There are 10 different Indigenous groups in Chile. The largest one is the Mapuche, followed by the Aymara, the Diaguita, the Lickanantay, and the Quechua peoples. Chile is the only country in Latin America, that does not recognise the Indigenous Peoples in its constitution. For that, Indigenous groups face challenges, especially in terms of territorial rights.
However, the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was adopted by the Government of Chile on 13 September 2007 and ILO convention 169 was ratified in 2008. Despite Chile’s constitution not recognizing the Indigenous Peoples, the Ministry of Social Development has convened an Indigenous constitutional drafting process to gain the perspective of the Indigenous Peoples on the content of a new constitution.
Law No. 19,253 of 1993 on Indigenous promotion, protection, and development remains in effect, even though it does not meet international law standards concerning the rights of Indigenous Peoples to land, territory, natural resources, participation, and political autonomy.
Indigenous Peoples in Chile
There are 10 different Indigenous groups in Chile. Despite being in constant increase since the 1990s, the Indigenous population of Chile has not varied greatly since the 2017 census, resulting in 2,185,792 people self-identifying as Indigenous, or the equivalent of 12.8% of the country’s total population of 17,076,076. The Mapuche are the most numerous (almost 1,800,000 individuals), followed by the Aymara (156,000) and the Diaguita (88,000).
There has been a notable and sustained increase in the proportion of Indigenous population living in urban areas, with 87.8% of Indigenous members now living in cities compared to 12.2% living in the countryside.
Main challenges for Chile’s Indigenous Peoples
According to the Ministry of Social Development, 30.8% of the Indigenous population live in poverty, while for the non-indigenous population that figure is 19.9%. The region of Araucanía, which concentrates the largest Indigenous population, continues to be the country’s poorest region.
A continuous struggle for the Mapuche peoples is their rights to the lands and territories, which legally and/or ancestrally belong to them. In the Region of the Araucanía and Los Ríos, the rights of the Mapuche people have been gravely threatened by the expansion of extractive, production, and infrastructure projects. The great majority of these initiatives belong to private corporations.
Although a new legislative bill raises questions on the part of Indigenous Peoples and has created the Biodiversity and Protected Areas Service (SBAP) and the National Protected Areas System (SNAP), it fails to recognize the contribution of Indigenous Peoples to biodiversity, does not protect indigenous rights against public and private conservation initiatives, nor recognizes or protect indigenous and community conservation initiatives.
Another challenge is the criminalization of Mapuche social protest by the state. During 2017, the State broadly used the Antiterrorist Act to persecute members of the Mapuche people. During the course of the year, that law was invoked against 23 Mapuche persons charged with terrorist homicidal arson, terrorist arson, and/or terrorist conspiracy.
Legislative progress for Chile’s Indigenous Peoples
In August 2017, the Ministry of Social Development started to a process of consultation of Indigenous Peoples' perspectives in regard to the content of Indigenous matters for a new constitution. This process, namely the "Indigenous Constitutional Assembly Process" gathered proposals as involving the Indigenous Peoples' legal recognition as nations, the status of Chile as plurinational State, the right to the self-determination and autonomy, the right to the territory and natural resources, the right to special indigenous representation, and linguistic and social rights. However, the process has failed to take the content that the indigenous peoples had identified as priorities into account.
Following the social protests that broke out in the country from October 2019 onward demanding in-depth institutional change, and with approval given for the drafting of a new constitution in a referendum held in October 2020, there is now a new opportunity opening up for the recognition of Indigenous Peoples and their collective rights within the new Political Constitution.
Rapa Nui is an island of 16,628 hectares located in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and separated from the coast of continental Chile by more than 3,700 kilometres. The Rapa Nui people live there, descendants of an age-old culture recognized for the creation of large megalithic structures known as Moai and for having developed a unique civilization.
The Constituent Assembly, born of the 2019 protests, spent two years drafting a new constitutional text that promised to be the most advanced in Latin America. A social state based on the rule of law, recognition of Indigenous Peoples and the inclusion of collective rights, the rights of nature and women's rights opened up a whole new perspective and generated hope in the region. Nevertheless, in the exit referendum (“plebiscito de salida”), two-thirds of Chileans voted down the new constitution, which would have overturned that inherited from Pinochet. Elitism, a lack of work on the ground and the poor popularity of the government and the Assembly members appear to be just some of the reasons for this defeat, which threatens to put a halt to human rights progress in the country.
After 130 years of systematic breaches with the Agreement of Wills, the Constitutional Convention has opened a window of hope for the Rapa Nui people to achieve their right to self-determination and for the State of Chile to become a "friend of the island". Through extended open councils held on the island, the Rapa Nui are elaborating a special article that takes into account their specificities. This article is to be included in the new Constitution, with the objective that their voices finally be heard.
Photo: The Rapa Nui people’s pineapples at the Constituent Assembly. Photo: One
Despite steadily increasing since the 1990s, the size of Chile’s Indigenous population has shown no major changes since the 2017 census. A total of 2,185,792 people self-identify as Indigenous, equivalent to 12.8% of the country's total population (17,076,076). The Mapuche are the most numerous (almost 1,800,000 people), followed by the Aymara (156,000 people) and the Diaguita (88,000 people). A sustained increase in the urban Indigenous population as compared to the rural population is notable, with 87.8% of the Indigenous population now living in urban areas compared to 12.2% in rural ones.
In Chile, communication from an Indigenous perspective is absent in the mass media. In the face of racist journalistic coverage and discrimination on social networks, it is necessary to respect Indigenous peoples’ freedom of expression and access to the media. The democratization of a concentrated media ecosystem must make visible a reality in which Indigenous peoples are alive, diverse and have the full right to generate cultural content in their respective languages and forms.
The election of the Mapuche constituent member Elisa Loncón as President was a symbol of Indigenous peoples’ protagonism in the drafting of the new Magna Carta. In the same sense, the victory of Gabriel Boric meant greater institutional support and a commitment to provide the Convention with the necessary resources for its operation. The recent approval of Initiative No. 94-1 raises hope that Chile will become a Plurinational State.