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VANCOUVER—More than 34 Mapuche political prisoners in Chile have entered into day 75 of a hunger strike. They are seeking significant changes in the way the Chilean state treats Indigenous Mapuche people.
The hunger strike has entered into a critical and possibly deadly phase: Bobby Sands, an Irish revolutionary and a well known casualty of hunger striking, died after 66 days. Other hunger strikers have survived for longer, including ex-political Mapuche prisoner Patricia Troncoso, who refused food for 112 days to protest the "predatory and inhumane economic model" in Chile and the still active anti-terrorist laws used to criminalize the Mapuche people.
The central demands of the hunger strikers and their supporters are that Mapuche people be tried in civil courts instead of in both civil and military courts, and that dictatorship-era anti-terrorist legislation not be used against them. Their struggle, at its roots, is in defense of Mapuche territory and culture, a plight common to Indigenous peoples around the world.
The Mapuche fight to maintain their freedom and independence dates back to the first Spanish invasion of their territory in 1541. Since then, their land base has been whittled down to a series of reserves, which, under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, were broken up into individually held parcels.
Since the end of the dictatorship in 1990, laws have been passed that recognize the rights of Indigenous peoples to land. However, these laws have not been honoured, and Mapuche people have continued to organize against transnational corporate activities in their lands.
Clare Sieber, an anthropologist who graduated from UVIC, has spent time working with the Mapuche people. "Although there have been many Chilean and international policies implemented to strengthen and support Mapuche communities… the dominant model of industrial development including foreign investment still imposes structures of power over, rather than collaboration with, the Mapuche people," Seiber explained in correspondence with the Vancouver Media Co-op.
Canada's relationship with Chile has long been based on mining and free trade, Canada having signed a bilateral Free Trade Agreement with Chile in 1997. In 2008, Canadian outward foreign direct investment in Chile totalled $8.346 billion. Canada's priority sectors in Chile are among those that have most aggravated the Mapuche conflicts, including "mining, forestry, fishing and agricultural industries."
Hydroelectric projects have also created tension and conflict between the Chilean state, private investors and the Mapuche people.
Dams have flooded vast expanses of Mapuche territory, displacing entire communities. In the 1990s, the Spanish owned Empresa Nacional de Electricidad (National Electricity Company, ENDESA) began a project of building six dams on the Bio Bio River in the South Andean region of Chile, home of the Mapuche Pewenche communities. Some of these dams were funded through loans from the World Bank's International Finance Corporation and the Inter-American Development Bank.
The effects of the damming and flooding of Mapuche territory continue to be felt, according to Sieber. "Although ENDESA supplied some Pewenche in El Barco with new homes and electrical appliances… they did so not taking into account the seasonal mobility and community organization of the Pewenche." Sieber says electrical appliances are of limited utility without electricity or employment opportunities to pay electricity bills. “I have seen gas ovens and laundry machines used as cupboards.” She also notes that the rectangular plots of land fenced with barbed wire offered by ENDESA are “contrary to the semi-nomadic and communal land organization of the Pewenche.”
Forestry disputes also flared up during the late 90s, and in December 1997, the police fought Mapuche protestors from the Pichi–Lincoyan and Pilil–Mapu communities.
“The communities were claiming their lands, and this generated a conflict because the government ignored Mapuche demands," explains Mapuche writer Aldisson Anguita Mariqueo. He notes that at this time:
The response of the ‘democratic’ government of Chile was to arrest twelve Mapuche under the legal umbrella of the Internal Security Law. This law, inherited from the military dictatorship, allows the security forces to search private residences and to arrest and interrogate any ‘suspicious’ individual without judicial intervention.
Road building and airport construction have increased the incursions into Mapuche territory, furher threatening the survival of the Mapuche people. In a 2008 report, Amnesty International noted that unresolved territorial disputes related to the extractive and logging industries have caused "tension resulting in violence":
Mapuche leaders have informed us that police officers have used excessive force, including tear gas and rubber bullets, and firing shots from moving helicopters, including lead shot, in order to suppress the protests…
The hunger strike that is ongoing in Chile today is a wake-up call to the world about the criminalization of Mapuche peoples who continue standing up to defend their lands.
Colombian supporter Manuel Rozental writes that for the Chilean state to put Mapuche resistance on trial "under anti-terrorist legislation is preposterous, and actually transforms the struggle for life into a terrorist activity, a precedent from Chile to the Continent and, indeed, the world."
A global day of action in support of political prisoners in Chile has been called for September 24, 2010.
Dawn Paley is a journalist in Vancouver. This article was originally published by the Vancouver Media Co-op.
The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.