In the rivers of Chile, spirituality and development collide

Fog suddenly arose from the Truful Truful river as it flowed under the snow-covered Llaima volcano. Victor Curin smiled when he saw the drops of dew illuminated by the sun.

A leader of one of the indigenous communities on the banks of the river in the Chilean Andes, Curin took it as a sign that the “ngen” of the waterfall—his owner and protective spirit—approved his visit and his prayer on that mid-morning. of July.

“Nature is always going to tell you something, it always responds,” said Curin, who works as a forest ranger in the Conguillío National Park, at the head of the river. “The human being feels superior to the space where he goes, but for the Mapuche, I belong to the land, the land does not belong to me.”

In the worldview of the Mapuche, Chile’s largest indigenous group constituting 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 pushed many Mapuche across water-rich southern Chile to fight hydroelectric plants and other projects they see as desecrating nature and depriving indigenous communities of essential energy that keeps 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. “The balance has to be maintained, and this is broken when intervening in natural spaces for a selfish purpose.”


Some 200 miles to the south, another machi, Millaray Huichalaf, has led a sometimes violent battle against hydroelectric plants on the Pilmaiquén River, which flows through rolling grasslands from a lake at the foot of the Andes.

Following their resistance and cultural consultations with indigenous communities, an energy company froze plans to build a plant next to a sacred riverside site, saying it would return ownership of the land to the Mapuche.

However, construction is continuing on another floor, so the fight is not over, just like at Truful Truful, where a proposed floor is under review.

“I am the river too, we are sacred like the river,” Huichalaf said as a storm battered his wooden hut. “Along with fighting for the river, we are in processes of territorial recovery and spiritual reconstruction.”

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 that appear in dreams encourage the fight against capitalism in their ancestral territory.

Next month, Chileans will vote on a controversial new constitution that highlights indigenous rights and land restitution. But they are also dealing with increasing violent attacks on the agricultural, timber and energy industries, particularly in the Araucanía region, including by some groups claiming ancestral Mapuche lands that were never fully conquered by the Spanish empire and fell into the hands of the Spanish. Chilean state at the end of the 19th century.

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

“The world is not booty. Everything that is outside is inside us,” he said, sitting by the fire in his ruka, a traditional construction outside his house near the capital of La Araucanía, a two-hour drive from the Truful Truful. “Let it be understood that the spirit of fire present here is as sacred as the Christ in a church.”

And trampling on a crucifix — as some protesters did in the 2019 mass uprisings — is as painful and satanic as damming a river, Antivil said. He cited as an example the construction in the early 2000s of the Ralco dam, which flooded sacred precincts and sparked an uprising that prevented similar massive projects and fueled cultural resistance to smaller ones.


The adoration of the members of the Mapuche community is evident when they walk alongside rivers such as the Truful Truful, whose name means “from jump to jump” in the Mapudungun language.

On a cold afternoon, Ayenao approached the river’s largest waterfall, the proposed site of a new hydroelectric plant, with a bag of seeds in his pocket. That would be a reciprocal offering for the “ngen” of the river if Ayenao decided to draw water to treat the physical and spiritual ailments of his patients.

“’Ngen’ are before us and it is they that allow us to live in space. And there are certain predominant ‘ngen’ that we have to pray to,” like the Truful Truful, he said.

Not asking the “ngen” for permission to approach the water, or not explaining the need to do so, means transgressing the space, pushing away the spirits that protect it and making you, your family and even your animals sick.

But if the “ngen” allows it, then Ayenao can use the distinctive “energetic power” of the falling water for healing purposes, either in riverside ceremonies or by bringing large soda bottles filled with her water to her home.

Relocated to Temuco when he was six years old, Ayenao eventually moved to Santiago, Chile’s capital, to study, only to become so ill there that he could neither walk nor speak. His family realized that the only remedy was to accept that the spirit of his great-grandmother, who was also a machi, asked to return to him.

He apprenticed for three years and returned to practicing traditional medicine on a small plot of land in the wide valley below the town of Melipueco, named for the junction of the Truful Truful and three other rivers.

Now the spirit of a nearby river where fish farming is planned has dreamed of Ayenao’s help.

“They ask and demand that I have to protect, and thus contribute to health,” said Ayenao, 28. “We human beings… are the messengers of the “ngen mapu”… to stop extractivism” and the sale of natural resources.


More spiritual guides like Ayenao are needed to remedy the loss of environmental, medicinal and linguistic knowledge caused by assimilation policies imposed in the past, when many indigenous people grew up far from their roots in marginal settlements in big cities, said Artemio Huenupi, an old Mapuche.

“Our wisdom is based on the entire territory of nature. We live in this space to take care of it, other cultures say they own the land”, he added when he spoke at the small museum of Mapuche culture that he curates in Melipeuco.

In one village, during a July night recital to raise funds for Ayenao’s thatched-roof meeting space, community members recounted how they came together to oppose a hydroelectric plant on the Truful Truful.

After nearly a decade of multiple environmental and cultural assessments, as well as legal appeals, the plant has been temporarily blocked in court, said Claudio Melillan, a councilman in Melipeuco who recently returned to his ancestral lands for what he called the “phase of reconstruction” of their Mapuche identity.

The community is hopeful that a final ruling will scupper the project for good, which threatens to damage the waterfall that is seen as a crucial source of spiritual energy, said Sergio Millaman, the lawyer who won the last appeal.

But some human impact is already evident, from an increase in tourism to a decrease in current compared to the mighty river that many remember from their childhood.

Despite heavy rains and snowfall this winter, Chile is facing a worrying drought caused by climate change, which has aggravated tensions over water use, said Juan Pablo Herane, a hydrology expert at the University’s Center for Global Change. Catholic of Santiago.

In April, after more than a decade of legal wrangling, the country’s water code was updated to better protect various rights, including the use of water at its source for conservation or ancestral uses, said Juan José Crocco, a lawyer who specializes in water regulation and management.

However, it is not clear whether a new constitution could alter that and how the code will be implemented in the case of hydroelectric plants that do not technically extract water but redirect it to generate power, said Benjamin Bulnes, a water rights attorney who worked on the new code and has fished in the Pilmaiquén River.


The first hydroelectric plant in Pilmaiquén, built in the mid-20th century, stands in front of a Mapuche-managed botanical garden that focuses attention on native trees.

A bitter battle under Huichalaf’s leadership began a decade ago to stop another three plants several kilometers downriver. Like Ayenao, she became seriously ill as a child in the nearby town of Osorno until her family realized it was the spirit of an ancestor who wanted to return to her as a machi.

During years of training to assume that role, he began to dream about Kintuantü, an “ngen” who lives in a wide bend of the Pilmaiquén.

“I am a medium of energy. Through dreams and trance visions he told me that I had to speak for him, because he was dying,” Huichalaf said.

A plant would have raised the river to the caves in the ravine where the “ngen” lives. At the top of the cliff is a Mapuche ceremonial complex that includes a cemetery, from where souls are believed to travel via underground water currents through caves to the Pilmaiquén and to eventual reincarnation.

Huichalaf led an occupation there. A private house caught fire and protesters clashed with police. More protests and lawsuits followed, dividing the indigenous communities near the river.

Huichalaf was imprisoned for several months. But she said that she is not afraid of prison because she managed to save the site, where she collects medicinal herbs and performs sacred ceremonies: “and the ‘ngen’ is still there”.

Statkraft, the Norwegian state-owned energy company that bought the Pilmaiquén projects, is working with the Chilean government to return ownership of the ceremonial complex. Construction was frozen after the company realized the cultural impact of the proposed plant was “unacceptable,” said Statkraft Chile manager Maria Teresa Gonzalez.

González said the company learned the importance of understanding the indigenous worldview and involving different communities early on, and it is doing just that with another plant it is building in the Pilmaiquén.

But he condemned ongoing violence, such as the recent burning of a truck carrying half a dozen workers. No one has been charged in the late June attack.

For Huichalaf, the fight continues: “Our great objective is for the river companies to leave.”


Back in the black volcanic field that cuts through the Truful Truful, as a blizzard closed in on a nearby peak with ancient monkey puzzle trees, Curin defined his people’s goal in more essential terms.

“What is the Mapuche world fighting for? What protects the Mapuche world? Not a silver world. Mapuche culture is very spiritual, very much from the heart,” she said. “It is no coincidence that we are still here.”

Then he knelt down to take a sip of the river water and returned to his ranger post.


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In the rivers of Chile, spirituality and development collide