The Multinational Monitor



Mapuche Put Earth First

An interview with Floriano
Cariqueo Colpihueque

In 1989, Floriano Cariqueo Colpihueque founded Promur, an organization that promotes the economic and cultural recovery of Chile's Mapuche people. Cariqueo Colpihueque, who has a degree in political economics from Havana University in Cuba, is a consultant to the United Nations Development Program in Santiago, Chile.

Multinational Monitor: Who are the Mapuche?

Floriano Cariqueo Colpihueque: We are the first inhabitants of the region south of Chile's Biobio River. Originally we lived as far north as where Santiago is today. Archaeological excavations near Puerto Montt show evidence of our culture dating back 12,000 years. We were known as Araucanos, the name the Spaniards gave us. But we call ourselves Mapuches, or "people of the earth."

There are certain minor differences within Mapuche culture. The Pehuenches live in the mountainous interior and take their name from the araucaria tree, which is central to their life. The Huilliches, "people of the forest," live mainly south of Osorno, in the area of Puerto Montt and in Chiloe.

Mapuches were the only Hispano-American nation that was never vanquished by the Spaniards. Pedro de Valdivia, a leading Spanish captain, won many battles before dying in combat against the Mapuche. Under the Spaniards, the Mapuche people never lost autonomy, maintaining our territory and independence in 10 million hectares of land south of the Biobio.

This was not the case, however, with the Chileans. After 30 years of constant war [1850s to 1880s], the Chilean army dominated Mapuche territory and the government declared it state land. In 1883, Chile began deposing Mapuches of land, eventually ceding 428,000 hectares to us, or less than 5 percent of our original territory. The seeds of modern Mapuche poverty were sown back then.

MM: Why did Chile want the land?

FCC: In 1850, that area was known as Chile's breadbasket. Wheat had been introduced earlier to replace quinoa [a high-protein indigenous grain]. Chile exported wheat not only to Peru but also to California and Canada. The period of pacification coincided with a colonization policy. Chilean settlers in that region were given an average of 125 hectares per person and foreign settlers received an average 500 hectares per settler. Mapuches were returned an average of six hectares of their original land per person.

MM: How do "people of the earth" relate to the environment?

FCC: Indigenous thought does not distinguish the environment from the self. Kume Moignen, or harmony, is central to our lives. We must live well with ourselves, with the community, our physical environment and with the cosmos. Problems occur when this equilibrium is ruptured. If you are not well with yourself, you cannot develop as a person. If you do not live well with your surroundings, the environment will punish you, as we have seen in natural disasters that follow bad exploitation.

Justice in Chilean courts is intent upon punishing the individual. The Mapuche concept of justice, seeks to restore ruptured harmony with the community as a whole.

MM: How has the exploitation of natural resources affected Mapuche communities?

FCC: The destruction of native forests ravages biodiversity. The wealth of the earth and our culture is destroyed when pine and eucalyptus are substituted for native species. No longer can our machis, our medicine women, easily find the plants they need. Off the coast of Chiloe, salmon farming threatens irreversible contamination of the sea due to increased fecal pollution. These companies eliminate all natural salmon predators, such as crabs. Huilliches are deprived of access to the sea, but their animals keep eating poisoned crabs and dying. On the Biobio River, the Endesa electric company's Pangue hydroelectric plant -- paid for with help from the World Bank -- will displace 4,000 Pehuenches from their means of existence, as native flora and fauna vanish.

MM: What is the economic situation of the Mapuche?

FCC: Historically, we Mapuche satisfied our basic needs. We learned the meaning of hunger after our military defeat to Chile in the 1880s. Many of our community -- with close to one million people -- live in conditions of extreme poverty. With an average of one hectare of land per person, we lack the means to sustain ourselves. In the south, where Mapuches are confined to non-productive land between national park property and the coast, people eat just once a day.

MM: Doesn't the government argue that neo-liberal development will solve these problems?

FCC: When the Chilean state talks about development, we cannot help but to remember those initial relations the state established with the Mapuche people. How can a state, which yesterday took away our land, today come to talk to us about development? As the government interprets it, development is based on theories built outside our community with no participation from our leaders. All prevailing development models harm our community. To talk of development after usurping our means of economic sustenance -- the land -- is absurd. For indigenous people, economic development will only be successful if it is based on our own vision of the world.

MM: What alternative do you propose?

FCC: I propose a development model based on our cultural foundations, by which I do not mean turning back the clock. The greatest challenge we face is how to recover the essence of our culture to build a more promising future.

In arid northern Chile, Aymaran knowledge of irrigation technology dates back 15,000 years. Indigenous people in that region must recover and tap that ancestral technology.

The pachamama, or mother earth, has blessed the Aymaras and Atacameños with a capacity for growing superior quality and highly marketable products such as oregano, onions, and flowers. The problem is that, like all indigenous peoples, first we have to recover self-esteem and learn to value our traditional abilities.

Our ancient Mapuche economies were based on trafquintum, a barter system. Communities used as much as they needed and what they did not need was exchanged for goods that they did not have. Coastal Mapuches traded salted fish for agricultural products from their inland brothers in what is now Chile and Argentina.

MM: Can trafquintum address Mapuche poverty?

FCC: In Santiago we have 450,000 Mapuches with a vast consumer potential. Workshops in the city can receive raw materials from rural Mapuches to produce quality finished products for our own and for external consumption. We have 30 different urban Mapuche organizations, and ten bread-maker unions with 5,800 members. A union or organization can establish a relationship with rural communities to buy what they produce, such as potatoes, peas, fish or wool. In turn, urban Mapuches would produce clothing or shoes for themselves and people outside the cities. Mapuche knowledge of medicinal plants, the innate Pehuenche understanding of the habitat of endangered species of flora and fauna, as well as Huilliche forest management systems all have market potential within Chile and internationally.

In August, the Canadian embassy and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) co-sponsored our first seminar of indigenous productive workshops. In late September we will form the first national network of indigenous producers. The main line of defense for indigenous people will be our ability to insert ourselves in the economy with our own production.

MM: What are the major threats to the Mapuche?

FCC: The biggest threat to our culture is our failure to realize the magnitude of the danger posed by the neo-liberal economic model. The prevailing economic model has far more destructive potential than any models of the past.

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