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Constitutional Rights and Indigenous Dispossession in Chile

For the first time in Chilean history, an Indigenous Mapuche woman, Elisa Loncon, is leading the country’s constitutional transformation after massive anti-government protests in 2019—incited by long-standing inequality and rising costs of living—produced a successful constitutional referendum. Though Indigenous groups comprise 13 percent of the entire Chilean population, the country’s current Pinochet-era constitution is one of the only in Latin America to deny political recognition to Indigenous peoples and has been widely criticized for its neoliberal model favoring conservative elites, business, and the military over human and environmental rights. Now, after historic representative wins in Chile’s May 2021 election, Indigenous people and women have a larger voice than ever before in determining the country’s trajectory, comprising 99 out of 155 members in the national Constitutional Convention. These constitutional constituents hope to craft a plurinational and multicultural document that enshrines values of equality and delivers autonomy and territorial rights to Chile’s Indigenous peoples. 

In particular, the 2019 democratic protests were bolstered by and directed national attention to the Mapuche people, who make up 80 percent of Chile’s Indigenous population and for centuries have struggled against the Chilean government’s violent dispossession of more than a million hectares of their ancestral land. Since the 1990s, the Mapuche have mobilized against the encroachment of extractive industries made possible by the Chilean government’s promotion and facilitation of private investment in their dispossessed territories. Yet Chile’s Indigenous groups currently lack the same constitutional and legal pathways for territorial restitution that its neighboring countries—most notably, Brazil and Bolivia—have instituted in recent decades. Even as Indigenous representatives work to craft a meaningful framework for the political sovereignty of Chile’s Indigenous peoples, Mapuche resistance persists against the continued domination over their traditional land by private Chilean forestry companies. Chile’s transition toward democratic constitutional change is thus a promising sign for stronger, structural protection of territorial rights the Mapuche and other Chilean Indigenous groups have been historically denied. But while democratic constitutional change has been an important facilitator of expanded Indigenous autonomy and territorial sovereignty across Latin America, the continued triumph of environmentally-exploitative private industries over Indigenous rights in the region underscores the task ahead for Chile and highlights the fragile nature of such constitutional protections. 

The present-day disenfranchisement of the Mapuche people and other Indigenous groups in Chile emerged from the development of the Chilean state itself and cycles of government-facilitated land privatization that both undermined Mapuche territorial sovereignty and firmly excluded Indigenous peoples from political decision making and institutions. First, following Chile’s independence in 1817, the government sought and acquired Mapuche territory through force: A murderous 30-year military annexation campaign between 1862 and 1883 forced the Mapuche onto reservations as their lands were occupied and auctioned off by private investors. Dispossession persisted into the following decades as Mapuche communities were continuously divided up by land speculators who sold Mapuche ancestral lands, a practice which reached its height during  the Pinochet Regime. 

The Nationalist Pinochet government not only constitutionally denied the Mapuche political recognition and territorial sovereignty, but facilitated the encroachment of extractive industries onto traditional lands through a number of economic policies and decrees whose legacies continue to enable private domination of Indigenous territories in Chile today. In 1974, Decree no. 701 authorized the Chilean National Forestry Service to privatize and sell Mapuche land to forestry companies for development; the law permitted state subsidies of up to 75 percent that enabled large forestry corporations to acquire large swaths of ancestral territory at “ridiculously low” prices. While Mapuche activists have continuously demonstrated against these private forestry companies since the 1990s, they have been often criticized for opposing Chile’s economic development, and denounced for sabotaging logging equipment.  

The Mapuche’s struggle against the government-aided incursion of extractive industries highlights the incredible complexity of establishing a more robust legal framework to secure Indigenous territorial rights in the 21st century. The expanding influence of transnational enterprises in the global economy—particularly those concerning natural-resource development—has proven to be a growing threat to Indigenous territorial rights and political sovereignty across Latin America despite constitutional protections. Thus, truly securing Indigenous sovereignty in Chile cannot simply rely upon the establishment of constitutional recognition and protections; it must also involve decision making about the relationship between Indigenous territorial rights and the economic interests of private extractive industries in those territories that have been historically supported by the Chilean government. The newfound role Indigenous people will play in the rewriting of the Chilean constitution presents a historic opportunity to achieve sovereignty over their traditional lands and rights to self-determination that have been long-denied. Indeed, Chile’s constitutional constituents hope to remedy the Pinochet-era neoliberal economic model that served to institutionalize the advancement of private extractive development in Mapuche territories. Yet, to firmly secure Indigenous territorial rights, Chile’s democratic constitutional change must be supported by stronger and more transparent regulatory frameworks governing the relationship between corporations, governments, and Indigenous peoples. 

Photo: Wikimedia Commons (Ministerio Bienes Nacionales)