The Mapuche communities of southern Chile have fought successive governments to recognize and respect their territory, as ever-encroaching industry eyes their valuable ancestral lands.
“As long as we have land, there is nothing we will lack,” said Dominica Quilapi, president of the Mapuche organization Rayen Domo in the southern Bio-Bio region. “The earth is our mother, the one who gives us food.”
In their Mapudungun language, Mapuche means “people of the earth,” and this tie between the land and the patrimony of the community is sacred.
But women have been relegated to a backseat role in their communities´ struggle to maintain or, in some cases, recover their native lands.
Mapuche women, who work and defend their land, help preserve their culture, but are generally expected to work and maintain the home, while men make most of the decisions.
“Almost always, it is the men who define the roles,” said Quilapi. “They are the ones who decide where to plant, where the garden, the corral will be. Very rarely will they ask the woman´s opinion.”
Luisa Curin, a Mapuche sociologist, says that even in the “isolated” cases in which Mapuche women own land, they still lack support of their male counterparts in the community to control or make decisions about it, “because there is a dominantly masculine cultural ideal about the way to farm, when to farm and for whom.”
“It is believed that these decisions must be made by men, whether they are husbands, fathers, domestic partners or older sons,” she said.
While there aren´t many formal studies on gender and landownership in Mapuche communities, a 2007 farming and forestry study found that of the 12.5 million hectares of rural lands in Chile, more than three-quarters are owned by men.
“We women don´t have access to land. That right is only recognized for men,” said the National Association of Rural and Indigenous Women, or ANAMURI, during its 2007 congress. “If we want to use family-owned land, we have to ask our husbands for permission.”
For centuries, Mapuche lands were held communally. But when the Mapuche state became a part of the Chilean state, they were forced to list a landowner in order to be granted a land title under the government´s Western system.
In 1993, three years after the fall of Augusto Pinochet´s 1973-90 dictatorship, Congress passed the Indigenous Law that created a program aimed at helping indigenous groups file for land claims, through the National Indigenous Development Corporation, or CONADI, but women were left out.
“When land is handed over by CONADI, they always give men the priority,” said Quilapi. “Only if a woman is a widow or has many children, or most of her children are men does she have any chance.”
A constant threat
A significant military presence can sometimes be seen near or in the smaller indigenous communities of southern Chile, where they monitor the communities´ opposition to the state or large industrial activities. The Mapuche have suffered violent repression from state security forces in recent years that does not discriminate against women, children or the elderly.
Yet Mapuche women often protest alongside their male counterparts, dozens of whom have been arrested, sometimes without a legal motive.
At the end of last year, there were 100 Mapuche community members, including 7 women, facing charges in Chile, according to the nongovernmental Ethical Commission against Torture, many of them accused under the Pinochet-era Anti-Terrorism law for their opposition to takeovers of their lands and resources.
One of the most emblematic cases was a decade-long fight in Alto Bio-Bio highlands, of Mapuche women against the installation of a hydroelectric plant by Spanish energy giant Endesa in Ralco. From 1990 to 2000 they protested and refused to leave their lands until they were physically removed, but the dam was finally installed in 2004 and their lands were flooded.
Other cases have sprung up in the southern communities, where women have gone out to defend their homeland from the economic interests of transnational companies. In 2008, jailed political prisoner Patricia Troncoso went on a 100-day hunger strike demanding that Mapuche political prisoners be freed and end to military presence there.
But today, Mapuche largely lack the legal backing for many of their lands as forestry, mining and energy companies eye their ancestral home.
“The land in the hands of campesinos and indigenous is scarce and poor, and it is increasingly threatened by advancing companies,” said ANAMURI. “Native peoples´ rights to their own lands are not recognized.”