Putting out the fire with gasoline. The Mapuche Conflict in Chile from a social psychological perspective

By Patricio Saavedra 

Patricio's blog 1

Figure 1. “Take it Sergeant. This weapon will be more effective against the terrorists. It fires 12 beans per second.” 

The picture above was published some days ago in El Mercurio (18th January 2016), which is one of the most famous and conservative newspapers in Chile. From my perspective, as a PhD researcher in social movements, the image (implicitly referring to the Mapuche conflict) shows two misconceptions about the struggle upheld by conservative sectors of the current government, part of public opinion, and the majority of right-wing politicians. The first of them is labelling Mapuche activists as “terrorists”. It is a fact that some of them have participated in violent actions as a way to express their claims, but as I will explain later, comparing violence in a context of social mobilization with terrorism is going too far. The second fault is thinking that to solve the problem an increased presence of riot police (who are equipped as a paramilitary forces) in the area, and an extension of its legal powers, are necessary. The latter is not only a violation of the common sense maxim “violence begets violence”, but it also means that the Chilean authorities and public opinion have lost the route to address the problem, treating it as a criminal issue rather than a political one.

But, who are the Mapuche people? And, more relevant, what is the conflict about?

The Mapuche are indigenous people who lived throughout the majority of the territory that now constitutes Chile before Spanish colonization. Originally, nearly 10 million hectares belonged to the Mapuche. These lands were diminished through time due to a usurpation process by the force of arms and dubious laws, with the aim essentially of taking them for agricultural use, and to build urban settlements. Additionally, over time the Chilean State gave a great part of this land to Chilean and European settlers, allowed forestry and electricity companies use of them with minimal restrictions, and finally gave Mapuche no recognition by law that guarantee them a special status or any positive discrimination actions that ensure their proper development under their own rules, traditions, and customs. Nowadays, Mapuche people keep no more than 5% of their original terrains after decades of conflicts with the Chilean State, settlers, and private companies.

So, what are the Mapuche people’s claims?

We can identify two types of claims that will also be useful to understand the different kind of actions carried out by Mapuche organizations. The first of them are the low profile demands: improved general living conditions for Mapuche, and access to education, health, social security and representation within the Chilean political system. Many of these kinds of demands were solved politically during the first democratic governments following the civic-military dictatorship of General Pinochet. On the other hand, high profile demands are related to the recovery of ancestral Mapuche lands, an official political recognition of Mapuche people and their organizations, and in some cases include political autonomy from the Chilean government. Regarding these demands, it’s true that some relevant advances had been achieved during the ‘90s. Nevertheless, the management of public policies to address them have been inefficient, chaotic and in many cases contradictory.

*Recommended reading: “7 Facts to understanding Chile’s Mapuche Conflict”

What is the current situation?

Because of the situation described above, from the mid ‘90s some Mapuche organizations decided to carry out confrontational actions, such as burning lorries (of the forestry companies), clashes with the police, or land invasions by force. To deal with this situation centre-left and right-wing governments have systematically sent paramilitary forces to the area who have been implementing attacks on Mapuche communities using teargas, rubber bullets, armoured cars, and firearms. Authorities have also imprisoned Mapuche leaders after trials by military courts, and applied an anti-terrorist law against Mapuche activists. A report by the UN’s Ben Emerson characterized the situation in the area of conflict as “extremely volatile”, and accused the police of systematic use of excessive force. Despite this, the Chilean Home Office has reinforced their political repression against Mapuche activists by increasing the police presence in the area, and giving more power to police to arrest protesters, at the same time that authorities in charge have conceptualized the violent activities as common criminal acts and not as part of a popular social mobilization process. Furthermore, this criminalization has been deepened by right-wing politicians and some members of the public who continuously demand more paramilitary forces in the area, and also by some mass media attempting to influence public opinion by publishing biased articles or images (e.g., Fig 1).

*Recommended reading: “Police violence against Mapuche children experiences impunity in Chile”

What research has to say about this situation

Specialist research in social movements and collective action from different scientific fields has argued that it’s not appropriate to link the implementation and support for confrontational and violent actions in a context of political mobilization with acts of terrorism because of the existence of different paths that lead to each one of them, as well as a divergence of antecedents, context and intentions between both. Additionally, according to the International Convention for the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism, the difference is clear, because to speak about terrorism it is necessary that the targets of actions were civilians without direct participation in the conflict, and the main motivation of them was to terrorize a great part of population to obligate a government or an organization to execute or not a specific action. Considering the latter, violent and confrontational actions carried out by some Mapuche organizations should not be defined as “terrorism” because of the main targets of these actions are private property (e.g., forestry lorries. or lands that they claim as their own) and police officers during clashes or raids, not civilians, and it is clear that the objective of them is not to sow fear throughout the population, but rather to promote their political claims by putting pressure on the authorities.

Sociology, history, and political sciences have demonstrated that often participants in social movements engage in divergent paths of action across the development of these phenomena, and so there may be even parallel strategies of action within a movement (the anti-apartheid movement is one of the most famous cases). Regarding this, it’s obvious that within the Mapuche cause, there may exist different organizations using diverse strategies of actions at the same time to reach more or less the same objectives, hence the use of violence or confrontation may be one of many methods to get the desired social changes. Additionally, crowd behaviour studies have demonstrated that participation in riots and violent actions in a context of protest is not a function of people’s personality disorders or irrationality; rather it responds to well-known patterns of social interactions and identity processes that take place at the same time as actions. Specifically, conflict becomes legitimized and possible as self-defence for ingroups when outgroup actions are seen as both indiscriminate and illegitimate, and when such self-defensive action is seen by ingroup members as appropriate and efficacious.

Similarly, crowd behaviour studies have shown that even in riots collective violence is not indiscriminate, rather it tends to be selective. This is also true in the Mapuche case, where the attacks have been systematically directed to specific targets. More relevant is the fact that violent activities take place as a function of both historical and intergroup contexts. Historically, the Mapuche’s claims have been ignored or just partially solved by the Chilean state, hence it suggests that many of them could feel that their people have not been treated fairly and are tired of unsatisfactory political solutions to their demands. Some organizations have chosen to carry out violent actions against those considered as their enemies: the police, and Chilean settlers who live in the lands that they claim as their own. The latter are the core of the intergroup context; some Mapuche groups identify police officers as agents of the State that occupied their lands by force, as defenders of forestry companies’ interests, and therefore as agents that use indiscriminate violence against them and their settlements. In the same way, some Chilean settlers are considered as adversaries of Mapuche because they are the legal owners of some of the areas in conflict, do not recognise the Mapuche claims, and a few of them have used firearms against Mapuche activists.

The previous arguments lead us to consider a key factor in a context of social mobilization, that is the social identity shared by the participants in these activities. I conceptualize the social identity from a dynamic perspective, which means its criteria and boundaries can change in response to the events that protesters experience, especially in relation to other groups. It is true that many Mapuche organisations exist to demand their lands and political rights. Nevertheless, to label all of them as “terrorist” in public opinion could spread the idea that they exist in opposition to the police and the Chilean State.

In my own research I will explore the impact of activists’ perceptions on the current political context, specifically regarding the role of government, the police, and public opinion in their future behaviour. How the protesters perceive the authorities consider them and their activities might have a relevant influence in what kind of actions they will be willing to implement or support, and obviously labelling activists as terrorists is not just a bad precedent to find a solution to problems, but also implies that all of them are seen as criminals without any consideration of their political arguments. The latter could lead activists to think that the government is not paying attention to them, so they must use violence and confrontation not just to get the attention of citizens and authorities, but also as a way to succeed in their political fight. Faced with these situations, successive Chilean governments have been doing wrong by systematically sending more and more paramilitary police to the zone in conflict; this has increased the impression that the main response that activists can get from the authorities is repression. Accordingly, I have hypothesized that the levels of repression and government openness to protests perceived by activists would be drivers to endorse or carry out violent actions. As a third factor, I have thought that the more activists perceive that citizens delegitimize the presence and actions of social movements, the more likely it will be that they decide to be involved in confrontations as a way to achieve the expected social change. Considering this, it can be argued that publishing pictures (e.g., Fig. 1) or articles stigmatizing and criminalizing popular movements with the objective of manipulating public opinion is no more than putting out the fire with gasoline rather than finding a solution. And now, in the same way the right-wing politicians have done for years, the Chilean Home Office is privileging an anti-crime and paramilitary agenda, rather than a political one in which civil and political rights are more important than private property.

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