Chile reserves seats for indigenous as it prepares to rewrite Constitution

FILE PHOTO: Chilean Mapuche indigenous take part in a demonstration against Chile's government, in Santiago, Chile November 3, 2019. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido/File Photo

SANTIAGO (Reuters) - Chilean lawmakers late on Tuesday approved a bill to reserve 17 of 155 seats for representatives of indigenous communities in its upcoming constitutional convention, a measure lauded as “historic” by the government of center-right President Sebastian Pinera.

Chileans in October voted overwhelmingly in favor of rewriting the country’s dictatorship-era Constitution, seeking to enshrine greater equality in healthcare, pensions and education. The vote was a central demand of mass protests over inequality in late 2019.

The majority of voters said they wanted the new charter to be drafted by a specially elected body of citizens - split equally between men and women - but the initial vote did not reserve seats for Chile´s indigenous groups.

The legislation approved on Tuesday establishes a set number of seats for each of the South American nation´s principal indigenous communities. The Mapuche, the largest and best-known indigenous group, are set to receive 7 of the 17 seats.

“We want to thank Congress and ... the Senate in its unanimous vote, for this tremendous historical milestone in recognition of indigenous peoples, and for taking a another step towards repaying our historical debt (to them),” Social Development minister Karla Rubilar told reporters.

The convention will be elected in April and have up to a year to agree to a draft text, with proposals approved by a two-thirds majority. Chileans will then vote again on whether they accept the text or want to revert to the previous constitution.

Among issues likely to be at the fore of debate are powers of collective bargaining, water, land and indigenous rights, and the education, pension and healthcare systems.

Around 2.2 million, or 13%, of the 17 million people surveyed in Chile´s 2017 census identified themselves as indigenous, according to the country´s National Statistics Institute.

Reporting by Dave Sherwood; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall