The small town of Tirúa in Chile’s picturesque Arauco region is home to around 10,000 people, a sizeable Mapuche community and an armored tank. With Pinochet’s dictatorship now decades in the past, life in the idyllic coastal town should be tranquil. But it is a conflict zone.
The region’s Mapuche indigenous people receive poor coverage from the Chilean national media and the right-wing media often portrays them as violent delinquents. Tales of alcoholism, felony and alleged radicalism cloud the poignant plight of the Mapuche community. Even those who dare to speak out about the stigmatization of the race frequently fail to confront the reasoning behind the ongoing conflict with police forces and often altogether omit the excessive persecution of the Mapuche community.
Land is at the root of the conflict. The Mapuche have a history of fighting for their territory, first battling against the Spanish conquistadors and then Augusto Pinochet’s government. Their latest enemy comes in a more commercial form: forestry companies exploiting Mapuche land to feed the booming Chilean lumber trade. Don Ignacio Maríl, a Mapuche elder and charismatic community representative has lived through around 80 years of indigenous land disputes and had his land taken away. Following Salvador Allende’s “The land is for those who work it” campaign, much of Maríl’s land was restored. After the arrival of Pinochet, however, the struggle began anew and the 1,170 hectares that belonged to his community were reduced to just 383 hectares.
Today the Mapuche’s principal struggle for their right to land is against Mininco Forestry. Mininco is now proprietor of much of the land surrounding Tirúa, leaving the Mapuche with minimal terrain to support their agricultural lifestyle.
“We are four brothers and have just nine hectares of land,” comments one member of the community. “On this we have to grow food for ourselves, provide grazing for our animals … it is not enough.” Maríl explains that many Mapuche youth are forced to leave their homes in search of employment in the big cities, “abandoning their family and community.” Those who remain are forced to fight for their territory.
At the heart of the Mapuche identity is a strong connection to the land. The word “Mapuche” itself means “people of the land” in their native Mapudungun language. “The Mapuche without land are not Mapuche,” states Maríl.
The Mapuche’s situation took a turn for the worse in April when Mininco brought a camp of around 50 Chilean police and Special Operation Forces (GOPE) to their Labranza forestry estate, not far from their community residences. Chilean Commissioner of Human Rights Sergio Aguiló alleges that the “militarization” of the area is due to the need to protect the land and company from theft and assaults from the Mapuche people.
The camp is a grisly sight to behold. An aerial view shows two large buildings and an ominous tower among acres of burnt out forestry land. The track up to the camp is hazardous and thick with mud and the camp itself is surrounded by a double layer of high barbed wire fencing. One main gate provides restricted access to the police barracks.
The Special Forces officers on patrol wear helmets and bulletproof vests and carry multiple firearms. During a surprise visit to the camp, Mayor Adolfo Millabur, President of the Human Rights Commission of the Chamber of Deputies Sergio Aguiló and Deputy Manuel Monsalve discovered that the camp also houses a tank.
“To have a tank in my municipality left me indignant,” said Millabur, himself of Mapuche descent. “It affected me a lot because it is not something common in Chile at this time. In a dictatorship they do these things. But, as the Mapuche are indigenous people, ‘democracy’ allows it. They wouldn’t do this in the big urban population of Santiago, there would be scandal!”
Aguiló also displayed his outrage; “It is an unacceptable provocation. This practically military presence, with tanks, a police bus, helmets, submachine guns, rifles, is something that I have never seen in the three terms I have spent as a parliamentarian and as President of the Commission of Human Rights. This situation is not tolerable in a diplomatic state.”
The presence of the common uniformed enemy, however, has strengthened the sense of solidarity within the community. Members of the municipality keep each other informed about police movements outside of the camp, particularly about sightings of the plainclothes officers that patrol in the town itself.
As for Millabur, he must improve the conditions of his community by exerting political and public pressure until the camp is removed. It sounds like he will: “I am Mapuche,” he says, “And I will bear the flag of my town.”
Natalie Hart divides her time between Chile and the Middle East. She was the editor of the Valparaíso Times, and has written for the Santiago Times, the Women's International Perspective and Revolver magazine. She is currently studying in Damascus, Syria.
Galen Brown has worked as a photographer for the Santiago Times and Revolver magazine covering stories ranging from indigenous land disputes to student protests. Check out his work at www.galenbrownphotography.com