The Mapuche in Chile – Indigenous Struggle as Revolutionary Ferment

Richard Abernethy

Summary: The long Mapuche struggle for autonomy is a vital element of the revolutionary ferment in Chile — Editors.

The popular upsurge in Chile has tilted the balance of class forces, wresting extraordinary concessions from the conservative president, Sebastian Piñera, who at first responded to the protests with inflammatory language about being “at war” to justify a violent repression, but later backed down so far as to apologise for “abuses” and “excessive use of force”, while promising a referendum on changing the constitution, a legacy of the brutal dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet (1973-1989).

Mapuche people, often bearing their own flag, have joined other Chileans in the recent ferment. Amid the wider working-class protests against poverty and inequality, Mapuche activists symbolically attacked statues of conquistadors – in one dramatic instance, decapitating a statue of Pedro de Valdiviva, whom their ancestors captured and beheaded in 1553.

The Mapuche, who number around 1.3 million (7 percent of Chile’s population of 17.8 million) make up the largest Indigenous group in Chile (a smaller number live in Argentina). Today, most Mapuche live in cities, particularly Concepciòn, Temuco and Santiago. Traditionally Indigenous people have had the lowest status in Chilean society. While this has been somewhat modified by the emergence of a Mapuche intellectual and professional elite, low-paid, low-status jobs remain more typical – notably, women working as maids in well-to-do households.

Those still living in the Wallmapu – their ancestral lands in the south – have to contend with a cost of living much higher than the national average, poor social services, encroachments on their lands and waterways for forestry, highways, dams etc – in general, a lack of control over their own lives and lands.

Alejandra Gaitan-Barrera writes: “According to the provisos embedded in Decree 701 [introduced by Pinochet in 1974] forestry companies today enjoy state subsidies of up to 75%. It is no coincidence then that two of the biggest forestry corporates, CMPC and Bosques Arauco, own by themselves over two million hectares while the whole Mapuche nation holds less than 500,000 hectares (and these statistics are based on conservative estimates).

“Wallmapu is today dominated by capitalist monoculture plantation projects and militarization. Driving through Bío Bío and Araucanía regions, one can see kilometer after kilometer of eucalyptus and pine plantations, while encountering frequent carabinero (police) checkpoints, as well as military tanks and heavily armed Carabineros passing by.”[1]

There is a widely held view on the Left that Pinochet imposed a neoliberal economic model on Chile, one that outlived him and remains in place today. If neoliberalism means a laissez-faire system in which the state does not intervene in the economy other than to defend property rights and keep the labour movement in check, allowing maximum scope for private enterprise, this is something of a myth. The development of the forestry sector was largely an initiative of the state agency CORFO, which “introduced forest management techniques, provided credits and subsidies, financed projects for technological development and labor training, and fostered the development of the allied paper, cardboard, and wood industries. CORFO also created an affiliate, the Forestry Institute, which launched a marketing and information campaign designed to promote forestry exports, while carrying on massive reforestation programs and introducing new tree varieties.”[2]

In Pre-Columbian times, the Mapuche were never subjugated by the Inca, so that they were never ruled by the state or required to do compulsory labour. According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, they “lived in scattered farming villages, cultivated corn (maize), beans, squash, potatoes, chili peppers and other vegetables and fished, hunted and kept guinea pigs for meat. They kept llamas as pack animals and as a source of wool. A man’s wealth was reckoned in terms of the size of his llama herd”.[3] This indicates that there was a limited development of private property and inequality. However, there was no concept of private ownership of land. There was a division of labour between the sexes. Basketry, weaving and pottery were women’s crafts. A chief (lonko) might have several wives and many children, but his authority would normally be limited to his own village. Machi – healers and spiritual leaders – were often, though not always, biologically female, but had a complex and fluid gender identity.

The tribal society of the Mapuche remained independent until the late nineteenth century. Relations with Chile and Argentina had a dual character – war and trade. Acquiring horses, the Mapuche resisted conquest and raided Hispanic settlements. They also traded horses and cattle, textiles and silverware. Developing from an older tradition of working in copper when silver was obtained through trade, silversmithing was a male occupation.

In 1881 the Mapuche were “pacified” by the Chilean army and confined to reservations. Even so, reservation land continued to be held communally, not as private property. Over time, powerful landowners were able to expropriate more land. From the 1930s, land hunger led many Mapuche to migrate to the cities.

The leftist Popular Unity government of Salvador Allende (1970-1973) passed an Indigenous Law, recognising the distinctive culture and history of the Mapuche, and began to restore Mapuche lands. This progress was reversed after the military coup of September 1973. Under Pinochet’s dictatorship, the policy was to break up the reservations into individual holdings, finally making the land private property. During those terrible years, many Mapuche activists were killed, tortured, imprisoned or forced into exile – like so many other Chileans, socialists and trade unionists, workers, students and intellectuals.

The Mapuche movement comprises various organisations, sharing the general goal of autonomy. The most militant of these has engaged, since 1997, in a campaign of destruction of corporate property by arson. The Chilean state calls this “terrorism”, and has made ample use of a draconian law from the Pinochet era. The Anti-Terrorist Law of 1984 allows for the preventive detention of suspects, allows defendants to be convicted solely on the evidence of anonymous informers, and allows the prosecution to withhold evidence from the defence for up to six months. Some leaders and activists have received long prison sentences, others held for months without trial.

Many Indigenous peoples around the world face similar pressures, though the severity varies depending on legal, political and other factors. (In Russia the Centre for Support of Indigenous Peoples of the North (CSIPN) was recently forced to close, by court order.) In large measure, these pressures derive from capitalism’s permanent need for expansion and insatiable hunger for resources. Under capitalism, efforts to defend Indigenous peoples, their livelihoods and culture, are of course possible and may attain some success, but they have to push against the dynamics of the system. In a future socialist society, where human need not profit becomes the driver of economic activity, Indigenous cultures would be assured of space to flourish. Indigenous peoples can and should form part of a historic bloc – alongside workers, women, Black and minority ethnic people, LGBT+ etc, to replace capitalism with a new human society.


[2] James M. Cypher: Is Chile a Neoliberal Success? Dollars and Sense.



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