Page last updated at 09:16 GMT, Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Chile indigenous politics on the move

By Kate Joynes-Burgess
Temuco, Chile

Gustavo Quilaqueo
Gustavo Quilaqueo admits his project could take years to achieve

Indigenous politics rarely register on the Chilean national radar but history teacher Gustavo Quilaqueo wants to change that.

He is quitting the classroom to found the first political party representing the country's Mapuche people.

The Mapuche are Chile's largest indigenous group, with around 600,000 people out of Chile's population of 16 million population, according to the 2002 census.

Mr Quilaqueo, who is based in Temuco, capital of the southern Araucania and heartland of the Mapuche, is dedicating himself to a political initiative called "Wallmapuwen".

It is being financed by his family's smallholding and donations from the party's nine-member directorate.

Don't forgive

Our meeting place in Temuco was under an imposing monument to the territory's ancient indigenous warriors.

Mr Quilaqueo, 42, was clutching a little black book, emblazoned with the Wallmapuwen party logo.

"It's a Tokikura," he explained, pointing to the picture of a carved stone. "It's a symbol of authority in a time of war".

Driving from Temuco's bus station, I spotted blood-red graffiti depicting the Mapuche's circular representation of the world.

Across it were the words: "Ni perdón, ni olvido" ("Neither forgive, nor forget"). The Mapuche people have never fully abandoned their conflict with the government.

They resisted European colonisation of Araucania, known as "La Frontera" or "The Frontier", until the late 19th Century when German settlers helped extend the margins of the Chilean state.

During the 1960s and 1970s, Mapuche fighters joined forces with the extremist Revolutionary Leftist Movement (MIR), forcibly occupying private property in search of agrarian reform.

Arson attacks

Rural Araucania remains the centre of Chile's indigenous activism, even though an estimated 50% of Mapuches have migrated to cities in search of work.

Mapuche militants are widely suspected of carrying out several arson attacks on cargo trucks around Temuco in 2008.

Fierce infighting, including the shooting of community leaders, has also been reported in connection with land disputes.


Schisms and the legacy of conflict within what Mr Quilaqueo describes as a "greatly diverse people" pose a public relations challenge for the new politician. He wants to establish what he calls a "legitimate and democratic [Mapuche] party".

There are also some concerns that Mr Quilaqueo himself refuses to renounce violence.

"We favour the political process…but we do not rule out a violent path as the last resort," he says.

Trying to win over his own community, Mr Quilaqueo is reluctant to condemn militant elements that depict themselves as defenders of his people.

He is also is looking abroad for examples of regional autonomy. He has met senior Sinn Fein officials in Northern Ireland and representatives of other nationalist and separatist parties in Europe. He is also in contact with indigenous movements in Ecuador and Bolivia.

Corporal punishment

Mr Quilaqueo admits that his ambitious project is "still in the ideas stage" and "could take generations to achieve". He says that finding ways to unite the Mapuche is central to its success.

Reviving their mother tongue - Mapuzugun - and obtaining its recognition as an official language is an important start. The Mapuche vernacular gives Mr Quilaqueo's party its name: Wallmapuwen means "people of the Mapuche lands".

Mauricio Painefil (centre), a Mapuche community spokesman, with his family
Mapuches, like Mauricio Painefil, think the party will not get votes

During General Augusto Pinochet's dictatorship from 1973 to 1990, Mapuche children reportedly suffered corporal punishment for speaking Mapuzugun in class.

Bilingual schools are still few and far between but the government is taking measures to improve indigenous education as part of what it call its "social pact for multiculturalism".

In November 2008, President Michelle Bachelet established the National Academy for the Mapuche Language in Temuco.

Around 75% of those who described themselves as Mapuche in the last census cannot speak their ancestral tongue.

Mr Quilaqueo is one of those. He admits his language barrier could restrict his ability to lead Chile's first Mapuche party.

Political contradiction

It is not his only drawback. Mauricio Painefil, spokesman for the Mapuche community of Lake Budi on the Araucania coast believes building sufficient backing for an indigenous party is difficult.

"Mapuche people tend to vote for rightist candidates or whichever party predominates in their constituency," he said.

Others reject any participation in Chile's electoral process. Broadcaster Cristian del Campo Carcamo works on a Santiago-based television programme teaching Mapuzugun to urban Mapuches.

"Many Mapuche organisations…do not recognise Chilean institutions. As such they see it as contradictory for Quilaqueo to register [Wallmapuwen] as a Chilean political party," he says.

Lake Budi at sunset
Mr Quilaqueo grew up and worked near Lake Budi

Mr Quilaqueo is more pragmatic. Having registered Wallmapuwen with electoral authorities, he needs to collect 4,600 signatures from supporters in three of Chile's 15 regions by mid-2009.

The party chief is pursuing congressional alliances where he can, with an eye on December's general election. He knows that smaller parties can only survive in Chile as part of a coalition.

"Without political and juridical transformation it is very difficult…It took Sinn Fein a century…but we are taking the first steps," Mr Quilaqueo says.

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22 Oct 08 |  Country profiles
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