- South America -

The indigenous people of the Mapuche live in central and southern Chile and in neighboring Argentina. The name means “people of the earth”. Estimates regarding the number of Mapuche living in Chile vary between 800,000 and 1.4 million, making them the largest ethnic minority in the country.

The Mapuche are divided into several groups, which are located in different regions. The three main groups are the Picunche (“People of the North”), the Pehuenche (“People of the central-southern part of Chile”) and the Huilliche (“People of the South”). Their traditional language, Mapudungun, is only spoken by 10 to 15 percent of the Mapuche. Their communities are not hierarchically organized – and they live in harmony with nature. Social ties and kinship, however, are of great importance. The self-designation Mapuche also implies a close connection to the land, as part of the collective identity of the people. It is the basis of their livelihood, and it is valued and respected as the land of their ancestors.

The Mapuche were able to resist both the Inca as well as the Spaniards. In 1641, Spain recognized the territorial autonomy of the Mapuche in the Treaty of Killin. Between 1879 and 1884, Chile tried to subdue and assimilate the Mapuche in the scope of reclaiming the desert. Tens of thousands of Mapuche were expelled from their land or even killed. Under the Pinochet dictatorship (1973 to 1990), the land of the Mapuche was exploited and expropriated on a large scale – and the Mapuche were forced to live in so-called Comunidades (small reserves). 

Today, the relationship between the Chilean state and the Mapuche is dominated by the unsolved conflicts regarding land titles and resources. The Mapuche communities are protesting against deforestation, against dams and other construction projects that are a threat to the environment and, thus, to their livelihood. Despite the fact that Chile ratified Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization (ILO), which states that large-scale projects must not be carried out without the consent of the indigenous peoples, their situation has actually not improved much. The Chilean government has started treating forms of protests such as road blockades or land occupations as “terrorist threats”, thus making it possible to criminalize the protests.

Today, the highest poverty rates in Chile are to be found among the Mapuche, and they belong to the least educated groups. In everyday life, they are exposed to discrimination and prejudice, comparable to the Sinti and Roma in Europe – and there has been a significant increase in human rights violations against the Mapuche. In the capital of the Auracanía region, Temuco, for example, the daily life of the Mapuche is characterized by police brutality, ruthless searches, and death threats.

Further informationen about the Mapuche

Header photo: © David Suazo Quintana via Flickr