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These Stunning Pictures Capture One Indigenous Group’s Fight For Their Land

"These communities are not only persecuted for opposing these mining projects, they also demonstrate another way of relating to nature."

Posted on August 1, 2021, at 2:19 p.m. ET

Man stands with two horses
Pablo E. Piovano

Feb. 20, 2019: Huañaco Millao Autonomous Community, Ercilla, IX Region of Araucania, Chile. Claudio Andres Huentecol is the spokesperson for his community. He was arrested for supporting territorial recoveries. In Collipulli prison, he was tortured and went on a 47-day hunger strike demanding his freedom and recognition of his innocence.

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.

A forest with trees cut down
Cristóbal Olivares

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."

Mapuche woman wears traditional clothing
Pablo E. Piovano
Mapuche girl wears traditional clothing
Cristóbal Olivares
Stars shine over field and mountains
Pablo E. Piovano
Man stands in field with smoke
Cristóbal Olivares
Ring of fire surrounds trees
Pablo E. Piovano
Fire burns trees on hillside
Cristóbal Olivares
People ride horses and carry flags
Pablo E. Piovano
Riot police officer carries shield
Cristóbal Olivares
Shirtless man shows scar on his stomach
Cristóbal Olivares
Pallbearers carry coffin through crowd of mourners
Pablo E. Piovano

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.