BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The plight of Chile’s indigenous Mapuche people and their struggle for land rights will come under the spotlight as Pope Francis travels to the country on Monday amid growing tension between the Mapuche and loggers and farmers.
The Argentine pontiff will visit the city of Temuco, the capital of Chile’s impoverished southern Araucania province, where he is expected to meet with members of the Mapuche.
The region of sweeping valleys and forested hills has been the epicenter of a long-simmering conflict and sporadic outbursts of violence between security forces and the Mapuche as part of a struggle over land they claim as their ancestral home.
The Mapuche say when the Chilean army invaded their territory in the late 19th century, their lands were taken and many given to settlers, and forestry and logging companies.
“The Pope will visit a very symbolic area – one where land from the Mapuche was seized by the military campaign,” said Hernando Silva, head of legal at Citizen Watch, a watchdog on indigenous rights.
“The human rights situation faced the Mapuche people is the biggest and most complicated one in Chile.”
For decades, the Mapuche, Chile’s largest indigenous group, have been fighting to recover their lost lands, sometimes by violent means.
The conflict has intensified in recent years and Mapuche insurgents have clashed with police, set up road blocks and burned houses, trucks, and forest plantations.
The government has so far returned little fertile land, according to Pamela Munoz, a Mapuche, who heads the Kume Mongen Foundation that works to promote Mapuche culture.
“The government has returned lands but not lands that are fit and apt for agricultural development,” Munoz said.
About two-thirds of the Mapuche, who make up around 10 percent of the 18 million population, live in poverty in cities across Chile, while the rest mostly live in the southern provinces of Araucania and Bio Bio.
Logging and forestry plantations have harmed the environment and indigenous traditional way of life.
“Many Mapuche communities are affected by non-native trees plantations, such as pine and eucalyptus forests, planted by large corporations,” Munoz said.
“These not only destroy native trees, from which many of our people live, but also deeply hurts the water supply.”
To stem the conflict, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, urged Chile to begin talks with the Mapuche.
“It cannot be that there is constant violence and counter violence because that’s really going to decimate the population of the Mapuche,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
In June, outgoing Chilean President Michelle Bachelet asked for forgiveness from the Mapuche people for “errors and horrors” committed by the state and pledged to build roads and provide drinking water in remote areas and more rapidly transfer land.
Pope Francis, the first Latin American pope, will visit the majority Catholic nation of Chile over four days.
“He (the pope) is very conscious about the issues of indigenous people so I’m sure he will say something about that and it would really help raise visibility,” Tauli-Corpuz said.
But the Pope is likely to face protests from some Mapuche during this tour as the community has blamed the Catholic Church for complicity in the seizure of Mapuche lands.
In recent years, churches have been the target of arson attacks carried out by a resistance Mapuche group calling itself ‘Weichan Auka Mapu’.
According to Munoz, many Mapuche will be sceptical that the Pope’s visit will make any real difference to their lives.
“The Pope’s visit will generate media interest but the Pope doesn’t represent any authority for us,” Munoz said.
After Chile, Pope Francis heads to Peru and the jungle city of Puerto Maldonado to focus on the problems facing Amazon indigenous communities struggling against deforestation.
Reporting by Anastasia Moloney @anastasiabogota, Editing by Ros Russell.; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org