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14 March 1999

Government Accused of Undermining
Indigenous Rights

By Gustavo Gonzalez

SANTIAGO, Mar 2 (IPS) - Ruling coalition deputies berated the Chilean government this week for its position in two disputes involving the environment and indigenous claims, accusing it of favouring electric and logging companies at the expense of ethnic minorities.

Parliamentarians Alejandro Navarro of the Socialist Party (PS) and Guido Girardi of the Party for Democracy (PPD) refuted official reports that protests by indigenous groups had been fuelled by ''infiltration by subversive elements.''

Last week, the government of President Eduardo Frei ordered the deportation of three foreign nationals - from Spain, the United States and France - supposedly involved in clashes between indigenous demonstrators and the police. The government pointed to their involvement as evidence of ''infiltration'' in the protests.

Although the deportations were suspended by court injunctions, authorities appealed the legal decision, while warning that other foreign nationals could be subjected to the same measure.

Patricia Ballesteros from Spain and Lee Pope from the United States were arrested Feb 19 in clashes between the police and Pehuenche indians and environmentalists at the site where the Ralco dam is being built on the upper Biobio river, 500 kms south of Santiago.

A French student, identified by his last name only, Arnaud, was arrested Feb 20 in Traiguen, 650 kms south of the capital, in a clash between Mapuche indians and police on land being logged, which led to the arrest of 28 people.

Navarro said the government ''is the protagonist of an international disgrace'' due to its action against the foreign nationals and its claims that the indigenous communities were armed and were promoting violence against the police.

The latest outbreak of tension over Ralco, as well as the ongoing dispute over logging in Traiguen on land claimed by Mapuche communities, have triggered new discrepancies within the centre-left governing coalition.

The ruling 'Concertacion por la Democracia' is comprised of the PS, the PPD, President Eduardo Frei's Christian Democratic Party (PDC) and the Radical Social Democratic Party (PRSD).

The lawmakers maintained that the accusations of violence and infiltration were aimed at deflecting attention from local authorities working ''in collusion'' with business interests in the areas of conflict, and preventing them from being held accountable.

Navarro, who represents the central region of Araucania in parliament, said the local representatives of the government had refused to meet with the indigenous communities in Traiguen to discuss their claims against the logging company. For that reason, the Mapuches have been forced to resort to protests, which have not only been cracked down on by the police, but have been distorted in the reports delivered to the press, he added.

Navarro refuted reports that hooded, armed elements had taken part in the latest incidents over the weekend in Traiguen, and that indigenous demonstrators had intentionally burned down forests.

The governmental representative in the region of Araucania, Oscar Eltit, said he had no information on the presence of hooded protesters in the latest incidents, which he described merely as ''shoving incidents'' between Mapuche demonstrators and police. Eltit said Monday that there were structural problems underlying the protests and claims by the indigenous groups, and maintained that the police action had been ''dissuasive'' rather than repressive.

Indigenous leaders Marcos Huaquilaf and Ruben Quilapi, who visited Ballesteros and Pope, under custody in the 'Extranjeria' (immigration offices), vindicated the international solidarity expressed with the ethnic groups' demands for the return and safeguard of ancestral lands.

The more than one million-strong Mapuches are the largest indigenous group in this country of 15 million. The Pehuenches on the upper Biobio are one branch of the Mapuches.

Local Ralco residents Clara Antillanco and Wenceslao Paillan accused the Frei administration of racism and xenophobia, and of ''systematically violating the human rights of indigenous peoples.''

Deputy Navarro said that in Ralco the Carabineros militarised police continuously stop and search Pehuenches passing about on their land, while allowing the vehicles of Endesa, the company building the dam, to circulate freely. To illustrate the ''collusion'' between local authorities and business interests, Navarro pointed out that Endesa buses are even used to transfer the Pehuenches detained in incidents with the police.

According to the government, the conflict in Ralco has been fostered by environmentalists and nine Pehuenche families - of a total of 91 - who refuse to be relocated from their land, which will be flooded once the dam is finished.

Origin: Montevideo/ENVIRONMENT-CHILE/


[c] 1999, InterPress Third World News Agency (IPS)
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