SANTIAGO – Chile’s indigenous peoples have felt marginalized and ignored for more than two centuries, but they now see an opportunity with the drafting of a new national charter to finally obtain constitutional recognition.
“Under the (current dictatorship-era) constitution we don’t exist. There’s not a single mention of native peoples, and so there’s no avenue for the development of our collective, territorial, political, educational and linguistic rights,” Alihuen Antileo, spokesman for the Mapuche Political Platform, told EFE.
“We must be one of the few countries of Latin America where this situation persists,” Salvador Millaleo, an expert on indigenous affairs and University of Chile law professor, said in remarks to EFE.
Members of around 10 different indigenous groups make up around 12.8 percent of Chile’s population.
Mapuches account for the majority of that demographic group, according to the 2017 census, followed by members of the Aymara, Diaguita, Quechua and Rapa Nui ethnicities.
None of Chile’s three constitutions (1833, 1925 and 1980) since independence have recognized the existence of indigenous people in its territory, nor of their languages and cultures.
The only legal frameworks governing Chile’s indigenous peoples are Law 19.253 of 1993 and the International Labour Organization’s Convention 169, which was signed in 1989 but not ratified by that South American country until 2008.
That delay, according to Millaleo, “is symptomatic of what happens in Chile, a state that is still colonial, where its elites think of themselves as Europeans and think that things indigenous are an element of the past.”
But native peoples now have high expectations following last month’s historic constitutional referendum, when 78.2 percent of Chileans voted to scrap the current Pinochet-era (1973-1990) charter. Those hopes are especially buoyed by the possibility that Congress will reserve special seats for indigenous delegates on the assembly tasked with drafting the new constitution.
“No one better than us to defend our rights,” Antileo said.
Indigenous people’s demands include securing official status for their languages and enshrining rights to bilingual intercultural education, water resources and ancestral lands.
They also are calling for anti-discrimination protections and consolidation of the right to indigenous consultations.
“Indigenous people’s relationship with nature is totally different from the capitalist extractivism that we have in Chile,” Hortensia Hidalgo, a member of the Aymara indigenous community and expert on human rights and international cooperation, told EFE.
Millaleo said for his part that indigenous people will not likely achieve all of their objectives, “but it’s going to be much more than what we have now.”
“There are those who talk about constitutional minimalism. I don’t think a constitution has to be very detailed. That’s what laws are for. But it does have to be sufficiently elaborated so it’s inclusive,” he added.
Bolivia and Ecuador are the prime regional examples in terms of indigenous self-determination, although Colombia, Mexico and Panama also have made major strides in recent years. Outside Latin America, Canada and New Zealand, which has just appointed its first Maori foreign minister, stand out in that regard.
“Within the precarious Chilean (situation), we’re a step ahead because we’re considered a special territory, although in 20 years no government” has moved to grant an autonomy statute, the mayor of the remote Easter Island, Rapa Nui leader Pedro Edmunds, told EFE.
Lack of recognition for indigenous peoples’ rights and their scant participation in the design of social policies are evident in poverty levels that are twice that of the rest of the population and in the constant threats to their rich culture.
Whereas 49 percent of Easter Island’s population spoke the Rapa Nui language in 1979, that figure today stands at just 4 percent.
“That 4 percent speaks a dialect that we call ‘rapañol,’ half badly spoken Spanish and half Rapa Nui,” the mayor of that Pacific island lamented.
Unlike in the past, there are now better conditions for presenting indigenous peoples’ demands and solving the so-called Mapuche conflict that for decades has pitted that indigenous group against large logging and agricultural interests in southern Chile, Antileo said.
According to a poll conducted by the Center for Intercultural and Indigenous Research, 95 percent of the population is in favor of constitutional recognition for indigenous peoples, while 55 percent and 16 percent, respectively, favor the alternatives of designating the country a Multicultural State or Plurinational State.
“The important thing is not the term, but recognizing political and not only cultural rights. Chile is a plurinational country as a matter of fact, but not legally,” Millaleo said.