Chile: Mapuche — Frontline defenders against capitalist extractivism

A protest to demand the release of Celestino Cordova. Photo:

Some call this thin strip of land in South America “The land at the end of the world”. The Spanish referred to it as the “Captaincy General of Chile”. The official name it was given after local elites declared independence from Spain was the Republic of Chile.

The Spanish and Chileans refer to the territory south of the Bío Bío River as Arauco and Araucanía. Yet, before any Spanish or Chilean boots had set foot on these lands, these prairies and forests had been inhabited for many centuries by the Mapuche people.

The Mapuche are a millenarian people who have inhabited the territory for a long time, organising their society without the need for a state or a capitalist economic system.

Horizontal forms of organisation and the lack of any centralised authority that monopolised power were of great advantage when confronting centralised powers, such as the Inca or Spanish empires. Finding no king, emperor or president to depose, these empires were forced to retreat.

Nevertheless, after a long war against one of Spain’s best armed professional militaries, a pact was signed in Quilín, in which the Spanish recognised the autonomy of the Mapuche people and its territory south of the Bío Bío River. For their part, the Mapuche recognised the north of what is today Chile as territory colonised by Spain, and even established trade relations.

From the 19th Century, winds of independence began to blow across the continent, influenced by the French Revolution and the Age of Enlightenment. Republics and authoritarian states were formed, comprised of civilised inhabitants indoctrinated with colonial values, while a “barbaric” and “uncivilised” mass were branded “Indios” (Indians).

A stereotype was created on the basis of racial supremacy, in which the Mapuche were viewed in the collective imagination as a dangerous savage incapable of progress, as drunk and dirty — a stigma that remains today even in school study materials.

It is worth recalling that the Chilean state, just a few years after gaining independence in 1825, signed the Treaty of Tapiwe, in which it recognised the independence and administrative and territorial autonomy of the Mapuche nation in Wallmapu.

However, respect for this treaty was short-lived, as Chile began to see these lands as a source of exploitable resources to accumulate riches and stimulate the capitalist economy.

The Chilean army carried out its infamous “pacification of Araucanía”, while the Argentine army waged its “campaign to the desert”, both with the same objective. These military campaigns involved kidnappings, rape, persecution, assassinations, torching of homes and displacement of indigenous peoples into smaller territories, all with the backing of the criminal Chilean and Argentine state.

The Mapuche people are not only characterised by their indomitable character and distrust of state organisms and multinationals, but also their notion of respect for itxofilmognen (the diversity) of nature.

Many know of the great rock wall remains of the Inca Empire, the grand constructions built and defended by the Aztecs, the architectural riches of the Mayan empire. Because of this they think the Mapuche people of the past were not a grand people, as they did not leave behind large buildings as demonstrations of the greatness of their civilisation.

But, what is it that the Mapuche people have fought for and defended with such devotion for so long?

It is not rock walls or pyramids, but rather the diversity of nature that maintains the equilibrium of life, the free flow of the rivers, the volcanos, the natural forests and the life they house, the places where lawen (Mapuche medicine) comes from.

All of this is in capitalism’s sights. With the backing of the state, whether in the hands of right-wing or left-wing reformist parties, they want these exploitable resources for big companies and multinationals.

Deforestation of native forests is always followed by pine and eucalypt plantations. The much-acclaimed democracy is little more than the dictatorship of voracious and extractivist capitalism. It uses the laws of the state and its idea of “progress” to justify jailing the defenders of the land.

That is why, whether under governments of the centre-left Concertación alliance or of the right, Mapuche activists have been assassinated by the minions of power, acting with complete impunity, and in the knowledge that the judicial system is an organism for protecting the rich and their private property, and for the detention or disappearance of those who oppose the advance of the machines.

The political incarceration of Mapuches in the context of the global COVID-19 pandemic, has once again made clear the institutionalised racism of the existing neoliberal order.

This is a country where the president asks for freedom for those who violated human rights during the military dictatorship, but represses any protests in support of freedom for the Machi (ancestral authority) Celestino Córdova.

Córdova is in jail over accusations he burnt down the house of a Swiss couple, whose family history is stained in Mapuche blood, leading to their deaths. The truth is that the guilty verdict was based on unsubstantiated evidence.

This goes to show that in Chile, a crime does not have to be proven for someone to be sent to jail — as being Mapuche is proof enough to be found guilty.

[Daniel Minchekewün is a Mapuche activist and anarchist who vlogs on YouTube at Escupamos la Historia. Translated by Federico Fuentes.]