Indigenous Affairs
Indigenous' collective rights to lands discussed at the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues
By Marie Courtais, 2018-04-23

From the 16 to 27 April 2018, is taking place the seventeenth (17th) Session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII), meeting occurring once a year in the United Nations Headquarters of New York, where predominantly Indigenous representatives, Member States and UN entities, but also NGOs and academics, are accredited to gather and work several issues about indigenous struggles. The current edition is dedicated to the theme of "Indigenous people's collective rights to lands, territories, and resources". (See main information and programme here)

Presentation of UNPFII

This international reunion will be conducted over a period of two weeks and is twofold distinct: a first week with open plenary meetings accessible to all in order to discuss several items detailed in a substantive agenda and a second week with the closed session of the Permanent Forum to which members of the Forum only who will hold informal meetings with representatives of indigenous people, Member States, and UN entities. With the help of these private meetings, the aim is to transform information presented during the first week into "policy recommendations that are strategic, focused and actionable."

A claim for Mapuche's land

On Friday 20th April, a first impression of the UNPFII plenary reunion was released:

In the video, Maria Romero Cheuquepil, representative of the Mapuche community (Chile), reports that

"One of our Machi (spiritual leader), Celestino Córdova, is currently completing 98 days of hunger strike. The only thing he's asking for is 48h permission to visit his rehue (sacred altar) in order to benefit from curation and to recover his spirituality. This afternoon and from this place, I make a call for a decision may be pronounced, enhancing a better sensibilization and so that our fight stops being criminalized. Chaltu may (thank you)."

Contextualization of Córdova's case

In fact, Celestino Córdova was sentenced to eighteen (18) years of prison, accused, together with eleven other Mapuche, of terrorist acts and homicide in the Luchsinger-Mackay Case. As reported, a mob of twelve Mapuche came at Mr. Luchsinger and Ms. Mackay's farm in the night of January 4, 2013. A confrontation allegedly occurred between Luchsinger and the trespassers after they had thrown stones at the property. Luchsinger started to shoot into the crowd with a gun, what resulted in the Mapuche responding in putting the building on fire. After firemen arrived and fought the fire for hours, the bodies of the two house owners were found carbonized. Reports allege that this conflict was supposedly caused by the fifth commemoration of Matías Catrileo's death, a young Mapuche activist who was shot by a policeman whilst protesting on a property of Mr. Luchsinger's cousin. After the fire finally subsided, a police patrol found, not far from the farm, Mr. Celestino Córdova, wounded in the thorax with what seemed to be a bullet entry point. Upon his capture, he reportedly stated: "I'm Mapuche, I'm hurt. This is a claim for our land. That is all I am allowed to say".

(See original reporting here.)

He was convicted to serve four years at Temuco's prison but insists he still needed to complete his religious leader's functions as a Machi; for condusting this spiritual service, he perpetually demanded permission to visit the sacred altar (rehue) for 48 hours to re-establish physic and psychic well-being to him and all members of his community. His permissions denied, he started a hunger strike on 13th of January 2018.

Maria Romero Cheuquepil, Mapuche representative in New York City, seized the opportunity of the UNPFII meeting to remind of Córdova's situation and struggle, as example of the Mapuche's community common fight.

Overview on Mapuche's history and struggles

The Mapuche society is one of largest pre-Columbian communities throughout Latin America, now mainly living in Chile, and partly in Argentina. In the case of Chile, a high percentage of the Mapuche lives in the southern part of the country, mostly in the Araucania region, where their previous nation used to be delimited (Waldman, 2012: 56). In present days, the Mapuche population in Chile is estimated between 700 000 and 1,6 million individuals over the 17 millions of Chilean citizens, representing 5% to 10% of the population (Waldman, 2012: 56).

Contrary to other indigenous nations such as the Incan, Mayan, or Aztec, civilizations who disappeared in time of conquering, Mapuche society was inferior in terms of material aspects but resisted to the Spaniard colonization what made them being renowned for their bravery. After three-hundred years of fighting against conquerors of Chile, they continue nowadays to claim for their rights to be acknowledged by the Chilean government.

In fact, the strongest difficulty encountered by the Mapuche is the loss of their sacred land. By etymology, Mapuche means people of the land (Mapu: land, Earth, Che: people) in the Mapudungun dialect, what shows that "from a Mapuche perspective, their right to the land stems from their ancestral occupation of the territory. For them, the land has profound cultural, mythical and symbolic meaning; much of their culture, language, knowledge, history, spiritual life and memory are linked to the land and to the natural environment" (Waldman, 2012: 57).

Nevertheless, from the arrival of the colonists and thereforward the independence declaration of Chile in 1810, this indigenous society had to go on fighting to preserve their land against privatization. In the following to the early twentieth century, governments likewise pressed culturally and economically devastating actions of land colonization, subdividing and redistributing indigenous lands to non-indigenous buyers (Schlosberg, 2010: 24). Further complications erose in the late 1970s, after Pinochet had taken power by a military coup with help of the U.S. American CIA in 1974, the new right-wing government orchestrated a reforestation of the region through pine and eucalyptus to strengthen the paper industry. Even more land was taken away from the Mapuche in the process of planting pine and eucalyptus monocultures.

Nowadays, the Mapuche community owns 600 000 hectares, what eventually represents five percent of their original territory (Schlosberg, 2010: 24) and the dominant monocultures are causing a considerable environmental challenge to their traditional way of life (Navarro et all., 2005: 33). One reason is that the two plant species have great desire for water, a factor endangering existing diversity that is enhanced even more by the monopolisation of superficial sources but also groundwater, what increases drought all over Mapuche region (Navarro et all., 2005: 64). Then the community encounters two problems: lack of drinking water and lack of water for agricultural production, together highly worsening their livelihoods.

Notes by the UN Secretariat on "Indigenous people's collective rights to lands, territories, and resources"

The Seventeenth session of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (PFII) acknowledged in their note to the secretary on Indigenous people's collective rights to lands, territories and resources the theme of Territories, Lands and Resources already as red line of the sixth (6th) Session. In the document "a clear link between the loss of indigenous people's lands and situations of marginalization, discrimination and underdevelopment of indigenous communities" is recognized (E/C.19/2018/5, 2018 : 2) resulting in the adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People by the General Assembly of UNPFII in September 2007. In this Declaration, the rights of indigenous people to lands, territories, and resources have a central place by being referenced nineteen times in this text of law; the most significative one, article 26, reads explicitly :

1. Indigenous people have the right to the lands, territories, and resources which they have traditionally owned, occupied or otherwise used or acquired. (...)
3. States shall give legal recognition and protection to these lands, territories, and resources. Such recognition shall be conducted with due respect to the customs, traditions and land tenure systems of the indigenous people concerned. (E/C.19/2018/5, 2018 : 3)

Hence, the law assesses that indigenous people have the right to own the land that was traditionally theirs, and the State shouldn't deny this right to territories, land and resources. At the contrary, it is argued that governmental entities shouldn't refute, but even "(...) have an obligation to protect indigenous people's rights to lands, territories, and resources, and those rights must be effectively enforced through penalties for harmful activities on indigenous people's lands (...)" (E/C.19/2018/5, 2018: 4).

However, in case of Mapuche community as an example among others, these rights do not appear to being respected; eleven (11) years after the Declaration, Mapuche are still fighting for the revendication of their rights to the land they lost against forestry multinationals; the Chilean State, that, under the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous people, supposedly should encourage the return of historically indigenous land to the Mapuche, seems to ignore the rule of law and continues to favor forestry related industrial activities in partnership with transnational companies over the right of the indigenous people.

In a second part, the document by the UNPFII Secretariat states that even indigenous people who benefit from better recognition are nevertheless still facing challenges, even after the implementation of the named ruling (E/C.19/2018/5, 2018 : 5). It is assumed that one of the operating changes is that indigenous groups in a better social condition are able to enjoy true recognition of their indigenous identity; nonetheless, this identity recognition is associated with very poor connexion to collective rights to land, territories and resources, or fail to demarcating indigenous lands (E/C.19/2018/5, 2018: 6). Thus, indigenous collective rights to lands, territories and resources are autonomous and need specific work of admission.

In case of the Mapuche community, we can assess that the Chilean State is not ready to acknowledge their collective rights to lands, territories and resources as it hasn't legitimized the indigenous community as such, still denying its collective identity, traditions, cultures as different from the 'white' mainstream Chilean society. For the Mapuche as for many other indigenous groups, there is considerable way to go in order to get to this.

As an opening to this debate, the Secretary document ends with a serie of questions in aim of improving the legal frame and thus the conditions of indigenous communities. I find some key (research) questions of academic interest in particular:

  • How can collective rights of indigenous people to their lands, territories, and resources be guaranteed?
  • What are the roles of indigenous governance institutions, industry, the State, investors, and even the international community respectively in the struggle for the indigenous people's collective rights?
  • How can an environment of impunity and lack of accountability be addressed?
  • What actions should be taken to protect indigenous human rights defenders?
  • How can indigenous people's collective rights to lands, territories, and resources be aligned with national development priorities?
  • (E/C.19/2018/5, 2018: 9)

Those different questions are undoubtedly part of a critical environmental justice research theme.


Navarro, R.M. et all., 2005. The economic and social context of monoculture tree plantation in Chile: The case of the Commune of Lumaco, Araucania region World Rainforest Movement

Schlosberg, D. and Carruthers, D., 2010. Indigenous Struggles, Environmental Justice and Community capabilities, Global Environmental Politics 10:4, p.12-35

Waldman, M.G., 2012. Historical memory and present-day oblivion: The Mapuche conflict in post-dictatorial Chile, Time & Society, 21:1, p.55-70

Image: © UNFPII