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World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Chile

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date May 2008
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Chile, May 2008, available at: [accessed 25 November 2015]
Comments In October 2015, MRG revised its World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples. For the most part, overview texts were not themselves updated, but the previous 'Current state of minorities and indigenous peoples' rubric was replaced throughout with links to the relevant minority-specific reports, and a 'Resources' section was added. Refworld entries have been updated accordingly.
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Last updated: May 2008


Chile is a long narrow country, situated in western South America, between the Andes and the Pacific Ocean. It borders Argentina to the east, Bolivia to the northeast and Peru to the north. The northern desert region, most of which was taken from Bolivia and Peru during the War of the Pacific (1879-1883) is one of the driest in the world. Approximately 20,000 Aymara live there. The most highly populated region of Chile is the Central Valley, which includes the capital city Santiago. Araucania in southern Chile, the wettest and most fertile region, together with parts of the neighbouring eighth and tenth regions (Bio-Bio and Los Lagos) is claimed as historic Mapuche territory. There is also a significant German community in this part of the country. The extreme south where the glaciers begin is home to the few surviving Yamana and Qawasquar. Chile also controls Rapa Nui (or Easter Island), which is located in the Pacific Ocean, over 3,000 kilometres from the mainland.


Like most of South America, Chile was a colony of Spain and gained independence in the nineteenth century. Liberal governments of the mid- to late-nineteenth century promoted European immigration, but Chile received a relatively low number of foreign nationals compared to neighbouring Argentina. Mass rural-urban migration, which has had an important impact on the integration of Chile's indigenous peoples, began in the 1930s and continues to this day. In 1973, following two decades of increasing political polarisation of Chilean society, the socialist government of Salvador Allende (1970-73) was brought to end by a brutal military coup. During the subsequent regime of Augusto Pinochet (1973-90) Chile's human rights record was one of the worst in South America. His government also made a concerted effort to break up indigenous community lands. Democratic rule was restored in 1990 and, since then, important changes have been made to indigenous and human rights legislation.


Main languages: Spanish, indigenous languages (mainly Aymara and Mapuzungun), Polynesian

Main religions: Christianity (majority Roman Catholic, but also Protestant), Judaism, indigenous religions

Indigenous peoples number some 692,000 and make up 4.6 per cent of Chile's total population (Source: Instituto Nacional de Estadística, Censo Nacional 2002). Other minorities include Jews (15,000, and small Asian, German, Arab and Afro-Chilean communities

Indigenous peoples in Chile include the Mapuche, Aymara, Polynesian Rapanui of Easter Island and the few remaining survivors of several Fuegian nations, such as the Yamana and Qawasqar. There is a significant Jewish population in Santiago.

Indigenous peoples

The Yamana who live at Ukika, just north of Cape Horn, and the Qawasqar, who live on Wellington Island, are in a critical condition. Without motorboats, their fishing is undercut by colonists, and medical assistance is virtually non-existent. In the north, Aymara communities have experienced many difficulties obtaining title to lands; they have also had problems with water rights. Traditionally, there has been little political mobilisation among these communities, due partly to the activities of Pentecostal sects and large-scale migration to the cities. However, this trend started to change in the mid-1990s, and today Aymara political organisations take an active role in bilingual education projects and debates over the ownership of natural resources.

Other minorities

The first Jewish immigrants to Chile came from Russia and Eastern Europe at the end of the nineteenth century. A second wave, in the 1920s, came from Greece and the Balkans, followed by thousands from Germany, Poland and Hungary. The Chilean Jewish community is primarily middle class and professional, and has achieved a high degree of assimilation. Latent anti-Semitism and stereotyping are still found in most sectors; some neo-Nazi groups are overtly anti-Semitic.

Japanese migration to Chile has not been significant; approximately 500 Japanese entered Chile during the period 1903-25. The major factor limiting Japanese settlement in Chile prior to 1925 was the lack of agricultural opportunities. At present, most Japanese have small shops in Santiago and its suburbs, although a few have market gardens. Marriage into the Chilean community is unusual.

Chile has a German minority as a result of pro-immigration policies in the nineteenth century; many live in the southern provinces of Valdivia and Osorno. German influence in this region is noticeable, particularly in commerce, education and architecture. Some Arab migration took place during the early part of the twentieth century. There is a degree of intolerance towards smaller ethnic minority groups such as the Koreans, who have been migrating to Chile in increasing numbers in recent years.

The Afro-Chilean population has received scant attention, partly because it is so small: Chile's poverty during the colonial period precluded the development of African slavery on any great scale. Recently, however, there has been a growing interest in Afro-Chilean communities in the country's northern-most region.


In 1993 the Chilean Congress passed a new Indigenous Law (19,253), acknowledging the existence of eight different 'ethnic groups and communities' in Chile. The law created the Corporación Nacional de Desarrollo Indígena (National Corporation of Indigenous Development, CONADI), which included several indigenous representatives. It also ended subdivision of indigenous communities. Since 1993 a significant amount of land has been returned to indigenous communities, particularly to the Mapuche in southern Chile. Indigenous political organisations were active participants in the drafting of the Indigenous Law, but it did not fulfil all their demands (because it was modified substantially during its passage through Congress). Organisations were, however, successful in claiming their rights to bilingual and intercultural education. Although this is not guaranteed by the constitution, it has been a major element of educational reform programmes (at both pre-school, primary and secondary levels) since 1996.

Land and resource disputes have long pitted indigenous Mapuche communities against private landowners and, more recently, forestry companies and hydroelectric projects in southern Chile. Since the late 1990s this conflict has become increasingly violent, prompting a 2003 visit by the UN Special Rapporteur for Indigenous Peoples, Mr Rodolfo Stavenhagen. Consequently, Chile came under sharp criticism from the UN for its treatment of the Mapuche.

A 2004 joint report by Human Rights Watch and the Chile's Indigenous Peoples' Rights Watch noted that some indigenous protest had shifted to the 'use of force, such as the blocking of roads, occupation of disputed land, felling of trees, setting fire to manor homes, woods and crops, and sabotage of machinery and equipment'. The Chilean government consequently charged over 200 members of the one group that advocated violence, the Coordinadora de Comunidades en Conflicto Arauco Malleco (the Arauco Malleco Coordinating Group of Communities in Conflict), with crimes of illicit terrorism ('conspiracy to commit acts of terrorism'). In November 2004 six of those charged were tried and acquitted.

Nearly a decade after the proposals made by ex-presidents Patricio Aylwin (1990-1995) and Ricardo Lagos (2000-2005), Chile - which is one of the few Latin American countries that has not provided constitutional recognition of indigenous people - finally took steps to ratify ILO Convention 169. In early March 2008 the Chilean Senate approved a special version of the instrument with a clause on article 35 allowing the government to "interpret" the declaration's main points.

The decision provoked criticism from the country's indigenous groups and human rights advocates who publicly called on President Bachelet to veto the altered document. Furthermore they urged the government to adopt the original version especially since it defines the standards concerning 'indigenous political participation and communities' land protection.

One important, if mainly symbolic, achievement was the Comisión de Verdad Histórica y Nuevo Trato de los Pueblos Indígenas (Comission for Historical Truth and New Treatment of Indigenous Peoples), set up in 2002. The final report was given to Ricardo Lagos in October 2003. It failed to secure the implementation of constitutional changes but it did represent an official willingness to debate the question of indigenous rights and to rewrite official versions of history, acknowledging the long-term suffering and repression of indigenous peoples in the country.



Minority based and advocacy organisations


Amnesty International
Tel: +56 2 235 5945

Coordinadora Nacional Indianista


Asociación Mapuche Nehuen Mapu

Centro de Estudios y Documentación Mapuche Liwen

Consejo Interregional Mapuche
Tel: +56 45 405661

Corporación Mapuche Newen
Tel: +56 45 238519

Instituto de Estudios Indígenas
Tel: +56 45 325151, 325153

Observatorio de Derechos de los Pueblos Indígenas
[Indigenous Rights]
Tel: +56 45 213 963, 218 353

Organización Mapuche Meli Wixan Mapu
Tel: +56 9 7969273

Rapa Nui

Pacific Islands Association of NGOs (PIANGO) Fiji
Tel: +679 330 2963, 331 7048
Email: (This group includes a Rapa Nui representative)

Sources and further reading


Albó, X., 'Andean People in the Twentieth Century' in F. Salomon and S. Schwarz (eds.) The Cambridge History of the Native Peoples of the Americas. Vol. III. Cambridge: CUP, 1999.

Alwyn, J., 'Nueva legislación indígena: avance hacia una nueva relación entre el Estado y los pueblos indígenas de Chile', Anuario Indigenista, vol. 32, 1993, pp. 9-22.

Bergland, S., The National Integration of Mapuche. Stockholm: Almquist & Wiksell, 1977.

Cantoni, W., Relaciones del mapuche con la sociedad chilena. Santiago: Publicaciones de la Escuela Latinoamericana, 1979.

Corporación Nacional de Desarrollo Indígena [useful for finding out about state institutions and legislation that deal with indigenous rights, retrieved 7 June 2007,

Devalpo, A., 'Chile's Mapuches are left out of the party', Le Monde Diplomatique, Feb. 2006, pp. 8-9.

Gray, A., Amerindians of South America. London: MRG report, 1987.

Human Rights Watch, 'Undue process: Terrorism trials, military courts and the Mapuche in southern Chile', Vol. 16, No. 5, October 2004.

Latin American Regional Reports, Brazil and the Southern Cone, 'UN raps Lagos govt for treatment of Mapuches', 12 August 2003, p. 15.

Latin American Regional Reports, Brazil and the Southern Cone, 'First step towards recognition of indigenous peoples in Chile', 25 November 2003, p. 14.

Reuque Paillalef, R. I., When a Flower is Reborn: Life and Times of a Mapuche Feminist, edited, translated and prologue by Florencia Mallon. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2002.

Richards, P., Pobladoras, indígenas and the state: Conflict over women's rights in Chile. London: Rutgers University Press, 2004.

Sznajder, M., 'Ethnodevelopment and Democratic Consolidation in Chile: The Mapuche Question' in Langer, E.D. and E. Muñoz (eds.), Contemporary Indigenous Movements in Latin America. Wilmington, Delaware: Jaguar Books on Latin America, No.25, 2003.

Mapuche International Link [provides information, in English and Spanish, about Mapuche history and culture, as well as the contemporary political struggle, retrieved 7 June 2007,

Mapuche Documentation Centre, Nuke Mapu [has much material about Mapuche culture, history, politics and intellectual production, retrieved 7 June 2007,

Rapa Nui

Assies, W., 'Rapa Nui: Indigenous Struggles for the Navel of the World' retrieved 7 June 2007,

McCall, G., Rapanui: Tradition and Survival on Easter Island. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1994.

Simonetti, M., 'Los descendientes de esclavos: Chile negro', El Mercurio, El Sábado suppl., 1 Nov. 2002, pp. 24-29.

Easter Island Foundation [has helpful information about the work being done to protect Rapa Nui's cultural heritage, retrieved 7 June 2007,

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