The Struggle of the Mapuche ‘People of the Earth’

English Translation of Banner: “We are not the Indigenous people of Chile. We are Mapuche.”

 

By Claudio Donoso Hiriart and Susana Huenul Colicoy

Colectivo Viento Sur, Chile

Originally Published by Global Forest Coallition

 

Entering this territory called Chile from the north, from the Cerro Camacara, and heading south, European invaders were met with the most spectacular and varied landscapes. Three thousand extraordinary kilometers, in a trip across the great central valley that goes from desert to forests, split by cross-cutting chains of hills snaking between the gigantic mountain ranges of the coast and the Andes. The Pacific Ocean with its cold current and the presence of the South Pacific High anticyclone and the Polar Front frame this canvas, which resembles an unusual island.

What richness stood before the impoverished eyes of those seeking only gold and slaves, who came imposing fire and swords to evangelise the ‘savages’ and make them ‘civilized’ and obedient! The invaders arrived with a yen for possessions and disaffection for nature. Only a few valued and described the marvels they witnessed, the rest were frenzied with greed.

Thus began the destruction of the forests and other ecosystems found from Copiapó in the North, to the south of the country. What the invaders did not know but would soon discover is that, beneath the forests, for thousands of years, soils had been forming that were rich in nutrients and had an extraordinary capacity to store water. Their agricultural endeavors on these soils no doubt produced unexpected results that made them think these resources could be as lucrative as gold. The fever for wheat and gold became as one.

What is often overlooked is that much of this territory was inhabited by the Mapuche, against whom the invaders used all sorts of schemes and trickery in an attempt to subjugate them, along with violence against those who refused to submit. The Mapuche struggle was no longer a struggle against the elements, but rather a struggle to survive and preserve their thinking, their spirituality, their health system, their food—that is, their way of life.

Those who became landowners by usurping the land, and repressing, impoverishing and reducing the Mapuche, amassed fortunes through agriculture. But the agriculture of monoculture was so intensive and savage to the land that, in just a few years, they had degraded thousands of hectares of soil. By the mid-20th century, the Chilean State had installed another monoculture to supposedly attempt to recover the soils: monoculture tree plantations, specifically Pinus radiata, which is native to California.

During these long years, the Mapuche continued to defend their land and lives, but the most tireless struggle was for their dignity. During the bloody civil-military dictatorship led by Augusto Pinochet, the exotic tree monocultures were transformed into a forestry model for the country with grave impacts on the world of small farmers, and particularly the Mapuche.

Since the mid-1970s, during the dictatorship and particularly with the implementation of Decree-Law 701, forestry companies gained ground through juicy State subsidies that allowed them to acquire more and more land. But they also systematically used the strategy of ‘moving the fences’ of small landowners, simply stealing their land. They also took over Mapuche land, often through trickery.

This abuse of the Mapuche people, added to the impacts of the ransacking of their lands by those controlling the productive sector, prompted the migration of thousands of farming families to urban areas, worsening poverty in the cities and depopulating rural areas, leaving them at the mercy of the interests of the ultra-neoliberal model.

The current phase of the destruction of forests and other ecosystems can be seen in the impact caused by monoculture and clearcutting, that takes with it thousands of tons of soil and causes a severe reduction in the quality and quantity of surface water and groundwater aquifers. It also has perverse impacts on all areas of life, as evidenced in the current historical moment which is marked by resistance and efforts to recover knowledge in the arenas affected by forest monoculture such as food, agriculture and health, to name just a few.

A historical current of colonialism continues, that is now manifested in the neoliberal model in its extractivist phase. Communities and organisations in different territories are deploying invisible processes to defend the Mapuche ways of life. Said actions are related, for example, to the defence of water, which is essential for maintaining the crops with which we feed ourselves daily. Without water, there is no harvest. This also entails the defence and propagation of our traditional seeds, which open a window to a world of knowledge that refuses to disappear.

Our Mapuche people also possess a health system, one denied for decades, that despite the overwhelming nature of the forestry model, is being recovered and transmitted to new generations, defending and promoting the propagation of what little native forest we still have, and recovering medicinal herbs, a source of knowledge of the lawentucheve (healers).

It seems pertinent to mention the obstacles that the expansion of forest monoculture puts in the way of productive initiatives based on local identities that allow communities to generate income while taking care of the environment. For example the collectors of non-timber forest products have seen their activities limited due to resource scarcity, despite the benefits of hazelnuts, maqui and mutilla, to name just a few. The same is true of ñocha, which does not grow in pine and eucalyptus monocultures, but is important for basketry.

In this way, we can continue opening windows to knowledge about our daily realities, even though they have been made invisible by the hegemony of the media, which insists on reproducing the discourse of ‘terrorism’ about the Mapuches in order to protect and perpetuate an industry that is destroying not only the territory in which communities live, but also a large part of the Bío Bío region, where the government has disregarded the health and quality of life of inhabitants.

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