Mapping Chile’s Indigenous Population
(Note: This post concludes the recent GeoCurrents series on regional differences in Chile)
One of the most interesting tables found in the Wikipedia article on “Ranked Lists of Chilean Regions” is that of the indigenous population. According to the 2013 Casen Survey, nearly 10 percent of Chileans identify themselves as belonging to an indigenous group, a significant increase over earlier assessments. In the 2002 census, for example, 609,000 people identified themselves as Mapuche, by far the country’s largest indigenous group, whereas in the 2013 Casen Survey the number was 1,322,000. Evidently, increasing numbers of Chileans of mixed ancestry are identifying themselves as indigenous.
The main areas of indigenous population in Chile are located in the peripheral parts of the country, both to the north and to the south of the country’s core. In the north, which includes a sizable section of the highland Altiplano, the main Andean peoples predominate: the Aymara and Quechua. In Antofagasta, however, the largest indigenous population is that of the Atacameños, who are also regarded as an Andean people and were once under the rule of the Inca Empire. In the south, the vast majority of indigenous people are Mapuche. Here, many of the other native groups were driven into extinction, such as the Chono of the now almost uninhabited Chonos Archipelago in the Aysén Region. In the extreme south, several other small groups are encountered, such as the Kawésqar, who number about 3,500, and the Yaghan (or Yámana, formerly called the Fuegians), who number around 1,600.
The heartland of the Mapuche people, who constitute roughly 80 percent of Chile’s indigenous population, is Araucanía Region, located in the northern part of southern Chile. (“Araucanía” refers to a Spanish term formerly used to designate the Mapuche people). By strictly geographical considerations, the agriculturally productive region of Araucanía belongs to Chile’s central region, but historical factors place it in the south. For hundreds of years, the Spaniards, and later the Chileans, were unable to subdue the Mapuche, whose lands thus constituted a separate realm. As explained in the Wikipedia:
Generally cities like Temuco [the capital of Araucanía] are considered to be located in the south despite of being relatively close to the geographical center of Chile. This is mainly because mainland Chile ended in La Frontera until the occupation of Araucanía (1860s-1880s). Similarly, the Southern Chile wine region is close to the geographic center of the country, encompassing wine-growing areas in the Bío Bío Region and Araucanía Region.
Today, Araucanía, which has Chile’s largest percentage of indigenous people (over 32%), is the poorest region of Chile by most measurements (see the maps in last week’s posts). But large numbers of Mapuche have relocated to much more prosperous parts of Chile, including greater Santiago and the far southern regions of Aysén and Magallanes. In fact, Metropolitan Santiago now counts more Mapuche residents than Araucanía itself (431,000 as opposed to 308,000), although of course its percentage is much lower.
Overall, the map of indigenous Chileans has an unusual pattern: indigenous people are concentrated in both the poorest and the richest parts of the country. As was explored in an earlier post, the sparsely populated, resource-rich regions of the north and far south rank quite high in terns of both economic output and social development. They are also highly urbanized, unlike many of the agriculturally productive but less prosperous regions of geographically central Chile.* It would be very interesting to see an economic break-down of the north and extreme south by ethnic groups. I suspect that the Mapuche people living in the far south would fall somewhat behind the area’s other inhabitants (who tend to be of European background**) on most socio-economic indicators, but I also imagine that they are more prosperous and better educated than the Mapuche living in the homeland regions of Araucanía, Los Lagos, and Los Ríos. Yet as academics are wont to say, “more research in needed.”
In the Mapuche heartland, ethnic tensions are currently running high, focused mainly on land claims and environmental issues. As explained in a 2014 article in the Washington Post:
[The] question is at the heart of what is known as the Mapuche conflict, which has become Chile’s open wound. It is a case of colliding histories as messy and complicated as any in the Americas, at a time when a voracious need for more oil, timber, gold and other resources is triggering new clashes with the region’s oldest inhabitants. …
The worst of the violence has flared in southern Chile’s fertile Araucania region, where the rapid expansion of the paper-pulp industry, once championed as an engine for growth, turned out to be a time bomb.
Vast pine and eucalyptus plantations blanket millions of acres, but unlike wheat, oats or other local crops, the tree farms provide few jobs, as the saplings need years to mature and require little maintenance. The cultivated trees are insatiably thirsty, absorbing far more groundwater than the local native forests they replaced.
Mapuche subsistence farmers, often living on tiny plots immediately downhill from the tree farms, saw their wells and springs go dry. …
By most accounts, tensions are higher now than perhaps at any time since the 1880s, when the Chilean army, fresh from its defeat of Peru and Bolivia in the War of the Pacific, marched in to subdue the Mapuche and complete the country’s territorial unification. A similar campaign vanquished the Mapuche on the southwest plains of Argentina. The conquests were no less brutal than the American Indian wars of the same era.
*The final two maps posted here, showing the percentage or rural and urban populations, are based on the same data, and are thus inversions of each other.
**Roughly half of the population of Punta Arenas, the capital of Magallanes, is of Croatian descent. Croatian Chileans would make an interesting subject for a separate post.