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Minorities At Risk Project: Home    

Assessment for Indigenous Peoples in Chile

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Chile Facts
Area:    756,950 sq. km.
Capital:    Santiago
Total Population:    14,787,000 (source: unknown, est.)

Risk Assessment | Analytic Summary | References

Risk Assessment

The indigenous people of Chile are the poorest sector of society and continue to lose land due to privatization and land invasions by settlers. The most-organized group is the Mapuche, which includes the Pehuenche and the Huilliche, and they show no sign of slowing down their opposition to the government. The Mapuches have a history of conflict with the dominant group and continue to protest government policies, sometimes violently. The Mapuche are divided among regions and various organizations, though they have united on issues such as cultural and ethnic recognition. The main source of internal conflict is a lack of agreement on the means to achieve their goals. The most militant group, the All Lands Council, is likely to continue land takeovers, as they have demanded complete autonomy for Mapuche peoples. Other Mapuche groups do not call for autonomy, but rather formal recognition of their language, traditions, and cultures, including bilingual education. It is likely that the less militant groups will continue to voice their demands through electoral processes or non-violent marches and demonstrations. If a full-blown guerrilla group were to emerge in the future, it is likely that militant Mapuche members would participate in it against the government. Though the Chilean government has granted land to the Mapuches during the 1990s, it is unlikely that their poverty and low employment levels will change significantly in the near future, due to their isolation and agrarian lifestyle.


Analytic Summary

Indigenous people in Chile are located in the Magallanes Province (Yahgan) and the northern (Aymara and Quechua) and southern (Mapuche) regions of Chile. There are also people of Polynesian descent located on Easter Island. The Mapuches are the largest and most organized group, making up about 85 percent of the indigenous population. While the majority of Mapuches live on reservations established by the government in the 1800s, approximately one-third live in urban areas. Other Mapuche groups include the Pehuenche (meaning "People of the North," mainly located in Quinquen) and the Huilliche (meaning "People of the South") (GROUPCON = 1). The Mapuches are divided by regional differences and organizations.

Chile's indigenous live in the poorest regions of the country and are the poorest sector of society. Their customs, language, and traditions are very different from those of the dominant members of society (CUSTOM = 1). They receive very little education and are reported to have low literacy rates, though most speak both their native language and Spanish (LANG = 1). They often live off the land, surviving through agriculture, hunting, and gathering. Most indigenous are Roman Catholic, like most Chileans (BELIEF = 0). However, some practice animism and many incorporate aspects of traditional belief into Catholicism.

The Mapuche have a warrior tradition dating back to their battles against the Incas in the 12th century. During that period, they established settlements along the Bío-Bío River, some of which remain to this day. When Spanish conquistadors expanded into Chile in the late 1500s, they called the Mapuches "Araucans." During ongoing conflicts with the Spaniards, some Mapuche migrated to what is now Argentina. Large-scale conflict between the Mapuche and the Spanish halted with the signing of a 1641 treaty that recognized land from the Bío-Bío River to the Archipelago de los Chonos as Mapuche territory.

When Chile won independence in 1817, it attempted to renegotiate the extent of the Mapuche lands. By 1845, the government was promoting policies to populate land south of the Bío-Bío with European immigrants. The government awarded these Europeans land grants without Mapuche consent, selling large portions of their territory. When the Mapuche began to attack those encroaching on their lands in the late 1850s, the military responded with violence. In 1866, the Chilean government passed a law allowing the sale of Mapuche lands on the premise that it was considered "public." Within a decade, the government had assumed control of all "Araucanian" territory. When the Mapuche were militarily defeated in 1883, they lost even more land. Following 1884, Mapuche were placed on various reservations or given employment as tenant farmers or share-croppers on large estates owned by European immigrants.

The 1927 Indian Law allowed Indians to purchase individual land titles, although the law was never fully implemented and more than half of their land was sold to European landowners. This decrease in territory and a simultaneous tripling of the Mapuche population between 1927 and 1961 caused severe poverty and disease, a situation which only worsened the following decade—the Mapuche infant death rate during the 1970s was 60 percent. Poverty also increased urban migration until it reached a quarter of the total Mapuche population.

In 1970, Allende was elected with the support of many indigenous people. His government soon passed Agrarian Reform Acts, which allowed Indians to reclaim 70,000 hectares of their land. A Directorate of Indigenous Affairs was also formed in order to develop health care and education policies.

These reforms ended with the 1973 military coup. The Pinochet regime murdered the Mapuche leaders of indigenous organizations promoted by the Allende government; dozens of Mapuche bodies were found in mass grave sites. Mapuches in the Cautin province were interrogated by military and police officials. Much of the land restored to the Mapuche by the Allende government was also taken away. Violence against the Mapuche continued through the following decade. The United Nations, Amnesty International, the World Council of Indigenous Peoples, the International Labor Organization, the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights, and Survival International all petitioned against the abuses and provided information to the international system as well as non-military financial aid for relief purposes.

In 1984, the AD-MAPU (Agrupacion de Mapuche) was formed as a national organization with the goal of maintaining the culture and identity of the Mapuche (it currently represents over 1,300 Mapuche groups) (GOJPA06 = 3). Three AD-MAPU members were murdered by the government in that first year. From 1984 to 1986, Mapuche public meetings were attacked and Cautin province was occupied by police and the military forces. The Mapuches were not permitted to practice their religion or customs, speak their language in public, or educate their children about their traditions and language. The "Council of All Lands" was also formed in the mid-1980s to represent Mapuche interests. It has proven more confrontational and has focused on taking over lost Mapuche lands. In 1988, Pinochet lost a plebiscite election, allowing Patricio Aylwin to become the new, democratic president of Chile. Thereafter, violence against Mapuches decreased and policies were formed to recognize indigenous people and culture after the 1989 transition to democracy.

However, Mapuche protests persisted throughout the 1990s, most seeking land reform and political autonomy. Though the government arrested protesters involved in damage to private property or trespass, it also made some effort to repatriate lands, purchasing blocks of forest from private owners. In 1993, the Chilean Congress officially recognized indigenous cultures and traditions. That same year, environmentalists and Mapuches sued to prevent the construction of the Pengue hydroelectric system on the Bío-Bío. Although the groups were able to force the World Bank to leave the project, then President Eduardo Frei was able to secure outside funding and continue. Land occupations have appeared to accelerate over the past few years, including attacks on forest and mining company employees (INTERCON04 = 1). The government of Ricardo Lagos (elected in 2000) proposed several rural development programs in Mapuche areas, but they have not appeared to placate the more militant activists (POLDIS06 = 2). The Council of All Lands seeks a "bi-national" Chile, with a completely autonomous Mapuche region (POLGR06 = 3). In June 2000, Mapuche leaders claimed their community "had no option but to start an armed rebellion to defend its rights."

Between 2001 and 2003, violent and nonviolent protest continued, and there are no signs of its stopping in the future. In 2003, Mapuche students staged a protest demanding a tailored education for indigenous regions, and thousands of Mapuches marched on Columbus Day against the official policies concerning the indigenous (PROT01-03 = 3). In October 2003, President Ricardo Lagos was presented with the results of a study done by the "Historical Truth and New Deal (or Treatment) Commission." The study detailed the problems indigenous communities face — such as lack of representation in government, lack of adequate resources, and lack of cultural recognition and rights—and it gave specific policy recommendations to alleviate these problems. However, indigenous leaders criticized the report because it failed to propose self-determination as an option and because it did not mention the ongoing land occupations or the state's repression of members of the Mapuche community. Mapuche indigenous groups continued to rebel violently against occupations of their land (REB01-03 = 3), and many were arrested and charged with trumped-up charges under new anti-terrorism laws. For the second time in 3 years, in 2003, the Chilean Senate rejected constitutional recognition of Chile's indigenous peoples. As a result, armed Mapuche activists seized more privately owned estates in Araucania, and decided to set up a separate parliament based in Concepcion. Chile, along with El Salvador and Panama, has not ratified the ILO Convention 169 on the rights of indigenous and tribal people.

Mapuche protest activity was silent in 2006, but in 2003 through 2005, small-scale actions against corporations and land occupations continued (REB04-05=1; REB06=0). Their actions, including arson, targeted property rather than persons and did not result in fatalities



Amnesty International. Human Rights Violations against Indigenous Peoples. London. John D. Lucas Printing. October 1992.

Bengoa, Jose and Eduardo Valenzuela. Economia Mapuche: Pobreza y Subsistencia en la Sociedad Mapuche Contemporanea. PAC. 1983.

Burger, Julian. Report from the Frontier. London. Zed Books. 1987.

Faron, Louis C. Hawks of the Sun. Pittsburgh. University of Pittsburgh Press. 1964.

Human Rights Watch. 2004. "Chile: Terror Law Violates Due Process for Mapuche."

March 1, 2007

IPS-Inter Press Service. 11/27/2003. “RIGHTS-CHILE: A 'NEW DEAL' FOR INDIGENOUS GROUPS.”, accessed 11/29/2004.

Latin American Weekly Report. 10.28/2003. “CHILE: Restless Mapuche create parliament'.”, accessed 11/29/2004.

Lexis-Nexis: All News Files 1998-2006.

Merrill, Andrea, ed. Chile: A Country Study. Washington,D.C. The American University, Foreign Area Studies Series. 1982.

Psacharopoulos, George and Harry Anthony Patrinos, eds. Indigenous People and Poverty in Latin America. Washington,D.C. The World Bank. 1994.

Southern Cone Report.10/27/2003. “'Indigenous peoples' still not recognised.”, accessed 11/29/2004.

U.S. Department of State. Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, 2001-2006.


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Information current as of December 31, 2006