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World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Chile : Overview

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date May 2008
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Chile : Overview, May 2008, available at: [accessed 30 August 2015]
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.

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.


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.


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.


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.

Current state of minorities and indigenous peoples

Debates about the government's counter-terrorism legislation received a great deal of media attention throughout 2005. In May 2006 a large number of Mapuche activists were jailed on charges of terrorism. Some key figures went on hunger strikes denouncing what they see as political persecution and demanding the drastic revision of their sentences (10 years imprisonment in same cases).

Shortly after winning the presidential election in December 2005, Michele Bachelet avowed that she would make every effort to resolve the 'Mapuche conflict'. She proposed important changes to CONADI, giving it more say in policy decisions affecting Mapuche and other indigenous communities.

In early 2006 her government agreed that the anti-terrorist law would not be applied to persons involved in communal actions related to demands for the recuperation of lands and in July 2006 she opened a new 'Intercultural Hospital' in Nueva Imperial (ninth region).

In early 2008 the government unveiled several new measures designed to redefine the country's indigenous policies. As part of the reforms the government will create a new under-secretariat for indigenous affairs, which will be controlled by the nation's planning ministry.

The government-run CONADI will also distribute plots of land to 115 different native groups by 2010 and respond to land requests from 308 other communities. There were also promises to introduce a proposal to guarantee seats in Chilean political organizations for indigenous community members, as well as to recognize indigenous control over natural resources that lie within their territories.

Indigenous rights advocates criticized the initiative for not doing enough to return ancestral territory to indigenous communities since most of the land to be transferred are so called government lands and do not represent any additional efforts to turn over property to their legitimate owners.

Land issues continue to be at the heart of the problems being faced by Chile's indigenous communities. According to a report filed in early April 2008 by Chile's Observatory for Indigenous Rights (ODPI) the government's approval of large-scale business projects including a forestry company waste duct to the Pacific Ocean, gold mining in the Andes mountains and lack of territorial rights, now represent the most severe threat to the country's indigenous communities.

ODPI, a very vocal local indigenous rights advocacy organization co-directed by the son of ex-president Patricio Aylwin complained that Chilean laws do not sufficiently incorporate the opinions of indigenous communities' in government programs which directly involve them. Moreover when native communities organize to defend their lands business-friendly regulations ensure that "the leaders of the affected indigenous communities end up being persecuted for making legitimate demands." Despite the government's professed openness to resolving the Mapuche conflict, violent confrontations over collective land and water rights and human rights abuses against indigenous people continue unabated in southern Chile, according to various Chilean media reports and outlined in a letter by Jose Aylwin, co-director of Chile's indigenous advocacy organization Observatory for Indigenous Rights (ODPI).

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