Indigenous Displacement in Southern Chile

distributing trees
During the final celebration of Kuykuitin, teachers distribute native trees to the hosts Mapuche families and the principals of the schools. Photo by Marcela Salazar.


by Daniel Cano and Cristóbal Madero

In the dawn of January 4, 2013, Werner Luchsinger, 75, and his wife Vivianne Mackay, 69,  a couple who farmed in the Araucanía region of southern Chile, were burned alive inside their home. Mapuche communal landowners had set the house afire in an attempt to threaten the couple and force them to abandon their property. The arson attack marked a turning point in the so-called “Chilean-Mapuche conflict.” The protests of the Mapuche indigenous people displaced from their ancestral lands—a struggle the indigenous people call anti-colonial and anti-capitalist—were now radicalizing. That same night, Chilean intelligence service arrested the alleged arsonist, Celestino Córdoba, the spiritual leader of the Mapuche community. Young indigenous activists faced escalating persecution by the police; the most well known are the murders of Alex Lemún on November 12, 2002, and Matías Catrileo on January 3, 2008.

The conflict between the Mapuche people and the Chilean state goes back to the 19th century with the so-called “Pacification—Occupation—of the Araucanía” (1883) through which the Chilean Army conquered the Mapuche territory, seizing 90% of the indigenous territory and displacing the Mapuches to reservations. After the military defeat, the Mapuches were left with only about a million acres out of the more than 12 million acres of their land. This forced displacement condemned the Mapuche people to live in poverty and socially on the margins. To the present day in the Araucanía region, the Mapuche have the highest rates of poverty, unemployment, domestic violence and illiteracy in Chile. The territories that were taken away form them now belong to lumber companies that have made huge profits for decades, and those profits do nothing to ease the economic and social conditions of the displaced Mapuche people. On the contrary, the activities of these lumber companies have caused irreparable damages to the local ecosystem, aggravating even more the marginality of the region’s indigenous families. At the same time, agricultural colonizers who benefited from the Mapuche’s loss of territory by taking over large swaths of farmland have contributed to the radicalization of the century-long conflict.

In his 2015 end-of-mission statement Philip Alston, then-UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, declared that indigenous rights are the “Achilles’ heel of Chile’s human rights record in 21st century”  ( This situation has led to almost daily armed conflict between Mapuche activists and the special police forces. The “Luchsinger case,”nevertheless, stands out because the way in which the elderly couple perished touched an emotional nerve in the Chilean society, especially because the couple had close ties to elite circles in Santiago.

It was in this context that we (Cristóbal and Daniel), Chilean doctoral students living in San Francisco and Washington DC, decided to enter a UC Berkeley “Big Idea” competition to create a project that would focus on reconciliation in a country divided in regards to its indigenous population. We imagined a program that would mitigate violence and eventually resolve the Chilean-Mapuche conflict through the fields of education, history and media. We were both convinced that the scarcity and poor quality of information in the media concerning the violence in the Araucanía were one of the principle causes of the conflict, especially because some owners of communications media also owned lumber firms in Mapuche territory. We firmly believed that the Chilean society should begin to educate itself interculturally to reach an understanding of the historical roots of the armed struggle of the indigenous people displaced by lumber companies and large farming estates.

The project brings a group of history teachers from elite private schools to experience Mapuche communities in conflict with the Chilean state. That is, it takes the teachers to a heavily militarized zone stigmatized by the violent “terrorist” acts of some Mapuche groups. The idea is to bring together two worlds totally unknown to each other and whose perceptions and opinions have been fed by the distorted images constructed by the media. Our hypothesis is simple. When people meet face-to-face, eat together and look into each other’s eyes, they listen with respect as they exchange their life stories. Prejudices and fear begin to dissolve, opening up a space for the creation of more fraternal relations that can lead to the reconstruction of the social fabric damaged by years of violence. This is how our Kuykuitin project began—named after a word in the Mapuche language that means “building bridges.”  

We chose Tirúa as the place to begin the project. The coastal zone of Araucanía is heavily populated by displaced Mapuche communities and is considered a focal point of “indigenous terrorism.” We both were quite familiar with the area. As a Chilean Jesuit, Cristóbal had an institutional link with the territory where the Jesuits were active and directed aid programs for the Mapuche communities. Daniel had first come to the area more than ten years ago as a student volunteer in the Jesuit cooperation programs. Thus, Tirúa was a community we knew and that knew us. This shared history helped make people more willing to open their doors and accept these visiting teachers from Santiago. Nevertheless, the process of acceptance was long and complex.  As victims of territorial displacement, state repression, stigma and discrimination, the Mapuche communities of Tirúa were quite wary about sharing their personal and community histories with the visitors. There were more than enough reasons for the understandable defensiveness and extreme caution. Community leaders, school directors, municipal officials and Mapuche family members with whom we collaborated would comment “People always come from outside to study us and do their research, but they don’t give anything in return” or “If you come here to learn from us, what are we going to learn from you?” However, once we all sat down at the same table, we expressed our concerns and our desire to work together to construct ways in which Mapuche and non-indigenous Chileans could better understand each other. Stereotypes and prejudices began to disappear and expressions of lack of confidence were replaced by others of mutual interest such as “good, and now that we have welcomed you here in our communities in Tirúa, when are you going to invite us to your schools there in Santiago?” or “I’m not going to go to Santiago even if you force me to because it’s very dangerous there and people get attacked in the street.”  And during our conversation, at that very instant, military helicopters flew over us looking for Mapuche activists hiding in the forests of Tirúa and the surrounding area. Nervous laughter broke out among the attendees.

After eating breakfast with their indigenous host families every morning, the teachers from Santiago would set off on foot or in a school wagon to the rural Mapuche schools to learn about the way in which Chilean history and Mapuche culture were taught in that context of violence. One of the teachers recalls that “the first day we arrived at the school in Tirúa we were quite surprised. Used to controlling and planning efficiently in our schools in the capital, we had to adapt and surrender to the new reality of the rural Mapuche school. We felt cultural barriers and resistence by both the teachers and the traditional rural educators. They were full of prejudice against us, but that prejudice dissipated as the days went on. However, they ended up opening up their classes to us with the realization that we were not there to evaluate or to experiment. We just wanted to share as equals.”  

In the afternoon, activities took place outside the schools. One of the teachers observed that getting to know different people from the community was an enriching experience. She recounted an intercultural event with traditional educators and Mapuche officials from the Center of Family Health; Mayor Adolfo Millabur (the first Mapuche mayor) and town officials. The group also met with the director of the Mapuche Museum of Cañete, Juanita Paillalef, the Mapuche poet Leonel Lienlaf, Jesuit priests and indigenous weavers from the Relmu Witral, Tirúa’s women’s handicrafts cooperative. “All of them and their distinct visions, together with those of our family hosts, gave us a broad understanding of the complexity of the so-called Mapuche conflict that our country is experiencing today,” the teacher observed. “The experience also helped us to understand the importance of our role as educators and our responsibility in changing the biased attitude of many our students towards the Mapuche people.”

At the end of the exchange, the teachers got together to evaluate the project and to discuss future possibilities for similar programs like this one. One of the teachers commented, “It was very worthwhile to share and reflect every day on the week’s experiences. None of us could be indifferent to this immersion. It has left a profound mark. It is important for professors to get out of the classroom, to have experiences beyond book learning. Several weeks have gone by since we came back and we have shared the experience with our schools—school officials, colleagues and students—and we feel very optimistic about the idea of being a bridge for peace. We feel the responsibility of supporting these communities that we have got to know personally in some way or other. To support them from the stance of admiration and respect that we feel for their necessities, experiences and community life values.”  

Two additional projects are underway in an exchange between Santiago schools and those of Tirúa. But it is now indigenous school communities who “visit” their counterparts in Santiago with the goal of constructing bridges of peace between Chilean society and displaced Mapuche communities.



Daniel Cano is a Ph.D. candidate in History at Georgetown University specialized in indigenous communities in Latin America and co-founder of Kuykuitin project. Contact:

Cristobal Madero is a Ph.D candidate in Education at the University of California, Berkeley studying teacher professionalism in comparative perspective and co-founder of Kuykuitin project. Contact:

For more information about the project visit