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Story Publication logo February 1, 2016

Chile's Mapuche-Pehuenche: 10 Years After Relocation


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One decade ago, the Pehuenche indigenous people in Chile were forced off their land and into housing...


CONCEPCIÓN, Chile - While some of the indigenous Mapuche in Chile are picketing in the streets of Santiago for better political representation or setting fire to vehicles in the rural south to protest ancestral land reparations, the indigenous people of one community are still patiently waiting for compensation they were promised a decade ago after being displaced from their homes.

The Mapuche-Pehuenche live in the Andes of central Chile along the Bío Bío River a few hours' drive from the Argentine border, and for centuries, they survived by farming on the same sacred land until the electric company Endesa completed the 570 megawatt Ralco dam in 2004 that flooded over 30 square kilometers of the region, forcing many of those indigenous residents to relocate.

Though Endesa promised to compensate those affected with new property and homes, as well as a variety of agricultural and social support programs, many Pehuenche said they are still waiting for those promises to be fulfilled more than 10 years later. On top of this, they said the relocation has created far more cultural and farming difficulties than they had anticipated.

"At best, some people may consider that dam construction was not a negative process," Jeanne Wirtner Simón, Professor of Legal and Social Sciences at the University of Concepción, said. "But it is hard for people to find positive elements."

An Endesa spokesperson said all programs designed to help families affected by Ralco dam had been carried out, but did not directly comment on the possibility of undelivered promises.

Endesa outlined a Relocation Plan for residents that generally included a new house with electricity for each family on land appraised for more than the property they had lost, farm animals and a corral to hold them, as well as a small, open-top hut for keeping a continuous fire.

Endesa records and Pehuenche community leaders both confirmed these promises were kept, but other parts of the plan, like the Program for Continued Assistance — designed in part to boost agricultural production and improve the condition of infrastructure — are still debated during community meetings held with Endesa.

"Very little of what they promised has been fulfilled," said Juan Rosales, Chief of Ralco Lepoy. "Yes, we have our home, but they offered so much more than that — money to repair the land, to repair the house."

Endesa records said the company successfully fulfilled these promises. During the ten years following relocation, every resident received financial reparations and several hundred visits were made to assist with farming and social needs, resulting in more fruitful livestock and agriculture than the community had experienced before the relocation — sometimes by over 1000 percent.

But many residents contest these numbers.

José Quilapay, President of the Quiñelan community, said he and many other residents in his sector never received the financial reparations Endesa promised, and has never been told how much he is actually owed. Quilapay also said he has never known an Endesa representative to make visits to individual Quiñelan families for any purpose.

José Basilio Rosales Gallena, 75, of Ralco Lepoy said an Endesa representative actually did visit his home twice a month for four years as the contract stated, but the visits did not solve most of the problems the community still faces today.

Twenty-eight families were moved higher into the mountains, at an elevation the local government lists at nearly 3,000 feet above sea level. The new sector of the community, given the name El Barco, gets as much as five feet of snow at any one time during the winter months, which is far more than residents claimed to get on their previous properties down the mountain.

As a result, many farmers said they can't grow the vegetables they once could. José Mancopay, 48, of El Barco, said his animals are thin because they don't always have enough to eat on the rocky, unfertile land — raising questions less about whether Endesa fulfilled its promises to the community, and more about why the community accepted the company's relocation plan in the first place.

Nivaldo Piñaleo Llaulén, Mayor of Alto Bío Bío, the region that encompasses these indigenous communities, said residents did not think about the long-term outcome of the negotiations, so Endesa did not reimburse them with the kinds of resources that create long-term sustainability.

"The agreement wasn't written in a way that accounts for generation after generation," he said. "My son, my grandson — to educate them and show them how to be professionals. We don't have professionals here. There is a lack, therefore, of development."

Alex Quevedo, a lawyer who represents the Quepuca-Ralco district, said the Pehuenche received inadequate legal counsel during the construction of the dam, in part because the Chilean government was in favor of the project.

"Rather than help the Pehuenche negotiate better," he said, "the state allowed the construction of Ralco, and in ways that would be cheaper for Endesa."

Quevedo said the more than 90 families he currently represents received less indemnities and benefits than the four clients he represented during the negotiations.

An Endesa spokesperson said the company now often works with the community through the Pehuén Foundation, which was established after the completion of a different dam in the '90s.

"Projects and aid previously agreed upon in meetings with the community are carried out throughout the year and are then introduced to the Foundation directory, mostly composed of Pehuenche leaders for their approval and implementation," the spokesperson said.

Maria Curraiao, former president of the Aukiñ Wallmapu community, said she doesn't attend such meetings anymore, because that system of negotiation resulted in many residents never being consulted during the original discussion about relocation.

An Endesa document listing people supposedly in agreement with the relocation proposal, for example, included Curraiao's name. But she said she never signed anything. Others, she said, signed the contract without knowing how to read.

Without concrete documentation, many Pehuenche were under the impression they still lack certain material reparations that were never actually part of the agreement, or that were allegedly promised verbally — a trusted form of negotiation in Pehuenche culture.

Juan Calpán Pichay, 70, of El Barco, said Endesa promised to build him a bridge over a river that separates the road from the property he was given after the flood. But there was no mention of a bridge in the agreement he signed with Endesa.

Feliciano Puelma, 73, of El Barco, said he was promised free electricity, a belief held by numerous Pehuenche despite there being no document to support it. Instead, electric bills are higher in Alto Bío Bío than in any other region of Chile, according to the Ministry of Energy.

Not only can residents not afford to pay electricity costs, said officials at the Department of Social Works, but a lot of them also didn't know how. So many people lined up outside of her office everyday wanting to know why their electricity had been turned off, that the municipality created a program to teach them about paying bills.

The introduction of more modern technology has been a gift and a curse in the Pehuenche community. Before Endesa, many residents lived without electricity or running water, often in one-room homes heated by an open, central fire. Endesa supplied the 81 relocated families and over 180 other families indirectly affected by the flood with multi-room homes that have floors, windows, electricity and running water.

But as good as these improvements are, some chiefs and residents point to the dam construction as a turning point in the community that had palpable effects on its cultural heritage. The dam flooded a Pehuenche cemetery and many sacred sites that have still not been replaced by Endesa, said an official at the local Department of Public Works.

"It's easy to change houses if you're Chilean," said Pamela Gutierrez, 35, an administrator at the middle school in Ralco Lepoy. "You think, 'I'm just moving, it's not a big deal. It's just land.' But for them, the land is part of who they are."

A 2013 letter from the Bío Bío regional office of the National Indigenous Development Corporation — a federal government agency responsible for all indigenous affairs in Chile — said relocation generated cultural changes that "explain the growing tendency toward the deteriorating mental health of families, which are expressed in the alarming rates of depression and suicide, among other things."

Officials at the local Department of Health said the relocation also coincided with an increase in alcoholism; however, they did not have statistics available.

Chiefs and residents alike expressed concern at the diminishing number of people attending traditional Pehuenche ceremonies, as well as the number of adolescents who do not want to learn Mapudungun because they believe being identified as an indigenous person is a disadvantage in more urban settings.

Now, Endesa is starting up its "long-term" support plan for the region, which a spokesperson said will "contribute to sustainable development through various programs and activities" through 2022.

"For me to arrive at the belief that Endesa will change its relationship with the Pehuenche," Quevedo said, "there must be concrete actions carried out that I do not yet see."


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