“The right to territorial control”
In early April, Adolfo Millabur, Mapuche mayor of Tirúa in the Biobío region of southern Chile, closed down all entrances to the city as a measure against the Covid-19 pandemic. This decision stemmed from a consultation with 23 Lafkenche communities who are part of the Mapuche people. When asked about the reasons for implementing a complete shut-down, mayor Millabur did not turn to epidemiology, but to sovereignty: “The communities made a determination, and the municipality, with all the councilors, supported it… it’s a sovereign resolution.”1Quotes are translated in Spanish by the authors.
Throughout Chile, Indigenous leaders and communities are closing off their territories during the pandemic, raising challenging and urgent questions about the meaning and methods of disaster risk reduction. Not long before Tirúa closed itself off, Pewenche communities in the Lonquimay territory blocked the international road connecting the Paso Hachado border post to Argentina. At the same time but 2,000 kilometers north, the Consejo de Pueblos Atacameños—the Atacameño Peoples’ Council—shut down the road connecting Calama to San Pedro de Atacama. Several Atacameño communities such as Peine and Machuca followed suit and closed their own entrance roads. Later, in far southern Chile on March 23, the Yagan community of Navarino Island closed-down Villa Ukika. On March 17, the Council of Elders of Rapa Nui (Eastern Island) forced the shut-down of the airport and the cancellation of all flights to and from the island. These diverse communities all shut down in self-imposed quarantines, converging on one crucial action in the wake of the pandemic: To exercise, as expressed by Alvaro Aillapan and Eusebio Huechumpan from the Budi territory, “the right to territorial control.”“Territorial Control resonates both practically and politically with the multiplicity of autonomous actions that Indigenous communities are deploying as a response to the pandemic.”
Territorial Control is not a new concept, nor is it a generic one. It is connected to a vein of Mapuche politics that seeks self-determination by reclaim land usurped by the colonial-capitalist complex.2Fernando Pairican, “Estado plurinacional: el debate mapuche actual,” CIPER, December 20, 2019. Territorial Control is structured by taiñ mapuche gen, which can be roughly translated from Mapudungun (the language of the Mapuche) to “self-determination.”3Miguel Melin Pehuen et al., AZMAPU: Una Aproximación al Sistema Normativo Mapuche desde el Rakizuam y el Derecho Propio (Temuco, Chile: Instituto Nacional de Derechos Humanos, 2016), 15. As a strategy, Territorial Control gained visibility during forestry plantation conflicts in the Araucanía region over the last 30 years, particularly through the actions of the Coordinadora of Arauco Malleco (CAM). Its present-day iteration across Mapuche territory, and other Indigenous communities, reflects diverse local realities, histories, and political configurations. Territorial Control, then, cannot be understood as a general category that informs the political strategies being articulated across settled Chile at this time. However, Territorial Control resonates both practically and politically with the multiplicity of autonomous actions that Indigenous communities are deploying as a response to the pandemic. They all enact, in their political and geographical diversity, a tangible moment, however temporary, of self-determination.
As social science scholars studying disaster risks in Indigenous territories, we borrow Territorial Control as a category to group these acts together and reconsider the history and form of state disaster policies in Chile. However, in asking for “lessons,” scholars may perpetuate the exploitive and strategic relation we have forged with Indigenous knowledge, as discussed by Timothy Neale for the context of fire management in Aboriginal Australia.
Reviewing what Indigenous collectives and intellectuals have said about the government’s actions during the coronavirus pandemic, the exercise of Territorial Control signals the lack of state responses sensitive to rural and Indigenous people. It also seems to mobilize another, more subtle political arc—one that white experts have not accounted for in Disaster Risk Reduction programs and theories: (1) the critical centrality of care in the articulation of Territorial Control, and (2) Territorial Control as a decolonial intervention at large. By operationalizing Territorial Control through and with practices of care and reparation, these actions and stories render visible that Territorial Control is about the retaking of autonomy as much as about what autonomy is, and the possibility of proposing a political otherwise.
Territorial Control may offer an analytical framework to think about how Indigenous leadership understands and exercises Disaster Risk Reduction in times of the Covid-19 pandemic. In addition, despite the discomfort of white experts in Santiago, Territorial Control can inform changes to Chile’s risk prevention system. By front-staging caring practices and sensibilities in the context of the health crisis, Territorial Control also shows what decolonization might mean in neoliberal Chile.
An uncaring state: Historical interventions shape current disaster responses
In past disasters and crises, the Chilean state has at times abandoned Indigenous people, and at other times enabled settler colonial territorial interventions. In the living memory of Indigenous communities, the Chilean dictatorship (1973–1990) and earlier phases of land dispossession mark important moments of violence enabled by state law and government officials.4→José Bengoa, Historia del Pueblo Mapuche (Siglos XIX y XX) (Santiago de Chile: Ediciones Sur, 1985).
→Rolf Foerster, “Sociedad mapuche y sociedad chilena: la deuda histórica,” Polis. Revista Latinoamericana, no. 2 (2002). Indigenous communities have been uncared for. By uncaring we do not refer to absence or cancellation of the acts of improvement, benevolence, and development conducted by the state, which often extend and reinforce colonial relations.5→Tania Murray Li, The Will to Improve: Governmentality, Development and the Practice of Politics (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007).
→Emili Cameron, “Securing Indigenous Politics: A Critique of the Vulnerability and Adaptation Approach to the Human Dimensions of Climate Change in the Canadian Arctic,” Global Environmental Change 22, no. 1 (2012). Nor do we want to overlook state violence, which often accompanies uncare. Rather, we define uncaring as the desertion of the state from its duty to facilitate the cultivation and maintenance of communal networks of sociality, solidarity, and dignity at diverse scales. The uncaring of Indigenous communities in Chile refers to long choreographies of abandonment6Israel Rodríguez-Giralt and Manuel Tironi, “Coreografías del abandono: cuidado y toxicidad en zonas de sacrificio,” in Tóxicos invisibles. La construcción de la ignorancia Ambiental, eds. X. Guillem-Llobat & A. Nieto-Galan (Barcelona: Icaria, forthcoming). in which the state has either abdicated its facilitating duties or intensified carelessness through “support” that only consolidates extractivist and neoliberal fragmentation.
This is particularly true with past health disasters. While the deployment of medical infrastructure in Indigenous territories has been a key component in the unfolding of the settler state, this has not prevented the spread of contagious diseases. Not only has the state been unable to control epidemics, but it, at times, has refused to do so. Contagious disease spread through Mapuche territory as soon as Spanish colonizers disembarked in the sixteenth century. Between 1554 and 1647 at least four epidemic outbreaks of Chevalonko—generic local name for measles, smallpox, and any other fevers brought by the Spanish—decimated the Mapuche population. Some of these epidemics were instrumental in weakening Mapuche resistance against the Spanish crown. In 1884, coinciding with the arrival of the first European colonizers to the Araucania region, a cholera epidemic ravaged Mapuche communities from Chillán to Cautín in the south of the country.7Santiago, Chile: Catalonia, 2020More Info → A couple of years later, a smallpox outbreak annihilated, again, important portions of the Mapuche people. Further south, between 1924 and 1929 two measles epidemics brought by British colonizers, augmented by overcrowding and a forced sedentary lifestyle, killed entire Selk’nam communities.
These pandemics are present in Indigenous memories, as well as the ambivalent ways in which the Chilean state has answered to disasters, biosanitary or otherwise, in their territories. Within this long history of abandonment and uncare, Territorial Control emerges as a powerful correction to Disaster Risk Reduction planning.
Care for communities across temporalities
Territorial Control is articulated around care. Care, to be sure, is not so much about the (feminized) labor of domestic or medical attention as it is about the diverse practices needed to sustain and reproduce the worlds we inhabit with multiple—and sometimes divergent—others.8→Annemarie Mol, Ingunn Moser, and Jeannette Pols, “Care: Putting Practice into Theory,” in Care in Practice: On Tinkering in Clinics, Homes, and Farms, eds. Annemarie Mol, Ingunn Moser, and Jeannette Pols (Bielefeld, Germany: Transcript; Columbia University Press, 2010), 7–25.
→María Puig de la Bellacasa, Matters of Care: Speculative Ethics in More than Human Worlds (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017). Care is about nurturing and mending relations at different scales, particularly in disaster contexts.9→Manuel Tironi and Israel Rodríguez-Giralt, “Healing, Knowing, Enduring: Care and Politics in Damaged Worlds,” Sociological Review 65, no. S2 (2017): 89–109.
→Manuel Tironi, “Hypo-interventions: Intimate Activism in Toxic Environments,” Social Studies of Science 48, no. 3 (2018): 438–455. Territorial Control, as deployed during the pandemic, seems inseparable from this extended solidarity.
Territorial Control is invoked to reduce contagion and lower the stress on municipal health services, but more broadly to care for the community. In Tirúa, a plan to strengthen local commerce was devised to help family businesses as soon as the shutdown was implemented, while the Atacameño Peoples’ Council distributed food boxes to communities in the Atacama La Grande Indigenous Development Area. In the Maihue territory, Williche-Mapuche communities established a cordon sanitaire, organizing shifts and securing collectively the necessary resources.“Indigenous communities in Chile and elsewhere have been struggling for centuries against violence to soils, airs, waters, and forests, beings with full participation in communal life.”
These and other forms of Territorial Control aimed to protect Indigenous territories against the virus, strengthen and visibilize reciprocity within communities, and extend mutual aid—provided that “community,” “aid,” and “mutuality” are predicated upon a panoply of beings and relations not restricted to humans. Indigenous communities in Chile and elsewhere have been struggling for centuries against violence to soils, airs, waters, and forests, beings with full participation in communal life. Illness, according to the practice and ethics of coliving well—in Quechua Sumak Kawsay and Mapudungun Küme Mongen— is causally inseparable from the disrespect to more-than-human community and balance. “The Covid 19 pandemic,” writes Mapuche historian José Quidel Lincoleo, is not “a phenomenon in itself… People have continually transgressed different spaces such as mountains, waters, rivers, lakes, seas, these spaces have been destroyed [and] thereby sacrificing those who lived in those spaces and who supported them. Therefore, the geh (owners) are very angry, sad, and preparing a counteroffensive to teach a lesson to those who have dared to destroy, intervene, violate these spaces.” Indeed, throughout much of southern Chile, extractive projects like hydropower and aquaculture are harming Mapuche sacred sites, disrupting fragile human-spiritual balances.10Sarah Kelly, “Megawatts Mask Impacts: Small Hydropower and Knowledge Politics in the Puelwillimapu, Southern Chile,” Energy Research & Social Science 54 (August 2019): 224–235.
In contrast, care for community entails, beyond the present, care for multiple temporalities. As Daniel López discusses, the government’s survivalist approach to the pandemic—by which the public health priority is a hospital-located fight against the virus to save lives—transpires a blatant ageism against older people that, as “immuno-deficient” subjects, are rendered expendable in productive-oriented, triage-based strategies.
Disrupting this biopolitics, Indigenous communities place care for their elders at the center of Territorial Control. What fuels this prioritization is not benevolence toward the fragility of the elder, but the ontological need for the continuity of modes of dwelling, knowing, and doing. Caring for elders is not pity but caring for perseverance: Lives and relations that can only continue into the future if nurtured by the past—which is therefore never behind, but always in-here and in-front. As Huilliche Lafkenche communities explained when they announced their Territorial Control: “For our Mapuche Huilliche Pueblo of the Futahuillimapu, this health emergency presents a threat to our Küme Mongen and it brings to us the memory of our ancestors succumbing to these epidemics without having the possibility to prevent and protect themselves from this catastrophe.” They, as well as multiple other territories, have requested specific resources, such as free transportation for their elderly community members to go collect their monthly pensions in-person in nearby cities and towns.
The Yaghan community of Bahía Mejillones also made explicit the need to care for the elders as bearers of ancestral and community knowledge. As the community expressed, in their case it is particularly important to care for 92-year-old Cristina Calderón, “the last native speaker of our people, a language that as a community we are in the process of recovering together with our cultural heritage.”
The centrality of the elder in Indigenous political and cultural life is well-known. What we want to emphasize is the radical disruption that care for older people entails for how Disaster Risk Reduction formulates the temporality of disasters. In the Covid-19 pandemic, action and imagination is either projected into a data-created future construed as a negative horizon (a future that is to be avoided) or forced into an emergency-driven and medically-oriented present—articulated as health discipline.
In contrast, as López suggests, care practices are “made of multiple temporalities that count, affect, make us doubt but also act.” By caring for the elders, Territorial Control is also care for a temporality(ies) that adds and restores, goes further and back, that intensifies and expands, a temporality that, as suggested by Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui, fits uncomfortably within “post” and “pre” narratives. It is a temporality in which “the past-future are contained in the present: regression or progression, repetition or overcoming the past are at stake at every juncture and depend on our actions rather than our words.”11Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui, Ch’ixinakax utxiwa: Una reflexión sobre prácticas y discursos descolonizadores (Buenos Aires: Tinta Limón, 2010), 55.
Decolonizing Disaster Risk Reduction
From the perspective of Disaster Risk Reduction, Territorial Control interrupts not only the life-and-death logic of emergency-oriented interventionism, but also centuries of abandonment and uncare. As care for community, perseverance, and past-present-futures, Territorial Control emerges in sharp contrast to official calls for confinement and social distance, which systematically individualize responsibility and blame. The settler state utilizes power to isolate and triage, often employing the vocabulary of emergency and war, and it enforces health measures focused on individual immunological systems. Through Territorial Control, Indigenous collectives rehearse a mode of Disaster Risk Reduction based on the opposite—codependence, cyclical time, solidarity, and extended relationality.
What might be different if the Chilean government followed the careful approach exercised by Territorial Control? What could Disaster Risk Reduction look like if local territories held more autonomy to make decisions for their territories, particularly in moments of disaster? Probably many things, especially considering that as we write this text, contagion in Chile is peaking and the working poor in Santiago and Osorno, among other places, are breaking the quarantine, shouting: “We are hungry.”“The challenge is not to enhance existing models with supplemental Indigenous knowledge, but to reimagine these models anew.”
But as important as these questions are, they may not do justice to what is at stake. First, after centuries of abandonment and colonial violence, Indigenous people may very well just withdraw rather than endure further extractivist injustice in the form of extracted knowledge. And second, the urgent question is not what strategy is more effective—which would require a common object of concern—but to what extent Disaster Risk Reduction programs can embrace divergent definitions of “crisis,” “time,” “nature,” “person,” and “life”—and the role care plays in their intervention. This is perhaps the lesson of Territorial Control: To find more care-full ways of managing crisis and to help repair, somehow, centuries of settler aggression, the Disaster Risk Reduction system has to establish a meaningful dialogue with Indigenous collectives, recognizing that Indigenous people have complex and holistic understandings of disasters in their territories. The challenge is not to enhance existing models with supplemental Indigenous knowledge, but to reimagine these models anew.
Banner photo credit: John Englart/Flickr
→Rolf Foerster, “Sociedad mapuche y sociedad chilena: la deuda histórica,” Polis. Revista Latinoamericana, no. 2 (2002).
→Emili Cameron, “Securing Indigenous Politics: A Critique of the Vulnerability and Adaptation Approach to the Human Dimensions of Climate Change in the Canadian Arctic,” Global Environmental Change 22, no. 1 (2012).
→María Puig de la Bellacasa, Matters of Care: Speculative Ethics in More than Human Worlds (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017).
→Manuel Tironi, “Hypo-interventions: Intimate Activism in Toxic Environments,” Social Studies of Science 48, no. 3 (2018): 438–455.