Chile: Interview with Mapuche Environmentalist Alberto Curamil

“For us, the most important thing is the reeducation of this generation.” 

Alberto Curamil

By Nadia Arias (El Mostrador) 

HAVANA TIMES – After 16 months in pre-trial detention, Alberto Curamil, a well-known environmental activist from Chile’s Mapuche nation was declared in 2019 not guilty of charges he participated in an assault on the Galvarino community’s Family Allotment Funds [Caja de compensacion].  Shortly before his acquittal, Curamil. also known as Ionko [“leader”], had gained world attention for receiving – in his jail setting – the 2019 Goldman Environmental Prize, also called the Green Nobel Prize.

The award was in recognition of Curamil’s defense of his native territory, protecting the Cautin river from planned hydroelectric development projects which involved building dams across a river his community considers sacred. After years of legal wrangling, the projects were finally suspended.

Today, he leads a different environmental struggle. The communities of the sector known as Alto de Curacautin [“Curacautin heights”] are on high alert due to the geothermal project based around the Tolhuaca volcano. In passing, Curamil assures, this project would strip away the forests of araucaria trees. 

Ionko, you’ve received awards and recognition for your defense of the environment. In 2019, you received the Goldman Prize, known as the Green Nobel, while you were in pre-trial detention. 

Yes, that was in 2019, when I was imprisoned in the Temuco jail for a very serious accusation. Of course, it all had to do with the work we’ve carried out here, precisely in the community of Curacautin. If we look at the Iof Radalko settlement, in the community of Curacautin, I insist that the extractionist companies are within our territory. At that time, the government of [Sebastian] Piñera utilized some leaders, convincing them to approve that project [the two hydroelectric dams]. Construction has still not begun, but I believe we must put our lives on the line to defend and maintain the balance of nature. 

So, you continue in the struggle to defend the territory, for example by keeping this new geothermal project from being realized. 

Yes, in fact, everything has been approved, and there’s been a new added threat on the part of a geothermal project called Adobera. This project comes from outside the country and wants to perforate our sacred volcano (Tolhuaca). Hence, we here remain mobilized. 

What does this project seek? 

The investment capital comes from European companies; the project is called Adobera, and they want to create or reactivate a geothermal project to produce energy. A similar attempt, with the same Tolhuaca volcano, was made from 2007 to 2012 if I’m not mistaken, and it failed. Now, a new company is coming to try and reactivate it – not in the exact same place, but a little farther north. This is extremely serious – they want to drill six deep wells, holes more than 2,000 meters deep. That’s a threat. That area is the place the waters spring from; it’s where the araucaria trees are. That area is precisely where they want to exploit, to cut the araucaria forests, in order to install their investments in that region. So, we’re up in that area, standing in opposition. Right now, it’s all snowed in, but we’ve set up camp there to be able to protect our sacred space. 

There are araucaria forests there… 

Yes. It’s a mountainous zone where there are many araucaria trees that are protected by certain environmental decrees. A delineation line for connection or interconnection has been established there, which means a clearance of at least 50 meters wide, plus the number of kilometers indicated by the delineation. So, there’ll be a considerable destruction of the native forest, and that would obviously cause harm and also produce an imbalance in our spiritual life.

I understand that your group is defending the rivers in that sector as well.

Up there is where the waters are born for more than one river. There’s a sizable watershed that flows down the vertical slope, and in the end becomes a river, lagoons. According to the depth of the perforations they want to carry out, [the wells] would alter that point of origin of the waters. Nearly 100% of that water would go into those deep wells.

In October 2021, according to the company’s website, the project was presented to the Curacautin Municipal Council. Has it already been approved by the environmental authorities?

I believe that whole process of environmental evaluation was a violation. That’s why I told you before, with strong conviction, that the government institutions today have worked to generate violence in our territory. In this case, Conadi [the National Corporation for Indigenous Development] that supposedly represents, or should represent the Mapuche population, signed a paper declaring that there were no Mapuche communities in the vicinity that could be affected by this megaproject, hence authorizing the company to construct. If the Mapuche communities don’t exist, that means this company doesn’t have any obligation to go through that Environmental Impact Service either.

In other words, the indigenous people haven’t been consulted?

There’s been no consultation.

How many communities exist in that sector that would be affected by this project?

There are a lot of communities. Precisely where this project originates, there’s what we could geographically call a canyon, and many communities live within that canyon. There are also four communities like ours situated above, that today are spearheading the defense of that sector.

Impact of the new proposed Constitution

The draft of the new Constitution includes the concept of Environmental Tribunals. The Constitutional proposal also speaks of the original peoples’ rights to property and resolution for the natural resources that lie within their territory. Those backing the “Reject” option [in the upcoming plebiscite] see this as an obstacle to development. What’s your opinion?

I believe that all the proposals in this Constitution have very good intentions, but I insist on the topic of the country’s institutions. These don’t inspire any hope in me, if they’re the ones allowed to direct us. I could mention the experience with Conadi: it was a demand made by the people in the midst of the dictatorship (1973-1990), and, at that time, the formation of this corporation was agreed upon in order to resolve the indigenous conflicts and the general demand for lands.

However, in this latest era, it’s been an obstacle to the resolution of conflicts. In that sense, I believe that it would be a mistake to expect that everything’s going to come out well today through this new Constitution, with its proposal to create institutions, andto trust in this. I’m not saying it’s bad. I believe it’s necessary, because it can facilitate or improve the process of our recuperation or our defense or the control we want to exercise within our territory. But for us, the most important thing is the reeducation of our generation, from inside our communities.

Something of that nature was done a few weekends ago, when Ionko Alberto Curamil led the “Environmental and Intercultural Dialogue” in the Municipal Library of the Curacautin community. During this session, leaders of the hamlets of Radalko and Pidenko informed the community of their posture with respect to the geothermal project for the Tolhuaca volcano. To date, four Mapuche communities of the sector have occupied the lands where the engineering works of the Adobera company are slated for installation.

What to you think of the new Constitutional proposal being presented in the plebisite?

Look, this new proposal hasn’t surprised or impacted me much. It’s true that it’s a very important movement, very interesting to see in these times. I believe that as the Mapuche nation, we have a very distinct existence, a very different vision as to how we can reorder or reconstruct ourselves in our space. When I say reconstruct, this has to do with the aggression that we’ve suffered, that we’ve experienced from the State itself, that today maybe has a different proposal.

There’s criticism from those who resist this [Constitutional] proposal, including saying it’s a type of reverse discrimination, favoring the original peoples. How do you view that vision?

Within this process, I think there’s one important thing that’s happening on a national level for Chile. It has to do with the participation of many sectors that, at some moment, were also in the streets protesting against a military regime. In the world of the Mapuche, for example, we can look at Adolfo Milabur, a man of great experience who’s working there to be able to maybe present certain problems, or certain realities that we’ve suffered and lived through in the Wallmapu [traditional Mapuche territories].

There are also other important persons like Elisa Loncon, who know how to compose, who know what they are saying. I have no doubt that they are going to make contributions in so far as conservation and the defense or our natural resources in the Wallmapu.

At the same time, I would also mention a newer generation, in this case Manuela Royo, someone not a Mapuche, but who herself has had experience living within our territory, marked by the processes of recuperation, repression, torture and prison that I personally experienced. I think she also has knowledge, and we trust the proposal they’ve been able to make within this new Constitution. The same goes for Rosa Catrileo, a woman who also has a Law degree and knows the legal system; Navidad Llanquileo. These are people with lived experience, and because of them I can’t say I reject that body [Constitutional Convention] or refuse to listen to this process that’s occurring.

I also trust in the people. I think that at some moment the protest will also continue on the street, because despite the references I’ve made, not all of the proposal was exactly as we wished, especially for the Mapuche. We have a very different vision, and [the document] doesn’t quite extend to what we propose. However, we respect this process. I believe it’s a very good thing that’s being carried out.

So, do you approve or reject, Ionko?

Look, my final call is to honor all our compañeros/as who demonstrated – in the different communities, the different regions; in the streets, in the plazas; those detained, tortured, mutilated. In their honor, I am going to vote to Approve.

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