Mapuche political dissent in the context of neoliberal governance: the recuperation of ancestral land as a process of indigenous emancipation in Arauco Province, Chile

Stüdemann Henríquez, Nikolas


This dissertation addresses the current situation of the Mapuche indigenous people in Chile, who are part of a political-territorial conflict with the State, landowners and agroforestry companies. In short, the Mapuche today are claiming the devolution of what they call the Wallmapu, their ancestral territory, which was occupied by the Chilean Army and settlers during the third part of the 19th Century. More recently, during the dictatorship of Pinochet (1973-1989), land grabbing processes by agroforestry companies were intensified, which signified a new challenge for the indigenous groups who remained living as smallholders, focused on self-subsistence and small-scale trade.

After the return of democracy in Chile in 1990, the State launched a land restitution plan for indigenous communities and a series of development programmes targeting them, both of which were driven by a neoliberal-multicultural logic of national integration. However, in the middle of the 1990s, several Mapuche groups radicalized their claims, aiming for political autonomy and the expulsion of big capitalist enterprises (especially agroforestry) from the Wallmapu territory. From then till current times, they have resorted to two main strategies of land recuperation: on the one hand, illegal land occupations, coupled with sabotage on the agroforestry infrastructure, and a series of performances to make their political claims visible; and on the other hand, applying to the above-mentioned programmes implemented by the State apparatus. Both ways are performed by these groups according to their own normative system which stands in opposition to the economistic based logic of late capitalism, and through their cultural complex (comprised of language, authorities, and a series of ceremonies and socio-political protocols). In response, the State has reacted in a highly violent way, repressing the segments of the indigenous population that challenge the establishment as dangerous for the Chilean nation.

Approaching this situation, the following questions arise: What kind of political process are these groups of Mapuche carrying out? Are they ethno-nationalist groups, or do they rather represent broader societal interests that go beyond ethnic identities? And related to the crystallization of their claims: How have Mapuche activists devised forms of cultural struggle against the dominant order in Chile, in order to voice dissent? How have State interventions based on land restitution, development, and multiculturalism been interpreted, questioned and appropriated by the Mapuche?

In responding those questions, my aim is to contribute to the literature about the Mapuche issue today in terms of bringing ‘new’ perspectives to (re)think the very bases of the Mapuche claims and their ongoing political processes. The latter from a Mapuche perspective as a counterpoint to the logic of the State which frames the issue just as one concerning cultural differences, rural poverty, and criminality. But, also, as a critical complement to the authors who currently are proposing theoretical views to validate and concretize the mentioned indigenous political claims, such as the works on decolonization and political ontologies.

In brief, the Mapuche are categorized as a subject that has been historically oppressed by a dominant order. The political emergence of the Mapuche during the decade of the 1990s challenging the status quo, namely the Chilean neoliberal territorialization and the logic of multicultural integration, is analysed according to the works on politics of Jacques Rancière and Alan Badiou. I use the Rancièrian concept of ‘political aesthetic’ to define how the Mapuche reconfigure spaces and places (roles, hierarchies, forms of access to resources) by the continuous performance of their own aesthetic regime (normative system/cultural complex), which has been shaped at the margins of the dominant order. Resorting to a Badiouan analysis, I argue that the Mapuche ground their claims in a ‘political truth’ which is in a relation of fidelity with an ‘event’, i.e. the radicalization of a broad part of the Mapuche people towards land recuperation. This ‘truth’ – the return to the Wallmapu as a universal proposal – triggers a process of subjectivation crystalized in the ongoing Mapuche organizations as independent political collectives.

The Mapuche subject, thus, is based on a universal idea of ‘being in common’ which integrates the people excluded by the Chilean State structures, especially the ones related to the forms of access to the land and resources. The latter, I argue, on the one hand means the emergence of a category of people that goes beyond the existence of an ‘authentic’ Mapuche colonial subject (as, broadly, decolonial ideas bring about), but its substance, in turn, is given through disruptive historical ‘events’. On the other hand, the Mapuche subject carry out a real political process insofar it integrates a high level of heterogeneity (diverse communities, groups, families, even non-Mapuche people) in a horizontal political relation and addresses internal political contestation through traditional platforms of discussion and deliberation. Thus, from my perspective, the Mapuche subject today goes beyond an ethno-nationalist dynamic, overcoming the potential processes of ‘political foreclosure’ that such a process can internally provoke.

According to this framework, I stress how the Mapuche respond politically to the processes of depoliticization triggered under a logic of neoliberal governmentality, i.e. the interventionism of the State apparatus. The accent here lies on the creation of a politics from the margins as a biopolitical fact, as something truly new, that conforms to a process of emancipation through which the borders of the 'Mapuche common' are translocated and expanded. This process includes the strategic use of governmental tools through appropriation by disagreement, which represents an intensified disjunctive political position of the Mapuche rather than an accommodation or negotiation of the terms of their inclusion within the Chilean nation.

Furthermore, unlike current popular perspectives in anthropology, such as the so-called ontological turn, I maintain that the Mapuche political struggle is not about the reproduction of a parallel universe, but it is the struggle of a subject that has been historically marginalized within one ruptured world. Thus, it is a universal proposal for inhabiting a ‘common world’, reconfiguring the very order of things.

In terms of methodology, ethnographic research was carried out in Arauco Province (Biobio Region). Three main case studies were defined: the land recuperation performed through different strategies; the appropriation of a Museum belonging to the State as a platform of political dissent; and the performance of the palin, a Mapuche sacred game that politicizes spaces and places. Resorting to this empirical data, the thesis is organized in four chapters, preceded by an introduction and concluded by a theoretical discussion.