Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Updated May 2008
There are just over 100,000 Mapuche in Argentina (Instituto Nacional de Estadistica, 2004-5). Since the late-nineteenth century, the unity of the Mapuche nation has been confronted by the international boundary with Chile: Argentina is the puel mapu (the eastern land); Chile is the ngulu mapu (the western land). Free access across this frontier is still an important issue of debate today (see Chile).
Many anthropological and historical studies assert that the Mapuche of Argentina originally came from Chile in the eighteenth century (referred to as the ‘Araucanization of the Pampas'). This has recently been contested, but it means that many people are reluctant to accept the ‘Argentine-ness' of the Mapuche.
Mapuche people live all over Argentina (in the provinces of Buenos Aires, La Pampa, Chabut, Santa Cruz, Río Negro and Neuquén, as well as in many cities of other provinces) but the majority lives in Neuquén and Río Negro. It is here that the most consequential Mapuche political organisations have emerged.
Today Argentine Mapuche have many of their own organizations such as the Coordinadora de Organizaciones Mapuches (COM) Taiñ Kiñegetuam ‘to return to being one', in which women, who traditionally play a major role in Mapuche ritual, are prominent.
Many Mapuche were killed or forced to flee their communities in the late nineteenth century during the military campaigns led by President Julio Roca (known as the ‘Conquest of the Desert', 1879). Since then they have lived scattered throughout Argentina, although – as noted above – they mainly live in the provinces of Neuquén and Río Negro.
In Northern Patagonia the state granted official acknowledgement of Mapuche communities' ownership of rural lands as early as the 1960s, but the lack of legal security, the land's poor quality, and the communities' geographic isolation caused many Mapuche to migrate to other regions. Many went to the cities to find work.
Historically, there was little political mobilisation among Argentine Mapuche (i.e organisation beyond the community). The first non-traditional Mapuche organisations were formed in the 1970s in the provinces of Neuquén and Rio Negro; the movement became more significant in the mid-1980s during Argentina's transition to democracy.
In the early 1990s the Coordinadora de Organizaciones Mapuches (COM) was created with the purpose of uniting and representing rural and urban Mapuche organisations. COM pledged itself to autonomy and self-determination, transforming demands for land into demands for a territory; it was also active in the implementation of educational programmes in the Mapuche language.
Conflict between the Mapuche nation and the state broke out openly in 1995, over indigenous lands in the Pulmari region. Local Mapuche communities were finding it difficult to survive because the Pulmari Interstate Corporation, which controlled the National Park, prohibited hunting and gathering and restricted Mapuche people's movement through the territory. In protest against such restrictions, as well as threats of relocation, several communities occupied the lands; they were forcibly evicted.
Since the mid-1990s, Mapuche mobilisation in Argentina has had an important impact on political debates, particularly at a local/provincial level. The Federal Government has invested in intercultural/bilingual education centres in Neuquén, as a result of the efforts of the provincial government and campaigns led by Mapuche organisations in the region. In 1997 the state launched the project ‘Mejoramiento de la Calidad de la Educación de los Pueblos Aborigenes', as part of the National Program for Primary Schools, and COM has managed to set up several Mapuzungun workshops in the provinces of Neuquén and Río Negro.
The Argentine state has updated its legislation on indigenous rights in accordance with international developments, but reports by local indigenous groups and international human rights organisations suggest that the law is rarely translated into practice (particularly when this clashes with private interests and the state’s economic agenda).
Few Mapuche communities have the proper deeds of collective land ownership, and lands described as ‘reservations’ tend to be considered fiscal lands. This has meant that mining, oil and gas developments have been able to take place despite the protests of local communities; the latter complain that provincial authorities, responsible for granting the concessions, do not consider these projects’ impact on local people. The conflict over land ownership continues to be a major problem today, as do the resource extraction issues.
The UN backed Tierramérica Network report of 2007 cites land titling as the root of the problem. For example according to the Argentinean Constitution, indigenous Mapuche are the legitimate owners of the lands in Patagonia but the majority of Mapuche in Patagonia do not hold legal title to lands inhabited by their pre-colonial ancestors, and this is now regarded as "publicly-owned property." As a result large parcels of indigenous land is frequently sold off to the highest bidder thus contributing to the underlying conditions for land ownership disputes in that region.
The most controversial saga has involved Benetton who bought a large amount of land in the Chabut region from the Argentine state several years ago. In 2004 a Mapuche couple occupied 300 hectares of land (officially owned by Benetton, but which they believed was rightfully theirs) and they were removed. This led to series to high profile protest campaigns and in November 2005 Benetton offered to hand over 7500 hectares to the province. Mapuche organisations rejected the donation: they claimed Benetton could not donate what it did not rightfully own and that 7500 hectares was a small amount of land compared to the 900,000 hectares under dispute.
In February 2007 Indigenous Mapuche who took part in the 2002 land dispute against Benetton, returned to once again occupy land belonging to the firm. Since February 2007 over thirty Mapuche have occupied the Santa Rosa farm in the southern province of Chubut.There has been some important progress made in the area of bilingual/intercultural education, with Mapuche communities and organizations taking an increasingly active role in the methodology and content of teaching. And recent press reports show that in areas that attract many foreign travellers, such as Bariloche and San Martin, local Mapuche have been able to turn the growing interest in eco-friendly tourism to their advantage, running tours, arranging ‘traditional’ accommodation and meals, selling their art and so forth.
There has also been many significant advances as regards uniting Argentine and Chilean Mapuche organisations. Mapuche organisations currently play an important role in debates about Mapuche political prisoners in Chile.
In July 2008 Mapuche in the southern regions of Chile took steps to formally register a new political party. One of the main goals is to achieve Mapuche self-government and to recreate what they call Wallmapu (Mapuche land) in southern Chile and Argentina where most Mapuche are still concentrated.