Saturday, October 14, 2006

Chile to Receive Loan for the Integral Development of Indigenous People

Sources: Orígenes Program; Press Release, Inter-American Development Bank.

The Chilean government’s Orígenes Program—a program inaugurated in 2001 to support rural communities in the regions of Tarapacá, Antofagasta, Bío Bío, Araucanía, and Los Lagos—is slated to receive $US 45.2 million from the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB). The program strives to improve the living conditions and integration of indigenous peoples in Chile: the Mapuches (including the Pehuenche and Huilliche peoples) number at approximately 928,060, the Aymara are estimated at 48,000, and the Rapa Nui at 21,000. [Figures are taken from the 1992 census.] Combined, these groups represent around 10% of the total population. Indigenous people are the poorest sector of Chilean society. Moreover, they have been subject to various forms of state-sponsored persecution, encroachment, and discrimination, including the denial of citizen rights, the prohibition on the practice of their religion, and the ban on speaking indigenous languages in public.

However, in 1993, Congress approved Law No. 19.253 “for the Protection, Promotion, and Development of Indigenous People” which, for the first time in Chile’s history, recognized the existence of these indigenous “ethnic groups.” The following year, the Congress created the National Corporation for Indigenous Peoples (CONADI), a government agency to oversee the implementation of policies relating to these groups. There is no government entity empowered to enforce indigenous rights or to ensure that their views will be considered in decisions affecting them.

CONADI will manage the second phase of the Orígenes Program, financed through the loan approved by the IDB last week. The declared objectives of the Orígenes Program, as explained on the government’s website, include the promotion of inter-cultural understanding, the availability of bilingual education, and the improvement of indigenous-community schools. In addition, the program strives to preserve indigenous identity through the annual sponsorship of cultural projects relating to folk arts and crafts, historical preservation, linguistics, storytelling, and traditional medicine or healing practices. The program also aims to strengthen rural communities by improving traditional methods of agrarian production, ensuring indigenous participation in project management, raising levels of private investment, and improving access to public services.

The first phase of the program, which received US$ 34.8 million from the IDB, incorporated cultural relevance training for public officials and increased the average income of participating families. The new loan is for a fifteen-year term with a five-year grace period.

During the 1990s, CONADI came under sharp criticism by members of the Mapuche and Pehuenche communities who resisted the construction of the Pangue dam (and the Ralco dam currently under construction) along the Bío Bío River. The government had excluded the Mapuches from the planning of the hydroelectric system, whose construction resulted in the flooding and destruction of ceremonial and burial sites, the expulsion and resettlement of families from their lands, and the sale of indigenous lands in violation of the 1993 Indigenous Peoples Law. This law grants to indigenous peoples the exclusive right to decide whether to exchange their land rights, which may only be exchanged for rights over other land of equivalent value and similar characteristics; in other words, land rights cannot be transfered absent consent. CONADI oversees the transfer of land rights and has power to approve or reject the agreements. At the time of the controversy, the President removed from office CONADI members who had expressed opposition to the hydroelectric project. This failure to act on behalf of indigenous rights undermined CONADI's legitimacy in the eyes of many of the Mapuche and Pehuenche communities.


In Chile, the rights of the Mapuches and other indigenous groups are often incompatible with models of economic growth endorsed by the state. For instance, in the name of economic growth and the public interest, the government has infringed upon the rights of the indigenous in order to meet rising energy demands. (Plans to construct four new dams, in 2008, along the Baker and Pascua Rivers in order to generate more electricity are currently underway. ) Why are the interests of the indigenous groups not considered part of the public interest? What prevents their interests from being factored into earlier stages of policymaking by the government? How should the government balance the developmental needs of the indigenous minority and the dominant majority?
Approximately 80% of the Mapuche population now lives in urban shanty towns. Do rural-dwellers in possession of desirable land for hydroelectric development or the forestry industry have a stronger political voice or presence? Does their alignment with environmental groups increase their political influence?
Is there an inherent conflict of interest in delegating the representation of indigenous interests to CONADI? What alternatives are there to this arrangement?

1 comment:

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