On Saturday, November 26th, the BBC ran a story about the ongoing conflict between various Mapuche communities and the Chilean government over the construction of an airport. The BBC’s report focused on a recent confrontation between Mapuche individuals and the police in which tear gas and hoses were used against Mapuche protesters after two officers sustained minor injuries. According to reports in the Chilean media, the confrontation broke out after roads were barricaded in protest of the airport. Given the attention brought to the issue by the BBC last week, we thought it would be worthwhile to walk through the timeline of events leading to this most recent clash.
As with many Indigenous issues, this case begins with land. In this case, 460 hectares of land upon which the Chilean government wants to construct an airport in Quepe. Multiple Mapuche communities, on the other hand, claim that the land is their ancestral territory and that — at the time the airport project was announced — they were in the process of reacquiring that land. Although the exact date that the airport project became public knowledge is unclear, it is clear — based on court documents — that the project was already receiving government approvals in early 2008. Regardless of the exact datethat the US$ 120,000,000 project was announced, it was immediately met with strong opposition.
It didn’t take a lot of time before seven Mapuche communities – Caciques Federico Alcamán, Juan Huenchual, José Catrín, Francisco Lemuñir, Antonio Cotaro, José Aillañir, and Juan Antonio Antimán — banned together to take legal action. These Mapuche communities filed a protective order against the Chilean government for granting a concession to build the airport on Mapuche ancestral lands. The communities also argued that no consultation took place before this project was announced, which is in direct violation of International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention 169 — an international human rights document that Chile ratified in 2008 and that went into effect in 2009.
The Mapuche communities did not have much success within the Chilean court system. On January 31, 2011, the Santiago Court of Appeals rejected their claims and ruled that the airport project could go forward. The appellate court’s analysis has been criticized for failing to interpret Chile’s consultation requirements in accordance with international law on the issue.
After losing at the appellate level, the Mapuche communities appealed to the Chilean Supreme Court. However, on May 6, 2011, the Supreme Court announced that it would not even hear the case, and thus the Santiago Court of Appeal’s determination was final. At the time, one of the Mapuche leaders, Iván Reyes Alcamán, indicated that the communities would consider taking their case to the international level. By November 18th, the communities had filed documents with the ILO and, according to Reyes, are scheduled to appear before that organization later this year.
In addition to filing legal claims, members from a number of Mapuche communities in the area have continued to march and demonstrate their dissatisfaction with the Government’s actions. For example, marches took place on Sunday, November 20th, as well as Wedeneday, November 23rd, where hundreds of Mapuche individuals marched in opposition of the airport’s construction.
Along with the marches, other events have taken place to raise tensions in the area. For example, on Tuesday, November 22nd, a report was made about three experts that came onto the land (where the airport is to be constructed) in order to take measurements. This act was met with opposition by the Mapuche leaders of Quepe, who stated that the three experts were trespassing on their land. The Chilean government quickly responded to these allegations by stating that the studies were part of an approved environmental impact study and thus, the individuals were on the land legally.
The build-up of these all these events came to its most recent head in the story presented by the BBC. On Friday, November 25th, Mapuche individuals barricaded roads in protest of the airport. These individuals also allegedly injured two police officers before tear gas and hoses were used to scatter the protesters.
Despite the strong opposition by many Mapuche communities, it should be noted that not all are opposed to the project. According to at least one report, sixteen Mapuche communities have given their support for the project. However, even those communities have demonstrated against the Chilean government in recent months. For instance, this past August, Mapuche individuals who supported the airport set-up a roadblock because the Chilean government, they claimed, was not upholding the promises it made to the communities when they gave their support. These promises included providing housing for the communities, and were part of the reason why some communities decided to express their support for the project.
Despite the consistent protests, the Chilean government’s response to the situation has been to reaffirm its position that it is working with the 1,200 families in the area to gain their consensus on the project. In order to do that, the Chilean government has committed to holding round table events and to investing nearly $US 40 million dollars in the area for development (beyond the airport). That money could go to things such as road development, agriculture or to promote entrepreneurship. Additionally, government officials continue to point out that the airport will produce 400 jobs in the region and will create additional economic opportunities for nearby communities.