Where Forests Are Foes
Tree farming in Chile has displaced thousands of indigenous Mapuche Indians. But it has also fueled a rebirth of activism and pride.
14 March, 2003
COLLIPULLI, Chile -- Because eucalyptus trees are thirsty, Victor Ancalaf became a rebel.
Growing like cabbages in neat rows planted by one of the largest forestry companies in South America, the trees suck the water out of the ground, killing off streams and making wells run dry in this corner of Chile. For Ancalaf and other Mapuche Indian leaders, that is one indignity too many.
So every now and then, the Mapuche set ablaze the
trees and the trucks of companies that plant them. Ancalaf is charged with
burning five vehicles as part of a smoldering, low-tech war that also is
being fought with slingshots, chain
saws and homemade shotguns.
Just as often, however, the Mapuche fight back
with peaceful means. Medicine women called machis pray for the spirits
of the water and the earth to stand fast against the "exotic species"
transplanted from North America and Australia.
On the Internet, activists spread word of their struggles, making allies in Sweden, France and other countries where leftists have ties to Latin American compatriots.
"We've entered into a period of darkness of water, and this is bringing us to the brink of extinction," said Rayen Kuyeh, a Mapuche poet and playwright. "If wanting to defend the spirits of the water, the trees, the birds, the earth and the air makes me a terrorist, then go ahead and call me a terrorist."
The environmental impact of commercial tree farming in Chile has helped feed a renaissance of activism and cultural pride among the nation's 1 million Mapuche, the original inhabitants of what is now south-central Chile and parts of Argentina. The Mapuche held off European incursions onto their land for centuries, signing a 1641 treaty with the Spanish crown that was later thrown out by an independent Chile, before the tribe was finally vanquished in the late 19th century.
Relegated to reservations called "reductions" here most Mapuche now work as impoverished farmers or field hands or live as a marginalized minority in Chilean cities.
"Our objective is the recuperation of the territory of the Mapuche people," Ancalaf, 40, said in a jailhouse interview. "We want to control our destiny and shape our future according to the cosmology of our people."
[In a manner presciently reminiscent of what the
US is becoming:] Held without trial since November under anti-terrorism
laws passed during the dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, Ancalaf and
a dozen other militant leaders have become
heroes to many Mapuche, even those who disagree with their tactics.
"The Chilean state is criminalizing the struggle
of the Mapuche," said Alfredo Seguel, a former government worker and
a member now of Konapewman Mapuche, a group of university-trained professionals
who have forgone big-city life to
return to their ethnic roots.
"The movement to recuperate our territory isn't just political," he added. "It's also a social, cultural and religious struggle."
In the last few years, the Mapuche have won mayoral and city council elections for the first time. In the city of Temuco, Mapuche university students have taken over abandoned properties and established communal homes.
Activists have opened a Mapuche pharmacy in Temuco to dispense traditional herbal medicines that are disappearing in the wild in part because of the effects of tree farms, which now cover millions of acres of the Mapuche's ancestral land.
Impoverished indigenous farmers have formed tribal councils to draft town constitutions and lobby local governments for the return of communal land. In all, there are as many as 100 local and regional Mapuche organizations in this region of Chile.
"We are seeing a revitalization of all aspects of Mapuche culture, even of the Mapuche language, which was beginning to die out," said Alejandro Herrera, a professor at the University of the Frontier in Temuco.
"Until recently, Mapuche parents wouldn't
let their children speak Mapudungun because having a Mapuche accent when
you spoke Spanish was a sign of backwardness," Herrera added. "Now,
we see groups of young people forming study
circles to learn the language."
Pablo Huaiquilao is from a Mapuche family that left its impoverished rural village two generations ago. In college, he met other students who were starting to embrace their tribal identity.
"I wanted to know who I was, where I came
from," he said. So he sat down and talked with his grandmother. She
spun a familial epic of land takeovers, massacres and the time Swiss colonists
sent by the Chilean government as
homesteaders set fire to the village's wheat harvest.
"It was like putting together a jigsaw puzzle," he said.
In the Chilean media, the modern "Mapuche conflict" is most often portrayed as a struggle between the order and reason of the country's European heritage and an indigenous culture dominated by "superstition" and violence.
"Christian Group Attacks Machis," read
a recent headline in the Temuco daily newspaper El Diario Austral, which
detailed one religious leader's attempt to wean his followers away from
indigenous remedies and healers. The Christian
distributed fliers that read: "Brother, if you don't want to be in bad standing with the true God, reject these customs that the Mapuche culture offers you."
Farmers See Threat
For Manuel Riesco, a sugar beet farmer and president of a growers organization in Temuco, the indigenous movement is a threat to farmers, some of whom have had their homes burned down and their lives threatened because of property disputes with neighboring Mapuche.
"This is not going to be the next Chiapas,"
he said, referring to the southern Mexican state where indigenous rebels
have battled government troops. "We're talking about 200 hotheads,
and those hotheads have 20 leaders who are now in
Many farmers here are descendants of Swiss, German
and Italian immigrants who settled in the region in the early 20th century.
In the years since, descendants of the settlers have acquired more land
thanks to a series of decrees and laws
that have eaten away at indigenous communal holdings. Only in recent years have the Mapuche started to fight back.
"This is becoming like the Wild West," Riesco said.
Smoldering for decades, the conflict over land began to catch fire again in the late 1990s. Like others here, Riesco says the globalization of the Chilean economy and the government's free-trade policies were the cause. The grain and dairy farms that were once the cornerstone of the regional economy have been hard hit by cheaper American exports. A farmer who once employed dozens of Mapuche as laborers can find himself forced to leave land fallow or sell out to the forestry companies.
Thousands of former laborers have been thrown out of work and forced to migrate to the cities. Two-thirds of the Mapuche in Chile now live in Santiago, the capital and largest city.
As the Mapuche are forced to leave the countryside, trees seem to take their place clusters of eucalyptus and pine planted in old wheat fields or where native forests stood. Harvested by machine, the pine and eucalyptus trees are processed into lumber and paper pulp for North American and Asian markets.
The companies that own those trees are constant targets of protest, including the Santiago-based Mininco, which owns many of the trees around Collipulli.
In November, Mapuche activist Edmundo Lemun, 17, was shot and killed by police during a protest at tree farms in Ercilla. On Jan. 20, more than a dozen hooded Mapuche with homemade shotguns and Molotov cocktails invaded a Mininco workers' camp outside the town, setting fire to the living quarters.
In confrontations with police and forestry company guards, youths cover their faces with hoods and scarves and sometimes hurl rocks with slingshots, a traditional weapon used in battles past. "We're not in conflict with anyone," said Francisco Urzelain, a spokesman for Mininco. The controversy is ancient history, he said, as relevant to modern Chile as American Indian claims to Massachusetts.
"The Mapuche were here before the Spanish
came. We bought this land 20 years ago. No one has presented any evidence
in court to say we bought the land illegally," Urzelain added before
declining further comment. Mininco and other
companies also have become the target of a public relations campaign led by European and American activists, including the San Francisco-based group ForestEthics.
Most of the trees planted in the region are Monterey pine a species native to California and eucalyptus from Australia, says Aaron Sanger of ForestEthics. The density of the planting causes ground water to disappear, he says. Often, the trees grow so close together that wildlife can't walk between them.
"Those trees are like an army marching across Chile, consuming Mapuche culture," Sanger said.
Native trees such as the canelo and the luma, both integral to Mapuche religious practices, are being driven toward extinction. According to one Chilean government study, all native trees outside national parks could disappear by 2015.
Violent resistance to the tree farms first exploded in 1997, when Mapuche residents set fire to logging trucks outside the town of Lumaco, whose name means "waters of the luma tree."
Herrera, the University of the Frontier professor, said the incident came after years during which the Mapuche tried unsuccessfully to lobby local government.
"They exhausted all the procedures of the democratic system," Herrera said. "A week before they set fire to the trucks, they traveled to Temuco in a last effort to meet with the governor. But he wouldn't even let them in the door."
Six years later, Lumaco's Mapuche residents are still seething. Last year, a group of men wearing ski masks and hoods used axes and chain saws to level eucalyptus trees at the nearby Alaska Tree Farm.
Today, several leaders from the Lumaco area are behind bars, charged with destroying forest company property. As elsewhere, water shortages contribute to the conflict.
"Twenty years ago, I don't think anyone in
our community imagined that one day we would have to bring in water trucks
to provide for the basic needs of our families," said Alfonso Rayman,
a leader of the Nagche Mapuche, a subgroup that
includes several communities around Lumaco.
In an attempt to soothe such passions, the local government has provided town residents with cisterns to store water. But such programs, Rayman says, don't address the root cause of the problem.
The village sits in a narrow valley surrounded by thick green clusters of trees, each a company farm. For the Mapuche to feel free, Rayman says, those trees must disappear.
"The Chilean government understands the indigenous problem as a problem of poverty," he said. "But what drives us is the return of our land and the end of this invasion."
A few days earlier, in a small act of defiance, a group of boys had set a fire in a hillside meadow near the town, Rayman said with a slight smile. The blaze ran up the hillside and killed hundreds of saplings.
In the face of such resistance, the national government is trying a carrot-and-stick approach. It works to improve schools and other services in the region while adopting a get-tough attitude toward the most militant leaders.
"We've worked very hard with the forestry
companies and the indigenous communities" to resolve the conflicts,
said Ramiro Pizarro, governor of Chile's 9th Region, which includes Temuco,
Ercilla and Collipulli. "And there are people
who want to destroy that work."
For those militants, Chile is using its anti-terrorism laws, which deprive detainees of the right to a speedy trial and allow prosecutors to withhold evidence from defense attorneys.
Ancalaf, the Mapuche organizer from Collipulli, remains defiant.
"We call on all the Mapuche communities to begin a process of recuperating their territory," he said. "Whether they decide to do it with violence or without is a decision of each community."
Still, he makes clear that he believes fire is an especially effective tool in advancing the cause.
"If it hadn't been for that, the government wouldn't even be listening to the problems of the Mapuche people," he said.
By Héctor Tobar LA Times Staff Writer 2003
Copyright 2003 Los Angeles Times
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