Chile: did the Mapuche cause wildfires, or was it climate change?

A series of raids and house fires in southern Chile followed the filing of a criminal complaint on Jan. 6 by the government of right-wing president Sebastián Piñera implying that indigenous Mapuche activists were responsible for recent major forest fires in the Biobío and Araucanía regions. The complaint was based on an “anti-terrorism” law passed during the 1973-1990 dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet and used repeatedly to repress protests by Mapuche activists seeking to regain control of ancestral lands being exploited by timber companies.

On the night of Jan. 7, the day after the government’s legal action, five masked men set fire to two mediaguas (prefabricated houses) at La Marina estate in the Pidima de Ercilla sector of Araucanía; the authorities said the houses belonged to a retired military officer and that the attackers exchanged gunfire with police agents. At 6 am the next morning the carabineros militarized police raided Chequenko, a Mapuche community in Pidima, apparently in response to the attack on the La Marina estate. According to José Venturelli of the nongovernmental Ethical Commission Against Torture, some 200 agents armed with handguns, rifles and tear gas grenades carried out a “massive attack” on the community.

During the same morning, a fire was set in another part of Araucanía at a home belonging to the parents of José Santos Millao, a Mapuche leader and a director of the government’s National Indigenous Development Corporation (Conadi). (ANSA, Italy, Jan. 8; BBC News, Jan. 9)

On Jan. 10 masked members of the indigenous community of Rofue—near Araucanía’s capital, Temuco—blocked a highway to protest the construction of an airport. The police claimed the demonstrators fired at them with birdshot when they tried to break up the protest. Carabineros then raided the nearby village of José Jineo Ñanco, according to residents. In one incident, videotaped on a cellphone and posted on the Internet, two agents approached Guillermina Painebilu and her daughter, Jessica Guzmán Painebilu, as they stood in a field holding a baby. One agent struck Guillermina Painebilu with a rifle butt and then pointed the rifle at her. Both women were arrested, but on Jan. 10 Temuco judge Federico Gutiérrez dismissed all charges against them and ordered carabineros commanders to investigate the agents’ actions. (UPI, Jan. 11, via Noticias.123, Chile; DPA, Jan. 12, via La Gaceta de Tucumán, Argentina; Crónica de Hoy, Mexico City, Jan. 12, from unnamed wire services)

The most recent of the major forest fires in southern Chile began on Jan. 5 in Carahue community in Araucanía; seven firefighters died while combating the blaze. Police investigators said the fire was started in 83 different places at the same time, indicating it was set intentionally. Interior Minister Rodrigo Hinzpeter cast suspicion on the Arauco Malleco Coordinating Committee (CAM), a militant Mapuche organization. But a CAM leader, Héctor Llaitul Carillanca, currently serving a 14-year prison sentence, told interviewers that starting a forest fire would be “outside our line of action.” The accusations were a setup to justify the application of the “antiterrorist” law to Mapuche communities, Llaitul said, and to use it “to confront Chile’s student and social movements as well, anticipating a year in which greater mobilizations and struggles may appear.”

Conadi director José Santos Millao said President Piñera and Interior Minister Hinzpeter were seeking to create “a type of apartheid, a type of Nazism or fascism.” Some Mapuche activists blamed the fires on the introduction of exotic tree species that they say exacerbated a drought as the Southern Hemisphere’s summer was beginning, while the Ethical Commission Against Torture’s José Venturelli accused the timber companies of setting the fires themselves “to collect insurance payments they couldn’t get for infected trees that can’t be sold.” (ANSA, Jan. 8; BBC News, Jan. 9; Página 12, Argentina, Jan. 11, from correspondent; La Tercera, Chile, Jan. 15)

There have been an exceptional number of forest fires in South America since December. One fire destroyed 1,000 hectares in Argentina’s Chubut province, and more than 700 hectares of forest were burned in Paraguay’s Caazapá National Park. The main cause is a series of severe droughts which weather experts blame on a combination of factors: the regularly occurring La Niña weather pattern and climate change resulting from human activity. “I think you really have to point the finger at human-caused climate change as having tipped the scales to make previously unprecedented weather events more possible, and multiple unprecedented weather events like we’re seeing,” Jeff Masters, director of meteorology at the Weather Underground website, told the Associated Press wire service. “There is so much regular variation in the weather, and it’s hard to pick out the signal from the noise. But the signal’s sure getting pretty strong now.” (Prensa Latina, Jan. 6; AP, Jan. 6, via ABC News)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, Jan. 15.

See our last post on Chile and the Mapuche struggle.