7 Key Facts to Understanding Chile’s Mapuche Conflict


By Ernesto Medalla

In the past two weeks alone, Chilean President Michelle Bachelet has received no less than 160 reports of fires in Chile’s southern regions — to farms, property, cars — of which only 15 were formally linked to the so-called Mapuche conflict, the long-running dispute between Chile’s largest indigenous group and local landholders.

Interior Subsecretary, Mahmud Aleuy, told press that it is important to “identify with close scrutiny which fires correspond with the Mapuche conflict and which ones do not.… It is a task that is extremely relevant, as we need to be able to address real events rather than imagined ones.”

However, some are suspicious of the Bachelet administration’s willingness to address the problem. Senator Alberto Espina of the conservative National Renewal party has accused the government of failing to deliver “any definitive response.” Meanwhile, the violence in the Araucanía department and nearby has only worsened, adversely affecting the property and liberty of its victims, and in the worst cases, taking their lives.

To fully understand the situation, we must highlight seven distinct elements that have created tensions between indigenous communities, the state, business owners, and the remainder of Chilean citizens.

Los reclamos del pueblo Mapuche convulsionan a Chile desde hace años y ya se ha cobrado víctimas fatales.
Mapuche claims to their ancestral lands have led to a long-running conflict that have claimed many lives. (Periódico Resumen)

1. Origins of the Conflict

The beginning of the Mapuche struggle with the Chilean government dates back several centuries. At the end of the 19th century, a law was enacted to move the Mapuche peoples to other territories. This allowed the state to carry out the colonization of the south, as well as integrate large vast swaths of land that were up until then under no state control and often uninhabited.

The conflict around land ownership has since increased, with some claiming that this has created a sort of historical debt to Mapuche community. However, the legislation entailed that all the individuals who lived in the territory would automatically become Chilean citizens, enjoying the same rights and responsibilities as the rest of the population.

2. Legal Integration

A series of laws have been enacted that were intended to regulate the possession of land and those who owned it. The 1866 Araucanía Property Law and 1979’s Decree 2568 both allowed the sale of indigenous land.

By the end of the Pinochet regime (1974-1990), only 20 of the 2,197 original indigenous communities were in existence. For the Pinochet administration, there was no such thing as distinct cultural groups since the Mapuches were considered Chileans like the rest of Chile, which meant that they would not receive any special treatment, or have special laws created for their protection.

This all would change during the administration of Patricio Aylwin (1990-1994) whereby the Indigenous Laws were enacted, which would protect patrimonial territories, including those towns which had developed amid ancestral lands.

3. One of the First Clashes

In 1995, controversy surrounded the construction of a hydroelectric project. Plans to build the Ralco energy plant on the banks of the Bío Bío river were rejected for not complying with environmental regulations, some of which were mandated by the Indigenous Laws.

The crux of the dispute revolved around the need to flood an adjacent indigenous burial ground. However, the moratorium on the project was eventually rescinded, and construction work began in 1999.

4.  The Forestry Incident

On December 1, 1997, Mapuche activists set fire to a logging truck, which was the first to haul off lumber from a territory which was being disputed between the Arauco forestry company and the Mapuche residents of the town of Lumaco. The objective: to recover their ancestral lands from the lumber company. This situation has repeated itself year after year, leaving many victims in its wake, both among Mapuche activists and other members of local communities.

The modus operandi of some violent Mapuche groups has already claimed lives, as in the Luchsinger-Mackay case, where a farming couple were burned alive in their own home. Only one person was found responsible: the machi of the Mapuche village, Celestino Córdova, when at least 20 people were involved. At the same time, peaceful Mapuche protests have also met with violence, as in the case of Mauricio Quintriqueo, who was crushed to death by a farm worker on a tractor during a peaceful occupation of a farm.

5. Mapuche Recognition

The fundamental goal for many Mapuche leaders is the recognition of the Mapuche nation as an ethno-political body that maintains ties with the state, while simultaneously maintaining rights over their sovereign lands. In addition, they call for the state to return their ancestral lands to Mapuche ownership.

6. The Protagonists

The Coordinadora Arauco Malleco is one of several organizations that seeks to reclaim the usurped Mapuche territories. Founded in 1998, this organization previously represented various communities and villagers of the area. It is now considered by experts to be responsible for many of the arsonist attacks that have been carried out since 1996.

7. The State

The National Indigenous Corporation (CONADI), part of the Interior Ministry, has as its prime objective the economic, social, and cultural development of indigenous people so that they can integrate with the rest of the country.

Those are the facts, but an obvious conclusion may be drawn from them. If those Mapuche activists who want an autonomous nation get their way, the results will be destructive, and the government should not support this objective. Instead, Chile should be a territory where integration, rather than separation, is emphasized, providing an example to societies fraught with societal conflict elsewhere. Our country could be the perfect place where a free society could showcase the best of all ethnicities and traditions.

Ernesto Medalla is an analyst for Círculo Acton Chile.

Translated by Thalia C. Siqueiros.

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