Wednesday, August 11, 2004

Mapuche Indians in Chile Struggle to Take Back Forests

TRAIGUÉN, Chile - Before the conquistadors arrived, and even for centuries afterward, the lush, verdant forests of southern Chile belonged to the Mapuche people. Today, though, tree farms stretch in all directions here, property of timber companies that supply lumber to the United States, Japan and Europe.

But now the Mapuches, complaining of false land titles and damage to the environment and their traditional way of life, are struggling to take back the land they say is still theirs. As their confrontation with corporate interests has grown more violent, Chile's nominally Socialist government has sought to blunt the indigenous movement by invoking a modified version of an antiterrorist law that dates from the dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, 1973 to 1990.

Despite international protests, 18 Mapuche leaders are scheduled to go on trial soon, accused under a statute that prohibits "generating fear among sectors of the population." The charges stem from a series of incidents during the past seven years in which groups of Mapuches have burned forests or farmhouses or destroyed forestry equipment and trucks.