Behind the Mapuche people defended by Maldonado

November 20, 2017

Several months ago, on August 1, 2017, Indigenous rights protester Santiago Maldonado went missing. His disappearance did  not escape the public eye as it led to massive protests in Argentina demanding the government provide answers for what happened to Maldonado. Clarity was brought to the Maldonado case when his body was identified in a Patagonian river nearby the protest on October 17th. According to officials, Maldonado died by drowning without any signs of violence (BBC Latin America & Caribbean, 2017). Despite evidence that the government was not involved in the protester's death, issues that emerged into the spotlight in light of his disappearance remained important platforms in the Argentine elections that saw Mauricio Macri re-elected to the presidency. Among these issues was the government’s policy towards indigenous communities. Maldonado’s disappearance and death brought notice to the conditions faced by indigenous communities, particularly the Mapuche community, and their role in a rapidly modernizing Latin America.

        The Mapuche people of southern South America have always been a force with which to be reckoned. The Spanish colonists’ attempts to conquer the Mapuche in Chile in 1541 were unsuccessful, and so too were attempts by Chile following their independence from Spain. The state then negotiated an agreement with the community, allotting the land south of the Biobio river in southern Chile to the Mapuche (Newman, 2017). Although forcing the Mapuche people into reservations was an abhorrent act by the Chilean government, conditions for the Mapuche became much more despicable in the late 1800s. During the years 1860 to 1885, the Argentine government and the Chilean government invaded the Mapuche’s land, massacring approximately 100,000 Mapuche people in an extensive act of dispossession. This event, recorded as the “Pacification of the Araucanian” in Chile and as the “Campaign of the Desert” in Argentina, is now deeply considered with remorse by Argentinians and Chileans. However, major steps have not been made to protect the Mapuche people from one of the main threats they face today. The Mapuche community faces issues of overcrowding in the reservations issued by the Chilean and Argentine governments, forcing many to move to large urban centers such as Santiago in Chile and Buenos Aires and Chubut in Argentina (Intercontinental Cry). The Chubut region is where Maldonado went missing while advocating for Mapuche rights.

        While in Chubut, Maldonado was protesting the extradition of a Mapuche leader who was arrested for defending Mapuche land. The community was being pressured off of their land in Chubut. An Italian company, Benetton Group, claimed to own the land and are reported to have falsified documents in order to confiscate the community’s land (Bierly, 2017). The Argentine government has taken measures to prevent this type of land confiscation. However, the economic benefit to the nation’s upper-middle class and elites is too favorable for those in charge of enforcing these measures. One such step taken by Argentina has provided some stability to the indigenous communities of the state, however, it is in danger of expiring this month.

The Argentine government created an Emergency law at the end of 2006, Law 26.160, which allowed for four years to survey the Mapuche’s land. Though it did not specify that eviction will not occur, the survey calls for the official recognition of the indigenous communities in country, with the hopes of preventing the eviction of any community members. The law was extended in 2010 and in 2013, however, the law is up for revalidation in just a few days, on November 23rd. On August 9th, several NGOs created a campaign advocating for an extension of the law until next year, although as of now, no extension has been made. If no extension occurs, Amnesty international reports that 60% of the registered communities will not be surveyed, and “left adrift” quite possibly resulting in eviction. Just earlier this year, in May 2017, the Mapuche were able to prevent a court ordered eviction under the protection of this law. November 23rd will be a significant date for the Mapuche community, and could possibly result in another cruel dispossession of the indigenous peoples, who have been victims of acts such as this since Spanish colonization (Ortega, 2017).

Not only are the laws in place to protect indigenous communities such as the Mapuche lacking defined protection and in danger of termination, but many community leaders detained by officials are given undue process due to Pinochet-era Anti-terrorist laws. These laws created by Pinochet during his dictatorship in Chile allow indigenous protesters to be held in prison for sometimes as long as two years, despite a lack of evidence to their charges, while the charges are investigated. The laws, which also allow the prosecution to withhold evidence from the defendant for six months, and permits the accused to be convicted on nothing more than unidentifiable witness testimony (Gaitan Barrera, 2017). These cruel laws have been a prominent topic of conversation on politics regarding the rights of indigenous communities, and are being navigated by both the Chilean and Argentinian governments as a matter of international relations. The decisions made by a leader of one country will likely heavily influence the policies implemented by the other.

Former president Sebastian Piñera has been clear regarding his thoughts on the laws, demanding these laws be taken to a more extreme level to take away any possible advantage from the protesters whom he deems terrorists (Gaitan Barrera, 2017). Current president, Macri, seems unlikely to push for any major reforms regarding indigenous communities. His pro-business platform has been eager to attract international businesses and investments to utilize Patagonia’s natural resources, namely the Vaca Muerta shale formation, one of the largest in the world (Mander, 2017). His position will likely favor the addition of big businesses to the indigenous land in question, and the future for the Mapuche people does not look bright. The Mapuche, however, have always been strong in the face of adversity, and many recent events, including the disappearance of Santiago Maldonado have turned the public eye to defending indigenous communities from unfair governmental decisions. The Mapuche have lived in Patagonia for thousands of years, with records showing their existence as early as 600 or 500 BC (Bengoa, 2000). Together, through pro-indigenous land campaigns by NGOs and the people of Argentina, perhaps the Mapuche community will have a voice loud enough to be heard by lawmakers to defend their rights and their lands. To see what direction the current administration will take, however, we must wait to see the results of law 26.160 on November 23rd.


  1. BBC Latin America & Caribbean. (2017 Oct 21). "Santiago Maldonado: Argentina activist's body identified". Retrieved Friday, November 17, 2017.
  2. Bengoa, José.. (2000 Jan 1). "Historia del Pueblo Mapuche: Siglo XIX y XX.". Retrieved Friday, November 17, 2017.
  3. Alejandra Gaitan Barrera . (2017 Oct 13). "Chile’s still using Pinochet’s anti-terrorist law against the Mapuche". Center for World Indigenous Studies.. Retrieved Friday, November 17, 2017.
  4. Intercontinental Cry . (2017 Oct 1). "Mapuche ". Retrieved Friday, November 17, 2017.
  5. Benedict Mander . (2017 Oct 1). "Macri investment push intensifies Argentina’s land conflicts". Retrieved Friday, November 17, 2017.
  6. Lucia Newman . (2017 Nov 17). "Mapuche conflict: 'People feel danger every day". Al Jazeera .
  7. Sebastian Ortega . (2017 Sept 11). "How many native communities are in danger in Argentina?". democraciaAbierta.

About Author(s)

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Rachel Bierly
Rachel Bierly is a senior at the University of Pittsburgh majoring in Linguistics as well as pursuing minors in Spanish, Chinese and a certificate in Latin American Studies. Though her major is Linguistics, her focus lies in Latin American languages, culture, and politics. Rachel spent the summer of 2019 living and conducting research in Manizales, Colombia regarding the process of demobilization, disarmament, and reintegration for ex-guerrilla combatants. When Rachel is not working at Panoramas she enjoys traveling, learning new languages, and rock climbing. She hopes to one day use her experience to defend the rights of minority groups and underrepresented communities in the United States and Latin America.