Perpetuating Injustice from Another Continent: Canadian Resource Extraction and Mapuche Resistance

Law & Theory Apr 06, 2021

Written by Mathieu Lavault

Cover image from MiningWatch Canada.

Current Events in Chile

On October 26, Chileans went to the polls in a referendum demanding a rewriting of the 1980 Constitution, set in place by then-dictator Augusto Pinochet, which imposed and enforced neoliberal market values. This call for a new constitution was not unexpected, considering how Chileans have been fighting against high levels of inequality in the country for several years. The new constitution will reform previous dictatorship-era laws and regulations, which Chileans say “entrenched inequalities by putting the private sector in control of health, education, housing, and pensions.” Chileans in the referendum, 78% of them, voted in strong support towards a new drafting of the constitution. However, voters will have to go back to the ballot boxes on April 11, 2021 to choose 155 people making up the convention for a new constitution. The previous constitution may have helped Chile do well economically vis-a-vis the rest of Latin America, but this new constitution would help bind the social fabric of the country together.

The Mapuche Identity in Chile

The Mapuche are an indigenous group that inhabit present day south-central Chile and parts of southwestern Argentina; reports have them living on the South American continent as early as 600 to 500 BC. Although they co-existed with the Chilean population and resisted the government’s encroachment for many years prior to the formation of the country, Chile is still the only South American country that does not recognize indigenous people in its constitution. Although Article 10 of the constitution states that Chileans are “Those who obtained special grant [gracia] of naturalization by law '' there is no specific mention of any indigenous groups. The constitution also stipulates in Article 9 that “terrorism, in any of its forms, is intrinsically contrary to human right”--many Mapuche activists have been deemed terrorists for years now, in their demand for sovereignty of their land. The Mapuche wished to reclaim land that was privatized during Pinochet’s neoliberal rule, which lasted over 15 years.

The Mapuche have tried over centuries to regain the territory that they lost in the partition between the newly-formed states of Argentina and Chile. Mapuche activists have been detained by the police and the army without due process because of the laws put in place by the Pinochet constitution. For example, on September 23, 2017, eight radical-autonomist Mapuche leaders were illegally detained by Chilean state forces as part of a joint operation done by the Chilean National Intelligence Agency (ANI) and the Carabineros (Chilean national police force). These activists were held without a warrant and due process, with the leaders accused of terrorism.

Mapuche v. The Chilean State

The Anti-Terrorist Law, or Law 18.314, was enacted by Augusto Pinochet in 1984 with the clear incentive to punish any rebellion against the regime and to suppress political opposition. This law allows the prosecution to withhold evidence from the defendant for up to six months, and allows for those accused to be convicted based on unidentifiable witness testimony. Although there have been amendments to the law following the democratization of the country, components of the law have still been used to target the Mapuche. This was addressed in October 2010, when there were agreements between the government and the Mapuche in which the state had agreed to “[abandon] all lawsuits for terrorist crimes and reconsidering such actions under the rules of common criminal law.” However, the government and the Public Prosecutor’s Office have not stopped using this law for investigative purposes against the Mapuche.

Former President Sebastian Pinera has said that the law needs to be “perfected to make it more efficacious”, citing as well that so-called “terrorists” “must be combated with all the rigor of the law.” Because of the rhetoric set by the Chilean state, one can deduce that the state has placed economic prosperity and the development of Mapuche land over reconciliation and justice for the Mapuche.

The possibility of sovereignty and decolonization of Mapuche land seemed possible in the late 1990s as there were revindication projects set in motion by Mapuche movements in the southern provinces of Arauco and Malleco. However, the state has continuously allowed massive land-grabbing in the form of forestry and hydroelectric projects. This means that the government grants permission to multinational companies to extract natural resources from Mapuche land, such as in the Araucania region. Pinochet, in 1974, put in place Decree 701, which paved the way for rapid advancement of large forestry operations on Mapuche land. The government provided private logging companies with extensive subsidies and over-the-top generous tax incentives. Large Chilean multinational companies such as CMPC and Bosques Arauco, as well as Canadian mining companies, are still benefiting from these state subsidies. These private companies are entitled to more Mapuche land than the Mapuche people themselves. The Mapuche Werken, a messenger for the Mapuche community, stated that in denying Mapuche demands, “the state has relinquished to corporate pressures of the agricultural, forestry and transport industries.”

Canada’s Silence

Chileans have been protesting against their government since late 2019, and a majority of Chileans voted to substitute the Pinochet-era constitution. President Pinera used dictatorship-era constitutional power to declare a state of emergency across several regions of the country when riots broke out, and what this state of emergency means is that the government has increased power to restrict citizens' freedom of movement and their right to assemble.

There are over 40 Canadian mining companies with over 100 mines in the country. The assets of Canadian mining amounted to a whopping 17 billion dollars in 2018. Some of the companies that make up the list are Yamana Gold, Lundin Mining, and Teck Resources. These companies work primarily in copper but also extract gold and silver. When it comes to foreign investing in mining, Canada wishes to protect its mining interests in Chile.

Climate change has been an excuse from Canadian companies to not be held responsible for the damage done to the environment. While the private sector is at fault, the Canadian government has not been outspoken against the environmental dangers posed by mining. The Canadian government has used the same discourse to protect mining companies. Officials from Global Affairs Canada spoke to a Chilean grassroots organization regarding the severe droughts in the mining areas; these droughts are caused by extensive water usage by mines, but Global Affairs Canada cited that the cause of the droughts were not the companies' fault but that of climate change.

Besides the capital investment that Canada has in Chile, the Canadian government engages in investments through Export Development Canada (EDC). The EDC is Canada’s export credit agency, owned solely as a state-owned enterprise by the Canadian government. The EDC has invested between 1 billion and 1.5 billion dollars in the extractive sector, and their financial activities have supported large-scale copper mines across Chile. Kirsten Francescone of MiningWatch Canada said that “[Canadian] companies are contributing to the deepening of the ecological and political crisis in Chile by continuing to promote mining investment.”

Where is the Law?

Canadian mining companies have immense power in Chile; they are largely free to extract resources and pollute the water, land, and environment. The Mapuche people have formal land rights, but in reality they have no political power in pressuring the national government to protect these rights. With a new constitution on the way, Chile should consider implementing indigenous rights vis-a-vis Chilean rights in all circumstances. In order to implement policies adopted by other Latin American countries, Chile should amend its constitution to give broader rights to indigenous peoples.

When it concerns the previous Constitution that is still in place, the Chilean mining industry has had much leeway in what it is able to do. The mining industry is protected under the 1980 Constitution and the 1983 Mining Code, while Law 18.248 makes it so that the industry is allowed to use land without government obtrusion, disregarding indigenous land claims.

According to Diego Hernández, president of Chile’s National Mining Society, Chile’s copper industry will see investment go down a bit for one or two years, as the country needs to rewrite a constitution that upholds the demands of all the protesters and indigneous activists that marched in the Santiago streets. Mr. Hernández believes that great change will occur for the mining industry, as he argues Chile has to remain internationally known for its copper mines. He states that “Chile cannot afford the luxury of dispensing with mining.”

What Should the Chilean Government do to Extend Indigenous Protections?

To seek justice for the Mapuche, the Constitution needs to recognize the Mapuche as a sovereign, self-determined people with unique, inalienable rights of their own. It is still the only country in Latin America that does not constitutionally acknowledge its own people. The drafting of a new constitution can be the next step in addressing previous injustices, and protecting Mapuche land from corporate encroachment. Councillor Marcelo Vega Melinao believes that the Yes vote in the referendum late last year could be the beginning of a new phase for the Mapuche identity in South America, saying “I want all the indigenous communities to finally be recognised in the new constitution and represented in the government.”


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