Revisiting Nahuelbuta (1 of 2)

This blog post was authored by James J. A. Blair.

In honor of this year’s United Nations (UN) International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, environmental anthropologist James J. A. Blair revisits ongoing efforts to restore native forests and protect river ecosystems in the Nahuelbuta Mountains, an integral part of the Indigenous Mapuche territory in what is now Chile. This is the first of two blog posts based on research from his recent visit to the region.

The UN has named 2019 the International Year of Indigenous Languages to celebrate the 7,000 languages that are spoken among 370 million Indigenous people from 5,000 different communities across 90 countries. Currently, 2,680 languages are considered to be “in danger.” Nonetheless, remarkable language revitalization efforts are currently underway, and Indigenous languages provide unique ethnobiological insights into how place-based experiences may translate into collaborative action to protect the environment.

Returning to Nahuelbuta

Pewen (Araucaria araucana) trees at Piedra del Águila, Parque Nahuelbuta.

James J. A. Blair

I recently spent June and July conducting field research throughout Chile, and I had the opportunity to return to the Nahuelbuta area, unceded Mapuche territory located in the regions of Bío Bío and Araucanía. Last year, I provided an overview of conflicts over land, territory and resources in Nahuelbuta. Industrial logging—particularly pine and eucalyptus plantations—dominates the countryside. The industry’s enormous environmental impacts include: (1) destruction of native and old-growth forests; (2) threatened rare animal species; and (3) water scarcity and contamination. It has also sparked more than a century of heated conflicts between Mapuche land defenders and the Chilean government, which has deployed militarized “anti-terrorist” carabinero police forces to protect the plantations. This has led to human rights abuses and the questionable detainment of political prisoners, including 2019 Goldman Environmental Prize winner Alberto Curamil.

Nonetheless, the Nahuelbuta coastal mountain range remains of paramount importance for biocultural patrimony: both Mapuche people and Chileans of European descent value the region as a vital part of their environment and heritage. Through community-based conservation, local residents are engaging in participatory monitoring to ensure lasting continuity of Indigenous language, culture and ecology.

The river’s resonance: “Do you hear the aukin (echo)?”

On July 5th, 2019, Manuel Maribur, a Mapuche leader of Indigenous and community tourism from the Elicura Valley of Nahuelbuta, demonstrated the profound relationship between the Indigenous Mapudungun language and the local environment. He accompanied Viviana Mora from Fundación Nahuelbuta and me on a site visit to the Pichi Caramávida River. After we pulled over to monitor a healthy, glowing section of the river, Manuel instructed us to stop and listen. There, Manuel said he could hear an aukin, which translates loosely to an “echo.” In Mapudungun each element of nature has a different aukin. For instance, water’s particular aukin is aukinko because ko is the word for water. In Mapudungun, there is a saying that has become nearly universal: “Ko ta Mongen” (“water is life”). Hearing this aukinko thus gave Manuel an intangible sense of the “life of the territory.” He explained that the aukin was well-preserved at this particular location, where industry had not yet intervened. Manuel pointed out a roadside banner that marked it as a Mapuche family’s property, an important way to demonstrate that the family has recovered the land back from a forestry company.

Banner marking Mapuche family's property

James J. A. Blair

Manuel uses a neologism to refer to himself—as an “inperto” (“inpert”) rather than an experto (expert)—because he inherited this intimate knowledge of his surroundings from within his own community. Through international Indigenous tourism, Manuel now seeks to transmit this inside perspective on his culture and environment to others. This means spreading awareness not just about affirmative aspects of his People’s way of life, but also considering what happens when nonhuman beings lose their aukin and get “sick.”

This contrast became clear later that day.

Clogging the land’s arteries

On the other side of the same valley, Viviana guided us along the Caramávida River, a water source for the communities of Antihuala, Temuco Chico and La Araucana. There, we encountered a construction crew, hired by the logging industry. Contractors were brazenly tearing up earth and dumping dirt into the river to build a bridge. They were doing so without consulting or asking for permission from community members. Arguably, they were acting in violation of national and international law, including the principle of Free, Prior, and Informed Consent, enshrined in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Manuel compared it to clogging the land’s arteries.

Outraged, Viviana, Manuel and I began documenting the destruction with our phones and cameras to present as evidence to neighborhood and municipal authorities. A burly, masked construction worker, later identified as the plantation owner’s son, approached and filmed us in response. Several large trucks enclosed our vehicle. It was intimidating, but we were confident that they were the ones who were acting illegally, so we left politely and began to develop a plan to engage community members.

Manuel Maribur and Viviana Mora, Fundación Nahuelbuta, monitoring illegal intervention on Caramávida River

James J. A. Blair

When notified, the neighborhood council of Caramávida requested information to decide how to proceed on legal, social and environmental grounds. They coordinated an information session and photo exhibit, examining the soil removal that was already underway. There, the community members who had not been consulted were reportedly outraged by the damage and its implications on their neighbors’ water quality.

On July 21st, the neighborhood assembly decided not to allow such activities in Caramávida and voted to formally deny the logging company’s authorization to extract land from the river bed. They presented their decision to the plantation owner, who did not take it very well. He refused to stop construction and threatened to take legal remedies against the directive. The neighborhood council also sent their decision to the municipal council, where it is being considered at the time of writing. According to Viviana, her neighbors feel empowered by their actions, as they await further developments.

This conflict showed how protecting the intangible values of nature—preserving its aukin—requires individual courage and collective action. For more lessons from Nahuelbuta’s vibrant culture and environment, see the second blog in this series.

Note: References for my “aukin” and “water is life” explanations come from the pamphlet “Elikurache Kimün, Mongen Kimün: Guía Introductoria,” published by Chile’s Ministry of Environment in March 2019.


James J. A. Blair is Assistant Professor in the Department of Geography and Anthropology at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona (Cal Poly Pomona). Dr. Blair is a former International Advocate for NRDC and continues to work with NRDC’s Latin America Team as a consultant, focusing on watershed management and renewable energy in Chile.

About the Authors

Amanda Maxwell

Director, Latin America Project

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