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Claiming ancestral lands

A KKK-like group is threatening to kill indigenous Mapuche as part of a pitched battle over land rights.

Protests have now spread well beyond the Araucania region and the indigenous groups themselves. The violence has also brought once-divided Mapuche communities together again. Days after Mendoza’s death, 60 communities came together to form the new Mapuche Territorial Alliance and announce more land occupations.

“We don’t want any more scraps. We want to recover our original territory, but the government won’t listen. That’s why we’ve united to take action,” said spokesman and leader of the Temucuicui community, Juan Catrillanca, who claims another 60 communities have asked to join them.

By the early 20th century, following the military occupation of the Araucania region, the 10 million hectares of Mapuche territory had shrunk to 500,000 hectares. Lands were handed over to foreign and Chilean settlers, who throughout decades expanded their property with fraudulent purchases and relocation of border fences.

With the agrarian reform in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the state began expropriating lands to hand over to Mapuche farmers, but the 1973 military coup abruptly ended the process and much of the land remained in a legal limbo. Plots were auctioned off cheap to large economic groups, which, thanks to new incentives to foment the lumber industry, wiped out native woods in Mapuche territory to plant pine and eucalyptus. The Mapuche lands were further reduced to a total of 300,000 hectares. “Western culture conceives property through legal land titles, but the Mapuche cosmovision considers that the land belongs to them because they have always lived on it. In their collective subconscious, they believe the impoverishment of their people is due to the usurpation of their lands,” said Hernando Silva, coordinator of the legal department at the Observatory on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in Temuco. About 38 percent of Mapuches live in poverty.

Efforts to return the land have progressed slowly. In 1994, the government set up a National Indigenous Commission, CONADI, in charge of complex negotiations with large landholders to purchase a portion of their land to return to Mapuche communities. Since then, the government has bought or regularized 170,000 hectares for the Mapuche.

Last year, President Michelle Bachelet announced a Multicultural Social Pact to ensure their legal, cultural and territorial rights, including the restitution of lands to 115 communities by next year. However, there are hundreds more communities claiming ancestral lands.

What the government fails to understand, said former Temuco mayor Francisco Huenchumilla, of Mapuche origin, is that the conflict over lands demands a political solution.

“There is a permanent sense of injustice in this that can only be solved through dialogue, policies and understanding," he said. "This requires understanding the historical truth, because if the government thinks this is just an issue for the police, it is very mistaken.”

The Hernan Trizano Commando has its own Nazi-like “solution” for the Mapuche: “The final solution to this problem is to create an indigenous reservation between Peru and Bolivia. Building them houses and giving them food and clothing is much cheaper than giving them lands in Temucuicui, which they won’t use to plant anything,” said its spokesman.