‘The land is still alive’: A Mapuche leader’s fight for home in Argentina

Betiana Colhuan, a Mapuche leader, is leading an effort to reclaim national park land considered sacred to her people.

A close-up of Betiana Colhuan, a Mapuche leader. She wears a pink scarf over her hair and wears large silver earrings and a dark shawl-like garment. In the background is a green space, with a carved wooden statue signifying a rewe, a sacred space in Mapuche culture.
Mapuche leader Betiana Colhuan stands in front of the land she was evicted from in Nahuel Huapi National Park [Renée Bertini/Al Jazeera]

Bariloche, Argentina – Standing on the land she inhabited for five years, 22-year-old Betiana Colhuan scrolled through her phone’s camera roll.

The screen flickered with memories of home: an image of Colhuan sitting in a field of yellow flowers. Another of her small son standing in front of the white horse she kept as a pet. A snapshot of the medicinal plants in her orchard.

But when she looked up, the ruins of her house lay scattered at her feet. Broken planks of wood were littered with old household items, including a tube of face cream, a broken mirror and a pink teddy bear.

“It is painful to see this space like this,” Colhuan said, her voice heavy.

Colhuan belongs to one of Argentina’s Indigenous peoples, the Mapuche. The land her community used to sit within falls under the administration of the Nahuel Huapi National Park, the country’s oldest national park and a popular outdoor destination.

But Colhuan and her neighbours were forcibly expelled in 2022. Now, they fear government inertia and the outcome of Argentina’s presidential election on November 19 could permanently end their hopes of returning.

“We are going to have to fight harder against some of [the politicians] who publicly express their hate against our people,” Colhuan said.

A wooden house lies in ruins, its outline still visible below the rubble.
A house in Betiana Colhuan’s former community in Nahuel Huapi National Park lies in ruin after police evicted residents [Renée Bertini/Al Jazeera]

A history of displacement

Though often associated with the neighbouring country of Chile — where they constitute the largest Indigenous group — the Mapuche predate national borders. Their ancestral territory includes the southernmost reaches of Argentina, part of a region known as Patagonia.

But the Spanish conquest of the area, starting in the 16th century, led to bloody clashes with the Mapuche. By the 19th century, the newly established country of Argentina likewise endeavoured to remove the Mapuche through violence.

One effort in the late 1800s became known as the Conquest of the Desert. Argentinian military forces are thought to have massacred as many as 20,000 Mapuche and Tehuelche people. Survivors were displaced and forbidden from living together in communities.

“They had to disperse in order to survive,” said Orlando Javier Carriqueo, a spokesperson for the Mapuche Parliament. “The causes and effects of this genocide are very present in society, and not in a minor way.”

In 2006, however, Argentina’s congress passed a law to prevent the further eviction of Indigenous people from their ancestral lands. It also offered official status to Mapuche communities seeking state recognition.

Still, only 314 recognised communities exist today in Argentina. Colhuan is part of a new generation that is reclaiming the Mapuche identity, after centuries of bloodshed and displacement.

A bronze statue of a soldier atop a horse is covered in red graffiti.
In Bariloche, Argentina, a statue of Julio Argentino Roca – the general known as one of the architects of the Conquest of the Desert – is covered in Mapuche symbols and other graffiti [Renée Bertini/Al Jazeera]

Building a community

Since she was a girl, Colhuan said she was trained by Mapuche elders to take on the role of a machi, a spiritual leader and healer.

Most modern-day machi live in Chile. But Colhuan became the first to earn the title on the Argentinian side of the Andes Mountains in nearly 100 years. She had to travel back and forth to Chile to learn from machi across the border.

She also serves as the head of the Lof Lafken Winkul Mapu community in Patagonia, made up of 15 families. Many of them used to live in urban settings in northern Patagonia, where their ancestors were relegated after they were forcibly removed from their lands.

Colhuan herself was born in San Carlos de Bariloche, an alpine-style tourist town close to the mountains and glacier-fed lakes of the Nahuel Huapi National Park. The group formed naturally, with members flocking to Colhuan after she began to offer traditional medicine and healing.

In 2017, Colhuan started living on a plot of land in the park, outside the village of Villa Mascardi. Colhuan said the land was the known location of an ancestral “rewe”, a sacred space in Mapuche culture, one that had been abandoned for many years.

Every machi needs to be close to a rewe in order to fulfil their sacred functions. Colhuan said that one of the machi who taught her had foreseen that the rewe in Villa Mascardi was to be hers. There, she could complete her training and start her spiritual practice.

Located in a forest clearing, the rewe was grassy and open. Colhuan and her young community set up a tall wooden sculpture with a carved face in the centre of the clearing. Around it, they placed branches from native plants, a traditional ceremonial adornment, renewed yearly.

The rewe became a place for Colhuan and her community to live and practice spiritual ceremonies.

“For five years, we were able to strengthen this ceremonial space together with other communities,” she said.

Fifteen traditional “rukas” — low wooden houses — were built on the land, together with a community centre to hold meetings. Colhuan and her neighbours did most of the building themselves, with tools and materials they raised money to buy. They also planted vegetable and medicinal gardens and kept various animals and pets.

A red car drives by a road sign covered in graffiti, which reads: "Maldi tos Mapuches" or "Damn all Mapuches".
A roadside sign near Villa Mascardi displays graffiti denouncing the Mapuche presence in the area [Renée Bertini/Al Jazeera]

Expelled from the rewe

But in 2017, shortly after they moved in, members of the Albatross group, a special unit of Argentina’s naval police, tried to evict them based on complaints from the park administration that they were “usurping” the land.

The expulsion quickly turned violent. Colhuan’s cousin, 22-year-old Rafael Nahuel, was shot dead by police in the altercation.

The officers involved alleged that his death was the result of a crossfire with members of the community.

“I was forced to use my weapon immediately on my assailant. I had no way out. I had to stop the aggression,” the officer who pulled the trigger, Sergio Cavia, said during his trial. But the community has disputed that claim, saying only the officers fired their guns.

Cavia has been accused of “aggravated homicide committed in excess of self-defence”. The verdict in his case is expected on November 22.

After Nahuel’s death, tensions increased. Neighbours in Villa Mascardi, fearing the community would encroach on private lands, claimed the group threatened them with violence and accused the Mapuche of robberies, arson and vandalism in the area.

Fifteen complaints are still being processed by a prosecutor. National headlines followed, chronicling the controversy. Colhuan said there is no proof that anyone in her group committed the acts detailed in the complaints.

The breaking point came when a nearby police post was set on fire — and the Mapuche community was blamed, though they deny any involvement.

In the aftermath, a judge ruled that the Mapuche could be forcibly evicted. On October 4, 2022, the police moved in. Colhuan said the eviction was “violent and abrupt”.

“They pulled us out of our houses — our rukas — by our hair, with our children in our arms,” said Colhuan, a mother of two.

Their houses and orchards were destroyed, their tools confiscated and their animals disappeared. What followed was eight months of house arrest for Colhuan, three other women and their youngest children, as the adults faced charges of “usurpation by dispossession”.

“They humiliated us in the worst ways possible because they saw us as Mapuche women, as Indigenous women,” Colhuan said of the police. She accused them of strip-searching and beating the women “as if we were terrorists”.

“The children are still scared to death when they see the police,” she added.

The police involved in the eviction did not reply to multiple requests for comment for this story.

The skyline of Bariloche, Argentina, where a steeple, a lake and mountains can be seen in the distance.
Bariloche, Argentina, has seen a spike in tourism in recent years, as visitors flock to nearby Nahuel Huapi National Park [Renée Bertini/Al Jazeera]

Rising land values

Alejandra Perez, an anthropologist from the University of Buenos Aires who specialises in Indigenous rights, said the controversy over the settlement reflected, in part, the rising land values around the national park.

“These are all touristic areas, where the value of the land is much higher now with accessible flights,” Perez said. “Millions of dollars are coming in from the tourism industry.”

Those profits are expected to go even higher. The city of Bariloche has experienced a surge in tourism in recent years. In 2022, it reported that 65 percent more tourists had arrived in the area than in the five years before the COVID-19 pandemic combined.

For their part, leaders at the Nahuel Huapi National Park maintain the issue was a matter of legal status. Without the proper recognition and documentation, they could not allow the Mapuche community to remain.

“These people are not a recognised community. It is a usurpation for us. It is a matter for the federal justice system,” said Soledad Antivero, who is charged with public space management at the Nahuel Huapi National Park. “The national park was dragged into it because it is our land.”

That question of ownership, however, is fraught. Some Indigenous advocates believe Indigenous land claims should supersede the park’s authority.

How to define ancestral Indigenous land has also been a thorny question for the Argentinian government.

Some critics of the Mapuche settlement say there is no evidence of an ancestral presence in the Villa Mascardi area, but Colhuan and her fellow community members maintain their connection to the land is spiritual and deeper than documents can testify.

“What is being fought for is a broader idea of people, the idea of an ancestral territory that predated the formation of the state,” said Kaia Santisteban, an anthropologist from the University of Río Negro who studies Mapuche epistemology.

Graffiti calling for the release of Mapuche prisoners is seen on a white wall in the centre of the city of Bariloche.
Graffiti in the city of Bariloche calls for the release of Mapuche prisoners [Renée Bertini/Al Jazeera]

The path to formal recognition

In June, Argentina’s Ministry of Security reached an agreement with Colhuan and the other women under house arrest.

The charges for usurpation were dropped, and the government committed to recognising the rewe and rebuilding three houses. The deal also stipulated that only Colhuan, her aides and close family could live on the land, and that the rest of the community would be relocated to another place, still to be determined.

The national parks administration also signalled it was willing to work with Colhuan and her community once they received formal recognition from the state. It already co-manages land with several other Indigenous communities.

“We are public servants. That’s what we are there for,” Antivero, the park administrator, said.

On their end, Colhuan and her community have taken steps to be formally recognised by the Argentinian government, submitting personal documents to back up their claims and commissioning an anthropological study.

But the government has yet to grant formal recognition or follow through with its commitments. And in October, a prosecutor from the Federal Court of Criminal Cassation launched an appeal to repeal the agreement.

He argued, in part, that the agreement was based on the idea that Colhuan’s community was a legitimate one, which has yet to be established.

Betiana Colhuan walks on a dirt path through the ruins of her rewe, a sacred site in Mapuche culture.
Betiana Colhuan walks through her destroyed ‘rewe’ near Villa Mascardi, Argentina [Renée Bertini/Al Jazeera]

Indigenous rights at the ballot box

A rightward shift in Argentinian politics could also endanger Colhuan’s efforts to rebuild her community.

One of the leading candidates in this month’s presidential elections, far-right libertarian Javier Milei, previously supported a bill to repeal the 2006 law that allows Indigenous groups to seek formal recognition and reclaim land.

That same law created the framework that Colhuan’s community is following to gain state recognition.

Milei’s running mate, Victoria Villarruel, has also weighed in on the situation in Villa Mascardi. In an interview with the local outlet El Seis TV, she said the push to reclaim the land was “ideological” and that the community “pretends to build a Mapuche nation that never existed in the Argentinian republic”.

Ana Ramos, an anthropologist from the University of Río Negro who works closely with the Mapuche community, said that this narrative “radically goes in the direction of a reduction of Indigenous rights”.

If Milei wins the November 19 run-off election, she added, the Mapuche “will not only be criminalised but also repressed”.

But that alone will not stop the fight to reclaim ancestral land. “Mapuche mobilisations will not stop,” Ramos said.

Colhuan, meanwhile, is now left to grapple with the uncertain fate of the community she built. On a chilly, clear day in late September, she walked through the overgrown trails that once connected the houses in her community. The rewe still lay in ruins.

But then she pointed to the old-growth forest, towering behind the site. Her voice became resolute.

“Although you can see how everything is destroyed and how sad it is, you can also see the land, the nature that is still alive,” she said.

“This is what keeps us going today. The land is still alive and is asking us to protect it, to fight for it, so that the connection between us and this land is not severed.”

Source: Al Jazeera