Chile: Indians reject an Indian Affairs Ministry

By Eva Vergara
Santiago, Chile, (AP) 10-09

President Michelle Bachelet proposed during late September to create a Ministry for Indigenous Affairs to place more weight on policies affecting Chile’s Indian communities, many of which are mired in poverty and demanding political autonomy.

Bachelet said the ministry would allow decisions about Indian affairs to be made at the highest level of government. But the proposal was met with disapproval from the Mapuche Indians, Chile’s largest tribe, who continue to protest by occupying farmland and burning farm machinery.

“The only thing this proposal will accomplish is to raise a curtain of smoke on the issue allowing them to avoid straight answers to our demands,” said Jose Santos Millao, a Mapuche representative.

More than 4 percent of the nation’s 17 million citizens belong to one of its nine indigenous tribes. The Mapuche – about 700,000 – are spread over poverty-ridden communities in southern Chile and in the Santiago area.

The tribe had a series of violent confrontations with the Chilean government in August over the eviction of Indians from seized land. The violence resulted in one Indian death and multiple injuries.

Last month, dozens of indigenous communities agreed to form the Mapuche Territorial Alliance to fight for political autonomy and press demands to end poverty.

“We want sufficient means to work our own lands,” Millao said.

Bachelet defended the proposal to create a ministry for Indian affairs, calling it “a step in the right direction.”

“Chilean society has come a long way and now acknowledges the need to embrace its multicultural roots, recognizing diversity and the cultural wealth this will bring about,” she said.

Mapuches resisted the Spanish conquest for 300 years before Chile’s government finally pushed them into communities in southern Chile.

Neighboring Peru is contending with a bloody rebellion of Amazon Indians protesting government efforts to allow private development of their traditional lands. In Ecuador, hundreds of Indians briefly blocked the Pan American highway in several provinces this week to protest new water, mining and oil laws.