How Mapuche communities in Chile work toward sustainable agriculture

Mapuche communities in Chile are showing that the knowledge of their elders may hold the key to a sustainable future.

by Francisco Parra Galaz 

This story is supported by the Solutions Journalism Network LEDE Fellowship.

Cirilo Quidel is neatly arranging big green leaves of lettuce, chard, and leeks on the table. A lady stops by, picks up a zucchini so big that it doesn’t fit in her hand. There are about 20 stands filed against the wall of a school, in the heart of Temuco, the capital of the La Araucanía region in Chile. In this fair, members of the Mapuche communities sell freshly harvested vegetables, cheese, honey, jams, and original Mapuche crafts. 

Cirilo hands me a warm maté— a herbal infusion typical of the area — as he tells me they had to install accumulators in a ditch to save as much water as possible. Every January, for a couple of years now, they have run out of water. For a decade, Chile has been living in what researchers at the Center for Climate and Resilience Research have called a mega-drought.

“The pine and eucalyptus plantations have spoiled the soil and that has repercussions everywhere. We almost have no native trees anymore. The authorities are to be blamed for it. The forest industry has killed the land, they dry the underground layers and harm communities, we all know that” Cirilo says. 

Cirilo joins the different Mapuche communities who were gathered by Ad Kimun (which means “essence of knowledge” in the native language Mapudungun), an organisation that works with Mapuche communities spread over three regions of Chile, carrying out activities such as the fair, meetings, and supporting the implementation of agroecology.

Valentina Torres Huenchucura, a young agronomist and the main organiser of the initiative, says that agroecology — the study of ecological processes that are applied to agricultural production — is at the centre of the fair. She is part of a generation of young Mapuche professionals who, after studying at university, returned to their hometowns to combine the new knowledge with that of her elders. 

“The fundamental factor is the wisdom and ancestral knowledge of our people,” she says.“There are old tactics that ensure food is produced cleanly, unlike the Green Revolution or what is promoted here in Chile by the Ministry of Agriculture, which is the use of agrochemicals that are super harmful.”

Ad Kimun works with Mapuche communities spread over three regions of Chile to carry out activities that promote agroecology. © Ad Kimun

The story of Mapuche 

The Mapuche agriculture has suffered great changes since the 1970s, with the “Green Revolution”, the use of “improved seeds,” fertilisers, pesticides, and the neoliberal economic model imposed by Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship in Chile. 

It is estimated that about 200 thousand hectares of native forests were replaced by pine and eucalyptus plantations at that time. René Montalva, an academic from the University of La Frontera studied the subject and defined the impacts of forest subsidies: “Large and concentrated extensions of pine and eucalyptus have been associated with a series of negative externalities that outweigh the possible environmental benefits they may have: the destruction of native forest, decrease in biodiversity, surface and groundwater sources, health problems, water pollution, and soil degradation.”

In Tirúa, a town near the Quidico river, facing the Pacific Ocean, there is a community called the Miguel Yevilao, which has made agroecology their response to the impacts of the climate crisis and water scarcity. “The forest plantations are next door. We’ve been cornered for a long time. I think their objective is to throw us into the sea,” says Segundo Yevilao, leader of the community, as he laughs. 

He recalls how they got here in the 1980s and adds that since the 2000s the drought has only been increasing. “These changes in the climate are a consequence of the extractivism that happens when natural resources are looted in this manner,” he says.  

Segundo explains that what is labelled today as agroecology, organic, sustainable, or environment-friendly is what the Mapuche people have always done. “What we do is based on our history, what past generations have always done,”  he says. “We are only rescuing ancient practices.”  

The Mapuche, like many indigenous communities in the world, observed the stars, studied the seasons and made agriculture a fundamental part of their religion, of their connection to the earth. They named “pukmngen” as the time of rains (winter), “pewungen” the time of the shoots (spring), “walung” the time of abundance and harvest (summer), and “rimu” the time of rest (autumn). Historically, this kind of knowledge was passed on to the new generations by the women. For them, working in and with the land is a way to connect with your ancestors. 

What we do is based on our history, what past generations have always done, We are only rescuing ancient practices.”  

Segundo Yevilao

Looking to indigenous agriculture

In the Miguel Yevilao community, people plant vegetables as well as flowers and medicinal herbs. The layout of the garden has a logic of protection, using the larger plantations as a shelter for the smaller ones, preventing the entry of wind currents that could cause damage. 

To fertilise the land locals use products of animal origin, and sometimes some marine algae from the area, the “kolloy” or cochayuyo, as it is known in Chile. They also do crop rotations (not repeating a species in a new cycle) to avoid diseases and pests. A few years ago, they began to establish contour lines on slopes so that the water does not drain and enter the underground layers. 

There are multiple agroecological techniques in the Mapuche orchards and they vary according to the territory, whether they are: Lafkenche (seafarers) or Pehuenche (mountain people). The main difference between these techniques is due to the different conditions of the soil, climate and food, among others. For example, the Lafkenche community can use marine algae for fertilisation whereas the Pehuenche cannot.

Héctor Manosalva, an anthropologist, came to the Miguel Yavileo community through a state programme to support the incorporation of agrology. Among other things, the programme used fungal pest control, which was well received by the community “because it did not harm the ‘ñuke’ (Mother Earth) or the plants. They considered the fungus as an ally and were very open to incorporate it into their knowledge”. 

For him, Mapuche agriculture today is the result of a long process of using technical methods in the countryside as well as employing public policies aimed at developing market agriculture. “It was a forced process, the communities were never consulted,” he explains. The Mapuche also have to deal with a socio-political conflict within Chile along with confronting the impacts of climate change. However, Mapuche agriculture has adapted and survived. 

Manosalva believes that the agroecology practised by communities like Miguel Yevileo is a successful response to the impacts of the climate crisis. “Agricultural knowledge is an accumulation of knowledge. The trial and error they have made is proof of the resilience they have to what we are experiencing right now. It is something that I could see on the ground that worked,” he says, emphasising that the most important thing is the local context where it develops. 

In 2018, the Chilean Agricultural and Livestock Service (Servicio Agrícola y Ganadero) granted the Miguel Yevilao community an organic agriculture accreditation, the first to be given to an indigenous community. 

The layout of the garden in the Miguel Yevilao has a logic of protection, using the larger plantations as a shelter for the smaller ones, from wind currents and damage. © Segundo Yevilao

Participation is the key 

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) special report on Climate Change and Land, published in 2019, says that the use of land for agricultural purposes generates 23% of anthropogenic greenhouse gases. The report which compiles all the scientific evidence on the subject remarks that “the promise of efficient agriculture has not been kept”, warns about the impact it has had on indigenous communities around the world and presents agroecology as a solution that can help our planet adapt to climate change and concurrently deliver multiple benefits. 

International organisations have long given importance to the role of indigenous peoples in the future of the planet. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) classify them as “essential guardians of the environment”: while they represent only 5% of the world’s population, their territories cover 22% of the world’s land area, a third of the forests, and 80% of the biodiversity of the planet. Food grown by indigenous peoples, according to the UN agency, is climate-resilient and an important source of nutrients.  

Although FAO promotes “food security”, local organisations like Ad Kimun prefer the term “food sovereignty,” explains Valentina Torres.“ We want to strengthen networks. By introducing other ways of socialising or marketing locally, we want to strengthen spaces of social and solidarity economy,” she adds.  

Rosario Carmona is finishing her doctoral thesis in anthropology at the University of Bonn on climate change policies and indigenous people in Chile. As a researcher at the Center for Intercultural and Indigenous Studies (CIIR), she wrote a policy brief on how to incorporate indigenous people in Chile to the discussion of the Framework Law on Climate Change, which is currently being discussed in the Senate. It does not consider the nine indigenous peoples of the country, in their vulnerability or their knowledge. 

“It is not about idealising or saying that indigenous peoples in Chile have better knowledge. But many of them have developed ways of relating to the environment that can be very sustainable and can provide effective responses to tackle climate change,” says the researcher. 

Many indigenous communities require institutional support that is not always given, says Carmona, because “the knowledge they have of ecosystem management is overlooked by public policies, which impose their approach based on productive development, and relegates indigenous knowledge to a cultural issue.” 

“It is not about idealising or saying that indigenous peoples in Chile have better knowledge. But many of them have developed ways of relating to the environment that can be very sustainable and can provide effective responses to tackle climate change.”

Rosario Carmona

Camila Millacaray and Guillernaldo Lienqueo are a young Mapuche couple from Padre de las Casas. At the fair organised by Ad Kimun, they sell jars of honey, produced by their bee crops. 

“Indap (Chilean Institute of Agricultural Development) subsidises communities with crops, seeds and chemical fallows. When the bees come in contact with those chemicals, they become sick. Every year we lose a colony of bees and so we don’t trust them. They like to intervene in our ways of doing things,” says Camila, as she separates organic seeds and puts them in small bags that she has for sale. 

They, unlike other farmers who are part of the fair, are not part of any state programme. Guillernaldo explains that they reject “those professionals with their nice titles, phones and PowerPoints who are putting ideas in our peoples’ minds.” 

“They call us crazy because we don’t use glyphosate. But that thing is a poison, it gives people cancer,” adds Camila. 

For Rosario, there are public policies in Chile that “are playing backwards,” which makes everything more difficult when they involve a historically ignored and violated population. For this reason, she insists that participation is the key. Indigenous communities have suffered changes, just as their territories have after centuries of extractivism. 

“Everything has to be analysed on a case-by-case basis. Climate policies have to be  flexible and need to analyse local realities because not all ecosystems suffer from the same pressures. Perhaps indigenous knowledge will not provide a magic solution but it should be included in the discussion.” 

The produce at the Miguel Yevilao community. There are multiple agroecological techniques in the Mapuche orchards and they vary according to the territory, whether they are “lafkenche” (seafarers) or “pehuenche” (mountain people). © Segundo Yevilao

Listening to local communities

In Pedregoso, Lonquimay, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) developed a project that seeks to enhance the food sovereignty of 26 families, together with the Ministry of the Environment of Chile and with finance from the Green Environmental Fund (GEF). Rosario says this was done the right way, by listening to the needs of the communities. 

“There are families that have developed gardens that were not possible before in that ecosystem. These types of processes work when the community is so involved that it feels that the project is their own and they have had a voice and vote. The most important thing is the involvement of local communities of civil society who have a certain degree of attachment to the territory.”  

Anthropologist Héctor Manosalva says that the situation was similar in Tirúa. “There was a specific demand from the community. They did not want to continue with the policies of Indap and the agrochemicals. We made a ‘dialogue of knowledge’, a communication process where they explained their needs, their knowledge, and we did as well. The idea was a mutual understanding and seeing how the project can work, recognising the Mapuche knowledge and that our knowledge, as professionals, was there to support them”. 

If there is something that prevents replicating this experience in other places, it is that there is no awareness or willingness to listen by politicians, says Manosalva. “But the Earth is shaking us and telling us that we must work together to solve this.” 

Community leader Segundo Yevileo says that, over the years, they learned “not to receive everything that is designed from above.” Now they work with state programmes, but he adds: “There should be a negotiation. We decide if we want to work together and they adapt to our needs.” 

The key, he says, is in production costs, because in the medium term, conventional production is unsustainable. “More so today, with agricultural inputs that come from abroad and the rise in prices,” he explains. “Today, more than ever, what we do — produce fertiliser, protect seeds — becomes important. I am confident that it can be replicated in other territories.”

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