Chile’s indigenous eye long-sought recognition in constitution rewrite

By Sebastian Silva

Santiago, May 12 (EFE).- Chile’s upcoming constituent assembly process has sparked hope for change in many sectors of society and particularly among indigenous people, who represent 12.8 percent of the population and have been seeking constitutional recognition for more than two centuries.

For the first time in the nation’s history native peoples will be involved in drafting a new charter and will account for 17 of the seats in the 155-seat Constitutional Convention, whose members are to be elected this weekend.

Of those 17 seats reserved for indigenous communities, seven will be held by members of the most numerous Mapuche ethnic group,

The current indigenous movement, according to Fernando Pairican, a historian at the University of Santiago, began to take shape after a 1973 right-wing military coup led by Gen. Augusto Pinochet ousted socialist President Salvador Allende.

Under the strongman’s rule the Mapuches lost lands they had recovered under Allende, while the Pinochet regime’s regionalization policies led to the atomization of the Quechua and Aymara indigenous communities.

The Rapa Nui, for their part, suffered a “second stage of colonialism” with the arrival of the Chilean navy on remote Easter Island in the Pacific Ocean.

Experts say the main aspiration of the indigenous communities with the new constitution is undoubtedly to have Chile defined as a plurinational state, as regional countries like Bolivia and Ecuador and other nations around the world have done.

According to Mapuche expert and sociologist at Germany’s Bielefeld University, Salvador Millaleo, the concept of plurinationality encapsulates a series of cultural and political demands.

“It means autonomy, that is a form of governance, with forms of intervention, control and access to the national resources located in indigenous territories,” he said.

Neither of the three constitutions Chile has had since its independence (1833, 1925 and 1980) has recognized the existence of indigenous people in its territory nor their languages and cultures.

Its only legal frameworks on indigenous people are contained in Law 19.253 of 1993 and International Labor Organization Convention 169, which was signed in 1969 but not ratified by Chile until two decades later.

According to a survey by Chile’s Center for Intercultural and Indigenous Research, 95 percent of Chileans favor constitutional recognition for indigenous peoples, although more people want to define the country as a multicultural state (55 percent) rather than a plurinational state (16 percent).

The natural world and its protection is the central tenet of the indigenous cosmovision, and therefore 39-year-old Aymara candidate Catalina Cortes says it is essential for the new Chile to internalize the Aymara concept of “suma qamaña” (a reference to a good and correct life in harmony with Mother Earth).

Moreover, the non-recognition of indigenous rights and their scant participation in the design of social policies translate into poverty levels that are double the national average, as well as constant threats to their rich cultures, experts say.

Ana Llao, a 56-year-old Mapuche candidate, told Efe that the right of indigenous people to conserve their languages and ancestral rites is implicit in the designation of a plurinational state.

In one manifestation of what has been lost culturally, nearly half of Easter Island’s indigenous Polynesian population spoke the Rapa Nui language in 1979 but now that figure is just 4 percent. EFE


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