Chile's Mapuches Call for Regional Autonomy

A riot policeman shoots at Chilean Mapuche natives (out of frame) in Temuco on Aug. 19 during a protest for the death of Jaime Mendoza Collio, who was shot dead by police during the previous week’s clashes. (Photo: STR/ AFP-Getty Images)

Leaders of Chile's indigenous Mapuche community have seized upon the death of activist Jaime Mendoza Collío to rev up their long-standing campaign for land reform and political autonomy in southern Chile. Simmering tensions that periodically burst into brief fits of violence have come to mark the Araucanía in southern Chile, the area in which most of the country's 900,000 Mapuches live.

Military police shot the 24-year-old Mapuche activist to death on August 12 in an operation mounted to dislodge a group of activists from a piece of seized land in the southern town of Collipulli.

The ongoing conflict is rooted in the backlog of unsatisfied demands for land by Mapuche claimants. The Bachelet administration, counseling patience and dialogue, has stepped up the tortoise-like pace of land reform. The Inter-Press Service reports that the Bachelet administration has now granted 35 percent of the 1.5 million acres of land that has devolved to indigenous communities since 1994. The central government purchased and distributed 345,000 acres, with transfers of public lands or awards of title to previously distributed lands making up the balance, according to José Aylwin of the NGO Observatorio Ciudadano.

But the pace of land reform is still painfully slow for many Mapuche communities, a number of which have resorted to civil disobedience to speed up the process. In late July, after failing to receive an audience with President Bachelet or Araucanía's Governor Nora Barrientos, a group of Mapuche communities launched a series of land invasions. It was in one of these seizures that Mendoza Collío was killed.

The mounting tensions have also led to a spike in militant activity by radical Mapuche activists. The Coordinadora Arauco Malleco attacked a bus and two trucks outside of Temuco in the month of July. In response, a paramilitary group known as the Comando Hernán Trizano said it would use arms and explosives to "put an end to the Mapuche conflict."

The Chilean government's reaction to Mapuche acts of land seizure and vandalism has attracted international attention and criticism for its harsh severity, calling into question Chile's reputation as one of the hemisphere's most strongly consolidated democracies. On a recent visit to Chile, for example, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, José Miguel Vivanco, characterized the August 12 killing of Mendoza Collío as an "unjustified homicide."

The Chilean government has invoked an anti-terrorism statute from the Pinochet era to punish radical Mapuche protesters who seize land and willfully destroy property. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights has declared the Pinochet-era Anti-Terrorism Law in violation of international law, although the Chilean state has yet to change it. The U.N. Committee for the Elimination of Racism also recently criticized the Chilean government for applying the Anti-Terrorism Law "principally to members of the Mapuche community, for acts committed in the context of social demands and related to the vindication of their ancestral land rights."

Now Mapuche political leaders are taking the logic of land reform one step further and demanding regional autonomy for Wallmapu, as Mapudungun speakers call the Araucanía.

In an appearance on the television talk show Tolerancia Cero that took place shortly after Mendoza Collío's death, a spokesman for the Council of All Lands (Consejo de Todas las Tierras), Aucán Huilcamán, proposed the creation of an autonomous, self-governed area south of the Bío Bío River. Huilcamán cited the rights to political self-determination and regional autonomy granted by the 2007 U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as the legal basis for the demand. He likened the group's vision of regional autonomy to that enjoyed by the Miskito in Nicaragua or the Inuit of Greenland, and proposed that its government apparatus be financed in part by the Chilean central government, since the Chilean state "from the moment it took over, usurped, and confiscated the territory of the Mapuche, has a debt—in economic, cultural and even moral terms."

Huilcán is not the only Mapuche leader who has settled on regional autonomy as a political goal. The Associated Press reported on August 15 that "dozens of Indian communities agreed to form the Mapuche Territorial Alliance to fight for political autonomy." The alliance may soon be augmented by as many as 60 more Mapuche communities who have expressed interest in joining the group.

A third group, called Wallmapuwen (invoking the Mapudungun name for the Araucanía), which is struggling to become Chile's first official Mapuche political party, has taken the most concrete steps to push toward making regional autonomy a reality. Wallmapuwen was officially formed in February 2006 to advance the goal of regional autonomy for the Mapuche. The group's founders continue to struggle to gain the necessary 5,000 signatures necessary to become incorporated as an official political party under Chilean law.

In a meeting on August 29 with Minister for Indigenous Affairs José Antonio Viera Gallo, Wallmapuwen leaders delivered an outline for their proposal for regional autonomy. The draft advances not only a reconstituted, decentralized local government, but also calls for a new constitution that would recognize Chile as a plurinational state and raise Mapudungun to the status of an official language. The national legislature would be required to reserve seats for Mapuche representatives in order to guarantee representation.

Following the meeting, Wallmapuwen leader Gustavo Quilaqueo said, "There are numerous modern democracies that see state decentralization as an opportunity and in no way as a threat. Our political class, including those who govern today, need to stop being so provincial on this subject."

Coordinating a political project as sweeping as a new constitution and the creation of an autonomous regional government is an ambitious goal, but it is becoming clear that to diffuse the violent tensions plaguing southern Chile, the Bachelet administration will soon have to address Mapuche political demands as well as land reform.

This article was originally published by the North American Congress on Latin America at