Latin American Report


Government accused of undermining Indigenous Rights

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8 April 1999

Elderly Indigenous Women Tried by Military Courts

SANTIAGO, Mar 29 (IPS) - Environmental groups protested Monday against the military trial of two elderly Pehuenche indigenous women, criticising the government for defending former dictator Augusto Pinochet while neglecting human rights at home.

The Latin American Observatory of Environmental Conflicts classed the trial of Berta and Nicolasa Quintreman in the Military court of Chillan, 403 kilometres south of Santiago, as unacceptable. These two sisters, both aged over 70 years-old, were with a group of Pehuenche residents of the upper Biobio river who oppose the building of the Ralco hydroelectric plant by the Spanish-Chilean Endesa company.

''It is unacceptable for the military courts, with their sorry history under the Pinochet dictatorship (1973-90), to be trying two old Pehuenche women for the alleged crime of ''physically abusing Caribineer officers,'' said the Observatory.

The Pehuenche, a branch of the Mapuche ethnic group, have ancestral lands in the upper reaches of the Biobio, the biggest river in southern Chile, some 500 kilometres from the capital, home to the aracucaria tree - a native conifer known as Pehuen in the indigenous language.

The action against the Quintreman sisters and other Pehuenches was based on incidents which took place in February, when indigenous people and ecologists blocked the access road to Ralco, producing confrontations with the Caribineers.

The Latin American Observatory of Environmental Conflicts is part of the Biobio Action Group (GABB), a network of social and ecological organisations opposed to construction at Ralco, as the dam here would mean the flooding of Pehuenche lands.

Campaign leaders Lucio Cuenca and Luis Mariano Rendon said the military tribunal's accusation is ''a fresh manoeuvre from a government which aims to delegitimise the peaceful defense of indigenous territory and the environmental heritage of all Chileans.''

The Eduardo Frei administration supports construction at Ralco, citing development of the energy network, while environmentalists oppose this as they believe it would irreversibly destroy a unique ecological habitat. GABB classed the dam project as ethnocide, stating it attacks the ancestral culture of the Pehuenche, and accused the government of favouring hydroelectric consortia instead of seeking alternatives for development of the nation's energy sector.

''It seems worrying to us that the government of Chile today not only stands up internationally to defend the dictator who violated human rights in our country, but also puts into practice much the same repressive methods as were used in the past by their protege,'' said Cuenca and Rendon.

Pinochet, 83 years-old and now senator for life, has been under arrest since October 1998 in London, with his fate in the hands of Britain's Home Secretary Jack Straw who is to decide on his possible extradition to stand trial in Spain. The Frei administration has stood by Pinochet since he was arrested, citing the principles of sovereignty - which they claim should give Pinochet diplomatic immunity, and the territorial nature of justice - which should prevent him from standing trial abroad.

During his regime, Pinochet gave the military courts extensive powers to deal with cases of civilians accused of ''mistreating'' police officers physically or verbally.

Environmentalists claimed the military courts ''used yesterday to lock up thousands of Chileans'' are today ''the instrument to persecute the Pehuenche and the ecological organisations.'' Cuenca and Rendon similarly stated the conflict over Ralco will continue to worsen as the authorities are allowing Endesa to go ahead with the major works of the dam ''in an evident policy of what is done cannot be undone.'' According to them, work should be stopped until the National Corporation of Indigenous Development can bring an end to the conflict over land substitution and the relocation of Pehuenche families.

Eight indigenous families, out of a total of 81, are opposed to leaving their land. According to GABB, most of the Pehuenche who did agree to give up their land to Endesa were either tricked or subjected to various forms of extortion.

The Environmental Observatory demanded the government clarify ''whether or not it respects the legislation the Chilean State itself has produced to protect the land, culture and environmental heritage of the indigenous people.''

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