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Reservations are for Indians

A law recently passed by the Chilean junta could be a cultural death certificate for half-a-million Mapuche Indians in southern Chile, according to George Manuel, the Canadian Indian leader and president of the World Council of Indigenous People (WCIP). He made that observation as head of a four-person fact-finding mission to Chile to investigate the threat to Mapuche tribal lands.

Manuel believes that support for the Mapuche from native people in the West can spark international pressure and force the Chilean government to rescind the law.

The new legislation aimed at dividing up communally-Held reserve lands 'is a threat to indigenous people everywhere,' says Manuel. 'The ultimate effect of the law will be to expropriate all existing Indian land and eliminate the Mapuches as a race.'

As the white population expanded in Chile, the Mapuche were gradually pushed further South. Eventually, treaties signed at the turn of the century created a system of reserves similar to those in North America. But land once classed as worthless is now coveted as choice terrain for the agro­forestry industry. Much of the area has already been planted with quick­yielding pine trees that grow at twice the rate they do in northern climates.

Under the new Indian law, reserves can be divided into individually-owned plots at the request of one 'occupant' of the reserve. The 'occupant' does not have to be a Mapuche; someone who is renting the land or someone who has illegally expropriated a part of the reserve also qualfies. A survey is carried out by a department of the Ministry of Agriculture and the land is then hived off into individual plots. Once the land has been divided it is no longer considered Indian land and the occupants are no longer considered Indians.

The law also dissolves the Institute of Indigenous Development, the government agency responsible for overseeing all Indian affairs. It has been replaced by an office of the Department of Agriculture. Instead of one government agency, the Mapuche must now deal with separate government departments for health, education, housing and other needs.

The Mapuche, like native peoples elsewhere, are at the bottom of the economic heap in Chile. The men work as agricultural labourers on the fertile land of the valley floors owned by white farmers. But the work lasts only three to four months a year and they earn barely $25 a month. The reservations are small, averaging about one hectare per household. Manuel, who has seen the living conditions of native people in many countries, says the extreme poverty of the Mapuche is intolerable.

According to the Canadian Church­sponsored fact-finding team there is widespread resistance to the new law amongst the Mapuche. Organised opposition is just beginning through the Instituto Indigena, supported by the Chilean Church. Nine hundred of the 2216 reserves have been organised in the last six months of 1979. Part of the difficulty in opposing the new law is the lack of effective native leadership. Many of the more militant Indian spokesmen were either killed or forced into exile after the 1973 coup. In addition, the Mapuche were neither consulted nor informed of the law until after it was passed; so many are not even aware of its existence. Poor transportation and inaccessible reserves compound communication problems.

Still the resistance is growing and as it grows the threat of government intimidation and repression grows with it. George Manuel warns the law is serious enough to warrant immediate action by WCIP, which acts as an international watchdog on native rights concerns. Manuel says the issue will top the agenda at the next meeting of the WCIP in Peru and that he will encourage Indian organisations in all countries to condemn the law.

'The Mapuche law is a gross violation of the UN Declaration of Human Rights,' Manuel charges. 'It sets a dangerous precedent for other governments that have tried the same route and failed. This kind of termination law didn't work in the US in 1949, and it didn't work in Canada in 1969. It has been proposed continually by the Brazilian, Australian and New Zealand governments, so far without success. Indigenous people all over the world have resisted similar laws and we must help the Mapuche to do the same thing.'

Already half-a-million Mapuche have left the reserves to join other rural migrants as cheap labour in the cardboard and clapboard slums around Santiago, Concepcion and other Chilean cities. The new law may be the final, irrevocable step toward total cultural assimilation through destroying the common ownership of reserve land which has acted as a kind of cultural cement.

New Internationalist issue 085 magazine cover This article is from the March 1980 issue of New Internationalist.
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