The Struggle for Lieu Lieu

Late September. It’s just another day in the community of Juana Millahual. Jose Llanquileo is driving a team of oxen pulling a heavy iron plow, clearing furrows in the hillside for a spring crop of potatoes, barley, and onions. Nearby, Angelica is starting a fire to burn away the last traces of pine and eucalyptus planted by timber companies on stolen Mapuche land. Today, the sun shines and the wind blows softly through the tepa trees on the banks of Lleu Lleu, one of the cleanest lakes in South America. On another day, it wouldn’t be at all out of place to see a hundred heavily armed police backed up by jeeps, helicopters, and armored personnel carriers, knocking down the doors of one of the small houses to conduct a raid or search for a fugitive. The rural indigenous communities on the banks of the lake, peaceful as they seem on any day when the police don’t come around, are a source of fierce resistance to capitalist investment and neoliberal development.

This community, similar to many of its neighbors, is in a process of forcefully recovering hundreds of hectares of their traditional lands which have been usurped by timber companies. Forestal Mininco, which is controlled by one of the richest families in Chile and partners with the IFC, the private arm of the World Bank, operates thousands of hectares of pine and eucalyptus plantations just around Lleu Lleu. Where there used to be farmland or native forests, the timber companies have planted genetically modified pine and eucalyptus in homogenous rows, at great detriment to the health of local soil, watersheds, and biodiversity. The exotic tree plantations, which produce mostly for export, drain the water table and steal food directly from the mouths of indigenous communities.

In 1879, Jose’s great grandmother held 10,000 hectares of land on the banks of the lake, or approximately 25,000 acres. Now, the community of 21 families only has 300 hectares, though they have a claim on another 1,000 hectares currently covered in Mininco tree plantations. Between 1881 and 1883, the Chilean state finally succeeded in invading and conquering Walmapu, the Mapuche territories, slaughtering a large part of the population and attempting to extinguish the culture, language, and religion of the survivors. On the other side of the Andes, the Argentinian state also conducted a similar invasion of Mapuche lands. “They called this the Pacification of Araucania,” explains Jose. “They said they pacified us. For us it wasn’t like this. It was genocide.”

Throughout all the previous centuries, the Mapuche had fiercely guarded their independence. After losing several wars and having all their attempted invasions thwarted, the Spanish crown was forced to sign the first of several treaties with the Mapuche nation in 1641. In 1825, the new Chilean state recognized the Mapuche nation and all its territories south of the Bio Bio river. Roughly all the lands between Concepcion and Puerto Montt, and a corresponding chunk of Argentina, belong to an independent Walmapu, according to several centuries worth of treaties.

For the first decades of occupation, the Mapuche had to fight simply for survival. Most were pushed off their lands or shot down by the new landlords for the smallest acts of resistance. In the 1970s, the forestry industry took off, spurred by the neoliberal policies of the Pinochet regime. Since the transition to democracy in 1990, talk of human rights, development, and even autonomy has entered mainstream political discourse, but the state and media have colluded to an increasing degree to control the Mapuche struggle. Precisely because the Mapuche have never forgotten they are an independent nation or surrendered to the occupation of their lands, those in power have to do everything possible to situate the “Mapuche conflict” in a discourse of poverty and marginalization, insofar as the problem can be managed by humanitarian agencies, and domestic terrorism, when it becomes a police problem. But as Matias Cachileo stated, not long before he was shot in the back and killed by police during an action on a large estate in 2008, “We are not the indigenous people of Chile. We are the Mapuche. We are a people apart.”

Jose Llanquileo is finishing out a five year prison sentence for burning pine trees on a Mininco plantation. He’s served four years already, and now gets weekly furloughs to go back to his community on the weekends and help work in the fields. Outside the prison in Temuco, he explained why their struggle poses such a big threat to the Chilean state. “More than anything else, they’re scared of our ideas. The so-called Mapuche conflict doesn’t have a solution. The demands we have necessitate a break with the framework of the state. What we demand is sovereignty and Mapuche independence. We consciously propose the historical foundations of these demands.” Later, walking down a street bedecked with Chilean flags marking the recent bicentennial celebration, he scoffed. “The bicentenary is a lie. These lands have only been occupied by Chile for 130 years.”

The struggle for the land took a turn in the early 1990s when Mapuches began forcefully reoccupying land that had been stolen from them. Early organizations like Consejo de Todas las Tierras popularized the tactic of symbolic land takeovers, in which the people of a community would occupy a plot of land for a day, rebuilding a collective consciousness that the land was theirs, and the landlords and forestry companies were the usurpers. Later, the Coordinadora de Arauca Malleco, C.A.M., developed a practice of “productive recovery” that moved well beyond symbolism. From now on, the purpose of land takeovers would be to permanently recover stolen territory. Community members and C.A.M. activists would destroy tree plantations and plant crops on recovered land. “C.A.M. was to the Chilean state what Al Qaida is to the U.S. government,” joked Llanquileo.

It’s no surprise that the Chilean state quickly began applying the antiterrorist law in a conflict whose only human victims were Mapuche. “The government is more interested in protecting private property than human life,” says Sergio Catrilaf, a Mapuche activist charged under the antiterrorist law and facing 18 years of prison. He’s accused of possessing weapons and explosives. “But they don’t have any fingerprints. There’s not any kind of biological evidence connecting me to those materials. It’s a pure frame-up.” In the frequent raids on Mapuche communities, “they never find anything illegal. They only find illegal materials when they’re arresting someone. Isn’t that suspicious?”

Catrilaf is one of dozens of Mapuches facing heavy sentences under the antiterrorist law, which increases penalties, allows secret witnesses that cannot be thoroughly questioned by the defense, and inverts the presumption of innocence. In these circumstances, buying testimony and fabricating or planting evidence become standard police practices. For this reason, Catrilaf and 33 other Mapuche political prisoners have been on hungerstrike since July 12, demanding a demilitarization of Mapuche lands and an end to the use of the antiterrorist law against them.

After over 70 days of the hungerstrike and accompanying protests and media attention, the government has made the hollow gesture of offering to drop the terrorism charges just in the cases of those currently facing trial. They also modified the antiterrorism law to decrease the penalties for some charges and increase the penalties for others, while ending the double jeopardy that allows the state to try people in civil court and military court for any crimes against the police or state. The media have presented the modification as an important change, but hungerstrikers, their family members and lawyers have determined the changed law will actually make it easier for the government to punish its opponents.

Despite the repression, the tactic of productive recovery has generalized. Dozens of Mapuche communities are in a process of land recovery, removing exotic trees and planting gardens, restoring their ability to feed themselves and ending their dependence on government assistance programs and capitalist economics.

The people of Juana Millahual have been busy recovering the first few hundred hectares of their thousand-hectare claim for fifteen years. In the beginning, the process was more dangerous. Police guarded the plantations jealously, and it was risky business damaging trees, blocking logging trucks, and carrying out other actions to force the timber companies to abandon a plot of land. The courts decided they could take no action when both the community and the company displayed valid titles to the land in question, and since then all the families in the community have been able to come out and farm the land on a collective basis.

But the repression hasn’t stopped. Several community members targeted by police on fabricated charges have had to go on the run, or have been imprisoned. Jose and Angelica were living underground for three years, evading charges of illegal association, a statute of the antiterrorist law, before being captured. They spent a year in pretrial detention and were ultimately acquitted for lack of evidence, though Jose was imprisoned on the arson charges. Their first child was born while they were underground.

One of the primary purposes of the antiterrorist law, and police repression in general, is to remove obstacles to development. “The biggest problem is the advance of capitalism, in the form of investment on our lands. This is one of the principal threats that the Mapuche face because it means the exploitation of natural resoures. These resources are on Mapuche lands, so investment means the expulsion of the inhabitants,” Jose explains. “Even while we’re recovering our lands, this investment is going on, which endangers everything we have achieved.”

In addition to forests, Mapuche lands contain silver, gold, coal, and a high potential for geothermal and hydroelectric electricity. The area around Lleu Lleu is specifically threatened by a secretive mining project that community members only discovered by accident when survey antennas were being installed to map out mineral deposits. In particular, developers want to exploit scandium deposits. Scandium is used in the aerospace industry and the production of aluminum alloys. The community members mobilized to oppose the mine, holding protests and destroying the antennas. When the governor came four years ago to publicly announce the project, community members swarmed him and even destroyed his vehicle. The police had to rescue him, and the project disappeared for awhile. Now, mining interests are back, discreetly approaching families in the region one by one, offering them money for the mineral rights or paying them to move out. People organizing against the mine have been unable to ascertain when construction might begin, or what international corporations are investing in the project, so they are focusing on building popular opposition.

What’s plain is that any mine in the area would contaminate the lake, which has remained clean for so long precisely because it is surrounded by traditional Mapuche communities. “Unlike Western society,” explains Jose Llanquileo, “the Mapuche don’t see humans as the center of the world. We don’t think humans are the perfect species that can dominate all the other species. We understand that we are just a part of the world.” Lleu Lleu is especially important to all the communities around it, because “we fish in the lake. We feed our families with those fish.”

Mining has already destroyed the environment in the northern part of the Chilean state. It would be doubly tragic if that destruction came to Lleu Lleu because of the many successes local communities have had in protecting the environment, removing tree plantations, restoring food sovereignty, and supporting the return of native tree species. Because investors and project developers are being so secretive, it’s hard to know how best to resist them, but for now local activists are spreading the word about the mining project and preparing to block any attempt to begin construction, building off the collective strength that is a direct result of years of struggle for independence.

“Today it falls upon us to fight. That’s all,” says Mauricio Huaquillao, another of the Mapuche prisoners on hungerstrike, who is facing 80 years in prison. “Against the multinationals, timber companies, mining companies, threatening the little space we have left.”

The fight of the Mapuche is far from over. They’ve resisted colonialism for 500 years, achieving a number of important victories already. By refusing to submit to the “institutionality” of the Chilean state, they reveal the connections between colonialism, international investment, and police violence on one side, and on the other side food sovereignty, freedom, health, and the environment. What could human rights or democracy mean in the context of the state and capitalism? As Jose Llanquileo puts it, “They stole our lands. How can we dialogue?”

The Mapuche are not the oppressed underclass of Chilean society. They are their own people, and they will solve problems of poverty, hunger, destruction of the environment, and judicial persecution on their own, by recovering their traditional lands and way of life and winning independence at the economic, political, cultural, and spiritual levels. They have a tough battle, going up against an international complex of investment and resource exploitation, and the state’s well developed politics of antiterrorism. But the Mapuche have defeated stronger opponents before. As they say, marichi weu. “Ten times over we’ll win.”