Indigenous People See Common Ground in Struggles

MELBOURNE - Indigenous people around the world are finding common cause in their struggles to retain their identities and their land.

''A Mapuche person without land can't be a Mapuche," said Cristian Qechupan Huenunir, a Mapuche activist from Chile, at a plenary session on 'Indigenous Struggles and Resistance' at the Latin America and Asia Pacific International Solidarity Forum held here from Oct. 11-14.

Qechupan Huenunir told the assembled activists that the Mapuche people -- indigenous inhabitants of central and southern Chile and southern Argentina -- are continuing a resistance that began in 1533 with their initial contact with the Spanish.

Estela Morales, attending the forum as a representative of Radio New Generation -- part of the Zapatistas' La Otra Campana (The Other Campaign), an initiative to unite left-wing opponents of neo-liberalism in Mexico -- agreed that there was a common enemy. "They just have different names, like capitalism, globalisation or neo-liberalism," Morales told IPS through an interpreter.

John Chitoa from the Bismarck Ramu Group (BRG), an indigenous Papua New Guinean organisation fighting for land rights, thought the same. "From how I see it and from listening to other speakers during the week, they were coming in from the workers' rights, they were coming in from indigenous rights, but it's basically a common enemy that they're up against -- globalisation,'' Chitoa told IPS.

''Some call it imperialism or colonisation or whatever. It comes in different names but it's the same enemy that we have," Chitoa added.

Chitoa spoke of the difficulties that the BRG faces with the media. ''The media in the country is very much controlled. Sometimes it's difficult for us to blow it (land rights issues) up and expose it to the international community or even to the national community," he says.

But Chitoa sees conferences such as the Melbourne forum as "really beneficial for us, especially (as) we are working in isolation in Papua New Guinea." "When we come out (to forums) like this we get to meet other players, our comrades who are fighting the same battle and it's good to exchange information and just to get to know them," says Chitoa.

Rosa Koian, a colleague of Chitoa's in the BRG, said the forum allowed her to meet with and listen to people from different parts of the world. "Their stories are like our stories, Papua New Guinean stories," Koian told IPS.

"Coming here has helped us to see that we're not alone in this struggle against the big, big corporations," she says. "We (indigenous peoples) all have the same kind of link to the land, but that has been taken away from the Latin Americans," adds Koian.

Chitoa saw this as the main difference between indigenous groups in Papua New Guinea and those in other parts of the world. During his address to the forum, he said that 80 percent of Papua New Guineans still had land.

But he argued that the situation is becoming worse, with indigenous ownership of land under threat from government-facilitated development, enabling exploitation of land by foreign entities.

Chitoa said that while delegates at the forum have different backgrounds and were struggling in a variety of different situations, they were all battling the "same animal." He added: "You take away our land, you take away our life.''

According to Qechupan Huenunir predatory commercial interests have replaced the colonials of the past. In the current situation the Mapuches faced with multi-nationals and local companies -- especially those involved in timber -- that were trying to take away their land. These attempts, he said, were supported by the Chilean state.

He said that battling the police was like battling an army. "The police use the best weapons to confront us. They're always saying that we have weapons in our possession. However, they have never found any in their investigations," Qechupan Huenunir told IPS.

While denying that the Mapuche use arms in their struggle for land, he identifies other means of resistance. At the forefront of these is the Mapuche's own radio station, which Qechupan Huenunir says has played a fundamental role.

"The most important thing is that it is a means to our leaders so they can personally inform our communities of what is taking place," he says.

The station broadcasts both in Spanish and Mapudungun, the Mapuche language. "It is building up Mapuche society, strengthening our language and also informing the community,"

Qechupan Huenunir sees the Mapuche struggle as a battle against neo-liberalism, where the radio station facilitates the promotion of Mapudungun as a vital part of resistance. "We're a people with a history, we're a people with a future, and we're a people with a language," he said, adding that the Mapuche publish two newspapers which also inform his people of daily events.

He says that the radio station and newspapers provide the Mapuche with what he calls "information autonomy." Qechupan Huenunir says that the Mapuche are often attacked by the mass media. "Many times we have been labelled as terrorists (in the mass media)," he says.

Morales said while she has participated in conferences in Mexico, the Melbourne forum was the first she had attended in a foreign country. "The benefit is that I am learning about many other struggles around the world. (We can) share our experiences in the struggle because this way we can learn from others' experiences to apply to our movement and the other way around.''

Morales argued that leftist organisations, both in Australia and around the world, should be more inclusive of indigenous movements. "It seems that we have forgotten our comrades, the indigenous people here in Australia. They are struggling and trying to have better conditions and we have forgotten about them," observed Morales.

(c) 2007 Inter Press Service

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