Indigenous people find voice in Chile’s constitution rewrite

Juan Gonzalez/Reuters
Mapuche spiritual authority and constituent candidate Francisca Linconao signs a document before casting her vote in the election for governors, mayors, councilors, and constitutional assembly members to draft a new constitution to replace Chile's charter, in Temuco, Chile, May 16, 2021.

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Chile has begun a historic process of writing a new constitution following the election of a 155-person constitutional assembly over the weekend. The rewrite is already hailed as a democratic victory by activists, with the assembly made up of record numbers of women and a majority of independent members. That includes 17 seats filled by Indigenous people. 

Chile’s current constitution was written and passed during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, something many citizens say delegitimizes the document. The idea to reform the constitution emerged during 2019 anti-government protests that swept the nation, demanding greater respect for human rights. But in a region where environmental defenders – very often members of Indigenous communities – were killed in record numbers in 2020 alone, the strong presence of Indigenous voices in rewriting Chile’s Constitution serves as a beacon of hope. Many are optimistic it will go beyond that to become a model for Latin American governance.

“It means we are involved in high-level politics and we believe we can make a difference in how political parties treat our communities,” in Chile and around the world, says Ingrid Conejeros, an educator who ran as a candidate for one of the seven seats reserved for the Mapuche community.

Why We Wrote This

Chile’s current constitution does not recognize the nation’s Indigenous groups, but their representation at the table where the country’s charter will be rewritten may signal hope for a new model of governance across Latin America.

When Margarita Virginia Vargas Lopez thinks back on her childhood, she recalls boating with her family to patches of land shrouded by deep forests. It was a “nomadic life connected to nature” in Jetarktétqal, her remote community accessible only by water in southern Patagonia.

That is, until the dictatorship of Augosto Pinochet in the late 1970s, when authorities sent her community packing to nearby cities.

“They harmed us. They broke our traditions,” says Ms. Vargas. “We were inserted into a Western world that didn’t understand us.”

Why We Wrote This

Chile’s current constitution does not recognize the nation’s Indigenous groups, but their representation at the table where the country’s charter will be rewritten may signal hope for a new model of governance across Latin America.

Now, she’s hoping to strengthen those traditions – and have a say in how the Chilean government governs not only her ancestral territories, but also the future of the entire country. Over the weekend, Ms. Vargas was elected to represent her Kawésqar Indigenous community in Chile’s historic process to rewrite its constitution. She’s one of 17 Indigenous representatives in the 155-person-strong assembly that will convene to write a new constitution from scratch over the next nine months. These representatives, who make up part of the nearly 13% of Chileans who identify as Indigenous, are going from no recognition under the current constitution to getting a seat at the table to draft the new governing document.

Chile’s current charter, written and passed in the midst of the Pinochet dictatorship, is one of the only constitutions in Latin America that doesn’t acknowledge Indigenous people. Calls for a new constitution emerged after Chile was rocked by anti-government protests in October 2019, sparked by rising costs of living and widespread inequality. The May 16 election results were historic in the makeup of the Chileans who will draft the new fundamental principles that will guide the government:  77 women, 17 Indigenous people, and six constituents who identify as LGBTQ. Some activists hail this diversity in representation as a democratic victory.

In a region where record numbers of land defenders – nearly a third of whom were Indigenous – were killed in 2020 alone, the strong presence of Indigenous voices in rewriting Chile’s Constitution serves as a beacon of hope. Many are optimistic it will go beyond that to become a model for Latin American governance.

“It means we are involved in high-level politics,” says Ingrid Conejeros, an educator who ran as a candidate for one of the seven seats reserved for the Mapuche community. “We believe we can make a difference in how political parties treat our communities” in Chile and around the world.

Land protector or “enemy of the state”?

Latin America is the most dangerous region in the world for environmental activists, according to the London-based nongovernmental organization Global Witness. Many defenders of the land who are murdered for their work protecting the environment in Latin America are Indigenous. The fact that this population is excluded from Chile’s Constitution has allowed the non-Indigenous majority in Chile to “oppress and dominate,” says Salvador Millaleo, a member of the Mapuche people and a law professor at the University of Chile.

While the elected Indigenous representatives in the constitutional assembly will each bring their own respective demands to the rewrite process, they share a vision to create a plurinational, multicultural document, Mr. Millaleo says. As a result, the new charter will enshrine values of equality, he says.

Courtesy of Erick Valenzuela Bello
Academic Elisa Loncon (center), pictured here with her family, is one of seven Mapuche constituents who will write Chile's new constitution.

For many of the protesters who took to the streets back in 2019, the nation’s constitution was a target because of its perceived illegitimacy. Created during a dictatorship, the document failed to adequately protect basic human and environmental rights, while guaranteeing protections for businesses and markets, critics say. While citizens have struggled in recent decades, the private sector has thrived, lining the pockets of a wealthy minority.

“The dignity of all Chileans was violated by the neoliberal model [written into Chile’s 1980 constitution]. The Indigenous were able to understand and engage with this fight,” says Elisa Loncon, who is an academic in Indigenous languages and an elected Mapuche constitutional candidate.

From industrialized salmon farms harming traditional Kawésqar fishing communities to deforestation wiping out Mapuche lands, Indigenous groups hope their voices will aid in protecting the environment – and their communities’ rights to protest – in the new constitution.

In La Araucanía, home to the Mapuche, Chile’s largest Indigenous group, deep forests are covered by century-old araucaria trees. The sky-scraping foliage is identifiable by towering trunks that resist the lava flow of the region’s numerous active volcanoes. It’s a place of sacred importance to the Mapuche.

Over the past 30 years, Chile’s forestry industry has boomed, growing from 400,000 hectares (988,000 acres) in 1974 to 3 million (7.4 million acres) in 2019, usurping Mapuche land.

“Chilean democracy ... does not defend the rights of the Chilean people; rather, it defends economic interests of transnational companies,” says Ms. Loncon.

The Mapuche have long denounced private companies for appropriating their ancestral lands, and accuse the state of repression and discrimination.

As a result, “we’re branded as internal enemies of the state,” says Ms. Conejeros.

Gram Slattery/Reuters/File
A logging truck passes by a sign reading, "Area monitored 24 hours," on the main highway in Chile's Araucania region on June 7, 2016. Many Indigenous environmental activists in Chile have been accused of terrorism or had their protests repressed by the government. Many hope that having Indigenous voices in the rewriting of the constitution will prevent that kind of attitude in the future.

In 2014, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights found the Chilean state guilty of criminalizing social protest by misusing terrorism laws to justify the repression of the Mapuche.

In recent years, the broader population has come to recognize this mistreatment, Ms. Conejeros says, supporting the Mapuche – and the broader Indigenous community’s – fight for recognition and equal treatment by the government.

When the 2019 anti-government protests erupted, the Mapuche Wenufoye flag was waved among crowds of city-dwelling Chileans. “It was a symbol of [the broader] fight,” Ms. Conejeros says.

A “living culture”

Yet, not all of Chile’s Indigenous people see the constitutional rewrite as an opportunity.

“It’s an instrument the state can use to domesticate the Indigenous people,” says Alberto Curamil, a prominent Mapuche leader.

In 2019, Mr. Curamil won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize after organizing a series of protests to halt a large hydroelectric dam project in Mapuche territory. He was arrested shortly after the protests for alleged criminal activity and spent over a year in jail before being released without charges.

“The [state] lacks compromise and doesn’t value human rights,” Mr. Curamil says.

Ms. Conejeros understands his perspective – distrust of the government is expected among Indigenous communities, she says. It’s “the same state that has tried to exterminate us, robbed us, and impoverishes us.”

Nevertheless, the constitutional assembly is an opportunity to create alliances between Indigenous communities and the wider Chilean public.

“We are a living culture,” says Ms. Vargas, referring to the 3,448-strong population of the Kawésqar community. “Despite our small numbers, we are alive with our own rights and duties – and it is my duty to teach others about my people.”  

Editor's note: A previous version of the story misstated Margarita Virginia Vargas Lopez's last name.

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