Chile: Mapuche continue drive for land

A group of about 70 indigenous Chilean Mapuche from the José Llancao community peacefully occupied a section of a government research farm in Vilcún commune in Cautín province, in the central Araucanía region, to further their demand for 60 hectares of land that they say belong to the community. The Carillanca Farming Research Center (INIA Carillanca) started as a private estate but has been operated as a research facility under the Agriculture Ministry for the past 50 years. According to the community's werken (spokesperson), Juan Alguilera Esquivel, the residents have been trying to reclaim the 60 hectares, which they say were usurped illegally by the owner of the private estate, for more than 20 years. The Mapuche, Chile's largest indigenous group, have been using land occupations since the 1990s in a campaign to regain land they consider ancestral territory. Local estate owners are strongly opposed to the community's claims on the research facility. "Not one meter should be sold," said Marcelo Zirotti, president of the Agricultural Development Society (SOFO). If the government gives up any land, "they'll be telling us, the farmers, that we should close up and go elsewhere." (Radio Bío Bío, Chile, Feb. 6; El Ciudadano, Chile, Feb. 6)

Meanwhile, right-wing politicians and business representatives are blaming Mapuche activists for many of the 150-160 forest fires reported in Chile's Araucanía region in the past six months. In January Senator Alberto Espina of the center-right National Renewal (RN) party implied that the fires are being set by Mapuche activists protesting what they consider the theft of their land by forestry companies. Patricio Santibáñez, president of the Chilean Timber Corporation (CORMA), charged that 70% of the fires are "organized, planned." A report by the carabineros militarized police put the total number of fires connected to the Mapuche conflict at 15 for the period, less than 10%, and said the number of arson cases had declined. Santibáñez repeated charges from 2012 that Mapuche activists were responsible for an outbreak of forest fires then, including one in which seven firefighters were killed. The 2012 fires came at a time of severe drought; Mapuche spokespeople said the situation was aggravated by the forestry companies' planting of more flammable trees such as pine and eucalyptus. (PanAm Post, Jan. 30; Rebelión, Feb. 7)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, February 8.