Main languages: Spanish (official), Aymara, Kichwa, Mapudungun, Selk’nam, Kunza or Atacamaño (no longer spoken) and Rapa Nui (Eastern Polynesian)
Main religions: Christianity, the majority of Chilean people being Roman Catholic, with a significant proportion of Catholics worshipping the Virgen del Carmen. A growing number of Chileans belong to Evangelical churches, as well as the Jehovah Witnesses, Adventists and Mormons. Chile is known for syncretistic practices that incorporate Catholic and indigenous traditions, especially in the form of the cult of the Virgen de la Tirana del Tamarugal in the Atacama region. Other religions include: Judaism, the Baha’ faith, Islam and indigenous spirituality, especially Mapuche traditions.
The most significant indigenous people in Chile are the Mapuche, living in a territory spread along the 9th and 10th regions of the country. Mapuche are subdivided into four regional sub-groups: the Huilliche or people of the south (located south of Tolten River and in the island of Chiloé); the Pewenche or people of the Pewen (Araucaria tree) located in the high mountainous regions of the east, the Lafkenche, or people of the sea, located on the western seaboard, and the Pikunche or Mapuche of the north.
Collectively, Mapuche inhabit a territory known to them as Wallmapu, also covering an extensive area in Argentina. The area to the east of the Andean mountains (Argentina) is known as Puelmapu, while the area west of the mountains (Chile) is known as Gulumapu.
Neither the State of Argentina nor the Chilean Republic recognize Wallmapu as a political nation, and Wallmapu does not have a parliament or political body to represent its interests in Chilean or Argentinian legal or political systems.
In addition to Mapuche, Chile is home to numerous other indigenous peoples including Aymara, Atacameño, Polynesian Rapa Nui of Easter Island and the few remaining survivors of several Fuegian nations, such as Selk’nam, Yamana and Qawasqar.
According to the 2012 Census, more than 1.7 million people self-identified as indigenous: of these 88 per cent as Mapuche, followed by 7 per cent as Aymara and 5 per cent as other smaller groups. The number of people who self-identify as indigenous has increased by 50 per cent in the last ten years. The majority of this population (around three quarters) live in urban areas.
There is a significant Jewish population in the metropolitan region, which is also home to the largest Palestinian diasporic community outside the Middle East.
The Mapuche people are the only indigenous people not to have been conquered or dominated by the Spanish in South America, despite a prolonged war with Spanish conquistadors, recounted in the epic poem La Araucana, by Alonso de Ercilla (1569). The history of the Mapuche nation is one of resistance to Spanish colonization and subsequently to Chilean colonization. Five hundred years of warfare, tensions, conflict, encroachment and violations of Mapuche rights persist in today’s ensuing Araucanía conflict. Violencia en la Macrozona Sur is the term currently used to refer to an armed, social and political conflict that has affected the region of Araucanía since 1997.
The Yamana who live at Ukika, just north of Cape Horn, and the Qawasqar, who live on Wellington Island, live in remote communities and do not receive necessary support from government at the level of health, education and other public services. Without motorboats, their fishing is undercut by colonists, and medical assistance is virtually non-existent.
In the north, Aymara communities have experienced many difficulties obtaining title to lands; they have also had problems with water rights. Traditionally, there has been little political mobilization among these communities, due partly to the activities of Pentecostal sects and large-scale migration to the cities. However, this trend started to change in the mid-1990s, and today Aymara political organizations take an active role in bilingual education projects and debates over the ownership of natural resources.
The first Jewish immigrants to Chile came from Russia and Eastern Europe at the end of the nineteenth century. A second wave, in the 1920s, came from Greece and the Balkans, followed by thousands from Germany, Poland and Hungary. The Chilean Jewish community is primarily middle class and professional and has assimilated to a large degree in Chilean society. Latent antisemitism and stereotyping are still found in most sectors; some neo-Nazi groups are overtly antisemitic. There have been repeated reports of vandalism on Jewish community buildings as well as threats over social media.
Palestinians in Chile form the largest community outside the Middle East. Palestinians (and Syrians) have made a significant contribution to various aspects of Chilean society, especially football (Palestino FC), business and industry, popular culture and the arts. Palestinians in Chile are referred to as ‘turcos’ (Turks) because their nationality was Ottoman at the time of their settlement in Chile in the 19th century. The Chilean Palestinian community is primarily urban and professional, with most Chileno-Palestinos living in Santiago and large cities in the Central regions (Viña del Mar, Rancagua and Talca).
Japanese migration to Chile has not been significant; approximately 500 Japanese entered Chile during the period 1903–25. The major factor limiting Japanese settlement in Chile prior to 1925 was the lack of agricultural opportunities. At present, most Japanese have small shops in Santiago and its suburbs, although a few have market gardens. Marriage into the Chilean community is unusual.
Chile has a German minority as a result of pro-immigration policies in the nineteenth century; many live in the southern provinces of Valdivia and Osorno. German influence in this region is noticeable, particularly in commerce, education, music and architecture, particularly in the German lakeside towns in Osorno and Lago Todos los Santos, such as Frutillar.
There is a degree of intolerance towards smaller ethnic minority groups such as Koreans and Chinese, who have been migrating to Chile in increasing numbers in recent years
Afro-Chileans and Black minorities
The number of enslaved Africans during the Spanish colonization in what was known as Capitanía General de Chile was limited, since the Spanish considered that this territory was not relevant for the commercialization and trafficking of slaves. The main group of Afro-Chileans is found in the regions of Arica-Parinacota and Tarapacá, which were part of the Viceroyalty of Peru and were incorporated into Chilean territory in the late nineteenth century, following Chile’s victory in the War of the Pacific. Thus, a small number of Afro-descendants were incorporated into Chilean territory, when Chile annexed lands previously held by Peru and Bolivia following armed conflict.
The Afro-Chilean population has a predominantly Chilean identity after more than a century of invisibility by the state and the Chilean population in general. In 2013, the National Institute of Statistics (INE) conducted the First Characterization Survey of the Afro-descendant Population of the Region of Arica and Parinacota. In this study, it was estimated that there were 8,415 Afro-Chilean people, equivalent to 4.7 per cent of the population of this territory. https://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Afrochileno
There has been extensive migration of Black people to this country in recent years, which has led to a rapid growth of Black minorities in Chile. Since the Haiti earthquake of 2010 and the recent mass emigration from Venezuela, the number of Black people living in Chile has risen considerably, especially in northern cities and in the capital Santiago.
Lack of disaggregated data following the 2017 Census, and lack of statistical data following more recent immigration, means that the number of Black people living in Chile is uncertain. The absence of African and Afro-descendent people in most parts of Chilean territory, coupled with existing racial stereotypes inherited from the Spanish colonial caste system, has led to a pervasive form of racism and racial discrimination against Black Haitians and Black Venezuelans living in Chile.
Roma people in Chile
According to a government report published in 2007, the number of Roma living in this country is somewhere between 5 to 8,000 people. The vast majority of these have not completed any formal education, whether public or private.
Lack of access to education and healthcare means that Roma in Chile are increasingly less able to face the cost-of-living crisis in this country. The Roma minority is not considered within Chilean governance systems, and it is not given the opportunities or granted the rights that guarantee a dignified future for this community.
In Chile, many Roma work as day laborers in the fields or in temporary jobs related to the country’s main industries (agriculture and mining). It is possible to find Roma working as peasants, as fishermen on the coast, as muleteers, as laborers and mainly as informal traders.
There have been recent efforts to improve data on the indigenous population. Beginning in 2013 and continuing until 2018, Chile Indígena, an initiative of the government’s national indigenous body, the Corporación Nacional de Desarrollo Indígena (CONADI), aims to improve the quality of life of indigenous peoples in Chile, respecting ‘development with identity’ and promoting ‘horizontal dialogue’ between indigenous communities and the government.
Chile’s indigenous population continue to experience discrimination in access to education and employment. The UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights reported in 2015 that the government’s response to the ongoing marginalization of the indigenous population ‘has been piecemeal and especially reluctant to address the major issues of concern.’ Among other measures, he highlighted the importance of adequate consultation with communities around the government’s proposed plan to establish a Ministry for Indigenous Affairs, as well as the need to expand their political representation in the country.
Land rights and access to ancestral territory remain major issues for indigenous peoples in Chile, particularly in the south of the country, with protests continuing to be a repeated occurrence. Indigenous activists continued to advocate for the protection of their ancestral lands from unsustainable development projects. In March 2015, Mapuche representatives appeared before the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights to bring attention to the extractive activities taking place on their ancestral lands, and the negative effects they have on their way of life and culture.
Water resource ownership also continues to be a point of contention between the indigenous population and Chilean government. In Chile, water is not a public good nor is it any longer a resource tied to land ownership, as it was up to the mid-1980s. The current water management policy was developed by the Pinochet regime and has been criticized for having little government control or environmental safeguards.
Private ownership of water resources is so concentrated in some areas that a single electricity company from Spain, Endesa, has bought up to 80 per cent of the water rights in a large part of the traditional Mapuche territories in the south, causing an outcry. Chile’s House of Deputies affirmed that water is a human right in November 2016, prior to reviewing the proposed Water Code reform. It had not yet been submitted for indigenous consultation.
In January 2011, Sebastián Piñera Echeñique was elected President of Chile and announced his intention to restructure public institutions devoted to indigenous affairs in order to make them more efficient. In addition, he indicated his government would pursue a land policy focused more on individual subsidies, rather than on recognizing collective rights. Piñera left office in 2014 without having implemented these changes.
There have been a number of confrontations over the implementation of ILO Convention 169 and the right of indigenous peoples to consultation and participation on issues that would impact them. In January 2016, President Michelle Bachelet approved legislation for the creation of the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples and the National Council and the Councils of Indigenous Peoples in order to comply with the ILO Convention 169 requirement of prior consultation.
While the total percentage of those living in poverty among indigenous peoples has decreased in recent years, they continue to be among the most marginalized in the country: 27.4 per cent of the indigenous population live in a situation of multidimensional poverty compared to only 15.1 per cent of the general population. The rights of communities such as Mapuche to protest their conditions have also been curtailed by the use of counter-terrorism provisions to target demonstrations: while a bill was put forward in Congress in 2014 to amend this legislation, increasing due process protections and narrowing the currently broad definition of terrorism, it has yet to be approved.
In 2019, and during Piñera’s second term as Chilean President, the country was convulsed by a social uprising triggered initially by the rising cost of living (especially transport and healthcare). The protests soon spread beyond a few specific areas in Santiago and incorporated numerous other social demands including water rights and indigenous political, social, territorial and biocultural rights. As a result of the mass-scale revolt, the President called for a Constituent Assembly that would re-write the Chilean Constitution, drafted during the military regime.
In September 2022, and with the largest voter turnout in the history of the country, the Chilean electorate voted to reject the draft Constitution put forward by the Constituent Assembly and the left-wing government of Gabriel Boric. A new plebiscite to decide whether a new Constitution is to be drafted will be held in December 2023. It is expected that indigenous, minority and environmental rights will be central to the drafting of Chile’s new Constitution.
Many of the issues affecting indigenous peoples, Afro-Chilean communities, Black minorities (Haitians and Venezuelans) and Roma in Chile are underpinned by a colonial caste mentality that is deeply rooted within a narrow sense of Chilean identity, around which gravitate a number of national stereotypes. The binary dynamics of Chilean identity are reaffirmed in renewed forms of discrimination that perpetuate the same polarity and hierarchy inherited from the colonial era.
Racism and discrimination based on ethnic and linguistic identity are rife in this country, particularly following years of economic development during the Pinochet years, which led to wider disparity between economic elites and working class sectors.
The social uprising of 2019 has exposed many of the inconsistencies of the Chilean success story, while also evidencing a deep-rooted discrimination against indigenous peoples and minorities in Chile. The issues mentioned above are compounded by intersectional dynamics affecting various groups of vulnerable, marginalized and discriminated people, including women, children, people with disabilities and LGBTQI+ communities, especially those belonging to minorities and indigenous peoples.
Chile is a long and narrow country, situated in western South America, between the Andes and the Pacific Ocean. It borders Argentina to the east, Bolivia to the northeast and Peru to the north. The northern desert region, most of which was taken from Bolivia and Peru during the War of the Pacific (1879–1883) is one of the driest in the world. Approximately 20,000 Aymara live there. The most highly populated region of Chile is the Central Valley, which includes the capital city Santiago. Araucanía in southern Chile, the wettest and most fertile region, together with parts of the neighbouring eighth and tenth regions (Bio-Bio and Los Lagos) is claimed as historic Mapuche territory. There is also a significant German-Chilean community in this part of the country. The extreme south where the glaciers begin is home to the few surviving Yamana and Kawesqar. Chile also controls Rapa Nui (or Easter Island), which is located in the Pacific Ocean, over 3,000 kilometres from the mainland.
Chile is considered to be the most water stressed country in the Americas, and it is heavily impacted by El Niño phenomenon and other aspects of global climate change. Water scarcity has had a major impact on marginalized groups, especially campesinos. Many indigenous campesinos are affected by water conflicts, especially due to mining concessions harming Aymara and Atacameño farming communities in the Atacama region, and forestry and hydroelectric projects affecting Mapuche indigenous communities in the south.
The Chilean economy depends on water intensive industries such as industrial mining, industrial avocado plantations and wineries, all of which have led to major water rights violations facing marginalized campesino communities as well as indigenous communities. Environmental degradation is affecting not only Chile’s freshwaters, but also its salt lakes or salares (affected by lithium and copper mining) and salt water, affected by industrial fisheries.
Salmon fisheries have had a major impact on fishing communities in the south, especially Chiloé islanders and the Huilliche indigenous people, which have been affected by ocean pollution and depletion of local fish populations. The salmon industry has also had a negative impact among Kawesqar indigenous communities in the Patagonian fjords of the Magellan region.
Like most of South America, Chile was a colony of Spain and gained independence in the nineteenth century. Liberal governments of the mid- to late-nineteenth century promoted European immigration, but Chile received a relatively low number of foreign nationals compared to neighbouring Argentina. Mass rural-urban migration, which has had an important impact on the integration of Chile’s indigenous peoples, began in the 1930s and continues to this day.
The colonization of Chile involved numerous phases of invasion of indigenous territories, including settler colonialism in most Northern, Central and Southern regions as far as La Frontera (the historical frontier of the Spanish empire), as well as colonialism by extermination. The Spanish domination of Chile, which ended in 1810, was followed by subsequent efforts by the Chilean government to achieve the so-called ‘Pacificación de la Araucania’. Between 1861 and 1881 alone and at the height of Chilean government efforts to colonize Mapuche territories, 50,000-70,000 Mapuche people were killed by members of the Chilean army.
In the 1880s, the Manuel Montt military regime assigned Minister Vicente Pérez Rosales the task of colonizing the far south of the country. Pérez Rosales orchestrated the deliberate burning of the Valdivian rainforest as part of a megafire known as Incendio de Chan-Chan, intended to clear lands for German migration. German settlers were subsequently given vast areas of farmland, as indigenous populations were displaced or killed, especially in the region between La Unión and Osorno.
The indigenous peoples of Patagonia, known as Fuegians, first encountered European people following the HMS Beagle survey of the Magellan Strait in the 1830s. In the period 1843-1943, during which the Chilean government started the process of colonization of the Magellan Strait, and in conjunction with British and Dutch colonial efforts in the region, indigenous peoples in Patagonia were bounty-hunted to allow sheep farming.
The Selk’nam are one of five indigenous peoples of Patagonia, which also include the Aonikenk or Tewelche, the Kawesqar or Alacalufe (inhabitants of the fjords of Chilean Patagonia), the Yaganes and the Haush—the latter shared the island of Tierra del Fuego with the Selk’nam. All these indigenous peoples were decimated during the colonization of Magellan Strait and Cape Horn between 1843 and 1943.
The Selk’nam genocide is a historical event that saw the systematic killing of Selk’nam populations in Tierra del Fuego between 1850 and 1860. The event involved the mass killing and death by foreign disease of virtually the entire population of Selk’nam. The last Selk’nam, Angela Loij, died in 1974. The Selk’nam people have been defined as ‘extinct’ by virtually all official documents and historical accounts, including Chilean school textbooks. In February 2022, Luis Vásquez Chogue, one of a few descendants of the survivors of the Selk’nam genocide, was elected member of the Constitutional Assembly of Chile. His impassioned plea to recognize the Selk’nam people became viral, and it was the first public recognition of the survival of Selk’nam people in this country.
The Allende and Pinochet periods
In 1970, Salvador Allende became Chile’s first Socialist President and the first ever democratically elected Marxist leader in history. Allende established a number of policies on nationalization and social reform. In 1973, however, following two decades of increasing political polarization of Chilean society, his socialist government was brought to an end by a brutal military coup.
During the subsequent regime of Augusto Pinochet (1973–90) Chile’s human rights record was one of the worst in South America. His government also made a concerted effort to break up indigenous community lands. Democratic rule was restored in 1990 and, since then, important changes have been made to indigenous and human rights legislation.
According to the Rettig Report, drafted during the Presidency of Patricio Aylwin, the first democratically elected government following the military regime, the Chilean security forces were responsible for gross violations of human rights. The Report determined that there were 2,115 victims of human rights violations and 164 victims of political violence between 11 September 1973 and the end of the Pinochet regime on 11 March 1990. An estimated 1,068 victims were confirmed to have been killed, 957 people disappeared after their arrest, and an additional 90 were killed by politically motivated private citizens. The Report did not establish how the violence affected indigenous peoples and minority groups specifically.
In 2016, Mapuche historian and human rights advocate Hernán Curiñir Lincoqueo published a report on the number of indigenous people killed during the Pinochet regime. According to this study, 171 indigenous people were murdered by agents of the military regime, including a one-year-old baby, and a 73-year-old grandmother.
The current Chilean Constitution was written in 1980 under the Pinochet regime, and there have been efforts to draft one that is more democratically representative. The rights of indigenous peoples are currently not recognized in the Constitution. Following the rejection of the proposed Constitution in February 2022, a new plebiscite is scheduled to take place in December 2023 to decide whether a new Constitution will be drafted or not.
In 1993 the Chilean Congress passed a new Indigenous Law (19.253), acknowledging the existence of eight different ‘ethnic groups and communities’ in Chile. The law officially recognizes the following indigenous peoples: Mapuche, Aymara, Atacameña, Collas, Quechuas, Rapa Nui (Pascuenses), Yámanas (Yágan), Kawashqars (Alacalufe) and Diaguita.
The law created the Corporación Nacional de Desarrollo Indígena (National Corporation of Indigenous Development, CONADI), which included several indigenous representatives. It also ended subdivision of indigenous peoples. Since its creation a significant amount of land has been returned to indigenous communities, particularly to the Mapuche in southern Chile. Indigenous political organizations were active participants in the drafting of the Indigenous Law, but it did not fulfil all their demands because it was modified substantially during its passage through Congress. Organizations were, however, successful in claiming their rights to bilingual and intercultural education. Although this is not guaranteed by the Constitution, it has been a major element of educational reform programmes (at both pre-school, primary and secondary levels).
Land and resource disputes have long pitted indigenous Mapuche communities against private landowners and, more recently, forestry companies and hydroelectric projects in southern Chile. Since the late 1990s this conflict has become increasingly violent, prompting sharp criticism from the UN of the Chilean government for its treatment of Mapuche. While Chile finally ratified ILO Convention 169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in September 2008, major challenges remain for the country’s indigenous peoples in ensuring its provisions are implemented effectively. The government’s attempts to introduce regulations, just before the Convention came into effect the following year, on how indigenous communities would be consulted was opposed by indigenous communities. While the provisions were finally overturned in 2014, questions remain around the specific interpretation of various rights and protections.
In March 2022, Erika Ñanko was elected Deputy for the Chilean Congress, the first Mapuche woman to be elected member of Congress in the history of this country.
Coordinadora Nacional Indianista
Asociación Mapuche Nehuen Mapu
Centro de Estudios y Documentación Mapuche Liwen
Consejo Interregional Mapuche
Corporación Mapuche Newen
Email: [email protected]
Instituto de Estudios Indígenas
Observatorio de Derechos de los Pueblos Indígenas
Organización Mapuche Meli Wixan Mapu
Pacific Islands Association of NGOs (PIANGO) Fiji
Updated August 2023
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