On Chile rivers, Native spirituality and development clash

MELIPEUCO, Chile (AP) — Mist suddenly arose from the Truful Truful River as it flowed below the snow-covered Llaima volcano, and Victor Curin smiled at the sun-dappled water spray.

A leader in one of the Indigenous communities by the river’s shores in the Chilean Andes, Curin took it as a sign that the waterfall’s ngen — its owner and protector spirit — approved of his visit and prayer that mid-July morning.

“Nature always tells you something, always answers,” said Curin, who works as a park ranger in Conguillio National Park, at the river’s headwaters. “Human beings feel superior to the space where they go, but for us Mapuche, I belong to the earth, the earth doesn’t belong to me.”

In the worldview of the Mapuche, Chile’s largest Indigenous group and more than 10% of its population, a pristine river is home to a spiritual force to revere, not a natural resource to exploit.

That has led many Mapuche across Chile’s water-rich south to fight hydroelectric plants and other projects they see as desecrating nature and depriving Indigenous communities of essential energies that keep them from getting sick.

“Being part of nature, we cannot destroy part of ourselves,” said Lientur Ayenao, a machi or healer and spiritual guide who draws water from the Truful Truful for his ceremonies.

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Some 200 miles to the south, another machi, Millaray Huichalaf, has led a sometimes-violent battle against hydroelectric plants on the Pilmaiquen River, which flows through rolling pastures from a lake in the Andes’ foothills.

After her resistance and cultural consultations with Indigenous communities, an energy company froze plans for a plant by a riverside sacred site and said it would return ownership of the land to the Mapuche.

But construction is continuing on another plant, so the fight isn’t over — just as it isn’t on the Truful Truful, where a proposed plant is under review.

“At the same time as we’re fighting for the river, we’re in the process of territorial recovery and spiritual reconstruction,” Huichalaf said as a thunderstorm pounded her wooden cabin.

It’s on the question of rights over Indigenous land, a volatile issue in Chile’s politics, that spirituality gets entangled with ideology. Several Mapuche leaders say spirits appearing in dreams encourage the fight against capitalism.

Next month, Chileans will vote on a new and controversial constitution spotlighting Indigenous rights and land restitution. But they’re also dealing with growing attacks against agricultural, logging and energy industries, particularly in the Araucania region.

For most Mapuche, such violence further destabilizes the desired balance between people, the natural space they belong to and the spirits that inhabit it. A first step against it is to ensure non-Natives understand how nature matters to the Mapuche, Indigenous leader and mediator Andrés Antivil Álvarez said.

“The world is not loot,” he said sitting by the fire in his ruka, a traditional building outside his house. “You have to understand that the spirit of this fire, present here, is as sacred as the Christ in a church.”

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Mapuche community members’ reverence is evident when they walk alongside rivers like the Truful Truful, whose name means “from waterfall to waterfall” in the Mapudungun language.

Failure to ask the ngen’s permission to approach the water, or to explain the need to do so, Ayenao said by the river’s main waterfall, means transgressing on the space, alienating the spirits protecting it and making you, your family and even your animals sick.

But if the ngen permits it, then Ayenao can use the falling water’s distinctive “energy power” for healing purposes.

After nearly a decade of multiple environmental and cultural evaluations, as well as legal appeals, a new hydroelectric plant right by the waterfall has been temporarily blocked in court. The community hopes a final ruling will definitively scuttle the project, said Sergio Millaman, the attorney who won the latest appeal.

In April, Chile’s water code was updated to better protect various rights including the use of water at its source for conservation or ancestral customs, said Juan José Crocco, an attorney specializing in water regulation and management. It’s unclear how a new constitution might alter that or apply to hydroelectric projects, however.

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A bitter battle under Huichalaf’s leadership started a decade ago to stop three such plants on the Pilmaiquen River. She began having dreams about Kintuantü, a ngen living by a broad river bend.

“Kintuantü told me that I had to speak for him because he was dying,” Huichalaf said.

A plant would have raised the river right to the cliffside caves where the ngen lives. Atop the cliff is a Mapuche ceremonial compound, including a cemetery, from where souls are believed to travel via underground water flows through the caves, into the Pilmaiquen and on to eventual reincarnation.

Huichalaf led an occupation there. A private home burned down, and protesters clashed with police. More protests and lawsuits followed, dividing the Indigenous communities around the river, and Huichalaf was jailed for several months.

Now Statkraft, the Norwegian state-owned energy company that bought the Pilmaiquen projects, is working with the Chilean government to return ownership of the ceremonial compound, said its Chile manager, María Teresa González.

González said the company learned the importance of engaging Indigenous communities and it’s doing just that with another plant being constructed on the Pilmaiquen, while condemning ongoing violence against its workers.

For Huichalaf, the fight continues: “Our big goal is that the companies on the river will leave.”

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Back on the black volcanic field crossed by the Truful Truful, Curin defined his people’s goal in more essential terms.

“What does the Mapuche world fight for? What does the Mapuche world protect? Not a world of money,” he said. “Mapuche culture is very spiritual, very much of the heart. It’s not random that we’re still here.”

Then he knelt to sip from the river’s water and got back to his park ranger post.

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