Mapuches people fighting against plunder and marginalization. Interview with Gustavo Quilaqueo

Interview with Gustavo Quilaqueo, President of Wallmapuwen

Q. What are the main problems faced by the Mapuches in Chile? 

A. Two important things. First: the issue of the territorial rights that were never recognized which particularly affect the communities surrounded by forestry companies or big land estates. The second aspect that we stress as an organization (Wallmapuwen) is the issue of the recognition of the Mapuches as a people and of our political rights, those of a people pre-existent to the State. The conflict started at the end of the nineteenth century when the Chilean State militarily occupied our territories and then cancelled the territorial and political rights that we enjoyed until then. Another important aspect for us Mapuches is the issue of the repression and persecution of leaders and communities. The state's response to the claims of these communities has been the use of legislation which is totally anti democratic, the 'anti-terrorist law', which was forged during the dictatorship and applied only to the Mapuches in times of 'democracy'. And this use of police force led to the imprisonment of hundreds of leaders and the death of three youngsters. All this has been denounced nationally and internationally and there is a series of recommendations from 2003 onwards by the UN Committee on Human Rights, the reports of the Special Rapporteur for Indigenous Peoples, Rodolfo Stavenhagen, and then last year by the new Rapporteur James Anaya. All these recommendations were not taken into consideration by the recent governments and therefore we think that we have not progressed much in the recognition of our fundamental rights, be they territorial or political.
Q. What is the situation of the rights of the Mapuches on their ancestral territories, especially after Chile's ratification of the ILO Convention 169 in 2008?
A. The interpretation of the State is that the Convention only recognizes those territorial rights that have documents, which only means 500,000 hectares out of the five or ten million that we had until the end of the nineteenth century. Therefore, neither before nor after the ratification, have our ancestral rights been recognized. The land that is currently in the hands of forestry companies or the private sector in general amounts to more than three million hectares, which was part of what historically we had as a people. We are not necessarily planning to reclaim all the territory that we had in the nineteenth century, but the main point is that Mapuche lands have been plundered. It is necessary to recognize the territorial rights, not only in terms of surface area, but also in terms of natural resources. According to the vision of the Chilean State and the current neo-liberal model, natural resources are regulated by other legislation which is completely separated from Convention 169. Therefore there has been no improvement in the recognition of our territorial rights. On our territories, we have resources such as water, forests, the coastal areas, and all this has been given to private companies, for example the salmon industry. Most of the indigenous territories and natural resources are in the hands of private companies, of transnational corporations, companies from Spain, USA, Norway, Australia, Japan who then export mainly to Europe and the US. The problem is that we have sectorial laws and even a Constitution that tells us that Convention 169 is not valid. In order for the Convention to come into effect, it is necessary to change the sectorial laws and the Constitution but this requires political will. However parliamentarians have economic and political interests. Even on the left, they keep considering indigenous people not as a people; instead they insist that we are all Chilean, 'indigenous', therefore there can't be special rights for one people. So the main point here is that the Convention clashes with a very conservative legislation, tied to economic interests, and the political elite in power does not show any interest in wanting to recognize the rights of indigenous people.

Q. So, being displaced from their territories, the majority of the Mapuche population live in urban areas. Is that right?

A. 60 percent of those that we consider Mapuches live in urban areas, mainly in Santiago. The remaining 40 percent lives in rural areas or small towns in what we call Wallmapu, the historic Mapuche territory, living on small-scale or subsistence agriculture and forestry. Families rely on children who emigrate to the cities. There is not a Mapuche family living in the countryside who does not have any relative in the city and vice-versa. The ties with those who migrate are strong and people in the cities mobilize and fight alongside the rural communities. However, the State does not recognize the Mapuches as political actors. This State wants a monolithic, unicultural and unipolitical country. We as Mapuches have no representation in parliament, nor special laws as in other countries, like quotas or rights to local autonomy. We are fighting to have our own representatives in parliament. Article N. 1 of the Constitution says that Chile is a single and indivisible nation. The parliament does not recognize the word people and the rights that come with it both in the present and in the future; it doesn't recognize collective rights, territorial rights and political rights.
Q. So the situation is very different from countries such as Bolivia and Ecuador with their new constitutions.
A. You have Canada, Nicaragua with the Miskitos on the Atlantic coast, you have the progress in Ecudor with many difficulties. In Bolivia in both the constitution and other legal instruments the country is recognized as plurinational. Here, there has been no such progress. There is a document which is called the Report of the Truth and New Treatment Commission. It is a document written by indigenous representatives, State's official and civil society in 2003-2004. This document states what happened in the past and continues to happen in relation to indigenous people and the Chilean State, and contains some recommendations. However, although this document is official, it has not been presented to any State body such as municipalities, the government etc. It states what has to be done but it has not been applied. It is an example of how we advance a little in recognizing our rights but in concrete terms nothing is done.
Q. The recently published UN 'Report on the State of the World's Indigenous Peoples' warns that the majority of the languages spoken by indigenous peoples are at risk of extinction. Is this a problem for the Mapuches?
A. About 22 percent of the Mapuches speak the Mapuzugun, the original language. We are talking about one fifth of the indigenous population which lives in very limited geographic and social spaces. This data worries us. Our language is in danger of disappearing. On one hand we know that the response cannot come from the State only. On the other hand, it is clear that our lack of recognition makes the achievement of basic rights very difficult. Inside the Mapuche society there have been some interesting things in the last ten, 15 years. There have been efforts: people who have revitalized the mapudungun and teach it to their children, the use of names of Mapuche origin. These are little things and they are neither systematic nor institutionalized.
Q. Apart from the indigenous national movements and the regional networks that fight for indigenous peoples' rights, what role can the international institutions such as the UN play, in particular the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues?
A. The existence of international bodies and institutions that have made dialogue on indigenous issues possible has been positive. 20 or 30 years ago people were talking about indigenous people but as if they only existed in the past. Then there was progress in the sense that there was an acknowledgement that it was necessary to create instruments to protect indigenous people in the present. A more critical vision is that the UN represents the States. An example was the time that it took to approve the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. It took 20 years! This was due to several attempts by certain States to neutralize indigenous rights. Therefore the forum has been an important space, but an insufficient one. There has been a recognition, but in many parts of the world this clashes with the economic interests of large transnationals and with the political interests of the States. We also believe that at the national level we indigenous people are making great strides, we are creating political spaces in opposition to the State, the political and economic powers, against the transnationals and the neo-liberal State, and all this despite our double or triple condition of marginalization! Certainly you have to acknowledge the progress, yet there is still a lot to do and it is essential to keep fighting in the local, national and international spaces. As long as there is a representative from the Mapuches in the Forum- and it is certain there will be a representative in the next one- the international community will continue to be informed on what is happening to the Mapuches, both in Chile and Argentina. 
Interview by Laura Fano Morrissey
Gustavo Quilaqueo is President of the organization Wallmapuwen ( He is also a history teacher with a Master's Degree in Rural Development. 
Photo: Wallmapuwen/flickr