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Chile’s Indigenous Heartland Ignites, Again

Leftist President Gabriel Boric has been reluctant to tackle arson in Mapuche communities to avoid alienating his base.

A house burns in Santa Juana, Concepcion province, Chile, on Feb. 3. JAVIER TORRES/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

This February, fires once again roared through swaths of Chile. The recurring summer blazes have become more widespread with climate change, and this season’s were the most destructive since 2017. Now mostly extinguished, the fires burned 436,000 hectares, according to national forestry service Conaf. Forestry plantations, native forest, farmland, and more than 2,000 homes burned; 26 people and thousands of farm animals died.

In some disaffected southern regions that are the traditional heartland of the Indigenous Mapuche, the flames were also fanned by longstanding social and political grievances. According to preliminary internal data from Conaf obtained by Foreign Policy, arson caused two-thirds of the fires in the Biobío region this season. In neighboring La Araucanía region, the arson rate was 57 percent. Some municipalities in those regions were even harder hit, with arson rates of up to 88 percent.

The data was derived from the initial reports of firefighters working for Conaf and forestry companies. Conaf told Foreign Policy that its subsequent investigations into a subset of 833 consequential fires this season—16.7 percent of the total—showed an average arson rate of just 26 percent, similar to historical levels but “with greater incidence in some regions.” The agency stressed that 70 percent of the fires it investigated were attributed to negligence and reckless acts.

La Araucanía and Biobío rank among the poorest regions of Chile. Subject to decades of well-meaning but misguided government policies, Mapuche communities dot a verdant patchwork of forestry plantations and grain farms. Local towns continue to bear witness to the consequences of Chilean military conquest and European settlement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Take the municipality of Teodoro Schmidt, named for a German engineer whose land surveys helped forge the young Chilean republic.

Today, around half of the municipality’s population is Mapuche.

On Feb. 17, as blazes were devastating other parts of La Araucanía, back-to-back fires erupted in Teodoro Schmidt. Two Mapuche were severely burned as they tried to escape the flames. Two days earlier, masked armed assailants had torched equipment at a forestry industry site. An armed cell of the Arauco Malleco Coordinator (CAM), an insurgent group that has been waging attacks against forestry companies and landowners for more than 25 years in what it describes as a territorial and anti-capitalist struggle for Mapuche liberation, claimed responsibility for the attacks. “Sabotage to the forestry companies and other capitalist investments!” the group wrote in a statement posted on social media. “Freedom for CAM political prisoners!” The cause of the fires remains under official investigation.

“Undoubtedly these people aren’t from our town,” Teodoro Schmidt Mayor Baldomero Santos told Foreign Policy. “We’re working people and we don’t share this way of expressing grievances, because the ones who are affected are those who have the least. We live together peacefully.”

Despite the alarms sounded by mayors, governors, forestry companies, farmers, and other residents, officials in Chile’s federal government have repeatedly downplayed the threat of arson. For Chilean President Gabriel Boric, to do otherwise would be to acknowledge his own policy failings and abandon the ideological prism through which he and his urban political supporters interpret—and sometimes justify—the growing violence besetting rural Mapuche areas of Chile.

Mapuche grievances against the Chilean state have long centered on outstanding land claims. For radical Mapuche, Chile’s big forestry companies are the ultimate symbol of dispossession. CAM’s narrative in particular is a legacy of the historical intersection between far left and subversive political movements during a tumultuous period of agrarian reform in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Five decades later, the radical Mapuche cause has become the ideological inheritance of Boric’s anti-capitalist urban supporters. Boric, a 37-year-old former student activist, took office in March 2022 promising to pay Chile’s “historical debt” to Indigenous groups. But in the rural southern regions, the urban left’s ideological agenda has proved out of sync with day-to-day concerns of Mapuche and non-Mapuche alike.

In regions such as Biobío and La Araucanía, criminal elements cloak themselves in the Indigenous cause to carry out drug trafficking, wood theft, and other illicit acts, according to government and police officials, Mapuche civil society, and business chambers. Intelligence sources told Foreign Policy that 10 armed groups, all claiming a Mapuche mantle, are now active in the southern regions, up from seven two years ago. These groups attack forestry workers and landowners and burn logging trucks, schools, and churches, vying for territory and forcing locals—both Mapuche and non-Mapuche—to flee. La Araucanía Governor Luciano Rivas is among many who describe the violence as terrorism that weaponizes legitimate grievances.

In October 2021, center-right then-President Sebastián Piñera decreed a state of emergency in and deployed the military to four provinces of La Araucanía and Biobío to quell unrest. The following month, then-Congressman Boric criticized the move and voted against its renewal—in line with the leftist parties that would help to elect him president weeks later.

Shortly after Boric’s March 2022 inauguration, his then-Interior Minister Izkia Siches traveled to a notoriously radical Mapuche community in La Araucanía to initiate talks. As her convoy approached the community, gunfire rang out and it was forced to retreat. Months later, Boric scuttled his campaign promises by sending troops back into the troubled provinces. Many of Boric’s supporters felt betrayed, but his opponents claimed the move didn’t go far enough. Limited military patrols as well as the subsequent capture of a CAM leader and his sons all failed to quell the violence.

Then, in September 2022, Chilean voters soundly defeated a proposed constitution that would have given Indigenous groups extensive rights and autonomy. The outcome marked a significant defeat for Boric, who had openly endorsed the draft charter as essential to his progressive platform. Even though Mapuche activists had figured prominently in the convention that drafted the document, La Araucanía was among the Chilean regions with the largest margin of “reject” votes. This contrast laid bare the political disconnect between the urban left and more conservative rural Mapuche whose interests it purports to defend.

According to a 2022 poll by the Center for Public Studies (CEP), a think tank in Chile’s capital, Santiago, the top concern of Mapuche in La Araucanía, Biobío, and two neighboring rural regions was crime, followed by pensions and healthcare, consistent with the worries of their non-Mapuche neighbors. Only 4 percent of the Mapuche said they wanted autonomy. And an overwhelming majority identified as both Mapuche and Chilean, rather than one or the other.

Only a small, radicalized minority of Mapuche and their urban sympathizers aspire to restore a discrete Indigenous identity. Through this lens, a pluralistic Chilean identity is perceived as a colonial and capitalist artifact that justifies violent resistance. “The Mapuche who take the violent path are forced into it because they remember how their fathers were beaten,” Auka Castro, a university student of the Mapuche language in La Araucanía’s capital Temuco, told Foreign Policy, alluding to repression during Chile’s 1973 to 1990 dictatorship. The cycle of violence and resentment has created a combustible dynamic.

An aerial view of fields burned in Santa Juana, Concepcion province, Chile, on Feb 3.JAVIER TORRES/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

As the fires raged in February, Chilean urban planning consultancy Atisba compared data on violent attacks recorded in 2018 to 2022 in four southern regions with satellite images from NASA’s Fire Information for Resource Management System. “The roads that lead to the burned areas are the same ones that were the focus of attacks in the past,” Atisba executive director Iván Poduje told Foreign Policy.

The correlation was reinforced by the assertions of local authorities. In Biobío, the Santa Ana fire burned 74,000 hectares, the second largest in Chile’s history. The blaze killed 19 people and threatened the city of Concepción and a coal power plant in nearby Coronel. Coronel Mayor Boris Chamorro, a Boric ally, blamed arson. Biobío Governor Rodrigo Díaz concurred.

The Boric administration, however, played down the threat of arson. Questioned by reporters over the extent to which arson was responsible for damage, Interior Minister Carolina Tohá said the debate was “not helpful in confronting the emergency.” Housing Minister Carlos Montes went so far as to blame rabbits for spreading flames by supposedly catching fire and hopping away.

Behind the scenes, though, La Moneda Palace was clearly worried. As the fires spread, the administration invited former senior officials from the Piñera government, long maligned by Boric, to share their crisis-management experience. The administration then imposed nighttime curfews, restricted bulk fuel sales, and expanded military patrols in some affected regions.

Boric himself had just flown out of Santiago for vacation in early February when the first fires erupted in Ñuble region, north of Biobío. On Feb. 10, he visited the affected town of Quillón, where he vowed swift reconstruction and new forestry regulations. Agriculture Minister Esteban Valenzuela then touted a planned levy to channel forestry revenue to local communities. But Tohá—a moderate who had replaced Siches after the constitutional blow last year—quickly shut down the idea, saying it was not part of the government’s proposed tax reforms and that forestry does not qualify for a royalty because it is not a state-owned, nonrenewable natural resource.

The contradictory declarations exposed internal tensions between the left and center-left coalitions that support Boric, and critics were quick to decry the administration as incoherent and ill-prepared. Fire-fighting planes were not retrofitted and pre-deployed to fire-prone regions, either, center-left congressman and former La Araucanía superintendent Andrés Jouannet told Foreign Policy. Chilean diplomat Alfredo Moreno, who oversaw Indigenous affairs under Piñera, bemoaned the firing of experienced crisis managers after Boric took office.

Congressman Diego Schalper of the center-right opposition National Renewal party, meanwhile, has demanded investigations into possible “concerted action of certain extremist groups with vengeful and/or political motives.” Natalia Caniguan, a social anthropologist and Indigenous researcher who is half Mapuche, told Foreign Policy that such investigations “could further criminalize Indigenous grievances.”

At the end of February, police said 50 people had been detained in connection with the southern fires, without detailing whether the arrests were for negligence, recklessness, or arson. Regardless, the arrests were widely seen as disproportionate to the scale of the damage—reinforcing a public perception that proponents of the radical Mapuche cause continue to enjoy impunity under Boric. That could change if police expand a crackdown on wood theft, which may have helped to trigger a wave of retaliatory attacks in March. Another church and a school were burned, and even firefighters were attacked.

As communities start to rebuild, the arson ordeal is lending new urgency to a government plan for Indigenous dialogue. A main theme will be historical land claims. “We need to find practical solutions so the Mapuche can make their own decisions,” Moreno told Foreign Policy. “But it is also essential to have security in places where the state has withdrawn and organized crime has moved in.”

In the south, cooler autumn temperatures are helping to douse the remaining fires, while in Santiago, Chileans are taking another stab at rewriting their dictatorship-era constitution. If voters approve the new charter in a December referendum, Indigenous groups will finally gain constitutional recognition. The measure’s success may depend on whether Boric and his supporters can resist stoking the ideological embers of divisive narratives in the meantime.

Patricia Garip is a freelance journalist based in Chile. Twitter: @GaripChile

MARCH 15, 2023, 2:29 PM


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