1993          The People of La Araucanía


In 1993, the team of Deutscher Entwicklungsdienst, DED, The German Society for International Cooperation, GIZ/DED, asked me to undertake a documentary of the forests and villagers in the Region of La Araucanía in Chile. They were long standing friends of mine, as they left Peru for security reasons not long before, and incorporated their work in Chile.

This was during the Transition Government of Patricio Aylwin, who had the difficult task of reconstructing democracy in Chile, after long years of dictatorship under Augusto Pinochet. The work of DED was focused, among other aspects, on justice and the development of Mapuche Indigenous Peoples in La Araucanía, and the sustainable management of forests in Southern Chile, a unique, beautiful and millenary biome.

It was only in 1882 that the present Region of La Araucanía was integrated to Chilean territory as a result of the “Pacification of Araucanía” in 1881. This process was nothing but a real genocide against Mapuche people, perpetrated by the Chilean Army that not only decimated a large part of the population, but also expropriated millions of hectares of pristine land. As a result, at the end of the XIX Century, 36,000 European migrants arrived in the region, many Germans, and subsequently around 100,000 Chileans. Thereby South of the River Biobío was penetrated and a long conflict was initiated for land ownership. Both the Incas and Spaniards were unable to settle in this region during the Colony.

In the XIX Century, farming of foreign tree species such as Eucalyptus and Pine began in Lota, due to their good properties for the construction of tunnels at carbon mines. At the time, Lota was the last place to supply steamboats with fuel before starting their journey to Cape Horn.

Later on, by the middle of the XX Century, these forest species increased dramatically and the Mapuche Communities in the South, and Chilean-European settlers who lived mainly from the forest and small-scale agriculture and livestock became threatened. Between 1962 and 1973, the Agrarian Reform took place in Chile and by the end of Salvador Allende’s Government around six million hectares had been expropriated in favor of communities and small land-owners. This was the response to extensive and very inefficient farming, with large extensions of agricultural land in a few hands.

During the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990), millions of hectares of land and native forests were seized and handed over to large business owners and family friends of the governing regime. The Chilean forestry model relied on large agricultural subsidies and tax incentives to substitute the native forests with massive monocultures of exotic lumber species such as Eucalyptus and Pine. This implicated the clear-felling of large extensions of native forests that sustained the life of Mapuche indigenous peoples in favor of timber exports and mainly wood fiber to manufacture paper pulp. So far more than 2.5 million hectares have been transformed.

The Mapuche and Pehuenche populations live in the forests and depend on them. Their culture is primarily linked to healthy forests, with millenary trees such as Larches, that can live around 5,000 years; also the millenary Araucaria that has pine cones with nuts, the basic food source for Mapuche communities. With the process described, the indigenous population enters a situation of extreme poverty and they are compelled to work as laborers for large lumber companies usually in the hands of foreigners, in the destruction of forests that are sacred for them.

The Mapuches have never given up their resistance, although the Pinochet regime was very powerful and unscrupulous. With the return of democracy, during the Government of Patricio Aylwin, a law was enacted to create the National Corporation for Indigenous Development (CONADI), that seeks to resolve the accumulation of injustices and atrocities; as well as the ecological damage, due to the crops of tropical species causing severe problems with water in communities and neighboring towns.

CONADI, with support of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (CEPAL) and German Organization for Technical Cooperation (GTZ) and DED, initiated a program in 1993 to recover Mapuche land and forests, by purchasing confiscated land and returning it to the communities. This is accompanied with various training processes and improvements in terms of health and education, among other measures. The National Forest Corporation (CONAF) also intervenes in the protection of more than thirteen million hectares of untouched native forests, introducing the concept of sustainable development.

It was in this context that I was able to travel to La Araucanía and document the forests beauty and difficult life for the Mapuche people and European settlers, who have been stuck in time. I found entire families who spoke German, in the style of the XIX Century.

Here are some images of these trips that circulated around Chile through exhibitions in Santiago, Temuco and Puerto Montt, in many publications and the mainstream media, to explain something that only a few wanted to see following the Chilean dictatorship: that the impoverishment of Mapuche indigenous peoples continues and is a form of modern extermination.

CONADI has done a positive work, but with the limitations of State bureaucracy. There were successful efforts to professionalize young Mapuche’s, with the hope they give up their cultural identity and incorporate into the dominant society. However, this has not occurred to a large extent. They are now professionals, intellectuals and professors, but with a clear Mapuche identity… and the resistance against external domain continues. Their demands are not towards CONADI, but to a modern State that should recognize Mapuche territories confiscated with bloodshed and fire centuries ago.

In 1999, the correspondent of the German magazine Der Spiegel, Jens Glüsing and myself had the opportunity to share with Mapuche leaders, their new vision to fight and observe the so called “Intifada Mapuche”, a movement that to this day claims the autonomy of Mapuche-Pehuenche territories. It is a criminalized fight by the State, as the export of lumber and its derived products, such as fiber and paper pulp, is in second place in the Chilean GDP, after mining. Will the Chilean society eventually recognize the great value Mapuche culture contributes to the country?