Chile declares state of emergency in regions affected by Mapuche crisis

Army sent in to contain crisis over demands for the return of ancestral lands

Chile’s new left-wing government has been forced to declare a state of emergency in regions affected by an intensifying conflict involving the indigenous Mapuche people in the south of the country.

This week's decision to send the army back in to try to contain the crisis is the latest setback for president Gabriel Boric just two months after he was sworn in.

As a candidate he criticised his right-wing predecessor Sebastián Pinera for relying on the military in the conflict which stems from Mapuche demands for the return of ancestral lands. He had vowed not to renew the last state of emergency imposed by the outgoing administration which lapsed as he took power.

Initial attempts by the Boric administration to find a new approach to the conflict failed as roadblocks and ongoing violence has forced its hand in the face of growing problems supplying residents in the conflict zone.

But in announcing the return of the army to Arauco and Bío Bío provinces and the Araucanía region interior minister Izkia Siches said the government would also redouble efforts to pass a law creating a new ministry for indigenous peoples "to strengthen the capacity of the state to attend to the needs of our peoples".

Support

In recent years several Mapuche groups have expanded their campaign against those who they say stole their lands which initially targeted powerful logging interests and large ranches to include burning out small holders and holiday homes.

There is strong support for the Mapuche within the left-wing coalition that carried Mr Boric to power in elections in December. But demands by some increasingly radicalised Mapuche groups for full autonomy on all ancestral lands have led to calls from some right-wing politicians for a military solution to the conflict.

This week’s reversal is just the latest in a series of problems the 36-year-old Mr Boric has faced in a difficult start to the presidency. He has had difficulties managing his coalition in congress, complicating the passage of legislation and provoking criticism from his own left wing which wants a more radical approach.

The economy is also slowing just as inflation is forcing up interest rates. In a bid to contain rising prices, Mr Boric cancelled the last of four withdrawals from pension funds authorised by the previous congress to help stimulate the economy as it emerged from the pandemic. The move by a left-winger who promised greater spending has helped provoke a dramatic plunge in his approval ratings.

His declining popularity could put in jeopardy the approval of a new constitution he is backing which includes new protections for indigenous lands when it is put before voters in September.