By Javier Martin
Puerto Saavedra, Chile, Jun 21 (EFE).- Dishes, pots and pans clank inside Norma Hueten’s “ruka,” a traditional Mapuche house on the outskirts of this southern Chilean town that this indigenous woman converted into a restaurant several years ago.
Lacking other resources, she hoped the lure of her ancient culture and the breath-taking landscapes of south-central Chile’s Araucania and Biobio regions would serve as a magnet for some of the hundreds of thousands of tourists who visit that Andean country each year.
But pandemic-triggered lockdowns led to an abrupt decline in foreign tourists even as domestic visitors were scared away by a resurgence of the often politicized “Mapuche conflict,” a double whammy that all but buried Hueten’s dreams.
“There didn’t use to be talk of Mapuche tourism, but over the years we started talking about” different types, not only gastronomy but also cultural events and others based on loom crafts and basketry, Hueten explained.
“But all tourism died with the pandemic, and this year we’re struggling to reopen because the Mapuche rural sector is more complicated due to the lack of infrastructure, particularly in terms of roads leading to the rukas,” said the woman, who works with entirely natural products in preparing traditional dishes she learned from her mother.
The Mapuches, today the most numerous indigenous population of the southern regions of Argentina and Chile, have a reputation as fierce and courageous fighters, having resisted encroachments on their territory by the Inca Empire and later the Spanish.
In 1883, they were suppressed and massacred as part of an “extermination” campaign in Araucania by Chilean government forces, confined to small communities and stripped of most of their land, which was handed over to settlers that had arrived from different parts of the world.
That era marked the start of the overexploitation of timber and water resources and large-scale deforestation for the purpose of intensive agriculture, activities that are keys to that region’s current indigenous self-determination conflict, one with a significant environmental component.
The conflict pitting Mapuche activists against the government and big forestry companies has been exacerbated due to continuous efforts to politicize the situation.
Most stories about the Mapuches in media outlets describe acts of sabotage by small radical groups that target forestry interests or try to pressure settlers into returning lands they either purchased or acquired through concessions more than a century ago.
By contrast, very little attention is paid in the media about the attempts of many other Mapuche groups to conserve natural resources, recover ancient traditions and turn tourism into a weapon against intransigent elements on both sides of the conflict.
“There are lots (of people) who have recovered products, especially seeds and medicinal herbs. The idea is not only to offer gastronomy but also more products of the region so more people can come. Not only to eat, but to buy handicrafts or to spend the night,” Hueten said.
And to create wealth and prospects for the future that are currently lacking in Mapuche communities and which lead many young people to listen to those who tempt them with talk of illegal drugs, easy money and weapons.