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Beloved land of the south,
gate to springtime,
the fragrance of your trees
is stronger than oblivion.
I have carried you
within me since the day
I fled your world,
one hundred years I have
wandered with a broken heart.

José Santos Lincomàn Incacheo,
Tierra de mi sur
(The Land of my South).

Isolation and poverty
in Mapuche

The extreme destitution of the Mapuche people of Chile has grown increasingly alarming over recent decades. With the advent of neo-liberal economic policies in the mid-1970s, one more chapter was added to their long history of social exclusion. Yet nothing has been done to reverse that trend.

IN response to health needs in remote and destitute communities of the Mapuche indigenous people, the Chilean Red Cross set up a dental and ophthalmological programme to help their communities. The only one of its kind in the region, the programme has reached 12,000 beneficiaries in the past seven years and is now set to expand. Red Cross Red Crescent recently accompanied one of the Red Cross teams on its rounds.

“One of the first obstacles we encountered was the isolation of these communities, which are scattered across a remote mountain area,” says Luis Arias Melivilu, the Chilean Red Cross volunteer who acts as project coordinator. “The dirt roads, which are few and far between, are in very poor condition. When it rains, they become impassable.”

To overcome this remoteness, the Red Cross set up a mobile dental clinic that travels from one community to another. On the day of the visit, the clinic was headed for Ignacio Petriqueo, a small community of 17 families in Perquenco municipality, 52 kilometres from the region’s capital, Temuco.

Staffed by a dental surgeon, an ophthalmologist, an assistant and a driver, the mobile clinic consists of a fully equipped ambulance. It is run by the Red Cross Committee of Region IX, in southern Chile, which encompasses 29 branches and some 600 volunteers. Supplies and travel costs are paid for by the National Health Fund and the vehicle itself was donated by the Spanish Red Cross.

Of the 1,720 people who have received dental care this year, 400 have completed their treatment. The clinic also provides basic ophthalmological care.

“It’s a big help having the Red Cross come here,” says Joel Ankatel Caneo, the community leader. “Getting to town, which is 12 kilometres away, is complicated. There is only one bus and it’s expensive. So we usually walk, and that takes all day.” When asked how the community manages to survive, Caneo replies: “In the spring and summer, we grow wheat, potatoes, oats and lupin. That keeps us going for the entire year. In good weather, we store up what we need for the winter months.”

Yary Antimal Salazar, a Mapuche social worker who leads community development efforts in Perquenco, says: “The municipality has 6,570 inhabitants, 80 per cent of whom live below the poverty line. In the 20 Mapuche communities, one in every two people are destitute.”

Lack of health care is a major problem. “There is only one doctor and one basic medical centre for all these people,” says Salazar.

According to Melivilu, things are getting worse every day. “Medical care is urgently needed, especially for mothers and infants, whose situation has become critical.”

The project currently reaches 10 per cent of the Mapuche people living in Region IX. In the 1992 census, Chile’s total Mapuche population was estimated at 1,200,000, over half of whom inhabited the south of the country and some 500,000 in the two largest cities, Valparaíso and Santiago. Yet the 2002 census reported only 600,000 Mapuche in the country. This unexplained drop in the overall figure was denounced by several organizations as ‘statistical genocide’ resulting from the ambiguous formulation of the census questions.

The ICRC regional delegation for Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay is currently working with the Chilean Red Cross to expand community health-care and first-aid programmes in the area.

‘People of the earth’

The Mapuche, whose name means ‘people of the earth’, live in harmony with nature and practise subsistence farming. They believe in Pachamama, or Mother Earth, as the source of all living things.

Throughout their existence, they have always been opposed to the exploitation of natural resources.

The history of the Mapuche can be divided into three major periods, all marked by the struggle to maintain control over their ancestral lands and natural resources. During the first period, lasting until the mid-1500s, the Mapuche managed to repel the advance of the Inca Empire and later of the Spanish conquistadores.

The second period began around 1880, with the occupation of the southern part of the country by the Chilean army. In a campaign known as the ‘pacification of Araucanía’, the Mapuche were dispossessed of much of their land and confined to reducciónes, or tiny family plots. The shrinking of their territory wrought havoc with the population’s centuries-old lifestyle.

Today’s Mapuche villages still conform to the 19th century mould. Under a law passed in 1993, any group of ten families is considered a community. The enforcement of these policies has rent the fabric of Mapuche society apart.

Over the past decade, problems relating to land ownership and the exploitation of natural resources have become increasingly acute. According to the local press, native forests are being carved up by giant lumber corporations and cleared away for major hydroelectric plants at a rapid pace, depriving the Mapuche of ever-greater swaths of their ancestral territory.

ICRC visits Mapuche detainees

Organizations like the International Federation for Human Rights have repeatedly denounced such infringements upon the rights of the Mapuche people and urged respect for the rights of all indigenous populations, in particular in dealing with conflicts over land ownership.

In its 2004 report, the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (available at pointed out that the Chilean constitution did not recognize the Mapuche as a people or consider them to have any political rights, including the right to autonomy and self-determination. It underlined the fact that Mapuche representatives had begun to demand that the authorities respect their territorial and political rights. The report further stated that the criminalization by the Chilean government of efforts by indigenous peoples to defend their rights had seriously harmed the Mapuche communities, many of whose leaders had been arrested and tried under the Counter-Terrorism Act introduced by the former military regime of General Augusto Pinochet, 1973-1990.

In the past two years, ICRC delegates have made several visits to Mapuche people held for security reasons — some of whom were on a hunger strike — to check on their conditions of detention and, where necessary, to make recommendations to the authorities about their treatment, health and other aspects of their detention. Such visits, whose purpose is strictly humanitarian, are based on an agreement with the government.



The mobile health team of the Chilean Red Cross tries to visit the isolated Mapuche communities regularly, especially during the rainy season.











The Red Cross has provided dental care to more than 1,700 people in southern Chile this year.












The Red Cross has provided dental care to more than 1,700 people in southern Chile this year.

Jimena Marquez
Jimena Marquez is ICRC communication delegate in Buenos Aires.




Key figures for Chile

Population: 11,800,000 inhabitants
Area: 2,006,096 sq. km.
Gross domestic product (GDP) per capita: US$ 5,900
Poverty index: 18.8 per cent, of which 4.7 per cent suffer acute deprivation
Inequality measures: The poorest 10 per cent receive 1.2 per cent of the total income while the wealthiest 10 per cent receive 47 per cent of the total income
Unemployment rate: 7 per cent
Source: Human Development Report 2005, UNDP








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