Five Chilean hunger strikers, four of them members of the indigenous Mapuche people, are playing a leading part in the struggle of the country’s indigenous people for economic and civil rights.

They have the support of Judge Juan Guzman, who prosecuted former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. Guzman now advocates for indigenous rights in Chile, particularly rights for the Mapuche people. Chilean police, he claims, “raid villages and ransack houses. Sharp knives or machetes they find — tools essential for peasant survival — are used as evidence to arrest people and charge them under anti-terrorist laws.”

Mapuche leaders Jose Huenchunao, Juan Millalen, Jaime Marileo, and Hector Llaitul, joined by non-indigenous activist Patricia Troncoso, initiated a hunger strike Oct. 10. They say they were acting to support 20 other Mapuche prisoners and to protest political repression and militarization of formerly Mapuche lands. In a press statement, Hector Llaitul complained that “The Chilean state does not negotiate, but defends the interests of the companies that today occupy the Mapuche territory.”

Huenchunao, Millalen and Marileo ended their fasts Dec. 14, and Llaitul did so Dec. 31. His fast and the continuing fast of Patricia Troncoso are the longest hunger strikes in Chile’s history.

The five are serving ten-year sentences in Angol prison in Temuco, located in Chile’s Region 9, where Mapuche people make up 25 percent of the population. Fingered by a prisoner allegedly tortured, Llautin was jailed in February 2007. The others began prison terms in 2002. All are accused of involvement in the burning of 247 acres of pine forest owned by the Mininco Company.

Some 700,000 indigenous people, most of them living in southern Chile, make up five percent of Chile’s population. Eighty-five percent are identified as Mapuche, a word meaning “people of the land.”

Defenders claim the prisoners are victims of Pinochet-era antiterrorist measures authorized under Chile’s 1980 constitution, which permit months of pre-trial “preventive” detention, testimony from anonymous witnesses, and prolonged sentences.

Guzman wrote in La Nacion, “The Mapuche prisoners are victims of political violence, the invention of crimes, and application of Anti-Terrorist Law 18.314.” The result is “open discrimination in such a way as to pacify and terrify,” as well as criminalization of “legitimate political protests and social demands.”

Neither Guzman nor Temuco Bishop Camilio Vial have been able to move the administration of social democrat president Michelle Bachelet on behalf of the prisoners. Police repression has greeted demonstrations backing the hunger strikers. Indigenous activists have engaged in sympathy fasts.

Socialist Senator Alejandro Navarro, up against a rightwing senate majority, failed to engineer legislative reforms of anti-terrorist laws. Chile’s constitution makes no reference to indigenous rights, and despite pre-election promises, the Bachelet administration has shied away from changes. Her administration joins predecessor governments in retreating from proposals for a constituent assembly to reshape Chile’s constitution.

The government’s treatment of the Mapuche people has come under criticism from the Inter American Commission on Human Rights, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the World Organization against Torture, the International Federation of Human Rights, and UN human rights groups. Chile has yet to sign an International Labor Organization convention on indigenous rights.

The United Nations has called upon the Chilean government to respond to charges of environmental racism. In Region Nine, the Mapuche own 20 percent of the land, yet 70 percent of the trash dumps and all the water treatment plants are located on or near their land.

The Mapuche people, disparagingly known as “Araucanos” by the Spanish, were successful in holding off Inca warriors and Spanish colonists. In the late 19th century, however, Chilean Army invasions set the stage for horrific population losses and territorial reduction from 24.7 million acres to under 1.24 million acres today. Free land given to European immigrants contributed to vanishing agricultural and herding economies.

Now logging corporations own most of the former Mapuche lands. Their earnings exceed $3 billion annually, with $600 million derived from wood products exports to the United States. Plantations of non-native Monterey pine and eucalyptus trees absorb huge amounts of water and fertilizers and require poisonous fumigation. Experts predict disastrous environmental consequences.

Exports by transnational corporations operating in Chile presently account for almost $60 billion in annual income, half of the country’s GDP. In terms of the Gini coefficient, a measure of social inequalities, Chile presently lands in 113th place out of 124 nations for its skewed distribution of wealth.