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From Wallmapu to Nunatsiavut

The Criminalization of Indigenous Resistance

Mapuche Protest in Santiago, Chile

Mapuche protest in Santiago, 2017.

Warren Bernauer is a doctoral candidate in geography at York University. Henry Heller is a professor of history at the University of Manitoba. Peter Kulchyski is a professor of native studies at the University of Manitoba.

In 2016, Francisca Linconao, a Mapuche elder and spiritual leader, was arrested for her alleged role in a confrontation between Mapuche protesters and landowners in Chile. Linconao and ten others were held without bail for well over a year, despite scant evidence connecting them to any crime. That same year, an Inuk grandmother named Beatrice Hunter was arrested for taking part in the occupation of the construction site of a hydroelectric project in northern Canada. A year later, Hunter was jailed for defying a court order requiring her to stay away from the construction site.

The imprisonment of these indigenous women exemplifies a central aspect of what John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark, and others have called “ecological imperialism”—the ecological dimensions of the imperialist relationship between the periphery and core of the global capitalist economy.1 These include “the growth of the center of the system at unsustainable rates, through the more thoroughgoing ecological degradation of the periphery,” as well as relations of economic and military domination, driven by the ecological rupture inherent in the capitalist mode of production (or “metabolic rift”).2 Foster and Clark cite the nineteenth-century rush to extract soil nitrates from Peru and Bolivia for use in fertilizer, and the subsequent War of the Pacific, as a classic case of ecological imperialism. The 2003 invasion of Iraq was, for Foster and Clark, a contemporary example of this same core dynamic, whereby imperialist powers resort to military invasion to plunder the resources of countries in the global periphery.

While Foster and Clark mainly consider the imperialist relation between the first and third worlds, their theoretical insights are useful in analyzing the colonial relationship between indigenous peoples, settler states, and extractive capital. A core component of ecological imperialism in the Americas today is the dispossession of indigenous lands and resources, as states in both the global North and South attempt to develop their economies through the export of raw resources, including fossil fuels, minerals, lumber, hydroelectric power, and agro-food products.3 This “extractivism” helps fuel “the growth of the center at unsustainable rates,” while destroying the lands and ecosystems that form the basis of indigenous economies. It also entails imperialist practice, through the often violent repression of indigenous and other social movements.

Both Hunter’s and Linconao’s experiences show that the criminalization of indigenous resistance to dispossession is an important aspect of ecological imperialism. Similar trends can be found in countries throughout the Americas. Recent prominent examples include the suppression of protesters blockading the Dakota Access Pipeline in the United States, longstanding struggles against deforestation and agricultural and hydroelectric projects in Brazil and Paraguay, and resistance movements in Bolivia and Mexico.

Francisca Linconao

Linconao is a Mapuche elder and a Machi, a healer, which makes her an important spiritual leader in her community. In March 2016, Linconao was jailed for indefinite pre-trial detention, because police and prosecutors deemed her a potential terrorist and threat to society.

The events leading to Linconao’s arrest and unwarranted detainment began in 2008, when Matías Valentín Catrileo, a Mapuche university student, was shot in the back by police during the occupation of a farm owned by the Luchsinger family. In 2013, protests marking the five-year anniversary of Catrileo’s death led to a confrontation between demonstrators and a member of the Luchsinger family. After the latter allegedly fired a gun into a crowd of protesters, his house was set ablaze. After the fire was extinguished, his body and that of his wife were found inside. In 2014, Celestino Córdova, a Mapuche protester who was apparently struck by one of Luchsinger’s bullets, was convicted of homicide by arson for his alleged role in the attack, and sentenced to eighteen years in prison.4

Two years later, Linconao and ten others were charged with attempted murder for their alleged roles in the conflict. Chilean authorities used anti-terrorism legislation to place all the accused in pre-trial detention without bail. Through 2016, Linconao’s lawyers applied to have her transferred to house arrest, citing health problems she was experiencing in prison. On four occasions, her request was granted, but each time the decision was overturned on appeal and she was forced to return to prison. In late 2016, Linconao began a hunger strike, and large numbers of Mapuche held demonstrations at locations across Chile, protesting her imprisonment. In early 2017, she was transferred from prison to house arrest, likely a response to pubic mobilizations.5

Linconao’s trial was held from August to October 2017. Ultimately, the court found her not guilty, due to lack of evidence. There was, apparently, only one piece of evidence directly linking the accused to the conflict: a witness’s testimony that has since been withdrawn amid claims that police used physical and psychological threats to compel a false statement. Further, this withdrawn and potentially false testimony did not even place Linconao on the Luchsinger farm on the day of the conflict. Her only connection to the incident is that she is a known associate of the other accused. As such, it is difficult to see Linconao’s experiences as anything other than an attempt by police and public prosecutors to criminalize Mapuche resistance.6

Linconao’s case is not unique, but rather the latest in a long history of Chile’s use of its criminal justice system to repress Mapuche resistance to the dispossession of Wallmapu, the Mapuche homeland. That story stretches back to the initial Spanish conquest of the Americas. The Spanish tried to conquer Wallmapu militarily as early as 1541, leading to nearly three centuries of bloody conflict known as the Arauco War. Mapuche military resistance ensured that, when Chile was proclaimed an independent republic in 1818, Mapuche maintained effective sovereignty over much of Wallmapu. The newly independent Chilean state sought to consolidate its control over the region, and from 1862 to 1883 the so-called Pacification of Araucanía established Chilean military rule over Wallmapu. This was followed by the dispossession of Mapuche lands, predominantly for settler agriculture. Mapuche were confined to reservations that encompassed only about 5 percent of their traditional territory, while the rest of their land was sold off to settlers.7

After the Second World War, agrarian reform and land redistribution schemes began to return significant amounts of land to the Mapuche. The most effective of these was carried out by the Unidad Popular government of Salvador Allende. These years (1970–73) saw many gains for the Mapuche, including their first full legal recognition as indigenous peoples in Chile and the expropriation of settler property for return to Mapuche, with commitments to further expropriations in the future.8

These advances were abruptly reversed following the 1973 coup d’état and establishment of a military junta by Augusto Pinochet. Under the tutelage of U.S. economic advisors, the Pinochet regime became a pioneer of neoliberalism in the global South. Roughly 84 percent of land that had been expropriated for the Mapuche under Allende was quickly seized and returned to settler agricultural interests or lumber corporations, who used the land to establish pine and eucalyptus plantations.9 In 1978, the regime changed the form of Mapuche title to their remaining lands from communally owned property into individual private holdings. This further accelerated dispossession, as outside forces were able to purchase individual plots with relative ease.

Throughout this period of accelerated dispossession, the Pinochet regime criminalized dissent. Branded as dangerous extremists, scores of Mapuche organizers fell victim to Pinochet’s “Caravan of Death.” Many were disappeared, while others were forced to flee into exile. These ad hoc extrajudicial killings, kidnappings, and expulsions terrorized leftist and Mapuche communities alike.10 In good neoliberal fashion, the Pinochet regime created a formal legal basis for these gross violations of human rights: the 1984 Anti-Terrorism Act, otherwise known as Law No. 18.314. Among other provisions, the law allows the state to circumvent many of the procedural rights of persons accused of terrorism-related offenses. It can, for example, be used to hold people suspected of terrorism-related offenses for extended period without charges.11

Pinochet’s junta was removed from power in 1989, and civilian rule was restored. Nevertheless, the dispossession of Mapuche land has continued. Land redistribution laws remain weak and ineffective, while capitalist extraction continues to drive land conflicts between Mapuche and Chilean businesses and government agencies.12

Vast tree farms have led to further dispossession of Mapuche land and resources, the destruction of Mapuche sacred sites, and the contamination and depletion of Mapuche water sources for drinking and irrigation. The herbicides used in the tree plantations damage Mapuche crops and fisheries, and many of the wild animals and plants that Mapuche use for food and medicinal purposes have also declined in number due to the expansion of these monoculture tree farms.13 Hydroelectric dams have likewise contributed to the loss of Mapuche lands and resources since the transition to civilian rule. Hydroelectric developments along the Bío Bío River, including the Pangue and Ralco energy plants, have caused the flooding of Mapuche land and the relocation of Mapuche communities.14 The threat of further dispossession from hydroelectric development continues, as a plethora of proposed dams would, if built, flood ancestral lands that Mapuche continue to use for subsistence and ceremonial purposes.15

The combination of ongoing dispossession from extractive economies and half-hearted attempts at land redistribution have given rise to a spirited and often confrontational Mapuche resistance movement. Different Mapuche groups have employed a range of tactics, including lobbying politicians, occupying disputed lands, setting fire to forest plantations, destroying equipment and fences, and clashing with police.16

Just as dispossession of Mapuche territory has continued after the transition to civilian rule, so too has the criminalization of Mapuche resistance. Through the 1990s, the Chilean state responded to Mapuche protesters with criminal charges. But beginning in 2000, the government began to charge Mapuche protesters under Pinochet’s anti-terrorism laws, even though most of their “crimes” were committed against property—such as sabotage to logging equipment or arson of the monoculture tree farms—rather than violent actions against people. As such, they do not align with any general international understanding of what constitutes “terrorism.”17

The use of anti-terrorism laws has allowed the Chilean state to circumvent many of the procedural rights of the accused. This includes the use of anonymous witnesses, increased powers of police surveillance, longer periods of pre-trial detention without bail, and a lack of timely access to evidence by the accused. Together, these tactics can make it almost impossible for Mapuche to have a fair trial. The anti-terrorism assault on Mapuche social movements has been condemned by numerous United Nations councils and officials, as well as the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.18

Linconao’s imprisonment was thus part of a larger campaign of criminalization, and an expression of ecological imperialism. Although her case involved a clash with settler farmers, rather than extractive industries, logging and hydroelectric development remain major drivers of all land conflicts between Mapuche and Chileans. Sprawling tree farms and hydroelectric reservoirs have reduced the amount of land available for agriculture, inflaming tensions between Chilean farmers and Mapuche activists. Further, the broader legal tradition of imprisoning Mapuche under anti-terrorism laws is rooted in the Chilean state’s commitment to extractivist development. Ecological imperialism seems an apt term to describe Linconao’s ordeal.

Beatrice Hunter

In winter 2017, Hunter, an Inuk (singular for Inuit, popularly known in the United States as Eskimos) grandmother, was incarcerated after refusing to sign a commitment to obey a court injunction that she stay away from a hydroelectric project called Muskrat Falls, in the Labrador region of eastern Canada. Once operational, the project will flood vast swaths of Inuit hunting territory. Because the company operating the project has refused to clear soil and other vegetation from the flood zone, it is also likely to contaminate Inuit fisheries. Furthermore, the project poses the threat of a catastrophic dam failure that could flood Hunter’s community.

Hunter’s jailing followed the imprisonment of other activists and elders. Since her release, she has steadfastly refused to obey the standing injunction, and will face prosecution. As we write in November 2017, another group of activists faces imprisonment, including a male elder who already endured a hunger strike while incarcerated.

As with Linconao, Hunter’s case is a contemporary example of a much longer historical trend of criminalizing indigenous resistance to dispossession. The development of Canada’s national economy has always depended on extractivism. Beginning with the fur trade and fisheries in the colonial era, and later turning to lumber, agriculture, mining, hydroelectric dams, and fossil fuel extraction, Canada has long sought to develop its economy through the export of raw resources. Except for the fur trade, these “staple” exports are all premised on the dispossession of land and resources from indigenous peoples.

The criminalization of indigenous resistance to this dispossession is also as old as Canada, dating back to confederation and the consolidation of Canada’s borders. Beginning in the 1870s, the Canadian state manipulated famine to exert political control over the indigenous peoples of western Canada and confine them to small tracts of reserve lands. The goal was to “clear the plains” for settler agriculture, and to transform the Canadian prairies into a source of grain exports to Europe and the United States. When Metis and Cree communities militantly resisted the Canadian state’s authority in 1885, the participants were charged as treasonous Canadian citizens, rather than foreign combatants.19

The Canadian criminal justice system was also instrumental in extending Canadian state power over remote indigenous communities in northern Canada. Important community leaders were often charged with criminal offenses (and sometimes jailed or executed) for practices that accorded with indigenous social norms and were often necessary for the survival of the community.20 Today hunting peoples are still often charged with criminal offenses for hunting, fishing, building cabins, and practicing ceremonies.21 In this respect, not only has indigenous resistance been criminalized, but indigenous culture itself.

These acts of resistance and cultural expression have sometimes been criminalized using strikingly overt forms of legal oppression, most prominently through provisions in the federal Indian Act. In response to indigenous activism after the First World War—especially Fred Loft’s efforts to organize a League of Indians—the Canadian Parliament amended the law to outlaw such activities. As a result, from 1927 to 1951, it was illegal to raise funds to support Indian legal claims.22

More recently, indigenous resistance has been suppressed by removing indigenous protesters and charging them with various criminal offenses. Sometimes this leads to violent clashes between indigenous peoples and the police. In the most famous conflict, the so-called Oka Crisis of 1990, an armed standoff between Mohawk warriors and Quebec police resulted in the death of a police officer and the intervention of the Canadian military.23 This was hardly an isolated event, however: from Anishinabe Park (1973) to the Native Caravan (1974) to the Temagami, Haida Gwai, Nitassinan (all 1980s) conflicts, through to Oka, Ipperwash, and Gustafson Lake (all 1990s), and then Caledonia, Burnt Church, and the arrest of chief and council of the Kiichenumaykoosib Inninuwug (Big Trout Lake) in the first decade of this century, a thread of state repression runs through the recent history of this supposedly liberal nation. As in Chile, the liberal-democratic Canadian state looks remarkably authoritarian in its approach to indigenous original occupants, never hesitating to use the most draconian powers available to it—from Pinochet-era anti-terrorism laws in Chile to an unprecedented calling-in of the army at Oka in Canada.

Under Stephen Harper’s conservative government (2006–15), the Canadian state accelerated the dispossession of indigenous territory by relaxing requirements for environmental assessment and making it much easier to alienate reserve lands. In prominent international forums, Harper’s ministers denounced the idea that indigenous peoples should have the right to give or deny their consent to extractive development projects on their land. Many indigenous peoples responded to Harper’s policies with mobilization and resistance. The best-known and most widespread of these were the Idle No More rallies of 2012–13. Galvanized by the hunger strike of Chief Theresa Spence, masses of indigenous peoples and their allies occupied public spaces with round dances and other peaceful disruptions throughout the winter.24 The Harper government responded by substantially increasing its efforts to criminalize indigenous land defenders and expanding its surveillance apparatus, forging administrative ties between the federal Indian Affairs Department and the security state in Canada, attempting to discredit all but their sanctioned aboriginal leaders, and ratcheting up police repressive actions.25

Then, in 2015, Justin Trudeau’s liberal government was elected on a platform of hope and change. As a candidate, Trudeau promised a new “nation-to-nation” relationship with indigenous peoples, securing their absolute legal right to say no to resource extraction on their traditional territory. Since the election, his ministers have continued to promise a new approach to indigenous peoples.

However, if we set aside Trudeau’s bold rhetoric and personal charisma, a disturbing truth remains. The Muskrat Falls dam is moving forward without indigenous consent. The same is true of a whole host of other energy extraction projects, including the Site C hydroelectric dam and Kinder-Morgan pipeline expansion in British Columbia. Trudeau and his administration have done nothing to change the fact that Hunter, an indigenous grandmother, must go to jail to defend her land.

The criminalization of indigenous resistance is both the legacy of colonial conquest and an expression of contemporary capitalism’s need for ever-expanding sources of energy and other resources. Indigenous peoples of the Americas remain on the front lines of resistance to the environmental and social costs of this unthinking drive for capital accumulation. The machinery that propels this process is the state, whether in the United States and Canada or in countries of the global South, including Brazil and Chile. Their preferred tool is criminalization, including of spiritual and political indigenous leaders, the bedrock of their communities. It is a deeply depraved economic system in which indigenous grandmothers are routinely imprisoned simply for defending their communities.


  1. John Bellamy Foster and Brett Clark, “Ecological Imperialism: The Curse of Capitalism,” Socialist Register 40 (2004): 186–201.
  2. For a useful recent discussion of the concept of metabolic rift, including responses to critics, see: John Bellamy Foster, “Marx and the Rift in the Universal Metabolism of Nature,” Monthly Review 65, no. 7 (December 2013): 1–19.
  3. Henry Veltmeyer and James Petras, The New Extractivism (London: Zed, 2014).
  4. Tobias Sean Fontecilla, Chile’s Biased Counter-terrorist Laws: The Luchsinger-Mackay Case (Washington, D.C.: Council on Hemispheric Affairs, 2017).
  5. Amnesty International Report 2016/2017: The State of the World’s Human Rights (London: Amnesty International, 2017).
  6. Fontecilla, Chile’s Biased Counter-terrorism Laws.
  7. Joanna Crow, The Mapuche in Modern Chile (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2013).
  8. Patricia Richards, “The Mapuche Movement, the Popular Unity, and the Contemporary Left,” NACLA Report on the Americas 46, no. 3 (2013): 34–38.
  9. Richards, “The Mapuche Movement.”
  10. Justine Ray, Language of the Land: Mapuche in Argentina and Chile (Skive: International Working Group for Indigenous Affairs, 2007).
  11. Human Rights Watch and the Observatorio de Derechos de los Pueblos Indígenas, Undue Process: Terrorism Trials, Military Courts, and the Mapuche in Southern Chile (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2004).
  12. James Anaya, “The Situation of Indigenous Peoples in Chile: Follow-up to the Recommendations Made by the Previous Special Rapporteur,” United Nations General Assembly Human Rights Council, A/HRC/12/34/Add.6 (2009); Rofaldo Stavenhagen, “Report of the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms of Indigenous People, Mr. Rodolfo Stavenhagen, Addendum: Mission to Chile,” United Nations Economic and Social Council Commission on Human Rights, E/CN.4/2004/80/Add.3 (2003).
  13. Jason Tockman, “Surviving the Chilean Economic Miracle,” Cultural Survival Quarterly Magazine 29, no. 2 (2005).
  14. Aldisson Anguita, “The Pewenche People and Hydroelectric Dam Development” Indigenous Affairs 3, no. 4 (1999): 114–19.
  15. Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization, Submission of the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization to the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples—Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples with Respect to their Cultural Heritage (Brussels: UNPO, 2015).
  16. Stavenhagen, “Report of the UN Special Rapporteur on Indigenous Peoples.”
  17. Undue Process, 4, 26.
  18. Stavenhagen, “Report of the UN Special Rapporteur”; Anaya, “Report of the UN Special Rapporteur”; Inter-American Court of Human Rights, Case of Norín Catrimán et al. (Leaders, members and activist of the Mapuche Indigenous People) v. Chile, Judgment of May 29, 2014 (Merits, Reparations and Costs), Series C No. 279.
  19. James Dashuk, Clearing the Plains (Regina: University of Regina Press, 2013).
  20. Sidney Harring, White Man’s Law (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998).
  21. Peter Kulchyski and Frank Tester, Kiumajut (Talking Back) (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2007).
  22. Peter Kulchyski, “‘A Considerable Unrest’: F. O. Loft and the League of Indians,” Native Studies Review 4, nos. 1–2 (1988): 95–117.
  23. Alanis Obamsawin, Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance, directed by Alanis Obamsawin (Ottawa: National Film Board of Canada, 1993), DVD.
  24. Kino-nda-niimi Collective, The Winter We Danced: Voices from the Past, the Future, and the Idle No More Movement (Winnipeg: ARP, 2014).
  25. Russell Diabo and Shiri Pasternak, “Canada Had First Nations Under Surveillance,” First Nations Strategic Bulletin 9, nos. 1–5 (2011): 1–6.
2018, Volume 68, Issue 08 (January 2017)
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