Can Boric’s government end Chile’s Mapuche conflict?

The president-elect’s new cabinet lacks indigenous representation. Will his government also ignore Mapuche demands? Carole Concha Bell reports

February 15, 2022 · 9 min read
Protesters wave the Mapuche flag on the streets of Chile. Photo by Pablo Bell (Instagram: @_pablobell)

On 21 January, Chile’s new president Gabriel Boric unveiled his much anticipated cabinet of ministers. To the delight of Chile’s strong contingent of feminist activists, over half of his appointments went to women. Emblematic doctor-turned-politician Izkia Siches, 35, was appointed Minster of the Interior; Maya Fernandez Allende, the granddaughter of deposed socialist President Salvador Allende, Minister of Defence; prominent student leader and communist Camila Vallejo will become general secretary; and Julieta Brodsky, anthropologist from the University of Granada, Culture Minister. 

While the line-up breaks from tradition with a young, female heavy cabinet that also includes openly gay members, there is a glaring lack of indigenous representation. Despite people of indigenous Mapuche origin making up around 12 per cent of the Chilean population, they are absent from Chile’s political and socio-economic institutions. Chile is currently the only Latin American country that does not recognise indigenous people in its constitution. Whilst the new body rewriting the constitution does have Mapuche representation, this is a short-lived venture. Once the constitutional process is over that body will cease to exist and these groups will remain voiceless. 

Atus Mariqueo Russell, press officer for UK-based NGO Mapuche International Link, told Red Pepper: ‘It is vital that Boric does not bargain away his campaign commitments to indigenous people. Boric could be the President to begin a process of reconciliation within Chile by demilitarising Mapuche territories and restoring stolen lands. However, the lack of indigenous representation in his cabinet is a worrying sign that his commitment to Chile’s indigenous population may well be superficial.’

Historical conflict

During Boric’s presidential campaign in December 2021, he visited the site of conflict in Chile’s Southern region, Araucanía or Wallmapu, the ancestral lands that the Mapuche lay claim to. He told the Chilean press that ‘militarisation is the wrong path. We must seek dialogue within a historical perspective. This conflict won’t be solved within the remit of “public order”, we must restore confidence and talk about the territorial restoration of the Mapuche Nation.’

Mapuche organisation Coordinadora Arauco Malleco released a statement in response stating that the Chilean state ‘ignores that as Mapuche people we maintain independence and sovereignty over our ancestral territory, to such a degree that the colonial and republican structures were kept out of our lives for several centuries […] The only way that the Winka (non-Mapuche) could take over our territory was via dispossession, deception, racism and militarisation. Phenomena that are being repeated today.’


While prominent Mapuche leaders such as Francisca Linconao and America Millaray Painamal are currently involved in the new constitutional body, and Luz Vidal Huriqueo has been appointed sub-secretary to the women and gender parity ministry, autonomist Mapuche activists have another position.

Richard Curinao Pallaleo, editor of Werken Noticias, a Mapuche independent media outlet, told Red Pepper, ‘Like Matias Catrileo stated, we are a separate people and therefore we will never see ourselves as part of a Chilean government or state. What we seek is autonomy for our nation … and that Chile respects the treaties it has signed. We want our ancestral lands back. We want Wallmapu back, we want extractivist companies and big capital off our land and that this territory is returned to the Mapuche nation.’

Militarisation and repression

Far away from the buzz of Santiago and the glamour of the incoming administration, thousands of troops deployed by outgoing president Piñera remain parked in Araucanía. Since their deployment on 12 October 2019, at the behest of local business representatives and truck drivers’ unions (who claim they are targets of Mapuche ‘terrorism’), the security forces have set up roadblocks and have been accused of arbitrarily arresting indigenous people and evicting Mapuche families from ancestral lands. 

In the ongoing conflict, a number of serious incidents have been reported by Mapuche independent media. In October 2019, Pablo Marchant, an anthropology student who abandoned his studies to join the Mapuche struggle far away from his home in Tome, central Chile, was killed during a land recovery action on land taken over by the Mininco Forestry company. Initial reports stated that he had been armed and constituted a threat. However, his mother Miriam Gutierrez, unconvinced by police versions of the incident, pressed for an autopsy that confirmed he was shot in the back of the head while kneeling on the floor, by a policeman still serving in the region. There has been no formal investigation to date. 

The list of similar cases is endless. Yordan Llempi Machacan, 23, was shot dead by security forces near a roadblock in Canete in November 2019 when government forces opened fire on a group of Mapuche villagers. Independent Mapuche media is awash with evidence of intimidation with helicopters, drones and stop and search, as well as the intimidation of elders and spiritual leaders. However, there is little reaction from the government in Santiago or reprisals for those who commit these abuses.  

A peaceful path forward?

The issue of the state of emergency in the Araucanía region and the management of the now centuries-old conflict is extremely contentious. Powerful groups in the region – such as the Truckers Federation, lumber companies and APRA (ironically named Association for Peace in Araucanía) – that have been implicated in violent racist evictions have been lobbying fiercely, claiming that Mapuche terrorism is on the rise and that a sustained military presence is the solution.

Boric’s position, however, is the opposite. Recent statements suggest he will demilitarise the region and open dialogue ‘for all those who are for a peaceful path forward.’  Pallaleo told Red Pepper that while he welcomes the prospect of new dialogue, old administrations have failed to prioritise the real problems faced by our communities.

Dialogue with Mapuche communities, and implementation of policy to tackle the rampant poverty and inequality that afflict them, is imperative if Boric’s administration is serious about tackling human rights abuses against indigenous communities and challenging racist narratives rampant in mainstream Chilean culture. This must include standing up to oligarchs whose interests lie in lucrative forestry industries. Whether Boric will have the political and moral will to do so remains to be seen. 

Carole Concha Bell is a PhD student at King’s College, London and freelance writer


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