SOCIAL FORUM-CHILE: Another Araucania Is Possible

Daniela Estrada, IPS

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TEMUCO, Chile — The music of the Mapuche people played at the opening of the First Social Forum of Araucania, a southern Chilean region characterised by poverty and many social and environmental conflicts.

One of the songs by the group Vlkatun Mapu ("Song of the Earth" in the Mapuzungun language) was about Guacolda, wife of Lautaro, the heroic "toqui" or military chief of the Mapuche nation in the 16th century.

As a child, Lautaro was a labourer for the Spanish conqueror Pedro de Valdivia. From him he learned the war tactics and strategies that he used as a young man when he led his people`s fight against colonial domination.

Guacolda, too, was a warrior, and continued the resistance against Spanish oppression after Lautaro was slain. She remains in the collective memory of the Mapuches who, five centuries later, are still fighting — with different weapons — for autonomy and respect for their culture.

Araucania is home to 23.5 percent of the more than 600,000 people who identify themselves as belonging to the Mapuche nation, the main group of original people in Chile, accounting for nearly 90 percent of indigenous people in the country.

The Mapuches are an important part of the first social forum in this region, which opened Thursday and runs through Saturday in Temuco, the capital of Araucania. Nearly 40 civil society organisations are participating in the forum, which is sponsored by the Avina Foundation, the Chilean edition of the French publication Le Monde Diplomatique, and the University of the Frontier (Universidad de la Frontera).

Several Mapuche communities participated in organising the forum, and four panel discussions to make their situation better known are on the programme: Mapuche people, environment and biodiversity, democracy and participation, and economy and employment.

Also taking part are research and study centres, and organisations of environmentalists, women, workers, students and consumers, including Araucania Regional Agenda (AgRA), Native Forest Owners` Network, Environmental Rights Action Network (RADA) and the Observatory of Indigenous Peoples` Rights.

"The Araucania region has the worst poverty and the lowest human development index in the country," Max Thomet, one of the coordinators of the forum, told IPS.

The purpose of the Araucania Social Forum is to provide an opportunity for the people of the region to meet and share their knowledge, thoughts and visions about their reality and experiences, the regional situation, and proposals and projects, the forum organisers said. Creating networks of social organisations is facilitated by these events.

According to the 2003 National Socioeconomic Survey (CASEN), 29 percent of Araucania`s 900,000 people live below the poverty line and 8.9 percent are extremely poor. "The free market development model that has been implemented in this country and in Araucania has not been successful," Thomet explained. He called on the Michelle Bachelet administration to put her promises about equality, decentralisation and institutional democratisation into practice.

"Our over-riding goal is to create a civil society agenda, a people`s agenda, and that implies meeting together in forums like this one," he said. In his opinion, the government`s agenda is set in coordination with the business sector, to the exclusion of most of the people.

"We want an agenda that is not centred solely on economic considerations," Thomet said, pointing out that present land use ordinances and development directives for the Araucania region are determined basically by tourism and financial interests. Araucania has a large forestry industry.

"The Araucania Social Forum is very important, because the region is both relevant and symbolic from every point of view, particularly because of its poverty and the Mapuche people," Víctor Hugo de la Fuente, editor of Le Monde Diplomatique and one of the national Chile Social Forum organisers, told IPS. He was an invited speaker at the opening of the event on Thursday.

De la Fuente challenged participants to "think globally and act locally," a key concept and slogan of the World Social Forum, the annual civil society gathering first held in 2001 in the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre.

The co-director of the Temuco-based non-governmental Observatory of Indigenous People`s Rights, José Aylwin, concurred with de la Fuente.

"The Forum is tremendously important, because it gives social sectors in Araucania, including indigenous peoples, women`s groups, environmentalists, city-dwellers and workers the opportunity to raise their voices," he told IPS.

U.S. linguist and intellectual "Noam Chomsky was in Temuco recently, and said that the word `globalisation` has been taken to mean the globalisation of the market, and of the powerful, but nowadays globalisation from below, from the people, from marginalised sectors has gained a lot of strength," he said.

In parallel with the panel discussions, a plethora of artistic events such as art exhibits, music, theatre, painting workshops, documentary film shows and a food fair are being held over the three days of the forum.

Journalists also have a place among the events, as a workshop is being held with de la Fuente to analyse media coverage of civil society issues and actions, and the limited variety of news in the Chilean press, which is monopolised by two huge consortia, COPESA and El Mercurio.

El Mercurio has been accused of stigmatising Mapuches as criminals.

"All our regional problems have the same structural, political causes, so civil society organisations have to fight them in a coordinated manner. We have to have an impact on the formal public domain in order to change the present situation," Angélica Hernández, another of the forum coordinators, told IPS.

The outcomes of the forum remain to be seen, but quite apart from these, the organisers are already pleased with the process of joining forces, achieved during the planning and organising phases. They therefore predict that a strong regional social network will emerge from the meeting.

There have been about 10 social forums in Chile so far. The first was held in Santiago in 2004, in parallel with the meeting of Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leaders, and attracted great numbers of people. The second national Chile Social Forum will be held on Nov. 25-26 in Santiago.

There have also been thematic forums, devoted to social work, education and democracy. The first regional forum in the south of the country was held in Puerto Montt, capital of the Lakes region, in 2003, and other social forums followed in the II, III, V and X regions of Chile.