Daniel Melinao used to draw water from a well on the land near his small, wood-frame house. Now a fire truck has to come once a week to pump 264 gallons of water into a fiberglass tank over an outdoor sink – the only water available for drinking, cooking, cleaning and laundry.
For at least the past five years, wells have been drying up around the Mapuche community of Wente Winkul Mapu, near the town of Collipulli in southern Chile. Community members blame the eucalyptus and pine plantations that have been spreading across the landscape for several decades.
Melinao’s community has been trying to regain access to its ancestral territory, occupying three farms owned by non-Mapuche families and calling for three timber companies to leave the area.
Now Melinao, the soft-spoken, pony-tailed werkén, or community spokesman, of Wente Winkul Mapu is in prison, charged with involvement in a police officer’s death during a search for weapons in his community.
On April 2, 2012, Chilean police officer Hugo Albornoz died after being shot during a police sweep through Wente Winkul Mapu in a search for weapons. An initial investigation failed to identify the source of the gunshots, but Melinao was arrested just over a year later, on April 25, 2013.
Police say Albornoz was shot in an ambush during the raid, while Mapuche leaders have claimed another officer shot him accidentally.
In an interview before his arrest, Melinao described his community of about 40 families as being “in resistance,” but said it rejected the violence that has characterized other protests over Mapuche land rights.
Police staged two other raids in Wente Winkul Mapu in 2012, he said. In June, a house-to-house search turned up nothing, Melinao said, but more than a dozen people were injured, some with bullet wounds, and three young men were arrested. Another raid occurred in November, and again police found nothing, he said.
In January 2013, about 25 families from Wente Winkul Mapu took over three large farms in their ancestral territory and began farming there, “exercising autonomy and control over the territory,” Melinao said. The owners of the farms were not at home when the takeover occurred, he said.
“We’ve been in this struggle for five years,” Melinao said. “The government ignores the fact that we are demanding our own lands.”
The Mapuche once claimed a swath of territory that stretched southward through Chile’s hilly southern region, with its rushing rivers, extensive forests and towering volcanoes, and eastward over the Andes into the arid Patagonia region of Argentina.
They resisted the expansion of the Inca Empire in the 1490s. With the arrival of Spanish colonists, they adopted horses and firearms and fought back against the colonial government and, later, Chilean forces, although they also began raising livestock, contributing significantly to the Chilean economy, according to the Rev. José Fernando Díaz of the Catholic University of Temuco, who works with indigenous communities in southern Chile.
After defeating the Peruvian and Bolivian armies in the War of Pacific in 1883, however, the Chilean Army turned its improved weapons on the Mapuche, clearing the way for farmers to settle much of the area. Timber companies began buying land for large plantations in the 1970s and 1980s, Melinao said.
Throughout the last century, Mapuche communities were forced onto marginal lands largely unsuitable for farming or livestock, Díaz said, while others were displaced to cities.
“The difference between the Mapuche of the 19th century and the 20th century is poverty,” he said. “They have a collective memory of having been robbed.”
Construction of a hydroelectric dam on the Bio-Bio River was a flashpoint for protests in the 1990s, and protests over timber plantations have escalated more recently. In January, an elderly couple was killed when masked intruders set fire to their farmhouse.
Interior Minister called the attack “terrorism,” but said only a small number of Mapuche protesters engaged in violence. Melinao said the charge of terrorism has also been used against peaceful protesters, despite an agreement by the government in 2010 after a series of hunger strikes, to handle such cases under ordinary criminal law.
Díaz said the government worries that the Mapuche may organize as a political force, but Melinao said that is not the goal, and that communities tend to act independently, with some resisting while others negotiate with the government or companies.
Melinao’s community has copies of legal documents from 1880 and 1917 showing that 4,942 acres (2,000 hectares) were granted to three community chiefs, or lonkos. But he said they did not receive all the land, and that they gradually lost most of the territory. The grave of one of the lonkos now lies under a eucalyptus plantation.
Community members hoped the occupation of the farms would be a first step toward greater autonomy, in which the members can practice their customs, use their language and teach their children the real history of their people’s struggle for rights, he said.
“We are occupying the land that is ours,” Melinao said. “We want to live freely, as Mapuche.”