Indigenous Peoples in Chile


The Chilean government currently recognizes nine indigenous groups within its borders, the: Atacameño, Aymara, Colla, Diaguita, Kawashkar, Mapuche, Quechua, Rapa Nui, and Yagán peoples.  Each of these peoples has a rich history and culture that cannot be done justice here.  That being said, below is a brief history of indigenous peoples in Chile taken largely from a report by the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights and fundamental freedoms of indigenous people made in 2004.  Additional population and poverty data was taken from Estimating Poverty for Indigenous Groups in Chile by Matching Census and Survey Data, by Claudio A. Agostini, Philip H. Brown, and Andrei Roman (2008).

History of Indigenous Peoples in Chile:

Currently, based on the 2002 Census, approximately 700,000 households, or 4.6 percent of the total population, identify themselves as indigenous. The largest indigenous group is the Mapuche people (approximately 95% of all indigenous people in Chile), which is concentrated in the south and which is in turn subdivided into various indigenous territorial groups (the Huilliche, Lafkenche, Pehuenche and Nagche). A sizeable contingent of Mapuche people also lives in the metropolitan area of Santiago, where they are classed as “urban Mapuche;” their characteristics and problems differ significantly from those of the Mapuche in the south. The Aymara (7.1 percent of all indigenous people in Chile), Atacameño (3.04 percent), Quechua (0.89 percent), Colla (0.46 percent), and Diaguita peoples live in the north of the country. The Rapa Nui people—nowadays down to about 2,000 persons—live on Easter Island, and a small number of Kawashkar and Yagán remain in the far south.

Although difficult to summarize, the situation of most indigenous people is one of poverty and marginalization as a result of the discrimination from which they have historically suffered. For example, poverty rates for indigenous households at the national level are approximately 10 percentage points higher than for non-indigenous households. overty rates are especially high among the Mapuche and the Aymará, with approximately one-third of all households living below the poverty line. In addition, higher headcount rates are strongly correlated with greater poverty depth. For example, the estimated poverty gap is 7.9% at the national level for non-indigenous Chileans compared to 12.4% for the Aymará, 11.5% for the Mapuche, and 11.2% for the Colla. Indigence rates follow similar patterns, and the point estimates for the indigence gap among the Aymará is nearly twice that of non-indigenous people.

The present situation of indigenous people in Chile is the outcome of a long history of marginalization, discrimination and exclusion, mostly linked to various oppressive forms of exploitation and plundering of their land and resources that date back to the sixteenth century and continue to this day. The current problems facing indigenous peoples cannot be understood without reference to the history of their relations with Chilean society.

After the first Spanish colonizers settled in the central valley in Chile, the native population began to disappear as a result of the conquest and colonization, and the survivors were gradually absorbed and integrated into the nascent Chilean population. Several attempts by the Spanish to subjugate the Mapuche failed and the Crown recognized the independence of these peoples in various agreements (parlamentos), respecting their territorial sovereignty south of the Bíobío river, which became a real, though porous, border between two societies and two cultures. The Chilean Republic maintained the same relationship with the Mapuche nation during the first half of the nineteenth century, but Chilean forays into the region gradually weakened indigenous sovereignty and led to several conflicts.

Finally, in 1888, Chile embarked upon the military conquest of Araucanía in what became known in the official history books as the “pacification of Araucanía”, which brought about the integration of the region into the rest of the country. In addition, as a result of the war of the Pacific (1879-1883), the Aymara, Atacameño, Quechua and Colla groups in the north of Chile were also integrated. Also in 1888, Easter Island, the natural home of the Rapa Nui people, was annexed following an agreement between the island authorities and the Chilean Government. The main outcome of this period for native peoples was the gradual loss of their territories and resources, as well as their sovereignty, and an accelerated process of assimilation imposed by the country’s policies and institutions, which refused to recognize the separate identities of indigenous cultures and languages. Chilean society as a whole, and the political classes in particular, ignored, if not denied, the existence of native peoples within the Chilean nation. The exclusion of native peoples from the popular imagination in Chile became more pronounced with the construction of a highly centralized State and lasted, with a few exceptions, until the late 1980s.

President Salvador Allende, who was elected in 1970, introduced various social reforms and speeded up the process of land reform, including the return of land to indigenous communities. The military regime that came to power following the coup led by Augusto Pinochet reversed the reforms and privatized indigenous land, cracking down on social movements, including those representing indigenous people and the Mapuche in particular.

The treatment of indigenous people as if they were “invisible” did not begin to change until the decline of the military regime, when their most representative organizations began to push a number of demands for recognition of the rights denied to them. The return to democracy in 1989 signaled a new phase in the history of the relationship between indigenous peoples and the Chilean State, embodied in the Nueva Imperial Agreement signed by the then presidential candidate, Mr. Patricio Aylwin, and representatives of various indigenous organizations, and culminating in the 1993 Indigenous Peoples Act (No. 19,253), in which, for the first time, the Chilean Government recognized rights that were specific to indigenous peoples and expressed its intention to establish a new relationship with them.

Among the most important rights recognized in the Act are the right to participation, the right to land, cultural rights and the right to development within the framework of the State’s responsibility for establishing specific mechanisms to overcome the marginalization of indigenous people. One of the mechanisms set up in this way was the National Indigenous Development Corporation (CONADI), which acts as a collegiate decision-making body in the area of indigenous policy and which includes indigenous representatives.

To back up the State’s indigenous policy in this new phase, the Government of President Ricardo Lagos set up the Historical Truth and New Deal Commission, chaired by former President Patricio Aylwin and consisting of various representatives of Chilean society and indigenous people. Its mandate was to investigate “the historical events in our country and to make recommendations for a new State policy”. The Commission submitted its report, conclusions and proposals for reconciliation and a new deal between indigenous people and Chilean society in October 2003.

In September of 2008, after nearly two decades of struggles, the Chilean government ratified Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization (ILO 169), which guaranteed additional rights to the indigenous peoples living in Chile.  In particular, ILO 169 supports the rights to consultation, property, and self-determination.  The law officially went into effect in September of 2009, and has only now begun being litigated in the courts.  Despite the victory ILO 169 represents for indigenous rights, in reality, many conflicts and fights remain to be had between the Chilean government and the indigenous peoples living within its borders.

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