The Battle for Land Rights of the Mapuche People

Invisible in the minds of many Europeans, colonialism in the 21st century continues. On the basis of atrocities committed against a sovriegn people over the past five hundred years, billionaires, their unaccountable international corporations and the governments who legitimize them, deny the indigenous Mapuche communities the right to access their traditional lands. This article gives an overview of ongoing colonisation of the Mapuche Wallmapu nation in the states of Argentina and Chile.

The latest battle of a bloody war of conquest:

police gatherOn the 27th of May, police and infantry from Argentina and Chile, both federal, local and special Intelligence police, amassed to evict Mapuche from their attempts to reclaim some of their ancestral lands from Luciano Benetton’s 970,000 hectare estate near Esquel in Chubut, Patagonia.

The police are reported to have: separated babies as young as one month old from mothers, beat women they held by the hair, punched a 13 year old girl and used threats of “disappearing” people. police surrounding women

The brutality of the government officials continued for nine hours and several arrests were made.

These attempts to subdue resistance to colonisation are founded legally on a brutal period of ethnic cleansing and conquest in the 1870s.

I had the chance to speak to a Mapuche Lamuen (Warrior) who was arrested on the 27th of May. I won’t give a name for fear of reprisals. I asked:

Could you explain what lead to the events of the 27th of May 2016?

“Since the 13th of March 2015 our community has been undergoing the process of reclaiming a productive, spiritually important piece of land from the hands of multi-billionaire Luciano Benetton. Benetton’s estate encroaches on 970,000 hectares of Puelmapu (the part of Wallmapu, the Mapuche nation, in Argentina) near the city of Esquel, in so called Chubut. We form part of the M.A.P. (Movement for Mapuche Autonomy in Puelmapu) which struggles towards national liberation for our marginalized, oppressed population. We assert our legitimate right to self-determination for our communities and our right to rebel against occupation by the state of Argentina and the capitalist objective of extracting wealth from the destruction of ecosystems that support life.”

Why did the police forces assemble on the 27th?

“They came with the objective of achieving an eviction of our camp. The eviction resulted in the arrest and subsequent release of seven peñi and lamuen. However, they continue to detain our Lonco Weichafe (leader), Facundo Jones Huala. Two mothers with their children (one of them a newborn baby just a month) bravely spent the night in the open with temperatures 8 degrees below zero to maintain our presence and resist eviction.

“This arrest follows a systematic political persecution in which both the Argentine State and the Chilean State seek the criminalization of the Mapuche struggle to reclaim sovrienty over our land.”

Why did the police forces want to detain your Lonco and why is he important to your community?

“Our Lonco is accused of poaching the businessmens animals, for food, and carrying arms in Chile. They are using Chilean anti-terrorism laws, which don’t exist in Argentina, and extradition treaties to take him away from our community. It’s difficult to explain his importance to us. To us, he is the embodyment of the eternal spirit of resistance of the Mapuche. In times of struggle, this spirit guides our community through rituals and wisdom. Only he is able to lead certain rituals where we seek insight from the spirit realm. He is a herbalist and has knowledge of many medicines only the Lonco can use. He is our leader in war when we are under attack. His loss is very distressing to our community in many ways.”

What is happening to him now?

“They are using Chilean laws in Argentina to hold him without charge. They are saying he will be sent to a prison far away from us, on the Atlantic coast in the south, to wait for extradition. This is a terrible situation for our Lonco. This man has never lived in city. You know, our people don’t know anything of the colonising civilisation, they live outside of it as something altogether different. I think it’s very distressing for him to be trapped indoors in a place he doesn’t understand based on ideas he doesn’t understand. What’s more, if they take him to the other prison, it’s 600 miles from us. How can we get there to bring him supplies and speak to him?”

This battle in the context of a historical war of colonisation and genocide:

Benetton’s legal claim to the land is based on the original and bloody colonial theft of the Wallmapu nation by the Spanish and later, the continuation of this theft by independent Chile and Argentina.

The Mapuche first encountered Europeans in 1536 as an offshoot of the conquest of Peru. Diego de Almagro and an expedition of around 500 Spaniards and a thousand African slaves, made first contact and a battle ensued. 24,000 Mapuche warriors attacked a 200 strong scouting party yet many Mapuche died and were taken captive, not being used to steel weapons, armour and horses. The expedition retreated in the face of Mapuche ferocity.

The Arauco war ensued, from this first contact until the 1880’s, the Mapuche managed to maintain national sovrienty amidst an ongoing Spanish colonisation, city and fort building, pillaging, raids and slave taking. Over three centuries, the Spanish colonised, were defeated and recolonised. Each cycle was more brutal than the last, with larger and larger armies each time. Slowly the Mapuche lost ground, not least because of small pox epidemics which first struck the Mapuche nation in the 1560’s.

In the 1860s, 70s and 80s, the Mapuche territory was brutally attacked with renewed vigour by the colonial forces of Spain, Britain, Chile and Argentina. They sought territorial continuity and an expansion of agriculture which would be met through a campaign of ethnic cleansing:

Between 1861 and 1883 the Republic of Chile conducted a series of campaigns that ended Mapuche independence causing the death of thousands of Mapuche through combat, pillaging, starvation and smallpox epidemics. Argentina conducted similar campaigns on the eastern side of the Andes in the 1870s. In large parts of the Mapuche lands the traditional economy collapsed forcing thousands to seek themselves to the large cities and live in impoverished conditions as housemaids, hawkers or labourers.

As a result of the final fall of Arunco 1881, the Mapuche population of Chile was reduced from 500,000 to 25,00 within one generation according to Ward Churchill’s A Little Matter of Genocide, p109.

The Argentine ethnic cleansing campaign of 1878, ‘The Conquest of the Desert’, also saw thousands of people killed and 15,000 captives who “became servants or prisoners and were prevented from having children” according to George V. Rauch. The massacre is still disturbingly commemorated on the 100 peso bank note. See this article from where the following is quoted:

Under [General Julio Argentino Roca’s] orders thousands of indigenous inhabitants were assassinated and their land taken away. Soldiers were rewarded for each pair of testicles they brought back from the ‘Indian hunts’. The British offered 1 pound sterling for every Indian’s head given in. Children were taken away from their parents and forced to be adopted in Buenos Aires. The interbreeding has a striking resemblance to Australia’s stolen generation. General Roca personally seized 30 000 hectares of indigenous land.

In 1891, as part of the division of the spoils of the conquest, 900,000 hectares of this traditional Mapuche territory was conceded to the British held Argentine Southern Land Company. This concession was reached through the Avellaneda Law (The Immigration and Settlement Act of 1876), where European settlers were offered the conquered land at 2 pesos per hectare, the first 100ha given for free. This law was changed in 1891 to no longer require settlement of the land which allowed the ASL Co. to obtain the plot for agricultural exploitation. They were also helped to obtain the concession from the Argentine government thanks in part to the fact that ASL Co. had employees who also held office in the government at the time.

In 1991 the ASL Co. sold a 970,000ha plot to Luciano Benetton for $50 million. Benetton, who continues the history of agricultural exploitation, uses the land to rear sheep for his woolen clothes firm United Colours of Benetton, outlets and the products of which can be found in a highstreet near you. Benetton and other modern terratientes including Joe Lewis of Hard Rock Cafe also use this conquered land to keep cattle for the international beef market or grow GM soya which use an average of 2kg of toxic herbicide per hectare per harvest. Incidentally, Benetton, as well as Primark, Matalon and Mango, was implicated in the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh which killed 382 workers who were forced to work in the illegal building in 2013.

Impoverishment, Dislocation and Colonization of the Minds of Mapuche People

RauchmuerteIt is incredible that the Mapuches managed to resist colonisation from 1536 to the 1880s. However, the years following the final conquest have seen widespread impoverishment of the Mapuche people. In 1903 Mapuche lands of Puelmapu (Argentina) had been reduce 100,000 hectares. Today they have access to about 12,500 hectares with roughly 26,000 people still living by traditional means.

Over the last century, 15.88 million hectares in Argentina have accumulated into foreign wall-mapuhands, almost 6% of all agricultural land, an area the size of Tunisia. In Chubut, over 30% of the land is owner by foreigners.

I asked my friend the Mapuche Lamuen about what this has meant for Mapuche people. I was told:

“There are not many Mapuche still living in the traditional ways. They have been dislocated from their lands and live now in cities. They don’t speak our language as they have been schooled by the colonizers. They believe in the importance of things like jobs and money and have no idea how we live. It was a real crime when our children were first forced into Argentine schools. We are still not allowed to teach our own children. We are told that all children in Argentina have the right to an Argentine education.”

I asked how people respond to the struggle to re-occupy conquered lands.

“In the south of Argentina there are lots of Mapuche people. They support us largely, like when we protest outside factories processing mined minerals. The people who work there are all Mapuche. The people who work in the plantations, they are all Mapuche too. Its like they are exploited twice. First taken from their land, then paid terribly to work their land for the profit of someone else. They don’t even know that the land they stand on is theirs. This is very very sad. When the police come to evict us they are Mapuche people as well. We tell them ‘don’t you know this is your land as well?'”

“The problem is that for the last century, people have been forced to go to the cities and a lot of them live in shanty towns and get poorly paid jobs. They are second class citizens. The ones who do get jobs think they are lucky. For 100 years they have been taught to behave like capitalists. That’s all they know. It is the saddest part of it. Their minds have also been colonised.”

I asked if there was any initiative to teach people their origins and history.

“We do. We encourage people to look at their surnames and to be interested in their ancestors. We ask them to question who they are and where they came from. It is an enormous task and we are just at the beginning. We want to teach people that they come from a culture with many thousands of years of history. A history which contains thousands of years worth of knowledge and wisdom on how to treat the land. Did you know, in the past, the Wallmapu was a source of inspiration for the development of a certain type of humanity. One that was part of Earth without being her owner. However, in a context of absolute violence, [the colonisers] have supressed our ability to transmit our ancestral knowledge. We need people to understand this.”

The importance of this discussion at this point in history

I wanted to find out if there was something I could do, or some aid I could try to campaign for in the English speaking world. I had imagined assembling a crack team of lawers to work on the release of the political prisoner, Lonco Weichefe Facundo Jones Huala; or work to undermine the violent genocidal foundations of Benetton’s legal claim on the land. However, the response was not what I expected. I ask directly, what can we do to support your struggle:

“We would like to see boycotts, we also want people to know what is happening and to find out more. We don’t want people to interfere, not NGOs or lawyers. This is something our nation has the capacity to deal with by itself. We want people to identify and work in solidarity with our cause. We don’t want money. Money is not part of our culture, it comes from our enemy. We identify our ememy as specific cultural ideas from the colonisers, namely capitalism, and money is part of our enemy. Also, ‘help’ usually comes with a catch. Money gets spent by people who desire a certain outcome from their purchase. We don’t want to be beholden to anything like that. Any decisions we make will not be influenced from the outside. That’s just the way it’s going to be.

“Our land is being consumed by capitalism. Wild forests are being destroyed and replaced with foreign species of trees, particularly pine. We are losing the diversity of species upon which everyone on earth benefits from. Together, these species give our community the food and resources we rely on, but they provide medicines, clean air and naturally limit pests and disease. These are things which we all need in polluted and toxified world. Mining here is polluting rivers and the air. The toxins kill and sicke us locally. But these same toxins go into the wider environment, effecting everyone.

“This insane destruction of our home the Earth and the disreguard for the suffering and impoverishment of peoples and nature that this causes everywhere has got to stop. The basis for an ever expanding economy is genocide, metal colonisation and destruction of the natural systems which support life. People don’t know this.

“What I really want to ask from people in other parts of the world is that they wake up from their own mental colonisation. Work against the system which destroys life, not for it.”

For me this message comes as an important reminder in a year of horrendous realities across the globe. More than 60 million refugees fleeing war and climate degraded land. The Arctic could be completely free of ice as early as this year, according to Professor Peter Wadhams, head of the Polar Ocean Physics Group at Cambridge University. One third of the Great Barrier Reef irriversibly bleached, set to get worse, was a source of oxygen equivalent to the Amazon rainforest and a very large sink for industrially produced CO2.

Now is the time to stop this. We must drop everything to stop the machine and build another way of life. If our blind consumption allows indigenous cultures, like the Mapuche, disappear at the hands of monstrous international institutions, institutions based in our countries, then we lose our most valuable, knowlegeble allies in the fight to build a better world for the future.


You can see some brilliant texts on Mapuche thinking and resistance, here. Please use translate functions in browsers, it’s worth it.

Many thanks to the Lamuen who spoke to me in early June for the patience and help I recieved.





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