Chile’s Mapuche-Pehuenche: 10 years after relocation

How many of the promises made to this indigenous community forced off their land to accommodate a dam have been kept?

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Jose Mancopay, 48, points towards his pasture while discussing his underweight animals [Max Radwin/Al Jazeera]

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 demand ancestral land reparations, the indigenous people of one community say they are still patiently waiting for the 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 Bio Bio River, a few hours’ drive from the Argentine border. For centuries, they survived by farming the same sacred land. That was until 2004, when the energy company Endesa completed the 570-megawatt Ralco dam that flooded more than 30 square kilometres of the region, forcing many of those indigenous residents to relocate.

Though Endesa promised to compensate those affected with new land and homes, as well as a variety of agricultural and social support programmes, many Pehuenche said they were 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 [the] dam construction was not a negative process,” said Jeanne Wirtner Simon, a professor of legal and social sciences at the University of Concepción. “But it is hard for people to find positive elements.”

An Endesa spokesperson said all programmes designed to help families affected by the 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 that these promises had been kept, but other parts of the plan, such as the Programme 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, the 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.”

Broken promises 


Endesa records said the company successfully fulfilled these promises. During the 10 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 more than 1,000 percent.

But many residents contest these numbers.

Jose Quilapay, the president of the Quinelan community, said he and many other residents in his sector never received the financial reparations Endesa promised, and that he 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 Quinelan families for any purpose.

Jose 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 that the visits did not solve most of the problems the community still faces today, such as with growing vegetables on their new land.

Twenty-eight families were moved higher into the mountains, at an elevation the local government lists as nearly 3,000 feet above sea level. The new sector of the community, given the name El Barco, can get 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 lower down the mountain.

As a result, many farmers said they were not able to grow the vegetables they once could. Jose Mancopay, 48, of El Barco, said his animals were thin because they did not 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 Pinaleo Llaulen, the mayor of Alto Bio Bio, 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 favour 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 families he currently represents, of which there are more than 90, received fewer indemnities and benefits than the four clients he represented during the negotiations.

‘Not knowing how to read’ 

An Endesa spokesperson said the company now often works with the community through the Pehuen Foundation, which is dedicated to improving the living conditions of the Pehuen communities and was established after the completion of a different dam in the 1990s.

“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 Curriao, a former president of the Aukin Wallmapu community, said she did not attend such meetings any more, 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 Curriao’s name. But she said she never signed anything. Others, she said, signed the contract without knowing how to read.

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Without concrete documentation, many Pehuenche were under the impression that they still lacked 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.

Manuel Beroiza, 50, attempts to cross a makeshift bridge to the property of his father-in-law, Juan Calpan Pichay, 70, who says Endesa never built him a proper one [Max Radwin/Al Jazeera]

Juan Calpan 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 Bio Bio than in any other region of Chile, according to the Ministry of Energy.

Not only can residents not afford to pay electricity costs, said the director of the Department of Social Works Monica Leal, but a lot of them also do not know how. So many people lined up outside her office every day wanting to know why their electricity had been turned off that the municipality created a programme to teach them about paying bills.

Modern technology 

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 more than 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 Romina Ocares Orellana, 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.”

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A 2013 letter from the Bio Bio 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 programmes and activities” until 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.”

Max Radwin travelled to Chile on a fellowship from the Pulitzer Center.

Source: Al Jazeera