Chile's battleground of culture vs. profit

Logging industry grows a forest of controversy on tracts claimed by indigenous people.

As Jose Quintrel scans the rolling hills of Domingo Trangol, the rural Mapuche Indian community where he lives in south central Chile, he sees more than eucalyptus trees, wheat fields, and grazing sheep.

"This is a battlefield," he says.

Logging companies own a portion of this and other parcels throughout the region, but the Mapuches consider the land their ancestral territory. What has resulted is a frequently violent struggle, pitting the indigenous group, who fear that their agriculture-based, subsistence culture can't survive without more terrain, against the loggers, who say they paid for their real estate fair and square and are a vital part of Chile's economy.

"A very strong cultural clash is taking place," says Jose Nain of the All Lands Council, a militant Mapuche group in Temuco, the regional capital. "There's a gulf between our culture and the economic powers."

It's a common scenario throughout the Americas, says Charles Hale, associate director of the University of Texas' Long Institute of Latin American Studies - indigenous cultures fighting to survive amid encroaching development

The Yanomamis of northern Brazil have protested prospecting - and attacks - by gold miners on lands they consider sacred. Nicaragua's Mayagnas are involved in a court battle over alleged illegal expropriation of ancestral lands by the government for use by logging companies.

Chilean President Ricardo Lagos says the Mapuche issue is a priority. The challenge is to pay what he says is a historical debt to the indigenous group while maintaining the logging industry, one of Chile's most profitable export enterprises.

The Mapuches, Chile's largest indigenous group, accounting for about 1 million of the nation's 15 million population, lost much of their native lands during government expropriations in the 1880s.

While the Indians claim the moral high ground as historically oppressed, logging companies are quick to point out their sector's economic importance. The industry - dominated by Forestal Mininco and Bosques Arauco, Chilean firms that have borne the brunt of the Mapuche attacks - accounted for $2.37 billion of Chilean exports in 2000, more than 10 percent of the total, and employed 120,000.

"It's not like the logging companies took land from the Mapuches," says Carlos Weber, head of the government's National Forestry Corp., which regulates the logging industry. The logging firms, which began to flourish in the mid-1970s when the government first started providing subsidies to the industry, acquired the lands from private hands and planted them with renewable, non-native species like pine and eucalyptus, he says. Eucalyptus is used in producing office paper.

The Chilean Wood Corp. (Corma), an industry lobby group, estimates that Mapuche land occupations, torchings of forests, destruction of logging company machinery, and attacks on workers - have cost the firms $15 million since late 1998. Among recent skirmishes was a Mapuche protest in February, which has stalled tree-cutting around Domingo Trangol.

Many cases stemming from the incidents, aimed at pressuring the companies to cede land, slowly wind through the courts. Meanwhile, the government's National Indigenous Development Corp., formed in 1993, tries to sort out Mapuche land claims and other concerns.

The pine forests around the Mapuche community of Santa Elisa, northwest of Temuco, bear the scars of the conflict. In one patch, the trees are burned black, with stumps for branches or dead, red pine needles - after a January attempt to force Millalemu, the logging subsidiary of Terranova, a holding company controlled by Swiss businessmen, to retreat from the area.

Juan Bautista Ancapi, a Mapuche leader in the community, explains: "There are so many families and they have no land."

The land shortage has forced many Mapuches to the cities, where they tend to get menial, low-paying jobs, far from their traditional place in the countryside, says Mr. Quintrel. "It's great here in the country, it's relaxed," he says. "But that's not enough, we need enough land so we can survive."

Through most of the 19th century, the Mapuches held dominion over an area covering 20,000 square miles of south central Chile. But government expropriations, colonization, and land deals the Mapuches say took advantage of their unfamiliarity with the Spanish language and the Chilean legal system have whittled that to 1,200 square miles on scattered plots in the area.

Quintrel lives with his extended family - parents, siblings, nieces and nephews - on a plot that he says is too small to sus-tain them. Other Mapuches face a similar squeeze, he says.

Cristian Figueroa, Millalemu's legal representative, says the company lets Mapuches who live adjacent to the company's holdings freely traverse the land and use limited quantities of wood. The company is negotiating to sell its 766-acre Santa Elisa plot to the Chilean government for distribution to Mapuches.

But most logging companies are unwilling to part with much terrain.

Marcelo Martini, head of the Corma office in Temuco, says land isn't the answer. "The Mapuches' main problem is extreme poverty," he says.

The Mapuches have lower literacy, employment, and income levels than Chile's overall population. Mr. Martini says training and education are key so that they can get well-paying jobs in the mainstream economy, with logging companies or other enterprises.

While acknowledging the need for more education, Mapuche leaders reject assimilation. "If we all become logging company workers or professionals, we lose our cultural identity and the essence of what it is to be a Mapuche," says Mr. Nain.

Lagos's government is trying to address both aspects of the issue, purchasing land for distribution to Mapuches and earmarking $133 million in national and international aid for indigenous health, education, and cultural programs over the next six years.

Still, Mapuche leaders are adamant. "The communities are rising up because there was a clear usurpation of land," says Nain. "There's nothing else to it."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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