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,”
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
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
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 www.iwgia.org) 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
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.