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.

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The deafening killer - why noise will be the next great pollution scandal

A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. 

Our cities are being poisoned by a toxin that surrounds us day and night. It eats away at our brains, hurts our hearts, clutches at our sleep, and gnaws at the quality of our daily lives.

Hardly a silent killer, it gets short shrift compared to the well-publicised terrors of air pollution and sugars food. It is the dull, thumping, stultifying drum-beat of perpetual noise.

The score that accompanies city life is brutal and constant. It disrupts the everyday: The coffee break ruined by the screech of a line of double decker buses braking at the lights. The lawyer’s conference call broken by drilling as she makes her way to the office. The writer’s struggle to find a quiet corner to pen his latest article.

For city-dwellers, it’s all-consuming and impossible to avoid. Construction, traffic, the whirring of machinery, the neighbour’s stereo. Even at home, the beeps and buzzes made by washing machines, fridges, and phones all serve to distract and unsettle.

But the never-ending noisiness of city life is far more than a problem of aesthetics. A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. Recent studies have linked noise pollution to hearing loss, sleep deprivation, hypertension, heart disease, brain development, and even increased risk of dementia.

One research team compared families living on different stories of the same building in Manhattan to isolate the impact of noise on health and education. They found children in lower, noisier floors were worse at reading than their higher-up peers, an effect that was most pronounced for children who had lived in the building for longest.

Those studies have been replicated for the impact of aircraft noise with similar results. Not only does noise cause higher blood pressure and worsens quality of sleep, it also stymies pupils trying to concentrate in class.

As with many forms of pollution, the poorest are typically the hardest hit. The worst-off in any city often live by busy roads in poorly-insulated houses or flats, cheek by jowl with packed-in neighbours.

The US Department of Transport recently mapped road and aircraft noise across the United States. Predictably, the loudest areas overlapped with some of the country’s most deprived. Those included the south side of Atlanta and the lowest-income areas of LA and Seattle.

Yet as noise pollution grows in line with road and air traffic and rising urban density, public policy has turned a blind eye.

Council noise response services, formally a 24-hour defence against neighbourly disputes, have fallen victim to local government cuts. Decisions on airport expansion and road development pay scant regard to their audible impact. Political platforms remain silent on the loudest poison.

This is odd at a time when we have never had more tools at our disposal to deal with the issue. Electric Vehicles are practically noise-less, yet noise rarely features in the arguments for their adoption. Just replacing today’s bus fleet would transform city centres; doing the same for taxis and trucks would amount to a revolution.

Vehicles are just the start. Millions were spent on a programme of “Warm Homes”; what about “Quiet Homes”? How did we value the noise impact in the decision to build a third runway at Heathrow, and how do we compensate people now that it’s going ahead?

Construction is a major driver of decibels. Should builders compensate “noise victims” for over-drilling? Or could regulation push equipment manufacturers to find new ways to dampen the sound of their kit?

Of course, none of this addresses the noise pollution we impose on ourselves. The bars and clubs we choose to visit or the music we stick in our ears. Whether pumping dance tracks in spin classes or indie rock in trendy coffee shops, people’s desire to compensate for bad noise out there by playing louder noise in here is hard to control for.

The Clean Air Act of 1956 heralded a new era of city life, one where smog and grime gave way to clear skies and clearer lungs. That fight still goes on today.

But some day, we will turn our attention to our clogged-up airwaves. The decibels will fall. #Twitter will give way to twitter. And every now and again, as we step from our homes into city life, we may just hear the sweetest sound of all. Silence.

Adam Swersky is a councillor in Harrow and is cabinet member for finance. He writes in a personal capacity.