Airport Divides Government and Mapuches
By Daniela Estrada*
groups are fighting to halt construction of a new airport in the
Chilean region of Araucanía. It is one of President Bachelet's biggest
SANTIAGO, Nov 27 (Tierramérica) - The Chilean
government wants the inauguration of the future international airport
in the 9th region to mark the country's bicentennial in 2010. But
some 500 Mapuche families oppose construction of the terminal because
of potential social and environmental harm.
On Nov. 15 the governmental Regional Environmental Commission (COREMA)
of the 9th region of Araucanía approved with 12 votes in favor,
four against -- cast by the community delegates -- and one abstention,
the environmental impact study for the airport that is to be built
in the southern city of Freire.
In 2007 the plan is to expropriate 495 hectares in the town of Huilquilco
and hold an international bidding process for construction. Work
would begin in 2008, and is slated for completion in 2010. On Sep.
18, 2010, Chile will celebrate the 200th anniversary of the country's
independence from Spain, and the airport would be one of the main
"bicentennial works" initiated by the previous administration, of
Ricardo Lagos, and carried through by the government of Michelle
"This project is intended to provide the Araucianía region with
an airport of international status, generating equitability in the
country's development," Marco Antonio Vásquez, regional secretary
of public works, told Tierramérica.
The new air terminal, which would replace the Maquehue airport --
more than 20 km away --, is to include a 5,000 square meter building
and a runway 2,440 meters long, expandable to 3,200 meters. Private
investment is estimated at 50 million dollars.
According to Vásquez, passenger demand will significantly increase
before 2010, and Maquehue, whose runway is 1,700 meters long, cannot
be improved to meet the need. In addition to hills and being affected
by fog, an extension of the runway would mean expropriating land
from the Mapuches, the country's largest indigenous group.
The 9th region, 600 km south of Santiago, is home to 23.5 percent
of the 604,349 Mapuches in Chile.
The site chosen for the new airport is just 15 km from the regional
capital, Temuco, is near the area's major highway, and the 12 families
who own the land are not members of that indigenous group.
Nevertheless, eight Mapuche communities -- of the 23 near the future
airport -- formed the group Ayún Mapu (Joyful Land, in the Mapuzungun
language) to coordinate opposition to the draft project presented
by the government.
They refuse to be subjected to the noise pollution and emissions
from the airplanes, and they believe the approved environmental
impact study did not include all of the tests necessary to assess
the real economic, social and cultural impacts of the project.
"COREMA voted for the environmental impact study of the initial
project, which lacks hydro-geological, acoustic, soil and water
analyses," Ayún Mapu spokesman Richard Caifal told Tierramérica.
The mayor of Freire, María Gricelda Campos, agrees. "I asked the
intendent of the 9th region (Eduardo Klein) directly why there was
a draft project and not a full project, and he said that the airport
would be built with or without them," she told Tierramérica.
But Vásquez said the environmental impact study includes all the
required analyses and that the company that wins the bidding process
will have to draw up the definitive plan. The airport will have
to be certified according to ISO 14.001 standards and the concession-holder
will assume all liability for possible damages.
There will be no economic compensation, but rather an "integrated
territorial development plan in the airport's zone of influence,"
where -- regardless of what the concession-holder does -- all public
services will be made available to the 5,000 people who live in
the 23 communities, who live an average of 1,500 meters from the
site of the air terminal.
According to the mayor of Freire, a town of 8,000 people, the airport
will cause the Pelales marsh to flood, will hurt the farmers who
raise beef cattle and dairy cows -- "which will be forced off their
organic pastures" -- and will leave a hundred families without work
"The Mapuches will have to conduct their religious ceremonies with
airplanes flying overhead," said Mayor Campos. In addition, four
months ago the Fermín Manquilef community began to apply for titles
of ownership in the area.
Campos exhorted officials to reform the 1994 general law on the
environment, which allows the government to be "judge and party"
to the economic impact studies. "We proposed four other sites in
Freire where the airport wouldn't generate these problems, but they
opted for the most economical," said the mayor.
Ayún Mapu will present a petition against the COREMA decision, a
stay for protection with the Chilean courts, and another with the
Inter-American Court of Human Rights.
They are hesitant to announce more radical measures. "The communities
are intimidated, since any demonstration by Mapuches is categorized
as a terrorist act," said Ayún Mapu's Caifal.
* Daniela Estrada is an IPS correspondent.