Standoff in Patagonia

The Mapuche’s struggle for cultural survival is being met with increasing violence by the Argentine State.

LAST SEPTEMBER AS WINTER chills began to ease, members of a Mapuche community called Lof Quemquemtrew reclaimed a piece of land in a wooded valley known as Cuesta del Ternero in the Andes mountains of Argentina’s Patagonia region. On paper, the land belongs to the government, but the Mapuche claim ancestral rights to the area. A private businessman named Rolando Rocco who holds a forestry concession there pressed squatting charges against the Indigenous community. A week later police stormed in and arrested six adults and took an eight-year-old into custody. The rest of the people at the encampment escaped into the forest.

The next day, the soldiers returned and fired several rounds of lead and rubber bullets into the encampment. They then blockaded the only road through the valley and laid siege to the entire area, barring entry to everyone, from people wanting to deliver food and essential supplies to those still in hiding, to the press and human rights organizations. The Permanent Assembly for Human Rights and the Coordinadora del Parlamento Mapuche, a group that advocates for the rights of Mapuche communities in Río Negro province, filed a petition to be allowed through with food and warm clothing. But the district court denied the plea, with the judge stating that “delivering food and warm clothing would be further consolidating the crime,” evidently disregarding any presumption of innocence.

Clearing the Mapuche out at gunpoint is a practice with a long history in Patagonia.

More than four months later, at the time this article went to press, riot police were still maintaining a 24-hour blockade. A solidarity camp has sprung up to stare down the police line, where community members unable to return to the encampment keep vigil with Mapuche from other communities and non-Mapuche supporters. For weeks on end, ceremonies and traditional dances have come to within inches of the helmets and badges. Despite the brave front the protestors present, the fear of state violence is ever-present.

“We’re afraid for our people’s safety up there; we don’t want another Rafael Nahuel,” Romina Jones, one of the Mapuche who was arrested in the raid, told me just four days into the state of siege.

Jones was referring to the November 2017 killing of a Mapuche youth by a naval squadron in another land conflict around 50 miles to the north of the current scene of action, in Nahuel Huapi National Park. Back then, the Mapuche community of Lof Lafken Winkul Mapu had staked claim to 15 acres of wooded mountainside overlooking Lake Mascardi near the ski-resort city of Bariloche. The government response followed a similar pattern. A massive police force raided the encampment 13 days after the community publicly announced the occupation, arresting five women and removing five minors, while the rest of the activists escaped to the park’s higher slopes. The elite naval Albatross Group was called in to patrol the area.

Two days later, 22-year-old Rafael Nahuel and two other Mapuche youth, who had hiked into the park to deliver food and check on those still in hiding, were shot at by soldiers from the Albatross Group. A single bullet struck Nahuel in the left buttock and ripped upward through his torso, puncturing his lung. He eventually bled to death. Nahuel’s companions sustained injuries as well, but they survived. The government tried to frame the incident as an “armed confrontation” between the Mapuche youth and the soldiers, but investigators later found 129 bullet casings, all fired by the soldiers.

A community shelter at the Lof Quemquemtrew encampment in Cuesta del Ternero. Photo by Denali DeGraff.

Addressing the unauthorized use of government lands with sub-machine guns may seem unusual and excessive, but unfortunately, clearing the Mapuche out at gunpoint is a practice with a long history in Patagonia.

THE MAPUCHE ARE THE LARGEST Indigenous group of Patagonia, a vast region that spans the southernmost third of what are today Chile and Argentina. They successfully fought off Spanish invaders for over 300 years (and the Incas before them), until the late nineteenth century, when the nascent Argentine and Chilean states, only 60-odd years old at the time, set out to claim Patagonia. Argentina’s General Julio Argentino Roca led a series of military campaigns against the Mapuche and other Indigenous groups in the region beginning in 1878, campaigns collectively known as the “Conquest of the Desert.” Roca’s army swept murderously from the pampas south of Buenos Aires across the central steppe to the Andes. If you know anything about the history of the Americas, you’ll recognize the playbook: outright slaughter, forced marches out of homelands, enslavement, prohibition of language and spiritual practices. The consolidation of the border between Chile and Argentina along the Andes mountain range split the Mapuche land into two. Nahuel Huapi National Park, Argentina’s first, was formed from land donated by renowned geographer and explorer Francisco “Perito” Moreno for that purpose. The land had, in turn, been given to Moreno by the government after forcibly removing the Mapuche from it.

Chile undertook a similarly brutal campaign on the western side of the Andes. However, while the bloodshed, suffering, and land-grabbing there are not to be underestimated, Mapuche culture remained somewhat more intact in that country. In Argentina, the program of cultural genocide and erasure was more total. The narrative promoted by the colonizers, that the Mapuche are “the native people of southern Chile,” is still quite common today.

Many Mapuche who survived Roca’s army lived a generation or two in concentration camps along Rio Negro, the largest river in Argentine Patagonia. When they eventually resettled in the mostly dry, rocky, inhospitable areas few of the White settlers wanted, the Mapuche were left scattered across the landscape, isolated from the social structures that allow for cultural cohesion.

Indeed, the Lof Lafken Winkul Mapu and Lof Quemquemtrew communities’ efforts to reclaim territory are not just to reclaim land, but to reconstitute their culture. One of those detained by police during the 2017 occupation was Rafael Nahuel’s 16-year-old cousin Betiana Colhuan Nahuel, who at the time was training to be a machi, a traditional Mapuche healer and spiritual leader. Usually women — though sometimes men take on the role as well — machis officiate ceremonies and hold the knowledge of medicinal plants and herbs. The purpose of Lof Lafken Winkul Mapu’s land recovery was to “raise up” Colhuan Nahuel as a new machi. She is now the first machi east of the Andes in over half a century.

I met with Colhuan Nahuel, now 20, last November at a spring plant exchange held on yet another reclaimed territory outside Bariloche. “Thanks to the genocide on this side of the mountains, in what today is known as Argentina, there weren’t any machis,” Colhuan Nahuel told me. “There were people who preserved some knowledge of medicines, but they kept it all in secret ... That was one of the most serious consequences [of the genocide], that there were no machis to care for the spiritual well-being of the people, or their physical health. So our search took us to the other side of the mountains, to Ngulumapu [as Chile is called in Mapuzungún, the Mapuche language].”

At age 10, Colhuan Nahuel’s mother took her to see Cristóbal Tremigual Lemui, a machi near Osorno, Chile, who would later become her mentor. Until Colhuan Nahuel became a machi in 2018, the only options for those seeking traditional Mapuche medicine were traveling to Chile for treatment, or seeing a machi like Tremigual Lemui, who also makes periodic visits to Argentina to treat patients. Both options posed serious challenges given that traditional healing relies on lawén, medicinal plants, and there are border restrictions on the import or export of any flora.

“If you’re Mapuche, wearing traditional clothes, it immediately changes how they treat you at customs.”

Border officials often nearly strip-search people to confiscate plant material. “If you’re Mapuche, wearing traditional clothes, it immediately changes how they treat you at customs,” Tremigual Lemui told me when I met him at Ruka Lawén, a Mapuche healing center just outside Bariloche, during his most recent visit last November. “Many times, they’ve made us throw out lawén ... We don’t even try to bring lawén anymore, because they don’t let it through.” This is true for patients traveling to see machis in Chile, as well as for machis coming to treat patients in Argentina.

“There are many plants we machis use. Each machi has their own lawén,” Tremigual Lemui says. “Some plants don’t grow over here ... We need to bring them [from Chile].”

The community that runs Ruka Lawén does its best to gather plants for Tremigual Lemui when he visits, but their abilities are limited by geography. The windswept, arid steppes of central Patagonia, which lie in the rain shadow east of the Andes in Argentine territory, are populated by tough, hardy plants that need little water, scorch in summer, and freeze in winter. The sopping western flank of the Chilean Andes includes a lush temperate rainforest with ferns as tall as people. It doesn’t take an expert to see how widely species will vary across these ecosystems. “There were always things being exchanged [between Mapuche communities east and west of the Andes], on the one hand medicines but also everything else,” Tremigual Lemui says, referring to the region’s pre-colonial past. “That’s natural for a people to do.”

Machi Betiana Colhuán Nahuel is Argentina’s first Mapuche healer in several generations. Photos by Denali DeGraf.

Machi Betiana Colhuán Nahuel is Argentina’s first Mapuche healer in several generations. Her mentor, Chilean machi Cristóbal Tremigual Lemui, says plants and other resources were always exchanged between Mapuche communities east and west of the Andes.

None of the plants in question are controlled substances in either country, and notwithstanding the different biomes, many grow in abundance in the wild on both sides. Still, the rules — set by the Argentine agricultural health and safety agency, senasa, and predicated on preventing diseases that could jeopardize agriculture — are inflexible. In the balance of priorities, preventing diseases that may harm nonnative plantations of cash crops like apples, pears, or berries entirely supersedes treating diseases that may harm native people.

The inequitable nature of many of these restrictions made headlines in 2017, when Javier Cañió, from a Mapuche community 60 miles south of Bariloche, traveled to Chile to see a machi for a chronic illness. After making the costly journey, he was searched at the border upon return and all of his medicines were confiscated. Unlike many, Cañió spoke up about the experience, and people began to protest in front of senasa’s office in Bariloche. Ensuing negotiations resulted in the development of a formal protocol for transporting Mapuche medicinal substances to avoid discretionary actions by customs personnel. However, the agency still allows only the import of prepared materials such as oils, infusions, or macerations. Live plants, roots, cuttings, sprouts, seeds, and flowers, of any species, are entirely banned.

WHILE THE GOVERNMENTS of Chile and Argentina will not allow machis or their patients to transport a few ounces of leaves, bark, or roots from one part of their ancestral homeland to another, there is a booming business in the large-scale export of many of the plants the machis use, like the soapbark tree (Quillaja saponaria), paramela (Adesmia boronioides), and maqui berry (Aristotelia chilensis), from Patagonia to much farther afield.

There is a booming business in the large-scale export of many of the plants the machis use.

The Mapuche use soapbark, which grows only in Patagonia, for medicine and soap. Modern pharma uses saponins from these trees as an adjuvant that increases the efficiency of vaccines ranging from the world’s first malaria vaccine to Novavax’s Covid-19 vaccine. Chilean exports of soapbark-based products are now around 3,600 tons annually. Paramela, a fleshy-leafed leguminous shrub that tends to grow along the ecotone where the Andes give way to the steppe, is commonly used by the Mapuche for its anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties. In recent years paramela has gotten on the radar of perfume-makers for its unique scent, and since 2005, the Argentine firm Hierbas Patagónicas has been marketing paramela essential oil to cosmetics companies in Brazil, the United States, and Europe.

The tiny, deep purple maqui berry, from a smallish tree common in the forest understory on both sides of the Patagonian Andes, is the latest hit on the superfood circuit, boasting many times the antioxidant levels of the preceding novelty, acaí berries. Chile exports most of the region’s maqui, primarily as a freeze-dried powder and to a lesser extent as juice concentrate, but now Argentina is getting into the business as well. Business consultancy firm Transparency Market Research estimates the 2020 global maqui market at $864 million, projecting a 9.5 percent growth rate over the next ten years to top $2.1 billion by 2030.

Maqui distributors in the US, with New Age names like TerraSoul Superfoods, Neorganika, or Wilderness Poets, market their products using uninformed platitudes about the Mapuche that border on “noble savage” tropes. “The Mapuche Indian is the only unconquered Indian in the entire American continents [sic],” goes the marketing script for maqui supplement capsules sold by HP Ingredients, which goes on to say that the berry “may have contributed to the extraordinary strength and stamina that the warriors exhibited.” Another company, Harmony Spring, speaks of maqui as a “berry with magical and medicinal properties” alongside a photograph of a smiling young woman in traditional Peruvian dress.

The kind of large-scale plant extraction these enterprises involve likely impacts local ecosystems far worse than small-scale foraging for individual or community medicinal purposes. In 2020, Hierbas Patagónicas processed 30 tons of fresh paramela, harvested from private landholdings in Santa Cruz Province.

Traditional Mapuche healing practices rely on lawén, medicinal plants, like these drying at Ruka Lawén, a Mapuche healing center just outside Bariloche.

Indigenous seeds on display at the plant exchange at Isabel Huala’s home in Bariloche. Photos by Gustavo Zaninelli.

Meanwhile, thanks to urban sprawl pushing into wildlands and restrictions on plant collection from wilderness areas protected by national and other parks, most Mapuche are finding it increasingly difficult to forage even for the lawén that does grow on this side of the border, says Sara Itkin, a non-Mapuche MD who has been practicing herbal medicine in the area for over 30 years. Itkin often facilitates knowledge-sharing groups, primarily between rural-raised elders and their now urban grandchildren, and provides support to Ruka Lawén. “There are many plants that these elders would say, ‘We used to be able to find this plant near home, but now there’s a supermarket there, or the highway bypass, and now you have to go way up into the hills to get plants,’” she says.

In the end, everything is about land and who has access. In most cases, the government never granted the Mapuche title to the land they live on. Considering these lands public property, the state routinely evicts Mapuche communities to make way for oil drilling, mining, logging, plantations, and other “development” projects. Most Mapuche now live in urban areas. Bariloche overflows with landless people, filling ramshackle neighborhoods like the ones where Betiana and Rafael Nahuel grew up. Meanwhile the largest private landholders in the country live in Italy: The Benetton Group (of the United Colors) holds 2.2 million acres of Patagonia, almost an acre per inhabitant of the region.

Abutting the land that Lof Lafken Winkul Mapu reclaimed for, among other things, religious purposes, is a plot administered by the Catholic Church of San Isidro, a well-off suburb of Buenos Aires. Park authorities readily ceded 7.4 acres for wealthy Catholics from 800 miles away to run a summer camp. But there is no room to be made for the Mapuche youth from just up the road.

THE MAPUCHE STRUGGLE for cultural survival is intimately linked to the Indigenous land-back movement taking place in both Argentina and Chile, and to similar movements by Indigenous peoples across the world to right historic injustices, combat cultural erasure, and protect their ancestral lands against rapacious extraction.

“The Mapuche cannot be without territory,” says Isabel Huala, a Mapuche leader who hosted the plant exchange where I met Colhuan Nahuel. “You can be Mapuche in the city but you’re always going to be lacking something, lacking the reciprocity you get from the territory. When you do ceremony, you get connected; when you do ceremony, you defend yourself. The land defends us and protects us, and we defend and protect the land.”

“The Mapuche cannot be without territory ... The land defends us and protects us, and we defend and protect the land.”

Colhuan Nahuel too, reached this understanding during her machi apprenticeship with Tremigual Lemui. At a certain point in the training, the process “led us to the search for territory, with medicine, with certain characteristics, and then we started to see this other side of the struggle,” she recounts.

The role of a machi and the practice of traditional medicine are territorially anchored. A machi must have that territorial rootedness, both machis explained to me. This needn’t be a vast territory; it’s not as though a machi expects to harvest everything they need right around their home. But it must be healthy territory, and once you are raised up as a machi in one place, you are ceremonially moored there. A 20x30-meter plot in a sprawling shanty town, like the one Colhuan Nahuel was raised in, doesn’t cut it. Hence, the need for the Lof Lafken Winkul Mapu to have a piece of nearby land outside Bariloche for their new machi.

Lawén also signifies part of the reconstruction of the Mapuche people, like the land itself,” Tremigual Lemui says. “Lawén is part of that, to heal yourself with your own medicine.”

Unfortunately, given the Argentine and Chilean states’ response to Mapuche land recoveries so far, this deeper healing and reconstruction is coming at a steep price.

IN CHILE, WHERE THEY NUMBER some 1.7 million and make up 12 percent of the country’s population, Mapuche activism runs farther back in time. The country’s constitution is the only one in South America that does not acknowledge its Indigenous people and, over the years, many Mapuche activist groups there have taken to direct action, including occupations, demonstrations, and even some heavy property damage on timber estates, to establish their rights. Their actions have been met with even more violent state aggression, including the murders of numerous activists by police. Areas with large Mapuche populations have been heavily militarized for years.

Four months into the first raid, when this story went to press, police were still maintaining a 24x7 blockade of the only access road to Lof Quemquemtrew encampment. But last November they let two armed employees of a forestry company into the area. The men shot and killed a Lof Quemquemtrew community member, 29-year-old Elias Garay Cayicol. Photo by Denali DeGraf.

The situation is somewhat different on this side of the border, where the Mapuche population is smaller, about 205,000, and scattered across much greater distances. While Argentina does recognize the rights of its Indigenous people — it created a National Institute of Indigenous Affairs (INAI) in 1985, and a constitutional reform in 1994 acknowledged the preexistence of “Argentine indigenous peoples” and guaranteed “the community possession and ownership of the lands they traditionally occupy” — these legislative changes have so far had little impact in terms of helping the Mapuche regain their lands, say Mapuche activists like Mauro Millán, leader of the Lof Pillan Mahuiza community. “They tell us to apply through proper channels,” he says, “but although they wrote us into the Constitution nearly 30 years ago, we’re still waiting for community access to land. Our actions are not capricious. When words get exhausted, eventually you just have to act.”

Since the mid-1990’s, there has been an increasing number of Mapuche communities trying to reclaim small portions of their ancestral lands from the government and private entities for farming or communal use. Most of these efforts have been nonviolent, though the government routinely tries to portray otherwise. State and corporate response to these actions, however, has been fierce, ranging from drawn-out lawsuits and smear campaigns to raids involving hundreds of soldiers, helicopters, and live ammunition that have destroyed homes and possessions and have so far resulted in the killing of three young activists, including Rafael Nahuel.

The level of state violence now appears to be pushing the situation in Argentina toward a more militarized one resembling Chile’s.

On November 21 last year seven weeks after the raid on the Lof Quemquemtrew encampment, the police let two men past their checkpoint. They were employees of Rolando Rocco’s forestry company, and they were armed. When they came across members of Lof Quemquemtrew in the forest, the two men shot at them, killing 29-year-old Elias Garay Cayicol on the spot. Another young man, Gonzalo Cabrera, 26, was rushed to the nearest hospital with two bullets in his abdomen.

When I began reporting on this article, I planned to include the story of one young man gunned down for demanding Indigenous land rights, Rafael Nahuel. As I finish, I write of a second. The way things look right now, I fear he may not be the last. On the other hand, though Betiana Colhuan Nahuel is the first machi raised up in generations here, if the Mapuche’s determination to keep on with their struggle is any indication, she will not be the last.

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