The Warriors of Araucanía

by Sera Tolgay

Araucanía—the poorest among Chile’s 14 regions—is the homeland of the Mapuche, the country’s largest indigenous group and the only native population in the Americas to successfully resist Spanish colonization. Since capitulating to the Chilean army in 1882, however, the Mapuche have gradually lost control of their ancestral lands due to privatization policies and invasive logging operations in the densely forested region.

Araucanía’s lush hills and snow-covered peaks hide the clusters of makeshift tin-roof homes where Mapuche families still reside. For the one-third of the Mapuche population that has remained in rural Araucanía, subsistence agriculture is the only means of survival. In their struggle to maintain their way of life, so closely tied to the land, a choice divides the Mapuche people: to conform to these legal and commercial forces or to confront them.

The Mapuche—“People of the Land” in their mother tongue Mapudungun—have maintained an uneasy relationship with the Chilean state for almost two centuries. The clash between modern and indigenous perceptions of land ownership is at the root of this fragile relationship. Organized as communities (comunidades), the Mapuche have managed their land communally with a shared religious site, water source, and harvested produce, while the Chilean government recognizes private ownership and land titles.

“The land reforms mark the beginnings of the communities’ fragmentation,” remarked Ylenia Hartog, a Spanish lawyer whose interest in indigenous populations and the Mapuche conflict drew her to Chile.

Hartog, a vivacious woman and an avid advocate of indigenous rights who is currently representing two Mapuche tribal chiefs (lonkos) at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IAC), insisted that “the Mapuche’s living space has been drastically reduced to reservations (reducciones) because of privatization policies dating back to the nineteenth century. They lost most of their cattle and arable lands, so in a way, they were condemned to hunger and poverty.”

Comisiòn Radicadora, a government agency that was responsible for the land allocations, led this process by resettling the communities to the mountainous and marginal areas of Araucanía in exchange for their fertile lands near the Bío Bío River. As a form of reparation, the Mapuche were granted mercy titles (títulos de merced). “But with these titles came significant reductions, and they could only keep 10 percent of their original territories,” stressed Hartog. This introduction of private property titles and the auctioning of the Mapuche’s ancestral territories gained momentum following General Augusto Pinochet’s 1973 coup, gradually reducing Mapuche territories to the disjointed plots they are today.

The Mapuche are also confronted by the environmental consequences of logging operations, in addition to being discredited as landowners. Vast plantations of fast-growing eucalyptus and pine trees stand out when driving through the rolling hills of Curacautín in northeastern Araucanía; clearly, neither species is native among virgin forests of coigüe, raulí, and tepa trees. Logging companies Forestal Arauco and Forestal Mininco have planted eucalyptus and pine trees to compensate for their operations, but have failed to restore the region’s ecosystem. Expectedly, the Mapuche’s verdant terrain is now afflicted with soil erosion and acidification.

According to lonko Bernardo, the tribal chief of a 17-family community in Curacautín, these effects of deforestation are crippling harvests, compelling his son and many others to seek employment in Temuco, the capital of Araucanía. Bernardo’s community is among the majority that has tolerated this gradual loss of land; like many others, his community conformed to the land allocations by relocating southwards to the mountainous outskirts of Curacautín due to the scanty compensation offered to his community.

The Mapuche have lost their land due to a complex network of forces, but their demand for land rights is simple and local. Among many others who have remained in rural Araucanía, lonko Bernardo is unwavering in his tight-knit relationship with the land: “I’ve never been to a supermarket. The earth can give you all that you ask.”

Although most Mapuche communities have come to terms with relocation, some prefer a strategy of confrontation, demanding the full restitution of their ancestral lands. In Malleco, the hotbed of conflicts, radical Mapuche activists––most of them poor farmers and lonkos like Bernardo––have expressed their dissatisfaction through arson attacks and land occupations against logging companies. Yet their choice to challenge the commercial and legal forces has a heavy price: persecution under the antiterrorism law.

Since the 1990s, the anti-terrorism law, which originally targeted political opponents of Pinochet’s military regime, has been specifically used to prosecute Mapuche incursions, with harsh penalties. “The anti-terrorism law is controversial because it allows testimony by anonymous witnesses, and also has very harsh penalties, harsher than most criminal offenses” said Hartog. “This violates the right for due process. I don’t think they are receiving a fair trial.”

When asked about the fairness of the anti-terrorism law, Violeta Hernandez, from the legislative division of the Ministry of the Interior, insisted that the law is a necessary security measure to counter terrorism. The Mapuche attacks, though, are far from being a campaign of organized terror; none of these sporadic attacks have claimed a single life.

At the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, Hartog is currently representing Aniceto Norin and Pascual Pichun, two lonkos detained since 2001 for allegedly setting fire to a house in an ancestral Mapuche territory in Malleco. She emphasized that there is no evidence incriminating them, except for the testimony of anonymous witnesses. Even so, “Their alleged crimes were against property, and do not fit the characterization of terrorism in international treaties, which requires grave violations against persons,” explained Hartog.

Although she is not expecting a drastic change of events in Araucanía any time soon, she is hopeful that her ongoing case at the IAC will “at least give an orientation to indigenous rights issues in Latin America,” because the court will develop case law on reparations, vital for the survival of fragmented indigenous communities throughout the continent. Regardless of their choice to fight or admit defeat, fair land reparations will be pivotal for all Araucaníans.

In response to recent court cases and local protests, the Chilean government has taken more initiatives to address the increasing demands of Mapuche groups. In 2009, after a two decade-long debate, the Chilean Congress resolved to ratify the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention. Each ministry now has a representative to ensure that the government respects the principles of the convention, ranging from the right to have a translator in courts to multilingual education. Claudia Ancalao, a young Mapuche and an organizer for the assistance programs of CONADI in Purén, Araucanía, admitted that “the government surely implements programs that try to address the dire needs of Mapuche communities in Araucanía.”

CONADI, Chile’s indigenous development corporation founded in 1993, has recently provided economic assistance, language programs, and scholarships to many communities in Araucanía. “Yet I think that the economic support, like wheat, tractors, fertilizers, has a short-term effect, making the Mapuche dependent on government aid. This does not solve the problem of land rights.”

As Mapuche communities relocate further south, losing access to the resources in their once expansive territories, their ancient practice of self-sufficiency has become more strenuous to maintain. “The overwhelming economic inequality forces people to be conformist. Most prefer to accept the situation, but there is a profound sadness in the community,” lamented Pablo Catrileo, a Mapuche student from rural Araucanía studying at Pontifica Universidad Católica, one of the most prestigious universities in Chile.

Those who have remained in their rural communities have hope in their educated youth, like Pablo, who are garnering support from their university professors and international organizations in Santiago and beyond. Neither conformists nor violent radicals, these students represent a third way: intellectuals who are active in universities, courtrooms, and government organizations. With such a dedicated youth, preserving the Mapuche’s way of life need not be a lost cause. “The Mapuche are warriors,” Pablo insisted. “They are fighters.”

SERA TOLGAY ’14 is a Political Science major in Branford College. The majority of the interviews for this article were conducted in Spanish. Research for this article was made possible by the Richter Summer Fellowship.  Contact her at