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The untold story of the Mapuche hunger strike

The other crisis currently under way in Chile.

In a year that has been calamitous, to say the least, for Chile, having survived an earthquake that registered 8.8 on the Richter scale and enduring the ongoing saga of the men trapped for over 40 days in the San José mine, Chileans were probably looking forward to something more light-hearted with the celebrations for the country's bicentennial of independence taking place this coming weekend. However, one further tragic story unfolding in the country, the hunger strike by 34 indigenous Mapuche prisoners, has failed to gain the same level of media attention.

Some might regard the voluntary actions of the strikers, now in the 64th day of their protest, as selfish or foolish compared with the plight of the miners. Yet the protest is not just related to the initial reason for their imprisonment -- their involvement in a dispute over ancestral land in the southern Chilean region of Araucanía -- but that they continue to be governed by anti-terrorism legislation.

President Sebastián Piñera's coalition government (Alianza por Chile) has had the misfortune of inheriting not only the legacy of both the Concertación's and Augusto Pinochet's troublesome relationship with the Mapuche population, but also the counterterrorism law enacted by Pinochet in 1984, which still allows Mapuche activists to be charged as terrorism suspects and tried in military courts today.

Despite inheriting this history of land and political disputes, the current government hasn't exactly warmed itself to the Mapuche, either. As the citizen media website Global Voices reported earlier this year, although the government was faced with the ominous task of coming into office just two weeks after the earthquake hit in February, it failed to respond adequately to the disaster's impact on Mapuche territory. Nor did the media provide sufficient coverage or support to help get the necessary aid to Mapuche communities, which make up about 5 per cent of the population in southern Chile and are one of the poorest and most marginalised parts of Chilean society.

The hunger strike was originally orchestrated in an attempt to draw international attention to their plight, and has sparked off a stream of solidarity protests across the world this summer. In Chile, however, it has been largely downplayed both by media outlets and by the authorities. That goes far to explain why such a long hunger strike by so many people simultaneously has not achieved a greater level of world press coverage.

The authorities have been repeatedly criticised by human rights groups in recent years for permitting police brutality and for failing to eradicate the anti-terrorist legislation. The journalist David Dudenhoefer estimates that some thousand Mapuche have been arrested over the past decade, with many going on hunger strikes and being injured by the police during protests, three of them fatally.

Despite continued pleas from around the world to protect the interests of the Mapuche, including statements by high-profile figures as José Saramago, there has been little improvement in recent years. There was a flicker of hope during President Michelle Bachelet's tenure in 2008 when Chile became a signatory of the International Labour Organisation's Convention 169 -- which requires governments to consult indigenous groups prior to passing laws -- but progress to this effect has yet to be seen.

So, it was to everyone's great surprise last Thursday when four left-wing congressmen (members of the opposition, incidentally) joined the hunger strike in an act of solidarity. That same evening, President Piñera introduced emergency measures to revise the legislation. Yet whether more effective and long-term reforms or a greater debate between the government and the Mapuche communities are on the cards still remains uncertain.

Certainly, as has happened time and again in Chile and many other Latin American countries during protests by indigenous communities, Piñera's haste to amend the legislation is being used as a bargaining tool to pacify the protesters. Many of the Mapuche are now in a critical state of health, some having lost up to 18 kilogrammes, and the government fears that the death of even one Mapuche would put a dampener on this weekend's celebrations.

With the threat of blood on its hands, Piñera's government has the opportunity to break with the tradition of reducing the Mapuche problem to a question of ancestral land. Otherwise, as Patricio Navia, a columnist for La Tercera, suggests, it could become a true "headache" for the party and threaten the stability of modern Chilean politics.