The proposed constitution would enshrine some of the world’s most extensive Indigenous rights. But those reforms have become the focal point of the campaign to reject the new text.
By Ana Lankes
Sept. 2, 2022, 5:00 a.m. ET
TEMUCO, Chile — The Mapuche people beat back Inca invaders. They fended off Spanish colonizers. And centuries later, they have continued to wage a battle for the recognition of their territories in modern Chile.
Now, in what could be one of the biggest victories for Indigenous groups in modern history, the Mapuches are on the verge of achieving much of what they have been fighting for.
On Sunday, Chileans will vote on a new constitution that, if approved, would enshrine some of the most extensive rights for Indigenous people anywhere in the world, according to experts. If the text is approved, more than two million Indigenous Chileans, 80 percent of whom are Mapuche, would be able to govern their own territories, have their own courts and be recognized as distinct nations within Chile, a nation of 19 million people.
But those changes have also become the most contentious part of the proposed charter, and a focal point of the campaign to reject it. The campaign’s efforts appear to be working: The option to reject is leading the polls ahead of the referendum. Even the governing left-wing government recently promised to narrow down some Indigenous rights if the constitution is approved, though how, or if, that would happen is unclear.
“When we started this constitutional process, we never imagined that this would be the topic on which the outcome of the plebiscite will probably be defined,” said Javier Couso, a constitutional expert at Diego Portales University in Santiago, the capital.
The convention that was elected last year to write Chile’s new constitution was heralded as one of the most inclusive political bodies anywhere. It had gender parity and 17 of its 155 seats were reserved for Indigenous representatives. Its first president was Elisa Loncón, a Mapuche linguist who wore traditional dress to the plenary sessions and often greeted other convention members in Mapudungun, the Mapuche language.
The Indigenous representatives left their mark on the draft text. The first article of the new constitution would declare Chile a “plurinational” state, meaning that multiple nations would be recognized within Chile’s borders.
It would enshrine quotas for Indigenous people in all elected bodies, including at the national, regional and municipal levels. Indigenous people would have their own autonomous territories and gain protection over their lands and the natural resources on them. Most controversially, a parallel Indigenous justice system would rule in cases that do not affect fundamental rights or international treaties signed by Chile.