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Trucks set on fire in southern Chile as tensions rise over Mapuche land claims

Despite an apology from the president in June, the Mapuche communities of southern Chile have many grievances over their civil rights and control of their ancestral lands. Promised land transfers have been slow.

Local authorities said the 18 trucks which were used to transport food had been set on fire in the early hours of Saturday morning at a parking lot near the southern city of Temuco. 

The governor of the Araucania region, Nora Barrientos, told local radio that evidence gathered at the scene linked the fires to Weichan Auka Mapu, a resistance group formed from within the indigenous Mapuche communities who have been struggling for the recovery of their lands for decades.

Barrientos said: "We believe that some of their members have been detained and that could be one of the reasons why this happened."

The Mapuche communities are among the poorest in Chile and their leaders have accused state and private companies of taking their ancestral land, draining its natural resources and using undue violence against them. Mapuche peoples retain just 5 percent of their ancestral lands in the Araucania region.

Comments on social media Saturday suggested the trucks were "torched in solidarity with the Mapuche political prisoners & in memory of Luis Marileo and Patricio González."

Mapuche community members mark 9 years since the police killing of student Matias Catrileo during a land protest in January 2008

Mapuche community members mark nine years since student Matias Catrileo was killed by police during a land protest in January 2008

Death over horses

Marileo and Gonzalez were two young Mapuche men who went with three friends on June 10 to complain to landowner and former security official Ignacio Gallegos Pereira in a dispute over the ownership of horses. Farm workers who witnessed the event told local media that the Mapuche men were attacked with shotguns and other weapons. Marileo and Gonzalez were killed. Police claimed the men had gone to the farm "with the intention of stealing" but that report was refuted by neighbors and farm workers.

The killings were just two in a long series of conflicts over Mapuche land claims and civil rights. When logging companies began felling native forests in the 1980s, some Mapuche began to fight back, setting fire to plantations, churches and other structures. Many Mapuche have served jail terms and some resorted to hunger strikes.

Supporters wait for Mapuche doctor Francisca Linconao who went on hunger strike while in jail in December 2016.

Supporters wait for Mapuche doctor Francisca Linconao who went on hunger strike while in jail in December 2016. She was accused of arson despite the main witness retracting her statement.

Presidential apology, Papal visit

On June 23, at a ceremony at La Moneda presidential palace in the capital Santiago, Chilean President Michelle Bachelet asked for forgiveness from the Mapuche people for "errors and horrors" committed by the state. "We've failed as a country," Bachelet said

She announced a project to create an Indigenous Peoples' Minstry and funding for roads and the provision of drinking water in remote areas. Programs to speed up the restoration of Mapuche ancestral lands were also promised.

Bachelet's comments came shortly after the Vatican announced Pope Francis would be coming to Chile in 2018 with a visit to the city of Temuco on the itinerary.

"We will have, I hope, good news to give him," Bachelet said in June.

Army-led nineteenth century land grab

While official population statistics record over 600,000 Mapuche in Chile, Mapuche political organizations say the figure is far higher; about 928,000. Chile's total population in 2016 was just under 18 million.

The Mapuche community lands stretched across territory in both Chile and Argentina. The Mapuche remained independent throughout the colonial period and did not become part of the Chilean state until the 1880s, when the Chilean army invaded and occupied their territory. The Mapuche were removed to reservations while their territories were divided and taken over by powerful landowners.

Various resistance and land reclamation efforts followed and in 1993, an Indigenous Law recognized Mapuche collective land rights. Since 2013 the Weichan Auka Mapu group has been one of the groups active in claiming ancestral lands from the agricultural and forestry concerns which currently control them.

jm/kl (EFE, Reuters)

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