The Mapuche People’s Struggle in Chile: Land and Territory

Fabien LE BONNIEC, 2014

This article is part of the book Take Back the Land ! The Social Function of Land and Housing, Resistance and Alternatives, Passerelle, Ritimo/Aitec/Citego, March 2014.

The struggle of the Mapuche, an indigenous people from the south of Chile and Argentina, is often illustrated by the literal translation of the term “mapuche” as well as by their historical resistance first to the Spanish conquistadores then to the Chilean military invasion. Indeed, like many indigenous peoples’ ethnonyms, the term Mapuche refers to their relationship to their territory: Mapu means “land” or “country” and Che means “people” or “persons”. Today, the Mapuche live in Chile and Argentina. Referred to as Araucans in travel literature, they are viewed as one of the few populations which was able to fend off the Spanish. By alternating strategies of armed resistance and peace treaties, they preserved an independent territory for half a century after Chilean independence was claimed in 1810.

Nonetheless, neither the etymology of their name nor their military victories suffices to explain the vigour with which up until now the Mapuche have struggled for their land and their territory. The Mapuche population is made up of approximately half a million people1 living on both sides of the Andes Mountains. The recent explosion of the “Mapuche conflict” on domestic stages and even on the international stage speaks to the utter vibrancy of this struggle. Over time this struggle has changed and adapted, turning towards new strategies, renewing its narratives and practices: the land claim has gradually shifted to a territorial claim. Far from being absorbed by other Latin American social struggles, the Mapuche have continued their age-old combat. While mindfully preserving their specificity, they have, at the same time, fit into these other struggles.

Once upon a time the Mapuche fought…

Resistance against the Chilean, the Spanish or the Inca invasion… There is no need to try to identify the founding event in the Mapuches’ struggle. These different moments were marked by violent confrontations, but also by peace treaties which were conducive to proliferating material and spiritual exchanges. These, in turn, shaped Mapuche and Creole societies by their mutual influence (Zavala 2000). Hence, we will arbitrarily settle on the date of December 4th 1866 to begin this Mapuche epic. On this date, the National Congress adopted a law establishing indigenous reservations. It was only enforced 18 years later, since it took that long for the Chilean army to “pacify”, thanks to canons and bayonets, the territory historically occupied by the Mapuche. This “independent Araucan land”, as it was called in 19th-century travel literature, was invaded and militarily conquered before being included as an administrative part of Chilean territory. In order to reassert its control over the Mapuche population and territory, the Chilean State granted 3,000 community ownership deeds between 1884 and 1929, in application of the 1866 law.

This arbitrary and unfair reorganisation of Mapuche society led to what we now call “communities”, at the time called « reducciones ». This term was most fitting since their establishment legally dispossessed the Mapuche of 90% of the territory they controlled prior to their military annexation. The large areas of land they were deprived of were given to domestic and European colonists, considered more competent to farm the land and make it fertile (Le Bonniec 2012). From this time on, the Chilean administration, applying its bureaucratic rationale, dealt with the claims on these dispossessed lands. Beginning at the end of the 19th century, commissions, then special courts, then indigenist institutions were in charge of settling land disputes. Despite the fact that these community deeds were untransferable, much usurpation took place during the beginning of the 19th century. Thousands of complaints, which can still be found today in archives, bear witness to these practices. They highlight the scope of the disputes as well as the courts’ and indigenist institutions’ inability to settle them. Even worse, they evidence the gradual breaking up of communities where families were randomly gathered by the Chilean administration under the authority of an illegitimate chief, on land which shrank alarmingly fast. These conditions were the seeds of division and rebellion.

Mapuche Politics for Land Recovery

Faced with this loss of sovereignty and of land, it only took the Mapuche twenty years to reorganise after their military defeat: they created political organisations which successfully elected several representatives to the Chilean parliament between the 1920s and the 1950s. These Mapuche politicians focused their demands on the recovery of the usurped land and on putting an end to the abuse against their communities as well as achieving equality with Chileans, namely regarding education. Depending on the context, they established political alliances with different political parties of all leanings. These strategies were moderately successful: they brought to power a Mapuche minister, Venancio Coñuepan, achieved the adoption of different laws in favour of indigenous peoples, often questioned by the Mapuche, and led to the creation of a Division of Indigenous Affairs in 1952. Headed by Mapuches, this public agency was in charge of returning land but also of keeping watch over the communities’ organisation and the rational use of their land, namely by creating cooperatives, organisations or economic businesses. These institutions, alongside Mapuche political parties and organisations, encouraged a marked politicisation of the Mapuche throughout the 20th century. This political work, carried out at different levels and at different times, consistently sought to settle the land conflicts which were the legacy of the creation of the communities, as well as to obtain rights and benefits for the Mapuche population which was discriminated against, marginalised and poor.

The 1960s land reform accentuated this politicisation: the Mapuche joined in peasants’ mobilisations while reasserting the specific indigenous demands made on Chilean institutions. As elitist and racist Chilean society was veering towards socialism under Allende, at the beginning of the 1970s, the Mapuche were able to recover hundreds of thousands of hectares from major landowners and actively took part in the drafting of a new indigenous legislation. This legislation was a historical turning point as it was not exclusively based on the issue of land; instead, it showed a commitment to the country’s development by taking into account “idiosyncrasy and habits”. It was a time of genuine taking of power in different fields. Just as the African-Americans’ struggle for their civil rights in the United States was a claim to Black Power, so Mapuche leaders in Chile aimed at positioning “poder mapuche[[Mapuche power]]” (Caniuqueo 2006).

Increasingly, Mapuche mobilisations connected with Latin American peasants’ combats, as well as the struggles of other peoples under colonial domination. The 1973 coup and the ensuing repression put a violent end to the recovery of land and the politicisation of the Mapuche movement; nevertheless, the movement began to have a growing presence in international events where representatives of different indigenous peoples met in the 1970s. Repression and forced exile ultimately encouraged Mapuche representatives to attend these international gatherings, allowing them to gain precious knowledge of the notions of territory and autonomy. Meanwhile, in the south of Chile, divided communities were reduced to the role of bystanders as their landscape was flattened and unified by capitalist forestry activities2.

Territory or Life

The “transition to democracy” and the alternative commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the discovery of America are two contexts which had a profound impact on the contemporary autonomist movement, which started organising at the beginning of the 1990s. The former was an opportunity to define new grounds for the relationship between the Mapuche and the Chilean State, whereas the latter was a platform for voicing the claims of America’s autochthonous peoples. As the Indigenous Law in preparation at the time denied any notion of territory that was not national territory, the demands of Mapuche organisations became clearly political and built on the experience of other indigenous peoples’ struggles. It was no longer a matter of recovering plots of land claimed for decades, but rather of demanding control over land and the possibility of recreating traditional forms of organisation on it. The notion of territory became a means to go beyond the approach and limitations imposed by the Chilean state and to encompass all different political, historical, social and economic aspects. This, then, became a crucial principle in the Mapuche combat.

Mapuche territoriality went from being a simple discourse to carrying out diverse and concrete practices such as productive recovery, territorial control, territorial reconstruction (Hirt 2009) or specific public policies. Likewise, more and more young Mapuches from different generations of Mapuche families have had to migrate to cities but yearn to “return” (Ancan and Calfio 1999) to an idealised community in which they have usually only lived during holidays. The convergence of different socio-historical contexts has brought territoriality to life and made it part of numerous people’s experiences, thus becoming a collective aim. The story that has just been told unfolded over a bare century of history, spanning four or five generations, who have passed along orally or through archives and written documents a memory made up of injustice, violence, humiliation, but also the hope of someday recovering their usurped land and becoming “people” again, i.e. becoming Mapuche again…

1 Census data is controversial : there are an estimated 600,000 to 1,200,000 people who self-identify as Mapuche in Chile and 200,000 to 300,000 in Argentina.

2 Decree-law enacted in 1979 put an end to communities and divided them into transferable individual plots; a 1974 decree-law caused a brutal change in the Mapuches’ natural environment by suddenly encouraging and rewarding the planting of pines at the expense of the native forest trees.


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