Making Homeland (Haciendo Patria): Agrarian Change, Nationhood and Inter-Ethnic Relations at the Frontier of Colonial Expansion in Chile

By Piergiorgio Di GiminianiPontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile §

As are many other valleys in the southern Andean region of Chile, Coilaco was the setting of some of the last processes of colonial resettlement that followed the colonization of the indigenous Mapuche region in the late 19th century. Settlers began to migrate to this area soon after the invasion of Mapuche territories by the Chilean army in 1884 a process that caused a dramatic death toll for the indigenous population (Marimán 2006). In a few years, the landscape across southern Chile changed forever through extensive forest clearing and the consequent emergence of agricultural estates, fundos, as the primary unit of economic production. Today, the trademark of the landscape of southern Chilean countryside remains the presence of large open spaces of fundos interrupted only by smaller tracts of land corresponding to Indigenous Communities (Comunidades Indígenas), where multiple lines of barbed wire enclose smaller individually owned land properties. This landscape is perhaps the most powerful reminder of the two key processes behind colonial expansion in southern Chile: land concentration among settlers caused by market deregulation, and the displacement of indigenous groups justified through the infamous principle of terra nullius.

settlers-house
A settler’s house, the last on this road before reaching the border with Argentina.

I first knew many of the people living along Coilaco valley while carrying out research on forest conservation, a phenomenon that in last thirty years has led to the establishment of different forms of collaboration among indigenous and non-indigenous farmers, NGO workers, and civil servants which in most cases are not immune from the dangers of racial discrimination and class hierarchies. It is not by coincidence that environmental action in Chile has concentrated in places where settler expansion unfolded later and with less intensity. At the beginning of the 20th century, the densely forested areas at the border with Argentina became a haven for the displaced Mapuche population and poor non-indigenous farmers looking for the last remaining state-owned properties to be assigned. Settlers with little means and land came to be known as national settlers (colonos nacionales) in contrast with settlers of European origins, a population from whom today large landholders are descended. Mountain valleys such as Coilaco were not simply located near a national border, but were at the very frontier of capitalist and thus colonial expansion (see Li Murray 2014). For national authorities throughout the 20th century, the presence of the Mapuche population and settlers in the frontier of nation-making and capitalist expansion was welcome as a strategy to ensure active human presence over a territory, which was part of the state if only on paper. Although the status of citizenship for the indigenous population was subject to racial exclusion, both Mapuche and settlers became celebrated for their courageous acts of making homeland, “hacer patria”, a phrase often overheard in official discourses and celebrations in this part of the country.

In Coilaco, as other places at the historical periphery of colonization, inter-ethnic relations did not follow the typical path of labor division, whereby Mapuche people became laborers exploited by settlers. Here the two groups are profoundly entangled through friendship and kinship bonds. I remember meeting a local settler and in another occasion a Mapuche member of the local Indigenous Community in the summer of 2015 to find out only later that they were brothers. Some Mapuche people are also considered settlers as they are descendants of indigenous families who settled in the area and eventually had their land title legalized. The profound intersections between Mapuche and settlers’ social life in this particular site are not unique. Most importantly, it should not mislead anyone in thinking that at the frontier of colonial expansion inter-ethnic relations are immune from the clear-cut hierarchies observed in other areas of southern Chile, where settlers relate to Mapuche people only as employers relating to employees. Racial prejudices towards Mapuche people are common among settlers despite the intimacy between the two groups that characterize daily life in this particular site. Many of these racial labels concern the ways in which both groups engage with the local surroundings.  One can read and hear about the significance of forests in Mapuche society, where mawida forests, are populated by forces beyond human control that need to be approached with respect (respeto or yewen). Forests are vital yet dangerous places that should be put to use in careful ways. Settlers’ engagement with forests is usually placed on the other side of the spectrum. Forests are spaces to be cleaned (mantener limpios) through dedication and hard work regardless of any risk of causing detrimental effects on water cycle and soil depletion. During fieldwork, I found these two images resonating in multiple ways. Mapuche residents of Coilaco, living in the low section of the valley, would remind me: “Those above us [los de arriba], don’t care about the environment, they cut trees so that we get less and less water from the top of the mountain”.  Settlers would often reiterate stereotypical images about indigenous population in southern Chile: “They care about forests, because they are lazy. It is not in their mentality”. However, many stated opinions that contradicted stereotypes about Mapuche-settler oppositions. “If they care about nature, why has everything been cut down?” With these words, back in 2014 a settler drew my attention to the incongruity between environmental values and practices in the Mapuche settlement. Similarly, Mapuche residents would deny any lack of interest in agricultural expansion among local residents, making clear that their household agricultural activities are small because they were given less land than the settlers in the high section of the valley. Evidently, any reductionist characterization of environmental engagement between settlers and Mapuche people in this valley is destined to fail.

community-forestry-workshop
Community workshop on forestry and agro-ecology.

Many of my fieldwork activities in this area have consisted in studying and participating in a broad network of participation with different local dwellers through workshops and other activities focused on sustainable forest use. One of the main challenges that my co-researchers and I have faced has been how to take seriously the contrasting views held by different collaborators. Nowhere has this challenge been clearer than in the intimate and yet hierarchical relations among settlers and Mapuche residents. Two moral questions have animated much of my fieldwork, and I believe, that of many researchers working on environmental practices in frontier areas. How can the life trajectories of settlers in Coilaco be represented within the history of colonization without dissolving them in a Manichean narrative of bad and good? (colonizers vs colonized; human environmental destruction vs environmental concern). And secondly, how can environmental destruction and social exclusion brought by settler colonialism be justly represented while attending to inter-ethnic intimacies, such as those that I observe in my field site? Of course, I do not have an answer to these two questions. However, I feel that a possible answer can be found in the profound similarities and subtle differences in the way forest use is understood and practiced by national settlers and Mapuche. Similarities mainly concern the material and labor conditions under which both groups put the forest to their use. Both groups identify as part of a broad category in rural Chile, the small ones, los pequeños. In contrast with the big ones, los grandes, a term referring to large landholders, Mapuche and national settlers share the same concern: how to make a hardly hospitable place, such a mountain valley, home in the present and in the future. For both groups, to make Coilaco home means to keep forest in its place. Excessive logging is seen as cause of drought and wild fires. The vitality of forests in the area is thus acknowledged by both groups. Some Mapuche residents might mention the dangers of vengeance and mischievous acts by mountain spirits more than settlers. However, this idea is not entirely extraneous to the fears associated with wandering around the forests for local settlers. Keeping forests in their places means to domesticate without making them lose their vitality. This is why neither settlers nor Mapuche farmers can and want to transform all forests into agricultural spaces. This will and potentiality is in contrast associated with logging companies, which were once active in this valley. In the 1990s, with new environmental legislation and the crisis of small-scale commercial forestry, logging activities affecting native forests reduced drastically in southern Chile, leaving the entire timber market to large transnational companies which concentrated their activities in the management of plantations with profitable imported species, such as eucalypti (see Klubock 2014).

While colonos and Mapuche in Coilaco share similar experiences and concerns over deforestation and the ability of household agriculture to provide for entire families, a sense of mutual distrust can be perceived once we look at divergent feelings of moral responsibility towards the local surroundings. Mapuche sense of place is generally captured by the notion of tuwün, a term roughly translatable as place of origins (see Di Giminiani 2015).This geographic construct has the ability of determining potentialities and behavioral predispositions among kin members coming from the same place of origins. Settlers, of course, also have a strong attachment to land, that is however built around histories of specific families and their abilities of transforming the landscape into agricultural fields. Tensions between deforestation as a profitable economic practice and conservation are internal among settlers and Mapuche as much as dialogic, defining two different ideals of how and why forests should be taken care of. Ultimately, everyday inter-ethnic intimacies and tensions do not depend either on a presupposed unrelatedness between two clearly demarcated lived worlds, nor on the emergence of difference at the discursive level, as narratives of subject formation through identity politics often tell us (see Gow 2007). Rather, difference emerges in the very act of sharing history, in particular, in those shared experiences of “making homeland.” In other words, of being the unintentional historical actors of nation-building in spatial terms. Looking at this shared history of making homeland while acknowledging its diametrically opposed consequences for settlers and indigenous people, victims of both the ecocides and genocides that took place in southern Chile, can help us in understanding the multiple histories of formation for the many frontiers of colonial and capitalist expansion giving shape to our world.


Works Cited
Di Giminiani, Piergiorgio 2015. The Becoming of Ancestral Land: Place and Property in Mapuche Land Claims. American Ethnologist 42(3): 490-503.
Gow, Peter 2007. “Ex-Cocama:” Transforming Identities in Peruvian Amazonia.” In Time and Memory in Indigenous Amazonia, edited by Carlos Fausto and Michael Heckenberger, pp. 194-215. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.
Klubock, Thomas M. 2014. La Frontera: Forests and Ecological Conflict in Chile’s Frontier Territory. Durham: Duke University Press.
Li, Tania Murray 2014. Land’s End: Capitalist Relations on an Indigenous Frontier. Durham: Duke University Press.
Marimán, Pablo 2006. Los Mapuche antes de la Conquista Militar Chileno-Argentina. In ¡…Escucha, winka . . .! Cuatro ensayos de Historia Nacional Mapuche y un Epılogo sobre el Futuro, edited by Marimán, Pablo, Sergio Caniuqueo, José Millalén and Rodrigo Levil, pp. 53-127. Santiago: Lom Ediciones.


Piergiorgio Di Giminiani is an Assistant Professor in Anthropology at the Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile. Piergiorgio received his Ph.D. in Anthropology at University College London in 2011. His research focuses on indigeneity, property and forest governance. His research has appeared in journals, such as American EthnologistJournal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, Ethnos and Anthropological Quarterly. He is the author of Tierras Ancestrales, Disputas Contemporáneas: Pertenencia y Demandas  Territoriales en la Sociedad Mapuche Rural and co-editor of two edited volumes (Tecnologías en el Margen: Relaciones Humano-Materiales en América Latina and Ecopolíticas Globales: Medioambiente, Bienestar y Poder, forthcoming). Piergiorgio’s forthcoming book, Sentient Lands: Indigeneity, Property and Political Imagination in Neoliberal Chile (University of Arizona Press), draws on long term collaborative research on Mapuche land claims in southern Chile.


This post is part of our thematic series: Life on the Frontier: The Environmental Anthropology of Settler Colonialism.

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