Tree farming in Chile has displaced thousands of indigenous Mapuche Indians.
But it has also fueled a rebirth of activism and pride.
By Héctor Tobar
Times Staff Writer
March 17, 2003
COLLIPULLI, Chile -- Because eucalyptus trees are thirsty, Victor Ancalaf
became a rebel.
Growing like cabbages in neat rows planted by one of the largest forestry
companies in South America, the trees suck the water out of the ground,
killing off streams and making wells run dry in this corner of
Chile. For Ancalaf and other Mapuche Indian leaders, that is one indignity
So every now and then, the Mapuche set ablaze the trees and the trucks of
companies that plant them. Ancalaf is charged with burning five vehicles as
part of a smoldering, low-tech war that also is being fought with
slingshots, chain saws and homemade shotguns.
Just as often, however, the Mapuche fight back with peaceful means. Medicine
women called machis pray for the spirits of the water and the earth to stand
fast against the "exotic species" transplanted from North America and
Australia. On the Internet, activists spread word of their struggles, making
allies in Sweden, France and other countries where leftists have ties to
Latin American compatriots.
"We've entered into a period of darkness of water, and this is bringing
to the brink of extinction," said Rayen Kuyeh, a Mapuche poet and
playwright. "If wanting to defend the spirits of the water, the trees, the
birds, the earth and the air makes me a terrorist, then go ahead and call me
The environmental impact of commercial tree farming in Chile has helped feed
a renaissance of activism and cultural pride among the nation's 1 million
Mapuche, the original inhabitants of what is now south-central Chile and
parts of Argentina. The Mapuche held off European incursions onto their land
for centuries, signing a 1641 treaty with the Spanish crown that was later
thrown out by an independent Chile, before the tribe was finally vanquished
in the late 19th century.
Relegated to reservations - called "reductions" here - most Mapuche
as impoverished farmers or field hands or live as a marginalized minority in
"Our objective is the recuperation of the territory of the Mapuche people,"
Ancalaf, 40, said in a jailhouse interview. "We want to control our destiny
and shape our future according to the cosmology of our people."
Held without trial since November under anti-terrorism laws passed during
the dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, Ancalaf and a dozen other
militant leaders have become heroes to many Mapuche, even those who disagree
with their tactics.
"The Chilean state is criminalizing the struggle of the Mapuche,"
Alfredo Seguel, a former government worker and a member now of Konapewman
Mapuche, a group of university-trained professionals who have forgone
big-city life to return to their ethnic roots.
"The movement to recuperate our territory isn't just political,"
"It's also a social, cultural and religious struggle."
In the last few years, the Mapuche have won mayoral and city council
elections for the first time. In the city of Temuco, Mapuche university
students have taken over abandoned properties and established communal
Activists have opened a Mapuche pharmacy in Temuco to dispense traditional
herbal medicines that are disappearing in the wild in part because of the
effects of tree farms, which now cover millions of acres of the Mapuche's
Impoverished indigenous farmers have formed tribal councils to draft town
constitutions and lobby local governments for the return of communal land.
In all, there are as many as 100 local and regional Mapuche organizations in
this region of Chile.
"We are seeing a revitalization of all aspects of Mapuche culture, even
the Mapuche language, which was beginning to die out," said Alejandro
Herrera, a professor at the University of the Frontier in Temuco.
"Until recently, Mapuche parents wouldn't let their children speak
Mapudungun because having a Mapuche accent when you spoke Spanish was a sign
of backwardness," Herrera added. "Now, we see groups of young people forming
study circles to learn the language."
Pablo Huaiquilao is from a Mapuche family that left its impoverished rural
village two generations ago. In college, he met other students who were
starting to embrace their tribal identity.
"I wanted to know who I was, where I came from," he said. So he sat
talked with his grandmother. She spun a familial epic of land takeovers,
massacres and the time Swiss colonists - sent by the Chilean government as
homesteaders - set fire to the village's wheat harvest.
"It was like putting together a jigsaw puzzle," he said.
In the Chilean media, the modern "Mapuche conflict" is most often
as a struggle between the order and reason of the country's European
heritage and an indigenous culture dominated by "superstition" and violence.
"Christian Group Attacks Machis," read a recent headline in the Temuco
newspaper El Diario Austral, which detailed one religious leader's attempt
to wean his followers away from indigenous remedies and healers. The
Christian distributed fliers that read: "Brother, if you don't want to be in
bad standing with the true God, reject these customs that the Mapuche
culture offers you."
Farmers See Threat
For Manuel Riesco, a sugar beet farmer and president of a growers
organization in Temuco, the indigenous movement is a threat to farmers, some
of whom have had their homes burned down and their lives threatened because
of property disputes with neighboring Mapuche.
"This is not going to be the next Chiapas," he said, referring to
southern Mexican state where indigenous rebels have battled government
troops. "We're talking about 200 hotheads, and those hotheads have 20
leaders who are now in jail."
Many farmers here are descendants of Swiss, German and Italian immigrants
who settled in the region in the early 20th century. In the years since,
descendants of the settlers have acquired more land thanks to a series of
decrees and laws that have eaten away at indigenous communal holdings. Only
in recent years have the Mapuche started to fight back.
"This is becoming like the Wild West," Riesco said.
Smoldering for decades, the conflict over land began to catch fire again in
the late 1990s. Like others here, Riesco says the globalization of the
Chilean economy and the government's free-trade policies were the cause. The
grain and dairy farms that were once the cornerstone of the regional economy
have been hard hit by cheaper American exports. A farmer who once employed
dozens of Mapuche as laborers can find himself forced to leave land fallow
or sell out to the forestry companies.
Thousands of former laborers have been thrown out of work and forced to
migrate to the cities. Two-thirds of the Mapuche in Chile now live in
Santiago, the capital and largest city.
As the Mapuche are forced to leave the countryside, trees seem to take their
place - clusters of eucalyptus and pine planted in old wheat fields or where
native forests stood. Harvested by machine, the pine and eucalyptus trees
are processed into lumber and paper pulp for North American and Asian
The companies that own those trees are constant targets of protest,
including the Santiago-based Mininco, which owns many of the trees around
In November, Mapuche activist Edmundo Lemun, 17, was shot and killed by
police during a protest at tree farms in Ercilla. On Jan. 20, more than a
dozen hooded Mapuche with homemade shotguns and Molotov cocktails invaded a
Mininco workers' camp outside the town, setting fire to the living quarters.
In confrontations with police and forestry company guards, youths cover
their faces with hoods and scarves and sometimes hurl rocks with slingshots,
a traditional weapon used in battles past. "We're not in conflict with
anyone," said Francisco Urzelain, a spokesman for Mininco. The controversy
is ancient history, he said, as relevant to modern Chile as American Indian
claims to Massachusetts.
"The Mapuche were here before the Spanish came. We bought this land 20
ago. No one has presented any evidence in court to say we bought the land
illegally," Urzelain added before declining further comment. Mininco and
other companies also have become the target of a public relations campaign
led by European and American activists, including the San Francisco-based
Most of the trees planted in the region are Monterey pine - a species native
to California - and eucalyptus from Australia, says Aaron Sanger of
ForestEthics. The density of the planting causes ground water to disappear,
he says. Often, the trees grow so close together that wildlife can't walk
"Those trees are like an army marching across Chile, consuming Mapuche
culture," Sanger said.
Native trees such as the canelo and the luma, both integral to Mapuche
religious practices, are being driven toward extinction. According to one
Chilean government study, all native trees outside national parks could
disappear by 2015.
Violent resistance to the tree farms first exploded in 1997, when Mapuche
residents set fire to logging trucks outside the town of Lumaco, whose name
means "waters of the luma tree."
Herrera, the University of the Frontier professor, said the incident came
after years during which the Mapuche tried unsuccessfully to lobby local
"They exhausted all the procedures of the democratic system," Herrera
"A week before they set fire to the trucks, they traveled to Temuco in a
last effort to meet with the governor. But he wouldn't even let them in the
Six years later, Lumaco's Mapuche residents are still seething. Last year,
group of men wearing ski masks and hoods used axes and chain saws to level
eucalyptus trees at the nearby Alaska Tree Farm.
Today, several leaders from the Lumaco area are behind bars, charged with
destroying forest company property. As elsewhere, water shortages contribute
to the conflict.
"Twenty years ago, I don't think anyone in our community imagined that
day we would have to bring in water trucks to provide for the basic needs of
our families," said Alfonso Rayman, a leader of the Nagche Mapuche, a
subgroup that includes several communities around Lumaco.
In an attempt to soothe such passions, the local government has provided
town residents with cisterns to store water. But such programs, Rayman says,
don't address the root cause of the problem.
The village sits in a narrow valley surrounded by thick green clusters of
trees, each a company farm. For the Mapuche to feel free, Rayman says, those
trees must disappear.
"The Chilean government understands the indigenous problem as a problem
poverty," he said. "But what drives us is the return of our land and the end
of this invasion."
A few days earlier, in a small act of defiance, a group of boys had set a
fire in a hillside meadow near the town, Rayman said with a slight smile.
The blaze ran up the hillside and killed hundreds of saplings.
In the face of such resistance, the national government is trying a
carrot-and-stick approach. It works to improve schools and other services in
the region while adopting a get-tough attitude toward the most militant
"We've worked very hard with the forestry companies and the indigenous
communities" to resolve the conflicts, said Ramiro Pizarro, governor of
Chile's 9th Region, which includes Temuco, Ercilla and Collipulli. "And
there are people who want to destroy that work."
For those militants, Chile is using its anti-terrorism laws, which deprive
detainees of the right to a speedy trial and allow prosecutors to withhold
evidence from defense attorneys.
Ancalaf, the Mapuche organizer from Collipulli, remains defiant.
"We call on all the Mapuche communities to begin a process of recuperating
their territory," he said. "Whether they decide to do it with violence or
without is a decision of each community."
Still, he makes clear that he believes fire is an especially effective tool
in advancing the cause.
"If it hadn't been for that, the government wouldn't even be listening
the problems of the Mapuche people," he said.
(end of article)
To support the Mapuche's struggle against the tree farm army, send this
Mr. Robert Mellor
Chief Executive Officer
BMHC, parent of BMC West
Four Embarcadero Center
San Francisco, CA 94111
Via facsimile: (415) 627-9119
Via email to his Chief Administrative Officer: email@example.com
Dear Mr. Mellor:
I urge you to instruct BMC West immediately to seek alternatives to buying
wood products linked to the destruction of native peoples and native forests
in Chile. These products especially include those originating with Arauco
Wood Products (Arauco).
U.S. demand for forest products is the driving force behind the destruction
of the world's last ancient forests and indigenous peoples. Please join
other companies, such as Ryland Homes, Andersen Windows and Golden State
Lumber in adopting purchasing policies that will end their traffic in wood
products from companies like Arauco.