On Chile rivers, Native spirituality and development clash

Aug 19, 2022, 9:11 AM | Updated: 9:25 pm
Millaray Huichalaf, a Mapuche machi, or healer and spiritual guide, poses for a portrait in the Pil...

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 plant in Carimallin, southern Chile, on Monday, June 27, 2022. Huichalaf has led a sometimes-violent battle against hydroelectric plants on the Pilmaiquen, which flows through rolling pastures from a lake in the Andean foothills. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

(AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

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.

___

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.”

___

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.

___

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.”

___

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.

___

Associated Press religion 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.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

AP

Associated Press

Cardinal Zen, 5 others stand trial in Hong Kong over fund

HONG KONG (AP) — A 90-year-old Catholic cardinal and five others stood trial in Hong Kong on Monday for allegedly failing to register a now-defunct fund set up to assist people arrested in the mass anti-government protests in the city three years ago. Cardinal Joseph Zen, who is a retired bishop of Hong Kong, was […]
21 hours ago
A currency trader walks near the screen showing the Korea Composite Stock Price Index (KOSPI) at a ...
Associated Press

Asian shares mostly decline echoing US slide on rate worries

TOKYO (AP) — Asian shares were mostly lower Monday, reflecting pessimism over weakness on Wall Street as the squeeze by central banks around the world to curb inflation weighs on investor sentiment. Japan’s benchmark Nikkei 225 dropped 2.1% in morning trading to 26,587.08. Australia’s S&P/ASX 200 dipped 1.3% to 6,489.80. South Korea’s Kospi dropped 2.4% […]
21 hours ago
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern arrives with her husband Clarke Gayford and daughter Neve...
Associated Press

New Zealand marks queen’s death with holiday, church service

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — New Zealand on Monday marked the death of Queen Elizabeth II with a public holiday, a moment of silence and an official memorial service. The South Pacific nation is among 14 outside of the United Kingdom that continue to recognize the British monarch as their symbolic head of state. New […]
21 hours ago
U.S. aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan leaves from a port in Busan, South Korea, Monday, Sept. 26,...
Associated Press

US carrier, S. Korea ships launch drills amid North’s threat

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — A U.S. aircraft carrier and its battle group launched drills with South Korean warships off the Korean Peninsula’s east coast on Monday in their first such training in five years, a day after North Korea test-fired a short-range ballistic missile in a possible response to the exercise. North Korea could […]
21 hours ago
Rains start to pour as Typhoon Noru approaches Manila, Philippines, Sunday, Sept. 25, 2022. The pow...
Associated Press

Powerful typhoon leaves 5 rescuers dead in north Philippines

MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Typhoon Noru blew out of the northern Philippines on Monday, leaving five rescuers dead, causing floods and power outages and forcing officials to suspend classes and government work in the capital and outlying provinces. The most powerful typhoon to hit the country this year slammed into the coast in Burdeos town […]
21 hours ago
FILE - Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, left, and Japanese Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka toast each other...
Associated Press

Japanese leader’s trip to China in ’72 was diplomatic gamble

TOKYO (AP) — The Japanese leader who normalized relations with China 50 years ago feared for his life when he flew to Beijing for the high-stakes negotiations at the height of the Cold War, according to his daughter, a former Japanese foreign minister. Kakuei Tanaka’s mission to normalize relations with China just two months after […]
21 hours ago

Sponsored Articles

Anacortes Christmas Tree...

Come one, come all! Food, Drink, and Coastal Christmas – Anacortes has it all!

Come celebrate Anacortes’ 11th annual Bier on the Pier! Bier on the Pier takes place on October 7th and 8th and features local ciders, food trucks and live music - not to mention the beautiful views of the Guemes Channel and backdrop of downtown Anacortes.
Swedish Cyberknife Treatment...

The revolutionary treatment of Swedish CyberKnife provides better quality of life for majority of patients

There are a wide variety of treatments options available for men with prostate cancer. One of the most technologically advanced treatment options in the Pacific Northwest is Stereotactic Body Radiation Therapy using the CyberKnife platform at Swedish Medical Center.
Work at Zum Services...

Seattle Public Schools announces three-year contract with Zum

Seattle Public Schools just announced a three-year contract with a brand-new company to the Pacific Northwest to assist with their student transportation: Zum.
Swedish Cyberknife 900x506...

June is Men’s Health Month: Here’s Why It’s Important To Speak About Your Health

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, men in the United States, on average, die five years earlier than women.
...

Anacortes – A Must Visit Summertime Destination

While Anacortes is certainly on the way to the San Juan Islands (SJI), it is not just a destination to get to the ferry… Anacortes is a destination in and of itself!
...

Ready for your 2022 Alaskan Adventure with Celebrity Cruises?

Celebrity Cruises SPONSORED — A round-trip Alaska cruise from Seattle is an amazing treat for you and a loved one. Not only are you able to see and explore some of the most incredible and visually appealing natural sights on the planet, but you’re also able to relax and re-energize while aboard a luxury cruise […]
On Chile rivers, Native spirituality and development clash