that left thousands of people dead, burning their houses and properties and then confining them in reductions with only a subsistence economy, which forced many to emigrate to the cities. Something similar happened on the other side of the Andes, in Argentina, in the so-called "War of the Desert".
The "pacification" meant the military defeat of the Mapuche people along with the end of the territorial autonomy they enjoyed, the theft of their lands, cattle, along with the stigmatization by the Chilean political and economic elite greedy for agricultural wealth. The Mapuche were accused of laziness and induced to be ashamed of their culture, traditions and beliefs. The Mapuche lost nearly one and a half million hectares in the hands of the new Chilean state, which were later given to the colonists. The penetration of the so called "progress" and the arrival of thousands of Chilean and European settlers - mainly Germans, Spaniards, Italians, French, Swiss and English, to whom other people's lands were given away - meant the appropriation of the best fields, the burning of millenary forests, the foundation of new cities that facilitated the deepening of the acculturation process to which they had resisted since the arrival of the Spanish conquerors.
This reality accompanied the Mapuche people throughout the 20th century. With the return of democracy in Chile, in 1990 and particularly during the first democratic government, there were some small advances with a bit of recognition, but economic interests prevailed, particularly the installation of large timber and agricultural companies that have occupied vast areas and cornered the communities. However, the rapid capitalist modernization of Chile contributed to providing more education to the new generations that have awakened the ancestral consciousness. They are achieving majority support in Chilean society, which became particularly evident during the massive protest marches through the cities of Chile on the occasion of the “social explosion” in October 2019, where the Mapuche flag became one of the symbols of protest. Along with the knowledge of their history, transmitted orally for centuries around the hearths in their communities, today there are some generations of professional, educated Mapuche who have reviewed the history of the State of Chile and the policy of "legal" usurpation of which they have been victims.
From here to the emergence of radical groups was a matter of time. Today the prairie is on fire because of the short-sightedness of all the governments that have succeeded each other since 1990, along with the narrow-mindedness and arrogance of the conservative sectors, which refuse to recognize Chile's plurinational component. In other words, the current Constitution does not recognize the existence or rights or degrees of autonomy of indigenous minorities, an issue that is expected to be resolved in the new Constitution to be discussed next year. The response so far has been growing violence in demand of the return of land: attacks on forest companies, burning of houses, schools, churches, trucks and machinery that have cost the lives of several innocent people, or the occupation of public buildings, as has happened with several municipalities. The present government, instead of giving a political response, has opted for denial and repression. Members of Mapuche communities have been assassinated, police set-ups unraveled, and in general, the State has demonstrated insensitivity and a lack of vision in confronting reality. From 2000 to date, 15 Mapuche have been killed by the forces of law and order.
When the Spanish Conquistadores arrived in America in the 16th century, they found various indigenous groups, cultures, languages and different degrees of development, such as the Mayan or Aztec civilizations in North and Central America, or the Incas in the South, in what is now Peru. Little did they care about the diversity of landscapes, customs or the religiosity of the populations they encountered: their goal was to search for gold and return rich to Spain. Today's Chile was “discovered” on June 4, 1536 by Diego de Almagro, who set out from the city of Cuzco (Peru) on a journey that took him 11 months and more than 3,000 kilometers, crossing the Andes until he reached the Aconcagua Valley in the central part of the territory.
He traveled in search of riches until September of that year, finding nothing, only small indigenous communities. He and his men returned empty-handed, this time crossing the Atacama Desert. If Almagro had discovered a territory that seemed to have no end, Pedro de Valdivia came in 1540 to incorporate it into the Spanish crown as the Kingdom of Chile and conquer it. In his far South he found the Mapuche people, hunter-gatherers with incipient agriculture, but with a strong sense of independence and warrior skills. Valdivia died in 1553, after being taken prisoner by the Mapuche, judged and condemned to death "for trying to enslave us". He was executed with a "blow of the club on the skull"1. In 13 years he managed to fund seven cities, including the current capital of Chile, which he baptized as Santiago del Nuevo Extremo. In 1641, the so-called Parliament or Treaty of Quilín was signed between the Mapuche and the Crown, ratified by the King of Spain, Felipe IV, in 1643. There, the border was fixed at the Bio Bio River and their freedom was guaranteed, as well as the fact that they could not be enslaved, the liberation of Spanish prisoners, and the free access of missionaries to Christianize, among others. However, the peace was brief, and in almost three centuries, the Spaniards were never able to subdue them and the cities they founded were attacked and burned, the war left its indelible mark on history and literature, leaving the immortal epic song written by Alonso de Ercilla, "La Araucana", published in Madrid in 1589, where he describes the bravery of the Mapuche people.
The defeat of the Spaniards in the struggle for independence (1810-1818) and the consolidation of Chile's Independence meant a new stage in the history of the Mapuche people. Although there was a good beginning with the signing in 1825 of the Tapihue Treaty or Parliament, where their territorial rights and autonomy within the Chilean State were guaranteed, it was signed by the cacique Juan Mariluán, who represented only a third of the lineages, in a culture where power is distributed in family clans. These were the first years of the nascent Chilean Republic, and peace was short-lived. The 19th century advanced towards the south bringing the telegraph, the railroad and the colonists. The "Pacification of the Araucanía" by the Chilean army, as it was called, meant the definitive military defeat of the Mapuche people and their marginalization in reserves, their cultural cornering, their exploitation as labor and also their recruitment in the wars of Chile in the last century.
Today the panorama is different for several reasons, among them the majority consciousness of Chileans regarding the abuse, humiliation and dispossession to which the indigenous people in general and the Mapuche, in particular, have been subjected. The State has purchased land that has been given to indigenous communities, but this is not enough. There are parliamentarians of Mapuche origin, academics, politicians, writers, and poets such as Elicura Chihuailaf, this year's winner of the National Literature Prize. Other gestures that have been made were the appointment by former President Michelle Bachelet of the first Mapuche ambassador, Domingo Namuncura. These were valuable symbols, but clearly insufficient. The Chilean State will have to make an effort and find a consensual solution to give them autonomy and also to the Polynesian population of Rapa Nui or Easter Island, incorporated to Chile in 1888. The participants at the future negotiating table should be the representatives of the Mapuche people, the government and the private sector that today controls a large part of Wallmapu for forest exploitation, as well as owners of medium-sized agricultural enterprises. It won’t be easy to reach a solution that leaves everyone satisfied. There will have to be generosity from the Chilean State and the private sector, mainly, but also from the more radical groups that do not necessarily represent the majority of a people that for 500 years has not ceased to demand its rights, respect for its culture and, above all, dignity.
1 Bengoa, José. Historia del pueblo mapuche. Siglos XIX y XX. LOM Ediciones. Santiago, 2000, page 34.