A decades-old is heating up as Chilean cities spend their winter under a blanket of protests. Forty teenagers staged a toma, or takeover, in Ercilla.
A decades-old debate over a 150-year-old conflict is heating up as Chilean cities spend their winter under a blanket of protests. Forty teenagers, part of 700,000 Mapuche Indians out of 17 million people in Chile, staged a toma, or takeover, in Ercilla. The small forest-farming town, 600 kilometers south of Santiago, frequently hosts brawls between the police force and Mapuche.
Since August 19, the 11-to-17-year-olds occupied the town’s government center. They’re not giving it back, they said, until Interior Minister Rodrigo Hinzpeter hears out their grievances over the “constant police presence” and a lack of intercultural education.
The clock is ticking according to Camilo Catrilanca, the 16-year-old spokesperson of the toma. “We’re not going anywhere. We haven’t had an answer,” said Catrilanca.
Mayor of Ercilla José Vilugrón said the government won’t resort to violence to break up the students’ toma. He sent a proposal over to La Moneda, Chile’s presidential palace, with recommendations on how resolve the issues. But the local governor, Miguel Mellado, said if they don’t go willingly, he will forcibly remove the students from the building.
Catrilanca said the Mapuche are sick of what they describe as a relentless police presence and demand “the end to the militarization of their communities.” The forty are also on board with the student movement in Chile, which fights for a free, high-quality, public education system for all.
The Mapuche are pushing to include their traditions, language and history as part of the overhaul of the school system in Mapuche areas. They want the government to build an intercultural school in order to realize this goal.
Authorities offered to construct a school to placate the striking students. The students are mulling over the offer, but hesitate because of its location. There have been several run-ins between the Mapuche and the farmer who lives on the chosen property.
The Mapuche community is backing up the teens. The leader of the Mapuche territorial alliance, Ñizol longko Juan Catrillanca, said their occupation shows “discontent with abusive police presence constantly raiding our areas,” and added, “We respect their decision.”
For years, their clashes with police have included land occupations, hunger strikes, teargas, arson and violence on both sides. Just last month, a confrontation in Ercilla ended with a policeman hit by a gun pellet in one eye and a 16-year old with a bullet through his thigh according to a Mapuche leader.
The government started to reassign lands to native groups in 1993, under Chile’s newly replanted democracy. The Mapuches are demanding that the government restore what they see as theirs by historical right. The government relies on records to determine what belongs to whom.
Some of this land in Ercilla, now privately owned, presents difficulties for the municipality. The government would need to uproot the farmers, who’ve built their homes on these properties, to fulfill the Mapuches’ request.
They also want the Chilean state to recognize their perspective on land rights, which means that the air, subsurface, water, and the land aren’t quartered and sold separately. Mapuches want the whole pie packaged together. In the world of the Mapuche, an individual doesn’t own a parcel of land: it belongs to the community. After land is reassigned, raising capital to start up or even just maintain the agriculture often causes problems for the new Mapuche owners.
Some, including several displaced farmers, view the situation under a different lens, arguing that indigenous rights establish special protections for only part of the population. This, they say, is unfair to the rest of Chilean society because it gives indigenous people unequal treatment under the law.
The group of Mapuche teens threatens to take further action if Hinzpeter hasn’t met them within the next few days. Although a school proposal is on the table, the students said they won’t step down until they hear how the government plans to resolve police violence in their neighborhoods.
This article by Katie Manning was originally published on IndigenousNews.org.