On Tuesday (15 December), the House of Representatives and the Senate in Chile approved a bill that ensures Indigenous groups will participate in the upcoming Constitutional Assembly. Of 155 seats on the assembly — which in April will begin the process of rewriting the constitution for ratification by referendum — 17 will be reserved for Indigenous peoples.
Nationwide social uprisings in October 2019 have transformed the political landscape in Chile, offering glimmers of hope for those who have long been pushing for much-need constitutional change. The protests denounced growing inequality, environmental degradation, gender-based violence, and elite impunity. These popular movements forced the government’s hand and, on 15 November 2019, the “Agreement for Social Peace and the New Constitution” was signed by representatives from a total of ten government and opposition parties.
Chile’s current constitution was written in 1980 under the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.
In line with an ongoing history of state-endorsed violence and discrimination against Indigenous communities, the constitution effectively erases their struggles, lives, and demands. Even though the Chilean government adopted the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007 and ratified ILO convention 169 in 2008, Chile remains the only country in Latin America that does not recognize its indigenous peoples within its national Constitution.
Last week’s decision thus represents progress of a kind. It recognizes ten Indigenous groups; the Mapuche, Aymara, Atacameño or Lican Antai, Colla, Quechua, Rapa Nui, Yámana or Yagán, Kawashkar/Kawésqar, Diaguita, and the Chango. Assembly seats have been assigned in an attempt to reflect their share of the national population. The largest Indigenous group in Chile is the Mapuche, who will take seven seats. The Aymara have been assigned two seats, and the other eight groups will each receive one.
The original request was for 23 or 25 reserved seats, adding to the 155 seats rather than replacing positions already assigned
However, this decision is not what Indigenous activists and their allies originally sought. Chile’s 2017 Census registered 2,185,729 people as belonging to an Indigenous or native people, which was 12.8% of the national population. Of this number, 79.8% identified as Mapuche, 7.2% as Aymara, and 4.1% as Diaguita. In this Census, Mapuche people represented 9.9% of the national population. Based on these census figures, the original request was for 23 or 25 reserved seats, adding to the 155 seats rather than replacing positions already assigned. Others had proposed including 1 seat each for the Chango and Selk’nam peoples.
Last week’s apparent progress thus also reveals persistent barriers to change. The decision reflects how the ruling right-wing government not only limited the total number of seats (to 17 within, rather than in addition to, the 155); they also denied proposals to include the Selk’nam Indigenous community (who are currently in the process of finalizing official state recognition) and similarly rejected reserved seats for Afro-Chilean people, who were formally recognized by the State as a tribal people in 2019.
Despite these setbacks, groups across the country are engaging with this hard-won opportunity to reshape Chile’s constitution — including social movements, academics, critical mass organizers, Indigenous and Afro-Chilean communities, and other activists. The process of re-writing the constitution is uncertain and will require new alliances to form in order to be successful. No doubt, too, new compromises will have to be made.
Mapuche journalist and author, Pedro Cayuqueo, tweeting in Spanish, wrote that even though Mapuche people make up 80% of Chile’s indigenous population, they agreed to only seven assembly seats, which is 40% of the total — describing this as a “political generosity” that stands out in the current political climate, and referencing the Mapuche cultural value of “kelluwün” or mutual support, “the wise reciprocity of the ancestors.” As diverse interests coalesce within the Constitutional Assembly process — bringing together demands for regional representation, increased Indigenous and Afro-Chilean participation, protections for the Rights of Nature, LGBTQ+ rights, and more concerns — the importance of generosity and reciprocity within collective endeavors is as clear as ever.