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State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2011 - Chile

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 6 July 2011
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2011 - Chile, 6 July 2011, available at: [accessed 17 December 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.

During 2010, a cultural and inequality gap persisted between the mainstream population and most of the indigenous peoples of Chile. These include the Aymara, Mapuche, Polynesian Rapanui of Easter Island and small groups of Tierra del Fuegian nations, such as the Qawasqar and Yamana.

Shortly before leaving office at the end of January 2010, outgoing President Michelle Bachelet apologized to the descendants of a group of Qawasqar whose ancestors were among 11 individuals captured by German explorers in 1881 and shipped to Europe to be exhibited as curiosities.

In a speech at the ceremony honouring the return of the remains of five of the group, the president acknowledged the historical mistreatment of Chile's indigenous peoples and linked it to racist attitudes towards 'our indigenous forefathers'.

Earlier in January, Chileans had elected as president billionaire businessman Sebastian Piñera Echenique of the center-right Coalition for Change. They also voted in members of Congress. Seventeen of the 120 members of the Chamber of Deputies and 5 of the 38 members of the Senate were women. None of the elected were known to self-identify as indigenous.

Among Piñera's early pronouncements was his intention to restructure public institutions devoted to indigenous affairs to make them more efficient. In addition, he indicated his government would pursue a land policy focused more on individual subsidies, rather than on recognizing collective rights.


Shortly after the new President took office, a 7.8-magnitude earthquake and related tsunamis battered south-central Chile on 27 February 2010. The earthquake caused widespread damage and distress, including to the region's indigenous Mapuche who were already marginalized long before the disaster struck.

Although Mapuche communities were close to the epicentre of the earthquake and were among the most severely affected, there was a notable absence of media coverage about their situation. Even more striking, there was a complete lack of government disaster relief support for their small communities, despite the fact that in addition to deaths and disappearances the disaster caused structural damage to Mapuche community houses and water supplies, and contamination of natural water sources. Mapuche activists viewed the lack of government response and apparent official lack of interest as another demonstration of the discrimination and exclusion of their indigenous communities. They accused the various government authorities of concentrating only on the north of the country and the big southern cities such as Concepción, while ignoring their rural indigenous communities, also located in the south.

With help still not arriving in their areas a week after the earthquake, Mapuche activists began using the internet to make online appeals for international assistance. The news agency MapuExpress published a statement by a group of organizations collectively called La Sociedad Civil (The Civil Society), which specified the measures the group would employ to ensure that affected Mapuche households received any foreign aid that was provided.

Reclaiming ancestral lands

The major concern for indigenous peoples in Chile during 2010 remained their ongoing struggle to regain ancestral lands. Closely linked to this were efforts to repeal the controversial anti-terrorist law that hampers their ability to protest and receive just treatment from state authorities. The anti-terror law, which dates back to the era of dictator General Pinochet, treats as acts of terrorism all illegal land occupations and attacks on the equipment or personnel of multinational companies. Those charged are subjected to both civilian and military trials, and the law sanctions the use of 'anonymous' or unidentified prosecution witnesses. Those labelled as terrorists can be held in indefinite detention.

On 16 September 2010, as Chile celebrated the bicentennial anniversary of its independence from Spain and the attention of the nation, and the world, was simultaneously focused on this patriotic spectacle and on the drama-filled rescue of 33 Chilean miners trapped deep underground, some 34 Mapuche detainees were on a long-running hunger strike in six prisons across southern Chile. Among their demands were for their trials to be held in civil rather than military courts, and the withdrawal of charges under the anti-terror law. They noted that from its inception this law had been used exclusively against Mapuches, as a direct consequence of their activism. Media coverage of their protest was minimal.

As reported in previous editions of State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples, land invasions and clashes between Mapuche and the police have become increasingly violent in recent years. Chilean police responses have been notably firm-handed, including heavily armed community presences, helicopter overflights, house searches and even lethal force. This has led to even more protests, arrests, detentions and hunger strikes. In August 2010, Mapuche leaders and non-governmental organization (NGO) legal aid providers indicated that it was the continuing failure of the state to address Mapuche concerns that ultimately led to the 2010 hunger strike. They especially criticized the apparent lack of political will to engage in talks and recognize the existence of a conflict over Mapuche land and autonomy.

With the hunger strike in its tenth week, a group of 12 Chilean activists, including student leaders and members of the copper workers' union (CUT), began a 'massive solidarity fast' to support the imprisoned protesters. In an apparent effort to defuse the situation, the government authorized the release of two of the striking prisoners on bail. However, both indicated they would continue their protest. Moreover, a week later on 21 September four Chilean opposition lawmakers also joined the hunger strike, which may have helped increase pressure on the government to begin talks to end the protest.

In the final weeks of September 2010, President Piñera proposed legislation that would forbid civilians and minors from being tried in military courts, and reduce sentences under the anti-terror statutes. He also announced a US $4 billion 'Plan Araucania', package of economic and social measures aimed at improving socio-economic opportunities and the quality of life for Mapuche in their home territory. Piñera's government also agreed to begin talks involving cabinet ministers, delegates from Mapuche communities and representatives of religious and social organizations, with the archbishop of Concepción serving as a mediator. The hunger strikers called off their protests and agreed to begin negotiations which they hoped would result in the government meeting some of the key Mapuche demands.

Nevertheless, despite promises of substantial investments in Mapuche home areas, at the end of 2010 the earthquake-affected Mapuche residents of southern Chile were still awaiting the arrival of government support and commenting on the lack of any significant reconstruction or infrastructure rehabilitation in their communities.


During 2010, the small Afro-Chilean population registered a few modest but important gains in their efforts to achieve formal statistical inclusion and national recognition as one of the country's ethnic groups.

Chileans who identify as African descendants live mainly in the towns of Salamanca and Ovalle in the north-central region of Coquimbo, as well as in Arica and Parinacota, in the arid northernmost region near the border with Peru. At the end of 2009, the three organizations that comprise the Afro-Chilean Alliance – Lumbanga, Oro Negro (Black Gold) and Arica Negro (Black Arica) – carried out an independent survey of 500 families and came up with a preliminary estimate of more than 8,000 people of African descent in Arica and Parinacota. While no official statistics have ever been collected, Fabiana Del Popolo, an expert on population issues with the UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), has observed that people of African descent in Chile have significant poverty levels and are excluded from public policies that target other vulnerable groups, such as indigenous peoples.

In June 2010, Chile's first community development office for Afro-Chileans opened in the city of Arica. It was regarded as a historic achievement after years of advocacy. In the same month, the Afro-Chilean Alliance met with officials of the National Institute of Statistics (INE), which is responsible for developing the 2012 census form. At the end of 2010, Afro-Chileans were waiting to hear if their advocacy efforts had been successful, and hoping that inclusion in the census form would help put an end to what rights groups regard as structural discrimination and invisibility at the national level.

Rapa Nui

Like the indigenous Mapuche on the South American mainland, indigenous Rapa Nui on Chile-controlled Easter Island in the Pacific are becoming increasingly vocal about control of ancestral lands.

In August 2010, Rapa Nui families – who are originally of Polynesian ancestry – began occupying contested areas on Easter Island after failing to obtain legal redress for their land claims. In early December 2010, Chilean police were flown 3,000 miles to the island to enforce a court decree ordering the removal of the Rapa Nui protesters. According to news reports, the Chilean police shot at protesters with rubber bullets and used batons, resulting in the wounding of 24 people, including the president of the autonomously created Rapa Nui Parliament.

In October 2010, in the hope of preventing further violence, the Washington, DC-based Indian Law Resource Center (ILRC) – which is representing the 28 Rapa Nui clans – filed a Request for Protection before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. As of February 2011, the Commission had granted precautionary measures in favour of the islanders, ordering the Chilean government to immediately stop the violent use of armed force against the Rapa Nui, to guarantee the safety and humane treatment of Rapa Nui, and to begin an investigation into recent events. Meanwhile, Rapa Nui vowed to continue their protests.

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