CHILE: Society's Incomprehension Fuels Mapuche Hunger Strike

  • by Daniela Estrada (santiago)
  • Inter Press Service

None of the attempts by the government of right-wing President Sebastián Piñera to persuade the fasters to call off their protest, launched by the original group of hunger strikers 80 days ago, have been successful.

'Two completely different languages are being spoken here,' José Bengoa, an anthropology professor at the private Universidad Academia de Humanismo Cristiano, told IPS. 'On one hand, the young Mapuche activists are talking about politics and rights, while the government, in a huge step backwards, is talking about poverty, development and building roads.

'These are two very different conceptions, which lead to a failure to find a solution to this hunger strike,' said Bengoa, who is a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council Advisory Committee.

Of the nearly one million Mapuche Indians in this South American country of 17 million people, around half live in the south of the country, in the regions of Bíobío and Araucanía, and half in the capital.

A group of imprisoned Mapuche activists who identify themselves as political prisoners began a hunger strike on Jul. 12, and were gradually joined by others, who brought the total to 38. They are being held in several prisons in the south.

Most of them are in a delicate state of health, and there are fears that some are near death.

The hunger strikers, who are in prison on charges of terrorist arson, invasion of property and attempted homicide and bodily injury against a public prosecutor and a passenger bus, are demanding that their cases no longer be tried under the controversial counter-terrorism law passed by the 1973-1990 dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet.

The law, which has been widely criticised by rights groups and experts within and outside of Chile, not only makes it possible for witnesses to conceal their identity, but allows secret judicial investigations, longer periods of arrest on remand, and heavy sentences. There are also allegations that unidentified witnesses have been paid to testify against the Mapuche defendants.

Another of the hunger strikers' demands is an end to the practice by which some Mapuche activists are tried in the same case by both the civil and military courts when members of the armed forces are involved, and the resultant sentences are served consecutively.

After weeks of inaction, the Piñera administration, whose inauguration in March brought to an end two decades of government by the centre-left Coalition of Parties for Democracy, introduced two bills in parliament early this month, to reform the military justice system and the counter-terrorism law, with the aim of persuading the protesters to call off their hunger strike.

The government also asked Catholic Bishop Ricardo Ezzati to broker talks with the Mapuche activists, who have the backing of intellectuals and social and religious leaders, some of whom have even launched hunger strikes of their own in solidarity with their cause.

Although the government has promised to drop the charges under the anti-terrorism law that were brought by the government of former President Michelle Bachelet (2006-2010), the hunger strikers refuse to end their protest, arguing that there is no guarantee this will happen, given the independence and autonomy of the office of the public prosecutor.

They have called on all branches of the state to engage in dialogue with them. But the president of the Supreme Court, Milton Juica, and national prosecutor Sabas Chahuán refused, saying it was unconstitutional.

Congress, in the meantime, remains caught up in a heated debate on the two bills introduced by the executive branch, with no solution in sight.

Chahuán pointed out that the counter-terrorism law was invoked in just 12 of the 388 cases in which Mapuche activists have been tried since 2000, in connection with land occupations and other actions to lay claim to what the indigenous group considers its ancestral territory in southern Chile.

The government, meanwhile, called on different actors to take part in a dialogue on 'underlying issues' -- an initiative that has been questioned because the Mapuche community has limited representation in the dialogue, and because it focuses on the so-called Plan Araucanía, a development plan aimed at improving infrastructure and public services for the indigenous people of southern Chile.

Amnesty International and other human rights groups, as well as United Nations Special Rapporteur for the rights of indigenous peoples, James Anaya, have urged the government not to use the anti-terrorism law to try Mapuche activists, and to consider all possible legal and political alternatives to find a solution to the conflict over land.

International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention 169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples, ratified by Chile in 2008, 'is being violated because' the Mapuche are not duly consulted on questions that affect them, as stipulated by the international instrument, said Milka Castro, director of the programme of legal anthropology and interculturalism at the University of Chile law school.

Castro told IPS: 'It is surprising to learn from the media how little professionals in the public sphere and government officials know about Convention 169 and the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (approved in 2007), which was also signed by Chile, and especially how little they know about the cultural diversity of our country.

'There is a historical state of ignorance intentionally cultivated from grade school up through university,' the anthropologist said, referring to the lack of awareness on the occupation of Mapuche territory by the state in the 19th century, in a process known as the 'pacification of Araucania', and the handing over of indigenous land to private owners.

The process continued throughout the 20th century, with the government offering incentives like land and subsidies to forestry companies and other firms interested in operating in undeveloped parts of the country.

Bengoa said 'A significant proportion of the Mapuche people are seeking a different relationship with Chilean society in general, and with the Chilean state in particular.

'In precise, concrete terms, what they want is a process of decolonisation, which states have a hard time reacting to or understanding,' said the academic, who has written a number of books on the Mapuche people.

According to Bengoa, Chilean society sees indigenous people as having 'a subordinate relationship' to mainstream society: Chileans 'have an image of a respectful indigenous person who does not press for all of his or her rights.'

The government and part of the country's political leadership claim that the Mapuche activists involved in land occupations and other protest actions considered to be criminal activities represent a small minority, and that the indigenous group's main problem is poverty.

But Bengoa said 'It is a manipulation to say there are two groups: the 'good' Mapuche and the 'bad' Mapuche.'

Just because some sectors of the Mapuche community are demanding better living conditions does not mean they do not also want 'a significant degree of self-government or autonomy,' he said.

'Obviously, those who are demanding this (autonomy) have always been, everywhere in the world, the vanguard, the young, the elites, the intellectuals, the ones who think of their people as a collective, who think of the Mapuche nation as existing in the future,' he said.

Castro said 'A key issue is territory,' and asked 'Who is analysing and discussing this issue in a responsible, rigorous manner in our country? And how can Chile solve this problem?'

She said the Mapuche claims to their ancestral territory clash with the interests of business, especially the forestry companies, which own land that was seized in the past from indigenous people in the south.

© Inter Press Service (2010) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service