by Rhodri C. Williams
TN readers of longer vintage will recall that I posted a few times on the humanitarian situation in Chile after the quake that hit at the end of February, only weeks after the devastation in Haiti. However, given the higher level of preparedness in Chile and the fact that government institutions remained intact and capable of responding in a robust manner, the types of acute humanitarian and land issues seen in Haiti did not seem to be at issue.
As a result, it came as a bit of a shock to discover that land may actually be more contested in Chile than in Haiti, and that the potential for land-related violence existed prior to the disaster and may have been exacerbated since, both due to the immediate diversion of attention to the reconstruction effort and the longer term effects of the new law-and-order government of President Sebastian Piñera, who took office just weeks after the quake.
Freelance journalist David Dudenhoefer writes in OpenDemocracy this week on the Mapuche, Chile’s largest indigenous group, which inhabits precisely the area the quake hit hardest. While I would highly recommend that readers go directly to Mr. Dudenhoefer’s article, a few points are worth summarizing here. The Mapuche were militarily conquered in the 19th century, granted ‘mercy title’ to a fraction of their former territory, and then progressively lost even that in the course of decades of repression, deforestation and commercial pressure on their lands.
After Mapuche anger spilled over into violence and land occupations, Chile’s previous government engaged in a South Africa-style campaign to buy back Mapuche land at market terms – albeit without the fallback option, now increasingly used in South Africa, of treating restitution claims as constitutional grounds justifying expropriation when necessary:
… the administration of President Michelle Bachelet, who left office in March, approved 115 requests from Mapuche communities for the restitution of ancestral lands. However, her administration only managed to purchase 60 percent of that land before leaving office. The government has refused to expropriate land for indigenous communities and some landowners have demanded exorbitant prices.
The situation has been aggravated by the fact that the new administration has apparently not committed itself to restarting the process, instead diverting resources from land claims to the reconstruction effort without consulting affected communities:
In the first major protest following the quake, approximately 200 members of the Mapuche Territorial Alliance gathered in the southern city of Temuco on April 23 to demand that the government resume negotiations for the purchase of approximately 24,000 acres of land claimed by their communities. The protesters warned that they would occupy some of the disputed properties in one month if the administration hadn’t restarted negotiations, which were abandoned before Piñera took office.
Following the protest, the director of the government’s National Indigenous Development Corporation (CONADI), Francisco Painepán, told the local press that the administration would continue the policy of purchasing land for Mapuche communities, but its first priority was to help the communities that suffered the most earthquake damage. Two weeks later, however, Piñera announced plans to restructure CONADI in order to make it more efficient and prevent the corruption that has been associated with land purchases. He also announced that CONADI would dedicate more of its resources to urban populations, since an estimated 70 percent of the country’s Indians now live in cities.
The announcement drew fire from activists who pointed out that rural Mapuche suffer twice the national poverty rate, which is why so many have moved to cities. Studies have shown that many Mapuche families lack enough farmland to support themselves.
Dudenhoefer points out that Chile signed ILO Convention 169 on the rights of indigenous peoples in 2008, but the approach of the new government to date hardly indicates a strong will to comply with its provisions. Room for improvement certainly exists, but playing angry rural indigenous groups off against vulnerable urban earthquake survivors is an inauspicious start.