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The Mapuche’s Struggle for the Land

by JOHN SEVERINO

In the aftermath of the inspiring popular uprising in Argentina at the end of 2001 and the battles that blocked neoliberalism in Bolivia from 2003-2005, the Left came to power in governments across South America—most notably in Argentina, Venezuela, Brazil, and Bolivia—in a series of electoral upsets that were quickly hailed as revolutions. In hindsight, these victories prove to be less than convincing. The new revolutionary governments institutionalized social movements, turning them into mere appendages, they continued cutting down the rainforests and displacing indigenous peoples in the name of progress, they supported free trade agreements, used paramilitary or police forces against student demonstrators, expanded the exploitation of gas, oil, and coal, and imprisoned dissidents. Business as usual.

The cynicism of these new governments should not have come as a surprise. True revolutions do not happen overnight, and they are not delivered by politicians. The kind of transformation that ends exploitation, misery, and the destruction of the environment, and that allows people to organize their own lives and fulfill their needs in freedom and dignity comes about in an altogether different kind of way.

Outside of the media spotlight and the halls of power, the Mapuche are creating just such a transformation.

The Mapuche are an indigenous people of South America whose territory—Wallmapu—extends to both sides of the Andes. After the Spanish invaders arrived in the 1500s, the Mapuche won a series of wars against their would-be colonizers. Unlike their hierarchical neighbors, the Inca, the Mapuche organized horizontally, and their capacity for self-defense was so renowned that Wallmapu became known to Europeans as “The Spanish Graveyard.”

Wallmapu was not conquered until the 1880s—around the same time the US government was exterminating the last of the Great Plains warriors who had refused to accept life in the concentration camps. In a surprise attack, the states of Chile and Argentina invaded and divided up the Mapuche territories.

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Mapuche protest in Chile. Photo: Global Justice Ecology Project.

But the Mapuche continued to resist. Communities fought to stay together through the first wave of invasion and dispossession. They preserved their language, religion, food culture, and medicinal knowledge. They held on to whatever land they could, though they were often reduced to working as peons for the big landlords that had usurped their territory. In the 1970s, the progressive Allende government had consolidated a great quantity of public land and was preparing to dole it out as individual plots to poor Chileans. This would have eased the poverty of the urban poor, but it might also have spelled the end of the Mapuche and their collective system, in which land is not a commodity but the inheritance of the entire community.

When the rightwing Pinochet took over in a US-backed coup in 1973, he gave all those lands to international forestry companies, and Wallmapu was covered in a monoculture desert of identical pines and eucalyptus, exotic trees that depleted the water table, damaged the soil, and replaced the native species that were the basis for Mapuche medicine, silvaculture, and religion.

The Mapuche made up a large part of the socialist guerrilla groups that fought against the dictatorship and the stage-managed transition to democracy, but many came to feel that the socialists were just using them, that they too ascribed to a Western notion of progress which relegated the Mapuche to history’s dustbin.

In the ’90s they began marking out a separate path for their struggle, and in the ’00s that struggle began to take on the form we see today: direct action to recover their land.

The Mapuche struggle, like any other, is heterogeneous. It also has its NGOs, political parties, and cautious reformers. But the common view is that the Mapuche struggle is taking place in the rural communities, and what’s happening in the countryside looks nothing like politics as usual.

Land, in the Mapuche struggle, is a transcendent concept. It is not simply a plot of terra firma demarcated by a set of boundaries, as it is in the liberal Enlightenment thinking that constitutes the earth-hating religion of the West. Land is a living, inalienable thing that serves as the basis for the community’s existence.

Accordingly, their struggle for the land is not a campaign to win property titles so they can farm it, sell it, or build a hotel on it, however they please. It is a war between two different worldviews, a battle to restore their traditional relationship with the land in opposition to all the invisible structures of Western society that in the name of liberty make free life impossible.

Within this struggle, there is no alienation between means and ends, and no separation between political, economic, and cultural solutions. How could we possibly expect a system based on political hierarchy to bring economic equality? Or a system based on commodification to allow cultural self-determination?

As a Mapuche community wins back land, it removes it from the logic of commercial production and reconnects it to a web of living beings. Often, this means planting quinoa and potatoes or grazing livestock, as they have for thousands of years, so the community can feed itself without reliance on a market economy to which they have always been expendable. Another common transformation is the removal of commercial timber plantations and reintroduction of native species. This helps the local environment to heal, and also brings back the plants the Mapuche use for their medicine and ceremonies. Mapuche in resistance construct their own houses and are taking steps to generate their own electricity on the local scale, free from the destructive effects of hydroelectric dams and coal-fired power plants (megaprojects that the Chilean state, with the cavalier environmental racism we might expect, has often built on Mapuche lands).

Land, within this logic, is not just a single item from a list of humanitarian issues, placed somewhere below “human rights” and above, say, “reproductive health.” It is everything. It is the hub that connects to every other aspect of existence. Human rights, in contrast, is an empty concept that has been used to strip alienated individuals of every last resource they might use to provide themselves a dignified subsistence, in exchange for a pittance of symbolic freedoms and immaterial guarantees.

Most Mapuche I know are highly critical of the much acclaimed Constitutional process in Bolivia that has taken unprecedented steps to guarantee the rights of indigenous people. Those rights, in the end, are just words on paper. The same government programs exist to ensure that people think of themselves as Bolivian first and indigenous (Quechua, Aymara, etc.) second, because a government without loyalty is nothing. And the same market structures exist to force everyone to sell their land, their culture and their time to tourists, mining companies, agribusiness, just to be able to eat and have a roof over their heads. No political party, no matter how progressive, will block those structures, because a government without investors is a coup waiting to happen.

The one thing that the new Bolivian Constitution will not guarantee to the millions of indigenous people under its authority is the one thing that could make a difference: land.

That’s why the Mapuche in struggle are not demanding anything, they are taking it.

In the last decade, a growing number of Mapuche communities have come together and determined to win back the lands that belonged to them at the time of the Chilean and Argentinian invasion. They use protest, economic sabotage, and blockades to recover their territory acre by acre. In practice, this means a variety of tactics. Planting crops on contested land, ruining timber plantations so harvesting the trees is no longer economically viable, setting fire to logging equipment or the buildings of wealthy landlords, holding religious ceremonies on the land to renew the strength of the community, pushing police out of the communities, blockading highways and stopping commerce.

Clearly, this kind of struggle comes with consequences. Mapuche fighting on the Argentinian side of the border that has been drawn through their territory have had to deal with paramilitaries and brutal police assaults, especially once they began taking on the exploitation of their land by oil giant Chevron. On the Chilean side, the struggle is more intense, with many more communities in the process of recovering their land.

Since 1990, the Chilean state has desperately tried to portray itself as a democracy, while pursuing the exact same neoliberal policies the Pinochet regime was installed to inaugurate. The 2010 documentary The Chicago Conspiracy does an excellent job demonstrating the cynicism and brutality inherent in this balancing act, but nowhere does it become more clear than in the repression of the Mapuche struggle.

Police surveillance and harassment are a constant reality in Mapuche communities. In 2008 police shot Mapuche teenager Matias Catrileo in the back with an uzi during a protest. In 2009, they killed another active community member, Jaime Mendoza Collio. On August 6 of this year, Rodrigo Melinao Licán was found dead in a ditch from multiple bullet wounds. Eight days later, another Mapuche community member was gravely injured after a run-in with a landowner. Just this past October 14, the representative of a logging company ran over a community leader from Newen Mapu, in the Alto Bío Bío region.

When trigger-happy police shot one of their own in a violent raid on the community of Wente Winkul Mapu in April, 2012, they needed a scapegoat, so they arrested one especially active community member, Daniel Melinao, when he was on his way to give a talk about police repression in Mapuche communities at the university in Concepción.

In 2010, 38 Mapuche active in their communities who were being framed on terrorism charges cleared themselves only after an internationally supported hunger strike that went on for more than 80 days.

Dissatisfied with these results, prosecutors cooked up a new case, bringing many of the same people back to trial for a highway blockade that happened in 2009. Although no one was hurt in the blockade, prosecutors charged the defendants with terrorism (perhaps taking a cue from the United States, which had already started to use terrorism enhancements for harmless acts of economic sabotage). They were acquitted this past August, due to a total lack of evidence connecting them with the blockade.

One defendant in both these trials, Jose Queipul, is from the community of Temucuicui, which has been particularly successful in recovering its traditional lands from the ranchers and logging companies that currently occupy them. Just a summary of half a year in the life of this community paints a picture of horror, trauma, and cruel repression. In late May, police invaded the community, burned down several houses that community members had built a year earlier, stole valuable agricultural tools, and shot tear gas at people.

In August, police harassed community members on their way to the city of Temuco to attend the trial.

On October 10, police invaded again. This time, they brutally arrested several community members, including a minor, and beat and tortured them at the police station. They bulldozed people’s houses, killed livestock, destroyed fences and irrigation works, terrorized children, stole more tools—tools the people rely on for their daily subsistence and can scarcely afford to replace—and to top it off, they bulldozed a wider path into the village to make it easier for them to come in next time.

Dozens of people in the community face criminal charges. They usually beat the charges for lack of evidence, but each new accusation means new legal fees, transportation costs to get to the city, and time away from the community, away from the fields, away from the struggle.

The fact that even terrorism charges usually end in acquittal indicates that Chile probably has a more independent judiciary than the United States, where dozens of people spend decades in prison on politically motivated charges, people like Mumia abu-Jamal, Leonard Peltier, Eric McDavid, and Marie Mason, or Herman Wallace who died last October 4 after 40 years in solitary confinement for a crime he did not commit.

But Chile, desperate to project the image of a country governed by due process, can repress the Mapuche with a combination of old-fashioned brutality out of the public eye, and a constant barrage of charges designed to exhaust and impoverish any community that takes a stand. Even with a relative absence of convictions on false charges, the effect is to discourage other communities from rising up. Such a tactic can only work if the state can also offer a positive incentive. This is where NGOs and charities come in, imposing the logic of progress and development to “help” those who agree not to help themselves. Communities that do not take back their lands get charity projects. Communities that are in the process of taking their lands back do not.

But every development project that sells itself as a step forward against poverty only deepens the dependence of the recipients. The effects are generally to increase reliance on large-scale infrastructure or the money economy, and never to allow real autonomy and self-sufficiency.

For Mapuche communities in resistance, bettering their circumstances means implementing their own solutions at a local level, it means being able to feed themselves directly, independent of the price of bread or whatever cash crop they are supposed to grow, it means healthy land, clean air and water, traditional medicine and nature-based religion.

But according to the logic of development, someone who works eighty hours a week to be able to afford half the things they need is technically richer than someone who meets all their own needs outside of a money economy. Poverty statistics focus single-mindedly on income in dollars. According to the economists, someone who doubles their income but has to buy four times as many things that they used to get for free, is less impoverished. The development that economists boast of has been the destruction of subsistence and the imposition of precarity and dependence. With this kind of development in mind, the Chilean government is demolishing “informal” housing and building huge subsidized apartment blocks. What greater joy can there be than building your own house and living in it without having to pay anyone, and what greater misery than having to move into a tiny apartment that you have to work a job to maintain? This is considered progress in the war on poverty.

Chile is also an international model of reforestation. Logging companies, World Bank statistics, and major environmental NGOs alike proclaim the comforting statistics of millions of acres of “reforested” land. But the people who live there know that a monoculture of invasive trees planted in rows and treated with chemicals is not a forest. And even a national park with a few native species is not a step in the right direction if people are not allowed to practice traditional forms of subsistence within it.

Progress, whether in the neoliberal paradigm or the progressive one, still means genocide, alienation, and total colonization. Its implicit violence makes it an offer we can’t refuse. The Chilean state, in its brutal dealings with the Mapuche quest for independence, demonstrates that anything that does not fall in lockstep with Progress will be prosecuted as terrorism.

True revolutions have always been heretical, and anti-terrorism is nothing if not the witch-hunt of our day. Chile prosecutes people who are getting their land back, and transforming the very concepts of land and freedom, as terrorists, while the cops who have killed Mapuche youth walk free.

The Mapuche struggle reveals a way of looking at land and freedom that totally upsets the dominant worldview. In their conception of land and their practice of direct action, means and ends find harmony, problems of political exclusion, economic alienation, and cultural commodification meet with a unified solution, and questions of health, spirituality, education, housing, food security, and environment blend and become indistinguishable.

The severe consequences and obstacles faced by the Mapuche reveal another truth about revolution. It does not happen overnight, and it does not fall from the sky (or other high places). Revolution is never easy. This awareness has been painfully lacking among the glowing spectators of the popular movements in Venezuela, Bolivia, Brazil, and Argentina, or the so-called Color Revolutions of the former Soviet Bloc, among participants and critics alike of the Occupy movement, and commentators to the Arab Spring who thought that everything was over once the dictators fell.

The Mapuche struggle arises out of its own particular history and landscape. The rest of us can neither join it nor imitate it. But we can undermine the impunity with which governments, businesses, and charities attempt to bulldoze it beneath the joint discourses of Progress and Terrorism. We can question our relationship to the structures and worldviews that continue to try to erase or colonize the Mapuche and other indigenous peoples closer to home. And we might reexamine the very place we consider to be home, the political structures and narratives that have been imposed on it, and the histories of peoples who once had a different kind of relationship with it. We might think about our relationship with the land, with anyone who might have been dispossessed of that land, and what a real revolution, in those circumstances, might look like.

John Severino has travelled extensively in South America and organizes solidarity for social movements there. His writings can be found on chileboliviawalmapu.wordpress.com

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