Thousands of ethnic Mapuches, Chile’s largest indigenous group, protest in Santiago. (MARTIN BERNETTI/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)

The Mapuche warriors of southern Chile were so fierce, they conquered the conquistadors, driving out the Spanish invaders in the 1600s.

Today they are at war again, taking back ancestral land one farmhouse at a time.

“They broke in and put a shotgun to my 70-year-old mother’s head,” said Rudy Hernan, recalling the night when a dozen masked men drove his family off their 50-acre farm.

“They say the land belongs to them, but I thought this was Chile,” he said. “Aren’t we all Chilean?”

His question is at the heart of what is known as the Mapuche conflict, which has become Chile’s open wound. It is a case of colliding histories as messy and complicated as any in the Americas, at a time when a voracious need for more oil, timber, gold and other resources is triggering new clashes with the region’s oldest inhabitants.

In Chile, the territory in dispute and the indigenous minority are proportionally much larger than perhaps anywhere else. The number of Chileans who identify as Mapuche has grown rapidly, accounting for nearly 10 percent of the country’s 18 million inhabitants, although militant nationalists are a much smaller share.

A sign posted outside Ercilla declares this land “Mapuche territory” of the “Temucuicui Autonomous Community.” (Nick Miroff/The Washington Post)

Another sign outside the town of Ercilla reads “recovered territory.” After the former owners left their home, a Mapuche family moved in. (Nick Miroff/The Washington Post)

The worst of the violence has flared in southern Chile’s fertile Araucania region, where the rapid expansion of the paper-pulp industry, once championed as an engine for growth, turned out to be a time bomb.

Vast pine and eucalyptus plantations blanket millions of acres, but unlike wheat, oats or other local crops, the tree farms provide few jobs, as the saplings need years to mature and require little maintenance. The cultivated trees are insatiably thirsty, absorbing far more groundwater than the local native forests they replaced.

Mapuche subsistence farmers, often living on tiny plots immediately downhill from the tree farms, saw their wells and springs go dry.

“In the summer, there is no water,” said Mapuche activist Jose Quipal, 33, his long hair pulled back as he cleared blackberry vines with a scythe alongside his wife on a recent morning.

Fresh out of prison after a four-year sentence for attacking timber company equipment, Quipal had joined other young Mapuches from their struggling village to commandeer the 1,400-acre farm of the white landowner next door.

Jose Quipal clears blackberry brush from a field where he and his family are squatting on land “occupied” by the Mapuche. (Nick Miroff/The Washington Post)

Two days earlier, he had moved his wife and their 2-year-old son into a new one-room cabin on the property, like a homesteader.

“We didn’t have a house of our own, or any land,” Quipal said. “But this land belongs to our people. It was taken from us, and we’re taking it back.”

Signs of the struggle

One of the hottest flash points is this farming town, Ercilla, amid rolling green valleys and misty pastures 360 miles south of Chile’s capital, Santiago.

Ercilla doesn’t quite feel like a war zone, but road signs here are defaced with Mapuche nationalist graffiti. Chile’s national police, wearing body armor, hunker down in makeshift command posts that resemble forward operating bases. Along the main highway, signs notify motorists of 24-hour video surveillance where saboteurs have stopped logging trucks in the middle of the night to set them ablaze.

Several Mapuche activists have been killed by police. Others have been sent to prison on charges that their actions amounted to terrorism.

By most accounts, tensions are higher now than perhaps at any time since the 1880s, when the Chilean army, fresh from its defeat of Peru and Bolivia in the War of the Pacific, marched in to subdue the Mapuche and complete the country’s territorial unification. A similar campaign vanquished the Mapuche on the southwest plains of Argentina. The conquests were no less brutal than the American Indian wars of the same era.

The Mapuche were forcibly resettled on small tracts of land, and for the next century, they lived more or less as farm laborers for the European settlers who displaced them. Many left for jobs in Chile’s urban factories and on mega-farms farther north, where they have endured decades of discrimination.

Mapuche natives protest in front of La Moneda, the presidential palace in Santiago. (Martin Bernetti/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)

Faced with international and domestic criticism over the Mapuches’ historic plight and a welling sense of collective guilt, the Chilean government has been trying to make amends. It is purchasing land and attempting to transfer it to the Mapuche in an orderly, incremental fashion.

Some activists aren’t willing to wait that long.

In one of the most explosive recent incidents, an elderly white couple, Werner Luchsinger and Vivian MacKay, were burned to death last year in an arson attack on their home near the town of Vilcun. Celestino Cordova, a 27-year-old Mapuche leader, was sentenced in February to 18 years in prison for the murders, touching off riots outside the courthouse.

President Michelle Bachelet, who returned to office in March for a second term (she served as president from 2006 to 2010) appeared eager to ease tensions when she named a part-Mapuche politician, Francisco Huenchumilla, as her government’s top official in the region.

Huenchumilla promptly issued a historic apology on behalf of the Chilean government — to the Mapuche, for the seizure of their land, and also to the white Chileans who were settled there a century earlier, a process Huenchumilla described in an interview as “a mistake.”

The Mapuche should get their land back, he said flatly. “When my grandfather was born, we had 1,200 acres,” said Huenchumilla. “I have two.”

“I think a new generation of Mapuches has realized that the Chilean state has committed terrible abuses against their families,” he said.

Less clear is what the government can do to right history’s wrongs without creating new victims among the non-
Mapuche landowners of the region, or ruining the local economy.

A woman holds a Mapuche flag during a peaceful demonstration in Santiago on May 9 in support of three Mapuche political prisoners, who had been on a hunger strike for the previous month. (Mario Ruiz/European Pressphoto Agency)

Some Mapuche activists insist their campaign’s goal is to reclaim land from big timber companies and commercial farms — not the humble small farmers who also came to populate the region over the years.

But Victor Queipul, the lonko, or community leader, of Temucuicui, outside Ercilla, said the distinction did not matter. “The huinca are different,” he said, referring to non-Mapuche residents. “They have to leave.”

As a boy, Queipul was forced to speak Spanish and prevented from letting his hair grow long. Now, at age 44, does he consider himself Chilean?

He said he did not.

“I have a Chilean identity card, sure. But we are inside this country against our will,” he said. “We want autonomy and self-determination.”

Lawlessness and impunity

The government has stated repeatedly that it won’t buy land for Mapuches who illegally occupy farms and other property. But in practice, it is this approach that often delivers the quickest results.

“We have a saying in Chile — a baby that doesn’t cry doesn’t get milk,” said Jose Aylwin, the son of former Chilean president Patricio Aylwin and the director of one of the leading rights groups that monitor the conflict.

But with so many Mapuche families needing land, properties are often divided into farms too small to provide a living. What many see as the root cause of the conflict — endemic poverty — persists.

The dispute has also led to a climate of lawlessness and impunity, in which white farmers say their livestock and vehicles are routinely stolen, or their homes broken into and looted, all in the name of the broader political goal of pushing them out.

Rudy Hernan and his mother, Haydee Erices, in Collipulli, were driven from their small farm by Mapuche gunmen two years ago. (Nick Miroff/The Washington Post)

A woman wearing ethnic Mapuche clothing attends a protest for the liberation of imprisoned Mapuche natives. (Geraldo Caso/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)

Local businessman Brian Blackburn, whose company develops seed varieties for global agriculture giants such as Bayer CropScience and Cargill on his family’s 3,400-acre farm, said the government’s move to buy more land for the Mapuche has produced a cottage industry of fake claims, property scams and other abuses.

His great-great-grandfather, an immigrant from Britain, bought the land from the Chilean government after the Mapuche were driven off and resettled nearby. Over the years, the Blackburn family became a pillar of the local community, bringing telephones, movies, an airstrip and other modern innovations.

Today Blackburn has 50 employees between his seed business, oat fields and fresh-cut-flower operation. Most of the workers are local Mapuches, including lab technicians with college degrees.

“It’s like any family,” Blackburn said about living and working intimately with those whose ancestors were partly displaced by his own. “You have problems, but you have to go forward. You have to move on.”

Blackburn, too, is under threat. Arsonists attacked his fields in January.

The blaze charred 50 acres but turned into a cautionary lesson, for some, about the wider dispute. As the fire spread across Blackburn’s land, it suddenly reversed course and ended up scorching far more of the Mapuche-owned fields next door.