In 2011, the acute socio-economic divide persisted between the majority population and most of the indigenous peoples of Chile, especially Mapuche people in the south and Aymara in the north. In southern Chile, discontent over the historical loss of ancestral lands, waterways and forest resources continued to smoulder during 2011. In the mineral-rich arid north, many indigenous Aymara men and women joined a rural-to-urban exodus, aggravated by national policies that do not recognize collective land rights.

Mapuche resistance 2011

In late November 2011, Mapuche protesters in the southern region of Araucania once again clashed with Chilean police. They demonstrated against plans to build an airport on Mapuche land; police used tear gas against the demonstrators, who were blocking the highway. In January, the Santiago Court of Appeals had rejected the Mapuche claim and ruled that the airport project could go ahead. The decision was criticized for not adequately taking into account the consultation requirements of ILO 169. The Chilean government has reportedly committed to holding roundtable talks and set aside US$ 40 million for local development.

Earlier, in June 2011, four Mapuche prisoners being held in Victoria prison in southern Chile ended their 86-day hunger strike after Chile's Supreme Court agreed to lower their sentences from between 20 and 25 years to a maximum of 15 years. The four were charged with an October 2008 shotgun ambush on the police convoy of a public prosecutor, who lost a limb. Roman Catholic Church mediators and human rights advocates pledged to convene a commission to review the use of Chile's anti-terrorism legislation against indigenous activists.

Mapuche demonstrations and hunger strikes have been an almost annual occurrence since 1984 when the state enacted the Anti-Terrorist Law No. 19.027 during the military dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet. The law was aimed at curbing Mapuche protests over the loss of their lands and resources. Among other controversial features, the law allows for military trials and the use of anonymous witnesses who cannot be cross-examined by the defence. During 2010, a total of 34 Mapuche prisoners staged a hunger strike at several facilities in south-central Chile in protest against the law. This ended after 82 days when the government agreed to amend the Anti-Terrorist Law, and to stop using military tribunals against Mapuche civilians.

Nevertheless the controversial anti-terrorism legislation was used once again against the four prisoners charged in the 2008 convoy attack. The repeat use of the law was seen as a violation of the 2010 accord and considered reason enough to mount another hunger strike in 2011.

Water resource ownership

Resource extraction and water rights affected Chile's indigenous populations during 2011. In Chile, water is not a public good nor is it any longer a resource tied to land-ownership – as it was up to the mid 1980s. Water privatization in the 1980s gave priority to commodity production for international export – grapes and other fruits, cereals and vegetables – and favoured majority urban areas.

Water management is regulated according to the 1981 Water Code and, like the anti-terrorism legislation used against the Mapuche, it was developed by the Pinochet regime. It is based on private sector development of water markets and infrastructure with tradeable water permits. Regulatory agencies are meant to provide oversight, but critics have charged that Chile's system for buying and selling water is exceptionally permissive, with little government control or environmental safeguards. They also point to growing competition for water between agro-industry operators, resource extraction industries and the nation's cities in a situation of limited supply. A 2005 reform to the 1981 Water Code addressed some social equity and environmental protection concerns but did little to alter the underlying structure. Private ownership of water resources is so concentrated in some areas that a single electricity company from Spain, Endesa, has bought up to 80 per cent of the water rights in a large part of the Mapuche-claimed south, causing an outcry. While privatization may have encouraged infrastructure investment, academic researchers and environmentalists argue that Chile's system is inherently unsustainable because it promotes speculation, endangers the environment and allows smaller interests like indigenous communities to be squeezed out by powerful forces, like Chile's giant mining industry.

Chile's water originates in springs and glaciers high in the Andes mountains. While it is a low emitter of greenhouse gases, it is the planet's ninth most vulnerable country to climate change. One result is that many of the glaciers are melting at an increasing rate, and the Fourth Assessment Report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warns that some glaciers could be gone over the next decades. This would very likely increase the competition for diminishing water rights and sharpen the existing divide.

Chile has the largest reserves of copper on the planet and is now the world's number one copper producer. Copper is primarily mined and processed in Chile's arid northern desert at sites owned by the state mining giant Codelco Chile. Water is a key ingredient in the various stages of copper extraction. The copper mines on average consume 11.5 cubic meters of water per second – in an extraordinarily dry ecological zone.

Discussion over water management in the northern copper-bearing desert is relatively recent. This zone is home to the historically marginalized and excluded Aymara and Atacameño indigenous communities, who have attracted less media attention than indigenous groups in the south. According to researchers at the University of Chile, the indigenous populations and their livestock in the north are having to leave their Andean slope villages because of acute water scarcity.

Mineral extraction industries such as lithium and copper mines, bottled water enterprises and medium-sized northern cities such as Arica, Iquique and Calama have appropriated the available water rights. They siphon off rivers and tap scarce water supplies. This has left some Atacama towns to dry out and wither.

Traditional Andean indigenous agricultural life is centred around high water table marshes known as the Bofedal, used for feeding llamas and alpacas. The ecologically integrated bofedales need permanent water inundation to survive. If water is diverted or reduced, the sun burns the plant roots causing permanent ruin. Nevertheless in Chile, indigenous collective water rights have never been recognized by government agencies. Springs that accumulate in the mountains on indigenous lands can be traded away leaving parched bofedales that cannot be revived.

University of Chile researchers reported that the rights to the highland spring in one of the indigenous communities of the Salado River tributary of the Loa River were given to the copper mining giant Codelco Chile. After 1985, this cut off the community water source and caused permanent damage to fields used to feed thousands of llamas and sheep. By 2011, the Saldo River community had become almost completely depopulated, with most of the former residents now living in urban zones.

In Tarapaca, the national electric company of Chile and the Department of Irrigation diverted the natural flow of the high plateau Lauca River for irrigation in the Azapa Valley and hydro-electricity for the city of Arica. The springs dried up and this affected the bofedales. Pastoralists had to reduce their herds or move to the city.

At Chusmiza, a remote altiplano Andean village rich in warm sulphur springs, Aymara engaged in a seven-year legal battle against a mineral water bottling enterprise they claimed had illegally deprived them of their land and water sources. In 2009, they won the right to suspend the bottling business but failed to gain the water concession itself.

Indigenous residents claim that Quillagua was formerly a unique oasis in the Atacama desert, fed by the Loa River, until mining companies bought up much of the water use rights. According to the University of Chile, in 1987 the military government reduced the supply of water to Quillagua by more than two-thirds. Then, in 1997 and 2000, during the critical rainy summer months, two episodes of contamination killed off the shrimp and ruined the river for crop irrigation or livestock. An initial study concluded that the 1997 contamination – including heavy metals associated with mineral processing – had probably come from a Codelco copper mine. Codelco denied any responsibility, and blamed heavy rains for sweeping contaminants into the water. Chile's regional Agriculture and Livestock Service refuted Codelco's findings and attributed the contamination to human actions. According to the head of the Aymara indigenous group in Quillagua, without suitable water many residents responded to outside offers to buy the town's water rights. They sold and left. The mining company, Soliloquies (SQM) ended up buying about 75 per cent of the rights in Quillagua. By 2011, the once shrimp-filled Loa had been reduced to a polluted trickle running through the town. Just 150 residents were left in what was once a settlement of over 800 people and which for the past 37 years has appeared in the Guinness Book of World Records as the 'driest place on earth'.

With water sources diminishing and the bofedales drying out, the carefully constructed terraces on the Andean slopes – that had sustained Aymara for thousands of years – continue to be abandoned and the rural-to-urban exodus accelerates. In 2011, dislocated indigenous populations continued to migrate to northern cities such as Calama, Arica and Iquique.


Of the more than 100,000 Aymara in northern Chile, the majority – approximately 60,000 – now reside in Arica. The coastal city – a tax- and duty-free zone – is Chile's most northern city, located 19 km from the border with Peru, and serves as the Pacific exit port for landlocked Bolivia. Culturally diverse Arica is also home to a significant Afro-Chilean population of approximately 8,000. Activists from the Afro-Chilean Alliance have been increasing efforts to achieve official recognition of Afro-Chileans as an ethnic group in a country where diversity has never been a part of national policy.

After almost four years of concerted negotiations with the Chilean government – during which official promises were publicly given and community hopes raised – in September 2011, the state officially rejected the request to include questions about Afro-Chilean demographics in the 2012 census. Economic reasons were cited for the exclusion.

Chile's nationalism, which focuses on promoting cultural homogeneity, ensured that Arica's large Aymara population – although officially recognized – also remained socially marginalized. Even more, in 2011 they continued to be widely regarded as indigenous migrants from Peru or Bolivia – not as home-grown descendants of the first peoples of northern Chile, who have been dispossessed by the country's water resource extraction policies.

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