The Mapuche people of Chile survived genocide, colonization and dictator Augusto Pinochet, their struggle isn’t over – tear gas and rubber bullets are flying as our reporter touches down in the middle of their direct-action movement against the government and forestry companies.

“America awakens anew to the warrior song of its first peoples who sing at dawn. History returns to clothe us in flames, the world seeks our role. We shall fight. Never will these lands be left to oblivion.”

– From a letter to the Mapuche peoples in Chile from the Indigenous Revolutionary Clandestine Committee of the Zapatista National Liberation Army, April 23, 1994.

June 13, 2000 Temuco City, Chile

I slowly realized I wasn’t dreaming. It was 5:00 am and a bellowing cry cut through the loud banging and hurried slamming of objects. “The cops, the cops, get up, let’s go.”

I turned to see if the other students in the room had gotten up. My neighbour was still dead asleep. I quickly shook him to ask what was happening. He sluggishly muttered,

“Don’t worry – it’s only next door.”

Just then we started feeling the burning effects of tear gas filling our throats and eyes. We were out the door, running towards the open-air patio to which all corridors of the students’ residence lead.

About 30 indigenous Mapuche students were operating in fast-forward, gathering rocks, sticks and bottles to pass on to another handful of students on the rooftop. The air vibrated with a piercing war-cry erupting from the deep steady resonance of the traditional Mapuche blow horn – kulkul – used to warn nearby communities of imminent danger.

Someone passed around a bag of sodium bicarbonate to protect us from tear gas. I had already noticed white crystals shining in the southern winter moonlight on some faces that weren’t sporting makeshift masks.

A squadron of 40 to 50 riot police was attacking the Mapuche students’ residence. They had already captured three students from their beds. The alert had mobilized the students into action, and the spontaneous resistance had forced the squadron to retreat.

To regain the upper hand, police were bombarding the students with rubber bullets and tear-gas bombs. A slingshot rock whizzed by me and smashed the riot-shield of one cop 50 metres away who had tried to climb from the neighbouring rooftop onto ours. I marveled at their determination not to let the cops get the advantage.

Tactical movements and warnings were hollered back and forth, while many students searched for possible missile material. Everyone seemed to know exactly what to do and I sensed a familiar silent pact of conviction that I had witnessed many times in Mexico.

Little did I know that I had spent the night in a “take-over.” I had arrived in the southern city of Temuco the day after over 100 Mapuche university students had peacefully occupied the Chilean Ministry of Indian Affairs (known by the Spanish acronym CONADI), conveniently located next door to their university residence.

The students occupied the government building to demand a stop to government cutbacks on educational assistance and to denounce the growing counterinsurgency campaign directed at Mapuche youth.

In the capital city of Santiago, students were being surveyed 24 hours a day and their food supply was withheld from residencies. In Temuco, electricity and water had been cut.

The battle lasted a good three hours. Daybreak brought a swarm of local reporters vying for interviews and images. Three Mapuche students had been wounded by rubber bullets. One student was severely wounded in his back and hand, and was escorted to the hospital. By now, the police had completely retreated from the building complex but could be seen stationed down the road.

The high-voltage adrenaline surging throughout the battle was abating into a calculated excitement as students compared their versions of events. Fragments of information and sequences began interweaving a story of high-points and shortcomings. Slowly the students gathered in the middle of the recent battlefield to evaluate the political situation and hammer out details for a solid action plan to follow.

Working committees were quickly assembled to take on each designated task.

Some were to write the political declaration and statement of demands while others organized for the press conference. An afternoon rally was called to demand freedom for all Mapuche political prisoners who struggle for dignity and territory. I joined in on the banner painting.

Tension escalated in the afternoon as the police brought out the water canon tanks to meet the marching students; 15 students are arrested, two police injured, downtown street vendor-stands damaged, and the government finally calls for “dialogue.”

Twenty percent survived

I was staying in the Temuco residence where 100 live in a space that supports only 60 students. Five years earlier, students had occupied an unused public building to get the government to respond to lack of infrastructure for Mapuches coming into the cities to study. Subsequently, a new residence was established as a cultural-social centre run by and for Mapuche students. These partial victories inadequately provide for the growing number of Mapuche youth who seek higher education today. With generalized overcrowding, unhealthy living environments, and insufficient food supplies, many adolescents end up working instead of studying.

Now, the Chilean government planned to shut down Mapuche residencies all together. Individual grants would be offered for students to find their own housing with Chilean families.

Because many students come from communities that are repossessing their ancestral lands, the residences are targeted as a breeding ground for subversives. It wasn’t too difficult to see the obvious relation to past “assimilation” policies favoured by Pinochet’s brutal military dictatorship (1973-1990), and the legacy of colonialism.

In 1879, Chile’s government launched a military operation that eliminated 80 percent of the Mapuche population and relocated the survivors onto small plots known as “reductions” (copied from the reservation system implemented in North America). The government reduced the Mapuches’ ancestral region – known as Araucania – from 31 million hectares to a mere 500,000 hectares.

Today, three-quarters of Chile’s 1.8 million Mapuches live in urban areas.

Mapuches are the country’s largest indigenous people.

Later, the military regime passed laws letting outside corporations take over Mapuche lands. Collective property and communal protection were dissolved; timber, mining and agricultural industry were subsidized and a national employment plan was implemented to offer free labour for the industrialization of thousands of hectares of Mapuche territory. Never ceding land rights, Mapuche were forced to search for wage labour.

Repression hit hard again after the CIA-backed military coup against Salvador Allende’s popular government in 1973. Killings and disappearances continued as a Mapuche faction of the communist party, Ad Mapu, was one of the main opponents of the regime. Many were forced into exile.

In Chile, survival depended on erasing your identity and silently fitting into an extremely racist society. The cities’ poor neighbourhoods swelled with cheap labour and hungry bellies.

The students demands and what they are prepared to do to achieve them stand as testimony to an emerging consciousness among Mapuche youth who are striving to repossess their lost language, land, spirituality and ways of life. The everyday battle for survival — steady economic and political discrimination and grief for the loss of culture -expose the deceit of “easy integration.”

Many are discovering their sources of collective power tied to the communities and the land.

“When we speak of taking back the land we mean our culture too,” explains Chayo, a 21-year-old student from the Temuco residence. “If you don’t have your land you have nothing. We aren’t asking for projects. Autonomy is not negotiable. You fight for it, and that’s what we are doing. There are many young people who are involved in this movement. Many young people are fighting for survival, but still think of themselves as Chilean, or as we say “huinca” (translated equally as thief or white man).

“People see that the movement creates conditions that eliminate injustice and prevent repression. For example, the police don’t enter our community any more because we control it. They have to ask us permission. We want to live as a people. Many youth are fighting this economic model that is so powerful and see this movement as a way to confront it,” Chayo says.

Chayo is the first of 10 children to come to study in Temuco. This was one of the immediate benefits of the direct-action campaign against the Mininco forestry company that operates on their land. The community “appropriated” wood from the company; some was used to build homes, and the rest was sold and the proceeds were divided up based on each family’s needs. Chayo’s family got money to send him to school.

He is adamant about studying Chilean law and gaining knowledge of the modem world to help his people who have been imprisoned or face charges for the recent confrontations with the forestry industry.

A spokesperson – werken — for his community Juana Millahual Rucañanco, Chayo explains that in 1996 community members blocked access to the timber plantations, fought the company’s patrols and state police with sticks and stones, and successfully repossessed 300 hectares of their land. The large extensions of pine and eucalypti plantations surrounding the community were cut in order to prepare for traditional agriculture production. The cut timber was used to build new homes for community members and sold off.

Trunks, branches, and patrol guards

The Mininco forestry company, owned by a Chilean investment group linked to North American investors, plants artificial forests for a profitable timber and pulp-and-paper industry regardless of Aboriginal communities that maintain land tides. Under the banner of “progress and development,” corporations continue to invade Mapuche lands.

Company officials bribe community members to relocate, and even bring in psychologists to harass them. Communities are fenced in, completely surrounded by plantations and armed patrol guards hired to control the area.

The company guards, ex-agents of the military regime and well-trained mercenaries, freely kill farm animals that manage to find their way onto plantation grounds as a warning to community members. The environmental damage caused by the plantations adds insult to injury: the pesticide fumigation not only contaminates the earth and water but also kills the native animals; the trees, which aren’t native to the area, erode the soil and dry up the water tables.

Chayo says, “There used to be ancient trees around, plants for medical use and animals everywhere. Now there are trunks, branches and patrol guards.”

After years of futile proceedings to resolve the illegal occupation of their lands through institutional avenues, Juana Millahual Rucañanco and 100 other Mapuche communities formed the Coalition of Communities in Conflict Arauco-Malleco (CAM) to take matters into their own hands. These communities are defining a new direction for Mapuche autonomy and how to achieve it.

We believe in ourselves

We were approaching the community of Juana Millahual Rucañanco, as the sun cast its last rays over the immensity of Lake Lieu Lieu. The tall pine trees cloaked the tiny gravel road with dusk’s first shadows.

Ivan and his wife Marcelina immediately greeted Chayo and me at the door of a small log home. I had come to visit Ivan, the community leader (or “Lonko”), who agreed to speak to me about the struggle to reclaim their lands. I was anxious to hear what he would say as we settled down close to the stove fire.

Suddenly he bolted outside, propelled by the sound of a passing jeep. The surface serenity was shattered as I caught a glimpse of the stakes involved in the daily defense of their rights and dignity. Because the multinational corporations and state security forces have launched a coordinated campaign to criminalize the Mapuche struggle – with counterinsurgency tactics ranging from harassment and frame-ups, to torture and imprisonment for crimes of “terrorism” or “illicit association” – communities have had to perfect self-defense methods to protect themselves.

The power of historical memory as well as the familiarity they have with the land sustains the Mapuche battle for dignity and freedom.

After a tense silence Lonko Ivan calmly returned. “We have improved our economic situation through the struggle,” he said. “It has been achieved through the sheer strength of our fighting, and not by judicial or political procedures. We don’t believe in the government, we believe in ourselves. Private enterprise has massively invaded us. At one point, we began to understand that the government creates laws to protect the timber industry. We fought against the forestry company with all our might — to live or die.

“In Latin America and around the world, capitalism is crushing indigenous peoples and entire societies. Like us, our brothers and sisters from other countries are confronted with a huge enemy – the business world. ”

State-endorsed destruction of Mapuche ways of life is accelerating with the development of hydroelectric dams, super highways and huge tourism complexes. To counter this, diverse groups are lobbying for the constitutional recognition of the International Labour Organization s Convention 169 on Indigenous Rights – to protect the land and their future existence.

In the last decade, the Mapuche movement has overtaken the national political agenda, second only to the campaign to indict the former dictator Pinochet for his human-rights violations.

After Pinochet relinquished power to a civilian coalition government in 1989, key Mapuche organizations and leading activists accepted a role in the government. Many secured positions in the new Ministry of Indian Affairs and administrated the cultural and economic programs under the New Indigenous Law aimed to promote Mapuche development. But the new law also promoted state paternalism.

Some lands were returned, and Mapuches were helped with technical assistance to boost agricultural production. Primary schools were built, cultural projects were implemented and employment in public works surrounding potential conflict zones was also generated.

But many groups challenged the institutionalization of the Mapuche struggle. The response to Pinochet’s legacy and the after-math is diverse. A growing number of Mapuche social organizations are demanding autonomy and self-determination.

This has spurred Chilean President Ricardo Lagos to call for public consultations with a cross-section of Mapuche organizations. The consultations are modeled on the negotiation process between the Mexican government and the Zapatistas following the 1994 indigenous armed uprising in Chiapas. The aim is to negotiate a new relationship between the state and first peoples.

(The Mexican government signed the first of the so-called San Andres accords with the Zapatistas in 1996, but at the same time it sent in the army to wage low-intensity warfare against the Zapatista civilian support base and snuff out rebel military heads.)

In 1997, the coalition of Mapuche communities CAM dramatically changed the path towards autonomy. In that year, two timber trucks were set on fire during a blockade to paralyze company operations.

“We’ve opted for the path of hard work and rebellion,” Chayo said. “Communities like Temulemu, Pantano and Didaico continue to rise up against the arrogance of the forestry company to defend our territory from disastrous capitalist expansion. We believe in constructing alternative powers to replace the oppressive institutions and we must directly oppose the system of domination imposed by the Chilean state.”

Strategy Is vital. Communities obstruct company operations and hit them were it hurts – pocketbooks and profits. Actions always begin with a spiritual gathering -nguillatun – led by the Machi, the village shamaness. The community offers prayers in song and dance before moving to bum company trucks and machinery, plantations and timber camps as well as appropriating timber.

Some communities directly confront security forces with only sticks and stones, and members set up blockades with spiked planks to deter entry. Protests in urban areas are also used, such as occupations in government buildings, cathedrals and courthouses. These protests publicize their struggle and have gained them popular support among Chileans.

Lonko Ivan asserts that many Mapuche groups still believe in reform as the only means to change and are dependent on state subsidies. This makes CAM’s outlook seem unrealistic to some. But he is confident in the forces of change, despite the system’s grip on people.

“Our Machi prophesizes that our ancient knowledge will return. Today the new generation is taking back our ancestry,” he said.

“This war is more than 500 years old, but it is no longer being fought with arms. They invade us with big money. We are bringing this message to other Mapuche communities so they can change their mentality to think and feel Mapuche. If we repossess the land, we repossess our knowledge. This is our self-defense.”

Free trade accelerates land encroachment

While Mapuche communities are becoming more and more militant in their opposition to the state, the rest of Chile talks of the “restoration of democracy.” “Restoration” has indeed provided space for Mapuche organizing, but fundamentally it means the entrenchment of corporate rule under the pretences of “democracy.”

Long considered a model of economic development because of the “forced” changes brought on by Pinochet, Chile is now seen by Western politicians, businessmen and investors as a country ideally situated to compete in the global economy. In 1997, Canada and Chile signed the final draft of a bilateral free trade agreement, and Canada has now become the second-largest investor in this South American country.

At this year’s address to the Canada-Chile Chamber of Commerce in Santiago, Canada’s Minister for International Trade Pierre Pettigrew said, “Chile represents a perfect entre to the rest of the region in terms of both trade and investment. Our free trade agreement with Chile is an important contribution to the cause of freer trade around the globe and an example for others to follow.”

Pettigrew has promised more bilateral collaboration in the future: “Chile and Canada epitomize partnership, whether as partners at the World Trade Organisation, where we work together in pursuit of enhanced trade liberalization, or as allies in the pursuit of a Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA).”

The FTAA aims to expand the North American Free Trade Agreement – signed by Canada, the U.S. and Mexico in 1994 — to the entire hemisphere, from Alaska to Chile. The FTAA is expected to be signed by 2005.

Like the North American Free Trade Agreement, where national governments can be sued for restricting corporate profits for the sake of environmental protection and social welfare, this continental economic agreement would override national and international laws that protect human rights and indigenous sovereignty.

The deadly alliance of multinational corporations and state security forces is targeting Native lands everywhere throughout the Americas, as the stakes of free-market competition increase and first peoples dare to obstruct these plans.

I recently heard an Ojibway woman speak at an activists’ gathering about how miners used to send a canary into the mines to see if they were fit for human labour. “If the bird dropped dead, they knew they couldn’t go in,” she said. “We are the canaries in this system, the First Nations.”

So, the question remains – how to strengthen resistance and solidarity that nurtures consistent and solid opposition?

Lonko Ivan kept nodding his head, as I explained the struggle of Cree communities against the James Bay project and the devastation caused by the forestry industry in Canada. His gaze was fixed on the vast lake as if striving to see the future, and he said, “For our brothers and sisters who are oppressed like we are, there is only one thing to do and that is to fight without fear. One day we have to die, and we should die for a just cause. Struggle and be honest.

“I don’t know how many people will die in my generation, but one day we’ll see the fruit of our labour. That is my message to the Cree peoples.”

Produced with the support of the Government of Canada through the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA).

This is the fourth of our seven-part series on First Nations peoples in Latin America. Thanks to Montreal filmmaker Mary Ellen Davis, who is the project coordinator of the series. Mary Ellen also traveled to Colombia and Ecuador to research two of the stories, which will appear in future issues of The Nation.