The Mapuche Struggle for Liberation and Self-Determination:
An Interview with Wladimir Painemal, a Mapuche leader and organizer
By Kasia Machelak
The Mapuche are a First Nations people who have a long history of fighting for autonomy and self-determination on their traditional territory in what is now Chile and Argentina. They have been struggling over many of the same issues that Indigenous people here fight for in Canada; land rights, recognition as a Nation and basic standards of living. This fight has been ongoing since Spanish colonization in the 1600’s. Wladimir Painemal, the Sub-director of the Mapuche newspaper, Azkintwe, was recently in Vancouver as a delegate to the International Indigenous Youth Conference (IIYC). While in Vancouver, he made time to talk to Fire This Time about the issues affecting the Mapuche people. As a young leader Wladimir is connecting the struggles of oppressed people around the world, educating and organizing in the fight for Indigenous self-determination.
Fire This Time: Could you explain for us the history of the Mapuche Nation and what struggles have been waged?
Wladimir Painemal: The struggle of the Mapuche people has been going on for many, many years. In regards to fighting against the conquerors, there hasn’t been a time of rest since the Spaniards arrived. First, Mapuche people concentrated on the resistance against the Spaniards, and then the resistance against the invasion of the Chilean State, an issue that continues today. The resistance against the Spaniards caused us the loss of many people and the loss of most of our territory. A people call themselves a people according to the territories they hold. The Mapuche people used to occupy 30 million hectares of land and they were reduced to 10 million hectares of land.
From 1810 to1818, the period that Chile became independent from the Spanish Crown, and from 1810 to 1881, Mapuche people continued to be an autonomous Nation. When the Chilean State turned their armies against the Mapuche people, those 10 million hectares that remained as Mapuche territory were further reduced to 500 thousand hectares. From the late 19th century there’s been a continuous annexation of land by different governments, further reducing the territory to 300 thousand hectares today.
The 200-year struggle against the Spanish was a success in our resistance. The Mapuche was the first Nation to sign treaties with the Spanish crown on a Nation-to-Nation basis. Those treaties were in place and were respected by both sides for about one hundred years. Unfortunately after the Chilean state became independent from the Spanish crown, they did not respect the treaties.
In 1910 the first contemporary mass mobilization of Mapuche people began. It was triggered by the actions of a large landholder who branded a Mapuche person that crossed his land; this act infuriated the Mapuche people. From this came the creation of the first Mapuche organization in the history of Mapuche struggle. From the time of the military defeat in 1881 to 1910 the Mapuche people began organizing to the point that, in 1910, there were many massive demonstrations and mass mobilizations.
The high point of mobilization happened in the time of the Popular Unity Government of Salvador Allende, from 1970 to 1973, when the Mapuche and Chilean people formed and built alliances. It was the first time that the state had cleared legislation of exploitation of land for the large landholders. During the Popular Unity Government there were many advances in terms of the liberation of land. Unfortunately, that came to an abrupt end with the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. During this time most of the land recovered by the Mapuche people was lost. It is worthy to say that the Mapuche people were the first group that organized resistance against the US-backed Pinochet coup-d’etat.
From 1978 onwards, the Mapuche people continued to build alliances with the Chilean people. Mapuche people were in the forefront of struggle with other political tendencies that were resisting the Pinochet dictatorship. The Mapuche are still the group that is most impacted by imprisonment, torture and assassinations.
At the end of Pinochet‘s tyrannical regime, the process of coalition building and negotiations between organizations and political parties started. People wanted to bring about an alliance or coalition of group to run the government. Agreements were made by political tendencies who formed the government later, that the Chilean state would recognize: 1) the Mapuche people as a nation, 2) they would be signatories of the 169 Convention of International Labour Organizations, and 3) that they would be recognized in the constitution. One of these was actually followed up by the coalition party, but in 1997 an accord was reached that obliterated the gains of the Mapuche.
What triggered the break up of the Mapuche organisations and political parties that formed the government was the fact that the coalition government that came after Pinochet kept all the institutions and laws of the previous regime. By keeping the neo-liberal economic model the country was opened up to foreign investment and privatization. The government wanted to open the door to forestry companies to come into Mapuche territory to plunder its resources. In 1997 there was a break-up between the Mapuche people and the coalition parties in government. One of the actions that were taken was that the trucks from forestry multi-national companies were burned. This marked the point of a new era of mobilizations and struggle that remains up to this day.
FTT: Are the struggles of the Mapuche people in Chile and Argentina similar?
Wladimir Painemal: The struggles of the Mapuche in Chile and Argentina are similar. There are some differences of course, but mainly the common struggle is against the invasion of multi-national corporations on Mapuche territory. On the Argentinean side they are facing similar experiences, not only with multi-national companies, but also with individuals who are buying large tracts of land in the Patagonia area. On the Argentinean side, the repression against the Mapuche by the new Argentinean state military force was much more fierce than on the Chilean side. On the Chilean side there was at least a process of negotiation. Many Mapuche communities were able to hold some of their land. On the Argentinean side it was complete genocide.
FTT: How has the current era of war and occupation by imperialist aggression effected or changed the struggle of the Mapuche Nation?
Wladimir Painemal: The main difference after September 11th 2001 is that the demands and the vindication of the Mapuche people are now considered terrorism. The fact is that the coalition government has kept most of the institutions and the repressive laws of the Pinochet time intact. One of these laws is the Anti-Terrorist law. It is perhaps one of the earliest Anti-Terrorist laws dictated by a government of any country. Since 9-11 the government has used this law against the Mapuche people and against the stated demands of the Mapuche people. They’ve used these against traditional and non-traditional leaders of the Mapuche Nation to deter them from organizing. The government has stated continually that the bulk of the demands that we have in place are considered a threat to internal security. They charge that Mapuche leaders, by putting forward these demands, are carrying out acts of terrorism.
Within the post-9/11 and “war on terrorism” context, we understand that, as Mapuche people, there is a need for us to co-ordinate and ally at an international level with groups that are being affected by similar threats. We understand that this type of attack on us is not only threatening the Mapuche people but all oppressed people around the world. What we want to do is bring down the stigmatization that the struggle and resistance to the imperialist aggressions is a terrorist struggle.
FTT: Within the struggle of the Mapuche people going on right now, could you tell us what the issues and demands are?
Wladimir Painemal: We differentiate between what we consider our demands and what we consider vindication. Vindications have to do with things we had and were lost. The vindications are centred on the recuperation of our traditional territories and of our self-determination. The recovery of our culture can also be included.
With regards to demands then, basically what we’re stating is that we’re demanding rights for the Mapuche people in Chilean society. Rights in regards to education, health, access to what the state should provide. We state that the Chilean state is not really doing us any favours by providing basic levels of education and health. We see those as our rights. Particularly, it is important that we understand that the level of poverty, in terms of child mortality and mortality in general, level of education, access to health, is worse for the Mapuche people. Within Chilean society the Mapuche have the highest levels of poverty. Another demand is the recognition of the Mapuche Nation as a Nation. We think that it is very important that the Chilean State recognize us in the constitution as a Nation.
FTT: What connections do you see between the Mapuche struggle for self-determination and the struggle for self-determination throughout the Americas, especially Canada?
Wladimir Painemal: I am going to speak in general terms because I don’t have in-depth knowledge about the struggles of First Nations here in Canada. I am just becoming acquainted with the processes here and in Latin America as well. But the similarity is that with regards to land and resources, the state has taken away something from all indigenous nations. By all means we respect the decisions of each indigenous nation. We respect their demands and the way they approach these demands and how they reach agreements with the states. We respect their right to decide how to struggle for self-determination. There are different ways to approach the issue of self-determination and we hope that all will contribute to bring about progress in regards to the problems of oppressed nations.
FTT: What can poor, working and oppressed people of Canada do to support and help the struggle of Mapuche people for their self-determination?
Wladimir Painemal: In the first place, what I have tried to do in coming here is exchange information. I believe that it is important to be informed about the struggles that are taking place within First Nations throughout America. This is with the understanding that there are going to be differences, differences in the way that we approach the question of self-determination and in the way that we approach the question of being Indigenous. In practical terms, I mean working towards the development of international networks of solidarity. When I talk about networks, I mean it is very important for us, Mapuche people, to learn and to know what is going on with the different struggles and to be able to respond in co-ordinated manner when there are issues that require an immediate response.
In more concrete terms, as a delegate to the second international Indigenous Youth Conference, we proposed to organize the third International Indigenous Youth conference in the Mapuche territories. We believe it is very important for us to be able to bring delegates form all corners of the world to our territories so that they can learn more about the Mapuche struggle. At the same time it is important for us to learn more about the different struggles are being waged around the world. Another aspect of how we can contribute here in Canada is through the work that my organization, Azkintwe, has embarked on. It is a project of communication. Hopefully in the future we will try to engage the international community in more political, concrete aspects of support and mutual support, but for now we are at the stage that we need to develop the means of communication, particularly within our communities. We have a website for our newspaper, Azkintwe. But what we are trying to do is get our paper in a printed version as often as possible, to be able to distribute around the Mapuche communities, as we know access to the Internet in rural communities is very minimal. Therefore we need to have written material in place so that we can do outreach in different communities. That is an aspect that I have been trying to gather support for from different organizations in Canada. I have been trying to develop some forums, for which we have collected some support and funds that I will take back to my organization. We hope, through this support, to be able to build a network of solidarity.
FTT: Thank you, Wladimir.
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