The Latin American Foto Festival at the Bronx Documentary Center is always expertly curated, balancing the magic of the region with visual stories that explore various social issues. The projects highlighted this year are no exception, uncovering the connection between nature and people in Venezuela and Peru and shining a light on the impact of violence in Colombia, Mexico, and Chile.
Two stories in particular stood out this year. Both Cristóbal Olivares and Pablo Piovano have worked on projects documenting the struggle of the Indigenous Mapuche people against the Argentine and Chilean governments over land use. The Mapuche have lived in the area for thousands of years, initially resisting the colonization by the Spanish and now the development of lands they see as illegally acquired by state-owned forestry and mining companies.
"These communities are not only persecuted for opposing these projects, they also demonstrate another way of relating to nature, respecting the environment, and recovering ancestral traditions," Piovano explained. He has spent the last three years documenting this battle, which represents both an existential fight to the Mapuche people and the ancient connection of consciousness between them and the land.
The Mapuche are one of many Indigenous groups around the world advocating for greater recognition of their rights and autonomy over their lands, often in tandem with demands for environmental justice against exploitative industries. But Latin America is the most dangerous region in the world for environmental activists, with dozens of people killed each year.
The contemporary Mapuche conflict started in the 1990s and escalated dramatically after several widely publicized deaths of activists in 2018. The UN and human rights groups have criticized the Chilean government over its use of terrorism charges against the Mapuche and for the indiscriminate and injurious use of pellet guns during protests.
"The injuries are both physical and psychological,” said Olivares, who has been documenting the Mapuche people since 2018. “Many kids are afraid of sleeping at night because of police raids. They are afraid of their own bedrooms. Many others have lost eyes, have scars, and have to go to other countries for treatment.” He said that while the conflict is widely known within his home country of Chile, mainstream media outlets often distort the narrative.
The country is now reckoning with its deep inequalities. Protests against the government that started in 2019 have resulted in the drafting of a new constitution, one intended to be more inclusive. The current Chilean Constitution does not recognize the existence of the Mapuche people, even though they make up over 10% of the population. The Mapuche themselves are not a monolith; some groups are decrying the violence and working to build trust with the Chilean government.
Piovano’s and Olivares's photography highlights the deep sense of tradition within the Mapuche culture and the respect held for a rapidly changing land. Their work can be seen in person at the Bronx Documentary Center.
"Despite the fact that I do not believe photography can change anything, I do believe in its importance in creating a document, memory, and personal testimonies," Olivares said. "The pure act of showing real interest in other people's lives somehow keeps us connected."