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.
Indigenous peoples in Chile
There are nine 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 1,565,915 indigenous persons in Chile, that is 9% of the national population, and nine different indigenous groups. The Mapuche represent 84% of the indigenous population, while the Aymara, the Diaguita, the Lickanantay, and the Quechua peoples together represent 15%.
Indigenous peoples in Chile principally live in urban areas. The Metropolitan (30.1%), Araucanía (19.6%) and Los Lagos (13.1%) regions have the largest concentration of indigenous population. However, as of the year 2015, 24.7% resided in rural areas.
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.
The protests in Chile left in evidence that its political-economic system, which for years was considered the successful model to follow, but excludes most of the population, mainly Indigenous People. Photo: Leandro Crovetto.
The political caste and economic power have focused their attention on avoiding the presence of Indigenous representatives in the process of Chile's new political constitution. The reason for their opposition is simple: the participation of 24 indigenous people would mean too much power and the Indigenous would be able to influence decision-making. However today, after centuries of exclusion, the time has come for Chile's native peoples to decide.
The protests succeeded in establishing a constituent process and now special Indigenous seats are being demanded.
The results of the plebiscite held on October 25, 2020 were unequivocal. Four out of five citizens pronounced themselves in favor of a new political constitution. The same proportion voted for the constitution to be written by officials elected for this purpose through a Constitutional Convention. This result represents an essential step towards putting an end to the 1980 Political Constitution enacted during Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship, which, despite numerous reforms, has continued to limit the exercise of human rights and a full-fledged democracy, generating exclusions and inequalities of every kind. In this context, the people of Chile discuss the inclusion of 23 additional seats in the constitutional convention for Indigenous representatives, as well as one seat for an Afro-descendant representative.
The world has been suffering the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic since the early months of 2020. This has resulted in catastrophic effects globally, with Indigenous Peoples suffering serious impacts not only on their health and the exercise of their right to health but also in terms of the social inequality they have historically suffered, and which has resulted in major consequences for the exercise of their economic, social, cultural and environmental rights.
Against this backdrop, the Rapa Nui people last year set an example of how to address the pandemic, through coordinated work on the part of their leaders and use of their traditional knowledge.
From fighting for their land to fighting for their freedom: Mapuche political prison as a counterinsurgency mechanism
Movilización en Angol en apoyo a los presos políticos Mapuche en huelga de hambre durante julio de 2019. Foto: Julio Parra.
Mapuche political prisoners use their own bodies and resort to a solid and liquid food hunger strike as resistance tools against the Chilean state, police repression and the harassment by landowners and multinational corporations. Treated as “terrorists” and branded as the “internal enemy” by the holders of economic power, the strikers give away their newen (strength) while trying to obtain freedom for their people.
Since the 2017 census,1 and despite constant increases in numbers since the 1990s, the Indigenous population has not shown any great changes. When considering their demographic for public policy and regulatory purposes, they are still given as 12.8% of the total population, or approximately 2,158,792 individuals, with the Mapuche being the most numerous among them (some 1,800,000 people). A clear increase in the urban Indigenous population can be seen at the expense of the rural population, with 87.8% now living in urban areas as opposed to 12.2% in rural.2