On Chile’s rivers, indigenous spirituality and development collide – Winnipeg Free Press

MELIPEUCO, Chile (AP) — Mist suddenly rose from the Truful Truful River as it flowed beneath the snow-capped Llaima Volcano, and Victor Curin smiled at the sun-dappled stream of water.

Leader of one of the indigenous communities located on the banks of the river in the Chilean Andes, Curin took it as a sign that the ngen of the waterfall – his spirit owner and protector – approved his visit and his prayer this mid-July morning.

“Nature is always telling you something, always responding,” said Curin, who works as a ranger in Conguillio National Park at the source of the river. “Human beings feel superior to the space they go to, but for us Mapuche, I belong to the land, the land does not belong to me.”

Millaray Huichalaf, a Mapuche machi, or healer and spiritual guide, poses for a portrait in the Pilmaiquen River silhouetted by lights from the construction site of a hydroelectric power plant in Carimallin, southern Chile, Monday, June 27, 2022. Huichalaf led a sometimes violent battle against hydroelectric power stations on the Pilmaiquen, which flows through rolling pastures from a lake in the Andean foothills. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

In the worldview of the Mapuche, Chile’s largest indigenous group and more than 10% of its population, a pristine river harbors a spiritual force to be revered, not a natural resource to be exploited.

This has led many Mapuche across water-rich southern Chile to fight against hydroelectric plants and other projects they see as desecrating nature and depriving indigenous communities of essential energies that keep them from falling. sick.

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


About 200 miles to the south, another machi, Millaray Huichalaf, fought a sometimes violent battle against hydroelectric power stations on the Pilmaiquen River, which flows through the rolling pastures of a lake in the foothills of the Andes.

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

But construction continues on another factory, so the fight isn’t over – just like it is on the Truful Truful, where a factory project is under consideration.

“As we fight for the river, we are reclaiming our territory and rebuilding spiritually,” Huichalaf said as a thunderstorm hit his wooden cabin.

It is on the issue of indigenous land rights, a volatile issue in Chilean politics, that spirituality becomes entangled with ideology. Several Mapuche leaders say that the spirits appearing in dreams encourage the fight against capitalism.

Next month, Chileans will vote on a controversial new constitution highlighting indigenous rights and land restitution. But they also face growing attacks on agriculture, forestry and energy industries, especially in the Araucania region.

For most Mapuche, such violence further destabilizes the balance sought between people, the natural space to which they belong and the spirits that inhabit it. A first step against this is ensuring that non-Indigenous people understand the importance of nature to the Mapuche, said indigenous leader and mediator Andrés Antivil Álvarez.

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


The reverence of members of the Mapuche community is evident as they walk along rivers like the Truful Truful, whose name means “from waterfall to waterfall” in the Mapudungun language.

Not asking the ngen for permission to approach the water, or explaining the need to do so, Ayenao said near the main river waterfall, means transgressing space, alienating the spirits that protect it. and sicken you, your family and even your pets.

But if the ngen permits, then Ayenao can use the distinctive “energetic power” of falling water for healing purposes.

After nearly a decade of multiple environmental and cultural assessments, as well as legal appeals, a new hydroelectric plant right next to the waterfall has been temporarily blocked in court. The community hopes a final ruling will permanently derail the project, said Sergio Millaman, the lawyer who won the final 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, a specialist lawyer. in water regulation and management. However, it is unclear how a new constitution might change this or apply to hydroelectric projects.


A fierce battle under Huichalaf’s leadership began ten years ago to stop three such factories on the Pilmaiquen River. She started dreaming of Kintuantü, a ngen living near a wide bend in the river.

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

A plant is said to have raised the river to the cliffside caves where the ngen lives. At the top of the cliff is a Mapuche ceremonial complex, including a cemetery, from where souls are believed to travel via underground water through the caves, into the Pilmaiquen and to eventual reincarnation.

Huichalaf was leading an occupation there. A private house burned down and protesters clashed with police. Further protests and lawsuits followed, dividing indigenous communities around the river, and Huichalaf was imprisoned for several months.

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

González said the company understood the importance of involving indigenous communities and is doing just that with the construction of another plant on the Pilmaiquen, while condemning ongoing violence against its workers .

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


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

“Why is the Mapuche world fighting? What does the Mapuche world protect? Not a money world,” he said. “The Mapuche culture is very spiritual, very heart-centered. It is no coincidence that we are still here.

Then he knelt down to sip water from the river and returned to his post as ranger.


Associated Press religious coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.

Christy J. Olson