(UNESCO / Japan Young Researchers' fellowships programme)

The Political Ecology of Indigenous Movements and Tree Plantations in Chile: the role of the political strategies of the Mapuche communities in shaping their natural and social livelihoods

Summary of research carried out: 
The Political Ecology of Indigenous Movements and Tree Plantations in Chile: the role of the political strategies of the Mapuche communities in shaping their natural and social livelihoods

This research is concerned with analysing how different social groups, in particular indigenous communities, in the temperate southern region of Chile, secure their identity and livelihood under different conditions, and how these processes are related to natural resource management and environmental change.

The rapid expansion of monoculture tree plantations in Chile has given rise to conflicting interests between the Mapuche people and the forest industry, the latter enjoying active support from government policies. Despite efforts made since democracy was reinstated in 1990, successive governments have made little progress in respecting and promoting the rights of indigenous peoples.

The basic policy of the government has instead been an ill-defined land restitution program and monetary compensation, which are used to reduce conflict, coupled with the application of heavy-handed police and legal actions against Mapuche individuals and organizations that actively oppose the occupation of their ancestral lands by large farm and forest owners.

From a political ecology perspective, I analyse how indigenous communities use different political strategies to accommodate to, resist and/or negotiate within the changing politicaleconomic processes and how, in turn, these responses shape natural resource use and consequently the local environment. I begin with the assumption that environmental and social impacts associated with landscape transformations are not only shaped by structural changes brought about by economic and political forces but simultaneously contested in political, cultural and symbolic ways. As a result, emerging forms of political agency have expected and unexpected consequences that give rise to new processes of environmental change at the local level.

I conducted my case study research paying particular attention to the political strategies used by the Mapuche movement in Chile in the VIII and IX regional districts. The largest rural and poorest Mapuche populations are concentrated in these regions, which comprise the largest tree planted area supporting the forest industry.

The results from my fieldwork show that both the resistance strategies used by indigenous communities and the consequent responses from the government are relatively unplanned. Both the Mapuche movement and the government become entangled in the political confusion and power struggle of conflicting political agendas which causes unexpected consequences for policy development and for the communities. Employing Foucault’s notion of governmentality, I argue that, while the Mapuche have widely contested the state’s neoliberal policies, they have nevertheless been drawn into a new set of governing strategies that are fundamentally neoliberal in character. These strategies have led to a reconfiguration of their relationship with the state, NGOs, and foreign aid donors. Operating at both formal and informal levels of social and political interaction, this new government mentality employs coercive and co-optive measures to cultivate Mapuche participation in the neoliberal modernization project, while continuing to neglect the longstanding relations of inequality and injustice that underlie conflicts over land and resources. The state’s land policies have more the character of assistance than of restitution and, accordingly, do not integrate other issues, such as constitutional recognition of indigenous peoples, effective participation in land use plans, access to natural resources, and the protection of cultural rights, including the right to pursue development goals that are culturally appropriate.


31 October 2004