Social Issues

Chile’s indigenous on verge of constitutional recognition for 1st time

By Patricia Nieto Mariño

Santiago, Aug 9 (EFE).- Chile’s native peoples are divided into nearly a dozen ethnic groups and make up 13 percent of the population, but they have never been accounted for in any constitution over the nation’s more than 200-year history.

That could change soon, however, if a first-ever charter granting them official recognition and autonomy is approved via plebiscite in early September.

Chile is one of the few countries of Latin America that does not recognize or even mention indigenous people in the text of its constitution (a dictatorship-era document that dates back to 1980), Peru’s Raquel Yrigoyen, who holds a doctorate in law from the University of Barcelona and has served as an adviser on indigenous issues in numerous constitutional processes, told Efe.

But a new charter that will be put to a referendum on Sept. 4 declares Chile to be a “plurinational state” and recognizes 11 ethnic groups: the Mapuche, Aymara, Rapanui, Lickanantay, Quechua, Colla, Diaguita, Chango, Kawesqar, Yagan and Selk’nam.

“The country has a unique opportunity to get in sync with its international law obligations and with the path the region has taken for decades,” she said.

Whether the constitution is approved or not, Chile’s native peoples have already made history with their participation in the drafting of the new charter.

Seventeen of the 155 conventional constituents were members of indigenous groups, while Elisa Loncon, a Mapuche linguist and rights activist, served as the first president of the Chilean Constitutional Convention from July 2021 to January 2022, Rosa Catrileo, a convention member and Mapuche indigenous woman, told Efe.

“The new constitution is a ray of hope for the recognition of rights that had been pending for decades, historical demands that the political elite had refused to materialize,” she said.

Some new features include indigenous people’s “participation in collegiate bodies with reserved seats, mechanisms for cultural and linguistic preservation and environmental protection.”

The Chilean indigenous peoples are currently recognized under a 1993 national law and have their land ownership rights recognized and protected under the International Labour Organization’s Convention 169.

The proposed constitution has generally been well received by Chile’s indigenous communities, who have been demanding cultural recognition and protection for decades, Tomas Jordan, a constitutional attorney and academic at Alberto Hurtado University, a Jesuit higher-learning institution in Santiago, told Efe.

“Even so, there are minority groups that regard it as too progressive, while others see it as not in tune with their demands, and the most radical think it’s too moderate,” he said.

Outside the indigenous ambit, there are those who say it remedies a historical wrong but also others who reject the text as “indigenist” and discriminatory.

The right to “free determination and self-government” for indigenous people (Article 34) and the recognition of their own legal systems (Article 309) are two of the most controversial points, Jordan said.

“The right does not agree with Chile being a plurinational state. They also don’t want indigenous people to have their own judicial or governing mechanisms. They think it’s discriminatory and would undermine national systems,” he said.

Nevertheless, a survey by the Center for Intercultural and Indigenous Research found that 95 percent of Chileans are in favor constitutional recognition for indigenous peoples.

The constitutional process coincides with one of the most tense periods in decades for the Mapuche people, Chile’s most numerous indigenous group, with several regions of southern Chile having experienced a surge in violence, including firebomb attacks and deadly shootouts.

Many of those episodes are occurring within the context of a longstanding rural conflict that pits the government and powerful logging interests against Mapuche communities who are laying claim to lands they inhabited for centuries.

Salvador Millaleo, an attorney and expert in indigenous affairs, says the lack of recognition and disregarding of indigenous demands caused that conflict to become more entrenched.

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