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Chile: Indigenous continue to suffer
NewsNotes, January-February 2010

When Michelle Bachelet was elected president in 2006, many Chileans expected a marked improvement in human rights since Bachelet herself had been imprisoned and tortured during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. Yet government treatment of indigenous communities struggling to maintain their land and rights has not improved; some say it has worsened during Bachelet’s administration.

Chilean forests have been exploited for export for over 500 years, but it was General Pinochet’s free market reforms in 1974 that established Chile’s modern forest industry. He reversed previous governments’ agrarian reform efforts and privatized the forestry industry by selling off forests and processing plants to a handful of companies at incredibly low prices. He then provided those same companies with generous subsidies to cut down native forests and create large plantations of invasive species of trees like Monterey pines and eucalyptus that grow more quickly in order to bolster Chile’s export earnings. In addition to losing their land to these mega-plantations of eucalyptus, indigenous communities have seen how these trees poison the land and drain underground reservoirs creating “green deserts.” (See “Brazil: Women uproot destructive eucalyptus,” May-June 2006 NewsNotes.) Companies are cutting down native trees to replace them with exotic tree plantations at an estimated rate of 75,000 hectares per year. The Central Bank of Chile estimates that the nation’s unprotected native forests may be entirely destroyed by 2015.

In what appeared to be a significant advance in 2008, President Bachelet ratified the ILO’s Convention 169 that contains numerous guarantees for the respect of indigenous lands. Article 15-1 states, “The rights of the peoples concerned to the natural resources pertaining to their lands shall be specially safeguarded. These rights include the right of these peoples to participate in the use, management and conservation of these resources.” And article 3-2, “No form of force or coercion shall be used in violation of the human rights and fundamental freedoms of the peoples concerned, including the rights contained in this Convention.”

Despite ratifying the Convention, conflicts over land continue to boil over. A small number of indigenous, frustrated with the bureaucracy and failure to keep promises on the part of the government, are beginning to use increasingly violent means to stop the destruction of their lands including property damage to logging trucks, plantations, and fences. This has made things more difficult for those working through legal and peaceful means as the actions of a few have brought on a campaign of persecution and harassment from the police.

Maryknoll lay missioner Carolyn Bosse, who has lived and worked with the Mapuches for years, wrote in an email about the recent unrest: “Houses in the communities are searched without a warrant. Children are terrified to see their house torn apart and their parents pushed around. Police helicopters fly over communities causing terror and police vehicles patrol towns and outlying areas. Some houses are searched on numerous occasions. The Service of Psychiatry and Mental Health Program from Angol Hospital have documented that children in the Community Cacique José Guiñón suffer psychological and physical effects from the violence.”

In October 2009, a delegation of human rights activists witnessed what so many indigenous have had to endure. According to the delegation’s written report, on October 16, in the José Guiñón community, they “arrived to find the community’s spiritual healer, the machi Andriana Loncomilla, in handcuffs. She had been beaten, dragged by her hair and thrown to the ground in front of her children. Her two daughters, ages 11 and 8, had also been roughly handled by the police as they tried to defend their mother.” An estimated 15-20 police had just raided their house without a warrant, took a bag of money and arrested her husband, their 13-year old son, and two other community members. A few hours later her husband and son were released, both bloodied from beatings from the police. Similar attacks have been reported in other indigenous communities.

In a letter to President Bachelet, delegation members wrote, “We call on you to direct the Chile security forces to stop these terrible actions. Children are not the problem. Land is the issue. You must find a solution. For the children of Adriana and Jose Cariqueo, and all Mapuche children who have suffered under the increased repression in these last weeks and months by Chilean police forces, we ask that you respond with actions that will turn a page in the difficult history of Chile. No more terror. No more harassment. No more cruelty. No more humiliation or discrimination.”

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