19 January 2011

Flood of Indigenous Demands a Challenge for Chile

Inter Press Service (IPS)
by Daniela Estrada

SANTIAGO (IPS) - While many are sceptical that the Chilean government will deliver on its promise of a shift in indigenous policy, the deadline is looming for the administration of Sebastián Piñera to live up to Inter-American Commission on Human Rights recommendations with respect to imprisoned members of the Mapuche community.

"The challenge for this year is preventing a situation where it is the courts that intervene, as a last resort, to try to solve the demands of both the indigenous communities and the owners of disputed lands" claimed by native groups, Jorge Contesse, director of the Human Rights Centre at the private Diego Portales University, told IPS.

"The political authorities have to take a hand in the matter," the lawyer said.

Of the nine indigenous groups officially recognised in this South American country of 17 million people, the Mapuche are by far the largest, with more than a million members.

On Jan. 6, members of the Rapa Nui community filed a complaint of police brutality, which is now before the military justice system. Between September and December, members of the group were violently evicted by carabineros (militarised police) from land that they claim as their own on Easter Island.

On Sept. 9, 29 Rapa Nui clans asked the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) to grant precautionary measures to protect them, a request that is under consideration.

"All of this is happening in the context of a conflict where the Rapa Nui are laying claim to land and demanding self-government, self-determination and immigration control," Camila Labra, a lawyer with the non-governmental Citizen Observatory, which is backing the request to the IACHR, told IPS.

Easter Island, a tourist destination famous for the nearly 900 huge mysterious rock statues that dot the landscape, is located 3,500 km off Chile's Pacific coast and was annexed by this country in 1888. The native inhabitants are of Polynesian origin, and some of them are threatening to declare independence if their demands are not met.

The volcanic rock island is one of the most remote inhabited places in the world, and has a population of 3,800. The Rapa Nui people, who make up 60 percent of the population, want to restrict immigration by mainland Chileans and foreigners.

"The more stubborn the authorities' refusal to engage in dialogue, the more radical the indigenous demands will become," Contesse said. "The more participation by and consultation with indigenous people increases, the more social conflicts will decrease. That is what the government should understand and act on."

The Chilean government has until early February to respond to the IACHR about compliance with the recommendations outlined by the Organisation of American States (OAS) human rights body with respect to cases of violations of the human rights of Mapuche community members sentenced in 2003 under the controversial counter-terrorism law.

Some Mapuche areas in southern Chile have a long history of conflict over what the native communities claim as their ancestral land.

Although more than 600,000 hectares of land have been returned to indigenous communities by the authorities since 1990, activists stage periodic occupations of land, much of it owned by logging companies, and a number of them have been prosecuted and sentenced under the draconian anti-terrorism law.

Abuses against the Mapuche people are also widespread.

An international mission convened in 2007 by the non-governmental Observatory for Indigenous Peoples’ Rights, which included representatives from groups like Amnesty International, Norwegian People’s Aid and the Argentine Centre for Legal and Social Studies (CELS), documented dozens of complaints of abuses, such as violent raids of Mapuche homes in which the police often destroy household goods and objects of cultural value, mistreat elderly people, women and children, and hurl racist epithets.

The strategy to take their cases to the courts has brought the Mapuche people a few victories.

On Jan. 4, the Supreme Court accepted a case brought by the Citizen Observatory on behalf of a Mapuche community in the southern city of Lanco who were not consulted with respect to the construction of a garbage dump near their homes.

Prior consultation with native peoples with regard to any project that affects their communities or land is stipulated by International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention 169 Concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples, in effect in Chile since 2009.

In the meantime, the Anide Foundation and the Children and Youth NGOs Network of Chile (ONG-IJ) are preparing a report to present at a hearing that the IACHR granted them during its next period of sessions at its Washington headquarters in March. The report will describe the "systematic pattern" of police brutality against Mapuche communities, which has particular effects on children and teenagers, psychologist Andrea Iglesias with Anide, a child advocacy organisation, told IPS. They "have been victims of wounds by rubber bullets, intoxication by tear gas and harassment in their schools, and often witnesses to threats of violence," she said.

The two organisations launched a citizens' campaign on Dec. 10 to protest the human rights violations suffered by three young Mapuche Indians prosecuted under the anti-terrorism law even though they were minors. The three youngsters are being held in preventive custody in a juvenile detention centre run by the National Minors Service (SENAME) in the town of Chol-Chol, in the southern region of Araucanía.

The organisations are demanding that the three be released, based on the approval last year of reforms to the counter-terrorism law that stipulate that the severe legislation cannot be applied in the case of adolescents.
On Jan. 19, members of several human rights groups will visit the detention centre where the three are being held, "to jointly assess what situation they are in and what guarantees they have," Iglesias said.

"The judicialisation and criminalisation of persons, communities and organisations that defend their rights is increasingly seen as a strategy that those in power are trying to institutionalise," Milka Castro, director of the juridical anthropology and interculturalism studies programme at the University of Chile law school, told IPS.
The aim is "to silence legitimate demands that are not compatible with the state's export-oriented productive and extractive policies," she said. "And the most worrisome thing is that it is not an isolated policy, but is occurring throughout the continent."

In a column published early this month in the La Tercera newspaper, presidential adviser Sebastián Donoso stated that "the current government came to power with the conviction that public policies towards indigenous people were in need of a major shift, and that trust levels urgently needed to be shored up." Donoso, the government's expert on indigenous affairs, said significant steps have been taken in five areas: cultural promotion; the improvement of mechanisms of land distribution and restitution and productive development; a restructuring of institutions; the creation of effective processes of participation; and the adoption of an integral focus on development.  Castro, however, says "the current authorities' knowledge on the state of indigenous rights in the international legal order is scarce and biased, and they have, why not say it, a discriminatory and racist attitude and conduct." (END/2011)

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