Last Updated: Friday, 20 October 2017, 11:43 GMT

World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Chile : Mapuche

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 2008
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Chile : Mapuche, 2008, available at: [accessed 22 October 2017]
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.


The Mapuche nation comprises some 604,000 people (Instituto Nacional de Estadística, Censo Nacional 2002), and is made up of several sub-groups: the Mapuche-Picunche (from the north), the Mapuche-Huilliche (from the south), the Mapuche- Lafkenche (from the coast) and the Mapuche-Pehuenche (from the mountains).

According to official population statistics, there are just over 600,000 Mapuche in Chile. Mapuche political organisations claim the figure is far higher, and often quote from the 1992 census which put the total at 928,000. (The question asked in 2002 was slightly different to that of 1992). In some provinces in the eighth and ninth regions, a high proportion of the rural population is Mapuche. However, the majority of Mapuche people live in Chile's cities, mainly Concepción, Temuco and Santiago. Less than twenty per cent of Mapuche are fluent in their native language (Mapuzungun) today.

Community leaders (llongkos) still have an important role to play in Mapuche social structure, as does the machi (a respected authority invested with special healing powers). The celebration of nguillatún (a ceremony in which the community gives thanks to and makes requests of the spirits) is still common among Mapuche; it was traditionally limited to rural areas, but is now celebrated by many urban communities too. Today Mapuche organisations are very visible on the national political scene. Most reject the separatist agenda and are prepared to negotiate with state institutions.

Historically, Mapuche people have dedicated themselves to agriculture. Today it is difficult to generalise. Many urban Mapuche have entered the teaching profession. In Santiago, many Mapuche women are employed as domestic servants.

Historical context

The Mapuche remained independent throughout the colonial period and did not become part of the Chilean state until the 1880s, when the Chilean army invaded and occupied Mapuche territory. From this point, the frontier with Argentina formed an artificial boundary between the two halves of the Mapuche nation. Following the military campaigns, Mapuche people were removed to reservations, losing the majority of their ancestral lands. During the first half of the twentieth century these reservations were continually subject to division and expropriation by powerful landowners in the region. The scarcity of land was one of the reasons for the mass rural-urban migration that started in the 1930s.

A political movement in defence of an ethnic identity emerged relatively early in Chile. The first non-traditional (i.e. non-community-based) Mapuche political organisations - the Sociedad Caupolicán, the Federación Araucana and the Unión Araucana - were founded in the 1910s and 1920s. They had different goals and objectives, although these mainly revolved around communal lands (to protect them or divide them) and demands for increased access to education. By the 1950s several Mapuche had won municipal council seats in the southern regions; they were also Mapuche representatives in Congress.

The government of Salvador Allende (1970-73) passed an Indigenous Law (17.729) recognising the distinctive culture and history of Mapuche people in Chile. It also began to restore Mapuche communal lands, but this process was reversed under Pinochet's dictatorship, which called for the 'division of the reserves and the liquidation of the Indian communities'. After the passing of decree 2568 in 1979 the number of communities was reduced by 25 per cent. During the Pinochet regime many Mapuche leaders were murdered; others were threatened with imprisonment or exiled.

In a declaration made at the unofficial gathering in Santiago which marked the commemoration of the 500th anniversary of Columbus's so-called 'discovery' of the Americas, Mapuche political leaders denied wanting to establish an independent state and reaffirmed their aims of cultural autonomy and territorial rights while remaining 'obligatory' Chilean citizens. The year 1993 saw the passing of a new Indigenous Law (19.253), which recognised Mapuche collective land rights and the need for bilingual education. In July 1994 delegates at the UN Working Group on Indigenous Peoples, while admitting the benefits of law 19.253, urged that Chile ratify ILO Convention 169. To date, however, this has yet to happen.

The creation of CONADI (the National Corporation of Indigenous Development) in 1993 meant that more Mapuche people became involved in the policy decisions affecting their communities. However, their presence in state entities has not always assured them of a voice; directors of CONADI, for instance, could be and were removed if they opposed the government's agenda. The frustration caused by this situation and the escalating conflict over communal lands in the south led to the emergence of more radical and separatist Mapuche organisations in the late 1990s such as the Co-ordinadora Arauco-Malleco.

Current issues

Mapuche organisations in Chile, with the support of international human rights groups, continue to demand constitutional recognition for indigenous peoples and the full ratification of the ILO Convention 169. Protests against the government's counter-terrorism legislation, which led to the arrest and imprisonment of many Mapuche leaders in the southern provinces, received a significant amount of media attention in the country and abroad. Hunger strikes by prisoners put pressure on the government, which ultimately agreed that the anti-terrorist law would not be applied to people involved in communal actions related to demands for the recuperation of lands.

Mapuche organisations have been relatively successful in their claims for bilingual and intercultural education, for it remains a key aspect of the state policy today. However, many Mapuche people have complained that improvements have been more theoretical than practical: a lack of resources means that many schemes are not fully implemented and bilingual education has often been reduced to the learning of a few words in the indigenous language Mapuzungun. Mapuche organisations in rural and urban areas are involved in many schemes to try to reform the teaching methodology as well as content.

Under Lagos (2000-2005) there was a Mapuche secretary of state, Francisco Huenchumilla. Such appointments are rare, however. Overall, the Mapuche have barely any representation in the Chilean Congress and Senate. Araucania remains the poorest region in Chile; Mapuche people remain among the poorest, least educated and most malnourished sector of Chilean society.

Despite the government's promises to resolve the Mapuche conflict, violent confrontations over collective land and water rights and human rights abuses against indigenous people have continued.

In March 2008 Chile's indigenous leaders called on the government to stop house searches, raids and other violent actions against their communities and withdraw the permanent and often massive police presence from communities in zones where lands are under dispute. This sometimes involves helicopters, air planes, tanks and riot gear clad police officers in communities of no more than 120 families.

In July 2006, Carabineros raided a Mapuche community in Malleco Province (Region IX) and fired tear gas, rubber bullets and live ammunition on unarmed community members while supposedly on a search for stolen animals. In December 2006 police fired on Mapuche workers collecting their salaries in the city of Ercilla, also in Region IX injuring six people.

Again in January 2008 armed police officers shot and killed a 22-year-old Mapuche university student, Matías Catrileo, in Region IX during an occupation of farm land claimed by his Yupeco-Vilcun community in the Region XIV town of Mehuin.

In February 2008 in what appeared to be an arbitrary arrest nine Mapuche were detained at a peaceful festival under charges of public disorder. Once in custody, four of the detainees allegedly were tied to posts for more than 13 hours while being interrogated and beaten by Carabineros.

In Region III near Argentina, company employees of the still to be developed Pascua Lama gold mine have erected barriers, and continue to threaten and drive off Mapuche and their grazing animals from lands for which they have held title since 1903. Violent incidents also erupted in April 2008 between Mapuche fishermen and others who oppose the Pacific Ocean waste duct line. Human rights organisations including ODPI and Amnesty International detailed these abuses.

In March 2008 as a result of negotiations brokered by the Catholic Church the imprisoned Mapuche hunger striker Patricia Troncoso called off her 111-day fast when she and several Mapuche prisoners were granted concessions, including weekend passes from prison, However the fast was briefly renewed to protest the failure to implement the agreement.

Rights organizations spearheaded by Amnesty International (AI) have demanded a full investigation into the various incidents and advocacy groups continue to call for recognition of indigenous communities in the country's constitution.

Feeling the need for a political instrument of their own, Mapuche in the southern regions of Araucanía, Los Ríos and Los Lagos took steps in July 2008 to formally register a new political party. One of the main goals is to achieve Mapuche self-government.

The party called Wallmapuwen which means "people of the Mapuche land" in Mapuzugun, defines itself as pro- autonomy democratic, progressive, secular and pluralistic and is seeking to recreate "Mapuche land" (Wallmapu) in the ethnic group's ancestral territory of southern Chile and Argentina where most Mapuche are still concentrated.

, The party hopes first to have the Chilean state grant autonomy (within the Chilean political-administrative structure) to the region of Araucanía as well as adjacent municipalities. Mapuche communities would recover their ancestral land, Mapuzugun would be the official language and the autonomous region would have its own regional legislative and executive bodies democratically elected by all voters in the region. (See Nicaragua North and South Atlantic Autonomous Regions).

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