Main languages: Spanish, indigenous languages (mainly Aymara and Mapuzungun), Polynesian
Main religions: Christianity (majority Roman Catholic, but also Protestant), Judaism, indigenous religions
Indigenous peoples in Chile include the Mapuche, Aymara, Polynesian Rapanui of Easter Island and the few remaining survivors of several Fuegian nations, such as the Yamana and Qawasqar. There is a significant Jewish population in Santiago.
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 that 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.
According to the 2012 census, 11.3 per cent of the total population self-identify as indigenous. However, the Chilean government has since acknowledged that these numbers may be unreliable due to its failure to account for nearly 10 per cent of the population.
According to another estimate produced in a 2013 survey conducted by the Ministerio de Desarrollo Social (Ministry of Development), there are 1.5 million people in Chile who self-identify as indigenous, making up 9.1 per cent of the total population – a significant rise from 1.06 million (6.6 per cent) in 2006. The largest of these groups is Mapuche, who make up 84.4 per cent of the indigenous population. A further partial or ‘abbreviated’ census was conducted in spring 2017, pending a full census scheduled to take place in 2022.
The Yamana who live at Ukika, just north of Cape Horn, and the Qawasqar, who live on Wellington Island, are in a critical condition. 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 mobilisation 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 organisations 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 achieved a high degree of assimilation. Latent anti-Semitism and stereotyping are still found in most sectors; some neo-Nazi groups are overtly anti-Semitic. In 2015, there were reports of vandalism on Jewish community buildings as well as threats over social media.
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 and architecture. Some Arab migration took place during the early part of the twentieth century. There is a degree of intolerance towards smaller ethnic minority groups such as the Koreans, who have been migrating to Chile in increasing numbers in recent years.
The Afro-Chilean population has received scant attention, partly because it is so small: Chile’s poverty during the colonial period precluded the development of African slavery on any great scale. Recently, however, there has been a growing interest in Afro-Chilean communities in the country’s northern-most region.
Updated September 2017
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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.
While they have historically received greater recognition than Afro-Chileans, Chile’s indigenous population nevertheless continues 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 a country where, despite indigenous peoples comprising around 10 per cent of the population, there is currently not a single indigenous representative in Congress.
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, representatives from the Mapuche 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 Mapuche-claimed 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, Sebastian Piñera Echenique 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 has 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.
Updated September 2017
Chile is a long 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 Qawasquar. Chile also controls Rapa Nui (or Easter Island), which is located in the Pacific Ocean, over 3,000 kilometres from the mainland.
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.
In 1970, Salvador Allende became Chile’s first Socialist president. Allende established a number of policies on nationalisation and social reform. In 1973, however, following two decades of increasing political polarisation of Chilean society, his socialist government (1970–73) 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.
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 recognised in the constitution.
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), Kawashkars (Alacufe) 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 communities. Since its creation a significant amount of land has been returned to indigenous communities, particularly to the Mapuche in southern Chile. Indigenous political organisations 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). Organisations 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 the 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.
Updated September 2017
Coordinadora Nacional Indianista
Asociación Mapuche Nehuen Mapu
Centro de Estudios y Documentación Mapuche Liwen
Consejo Interregional Mapuche
Corporación Mapuche Newen
Instituto de Estudios Indígenas
Observatorio de Derechos de los Pueblos Indígenas
Organización Mapuche Meli Wixan Mapu
Pacific Islands Association of NGOs (PIANGO) Fiji
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News and updates
- Chile: Mapuche and the right to non-discrimination and equality (16 November 2016)
- For many indigenous and minority communities, ‘development’ brings only destruction – new global report (28 June 2012)
- Chile must repeal anti-terror laws affecting Mapuche Indians (19 October 2010)
- Chile apologizes for treatment of indigenous groups but communities call for end to systemic discrimination (12 March 2010)
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