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Indigenous Of Chile: Why Discrimination Against Mapuches Still Runs So Deep

The Mapuches represent about 6% of the Chilean population
The Mapuches represent about 6% of the Chilean population


SANTIAGO - In the morning on Jan. 4 in Araucania, a region in southern Chile where the Mapuche people live, a group of masked men attacked and set fire to the house of a local landowner and farmer who had spent years litigating with indigenous groups. The landowner, Werner Luchsinger and his wife were burned alive.

This attack almost coincides with the fifth anniversary of the death of the young Mapuche Matias Catrileo, beaten to death by the Chilean police. Catrileo was trespassing on private property that he claimed had historically belonged to his ancestors.

The arson attack has caused tension in Chile and triggered an immediate reaction from the government. President Sebastián Pinera travelled to the region on the day of the attack and said that more local police would be recruited to establish an anti-terrorism unit. Some suspects were arrested during police raids and on Jan. 11, prosecutors charged a “machi”– a traditional Mapuche medicine man – with the arson attack that resulted in the two deaths.

The facts have put the “indigenous question” back in the spotlight and the bulk of the discussion shows clearly how Chilean society distrusts its own diversity. Decades of economic growth have failed to overcome the social and racial inequalities that exist in Chile.

The majority of the “white” landowners and farmers, most Chileans, as well as the elite of Santiago and the government, think that tougher measures need to be implemented. Some say that the anti-terror law should be applied in this case, as this arson attack was a terrorist act. Many believe that it is necessary to apply the anti-terror law as a warning – in order to deter others from burning down houses, killing people and to avoid an armed conflict with unpredictable consequences in Araucania.

For many Mapuches and their supporters, the attack is proof of an historic injustice and an “institutionalized violence” against an oppressed indigenous people. That doesn’t justify the crime, but it establishes a social context that would reduce the blame.

Both positions are wrong, and what’s worse, they just aggravate the situation.

What needed to be done, and was not done by the Chilean government, was simple. Beyond performances, sociological lectures and the attribution of intentions, the facts are that the attackers set fire to a house with people inside. It is a serious crime and there are penalties for it under Chilean criminal law. What needs to happen now is to detain the perpetrators and put them on trial for what they did. And if the courts determine that it was a terrorist attack, they then should apply the most severe, necessary measures that correspond legally.

Discrimination, segregation, stereotypes

But there is much more to this issue than just the facts. The underlying problem is the same problem that led to the attack. In Chile there is almost one million Mapuches, the vast majority of whom live in vulnerable situations and are discriminated against, without being integrated into the Chilean identity. Having a Mapuche name is a huge disadvantage in getting a job so it is no coincidence that Araucania remains the region where the highest percentage of Chileans live in poverty.

The Mapuches represent about 6% of the Chilean population and certainly have not had equal opportunities in the country of which they are citizens. Worse than that, they have been slighted, segregated and stereotyped as lazy, stupid, treacherous, stubborn and drunk.

The solution to this problem is not an easy or short-term one, because it requires a change of mindset and culture in Chilean society.

On the economic side, the solution is to redirect government spending in support of the Mapuche people. One possibility is for the government to establish a direct subsidy program for the poorest Mapuche families, such as conditional cash transfers – which is to assign a monthly salary to mothers in exchange for sending their children to school and taking them to the doctor regularly. This program has reduced poverty successfully when it was applied to ethnic minorities in Brazil and Mexico.

Land grants could also help the Mapuches and even giving them permission to open and manage casinos, like the U.S. did for many south and southwest Indian reservations, would be beneficial.

On the regulatory side, positive discrimination programs to increase the quota of Mapuches in both the university system and public administration should be reinforced, as well as encouraging the establishment of similar policies in the private sector.

A country that is not used to talking and discussing should not eliminate the possibility of creating a new national consultation, which would consider all ethnic groups in the country, one that would be led and promoted by the sitting government.

All of this helps, but is not enough. What is most important is a complete cultural change. And that change can only occur when a critical mass of individuals think in terms of change. To integrate the Mapuche Chilean identity, each Chilean should integrate the Mapuches into their own individual identity.

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