Mapuche Indians Fight New Airport in Southern Chile

The Rofue community centre, covered with slogans from the Mapuche struggle for land and rights.The Rofue community centre, covered with slogans from the Mapuche struggle for land and rights.

“This is a project that reflects the occupation…of Mapuche territory,” said Iván Reyes, an indigenous leader staunchly opposed to the construction of an international airport in the southern Chilean region of Araucanía.

Reyes, an agricultural technician, said the construction project was approved thanks to an environmental impact study “based on lies” that was carried out by Arcadis Geotécnica, the Chilean subsidiary of a Netherlands-based international consulting and engineering company.

The study “says there will be no impact on communities in the area. But in a later analysis, we detected that the base line and measurements had been manipulated,” he said.

The new airport, whose construction was actually approved in 2005, is now one of the most high-profile projects of the right-wing government of Sebastián Piñera. It is being built in Quepe, 20 km from the city of Temuco and nearly 700 km south of Santiago.

The La Araucanía New International Airport, which will replace the Maquehue Airport, will have a 2,440-metre runway and a 5,000-square-metre passenger terminal.

Temuco, which is halfway between the Pacific Ocean and the Andes foothills, is in the middle of prairies, pasture and farmland, and forests.

Although a few Mapuche communities support the new airport, which they see as a step forward for the region in terms of economic and cultural development, many others are staunchly opposed, arguing that it will undermine biodiversity and the environment, and will destroy their ancestral territory.

The Mapuche, Chile’s largest indigenous group, number nearly one million in this country of over 16 million people, and the struggle for their ancestral land in the south of the country has frequently pitted them against large landholders, logging companies and other private interests.

At the age of 23, Tranamil is already a Mapuche leader, in charge of the religious life of his community, Rofue. He is tenaciously opposed to the construction of the airport, which he describes as “a gateway to invade Mapuche territory.”

Tranamil, or “machi Fidel” as he is known by the local community, is one of the most active indigenous leaders in the area. He has been arrested several times, and his home is frequently searched by the police. Since 2005, his mother has been living with seven pellets in her right knee, after a harsh police crackdown on a protest.

The house where Tranamil and his mother live is warm and quiet. They raise pigs and chickens, and have a small vegetable garden.

“But soon, airliners will be landing every minute. That will not only violate our spiritual life but also our culture and harmony,” he said.

He also said that to build the airport, “between 200 and 300 hectares of native (old-growth) forest will be cut down, and lost forever. It would take 400 years for the trees to grow back to their current height.”