A propósito del Convenio 169

“The world can no longer ignore Indigenous Peoples. The world has to come to grips with the reality that Indigenous Peoples have survived the worst forms of colonization, they have survived the worst situations of poverty – We are still around!”

Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, Chairperson of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues

Hoy, 15 de septiembre de 2009, luego de más de 20 años de espera, entra en vigencia el Convenio 169 de la OIT, escribí hace un tiempo un texto que quería traducir, pero hasta el momento ha sido imposible, así que se quedará por ahora en inglés.

Even though the Chilean government signed the ILO Convention 169, there are clear signals that both the Government and the Congress are trying to violate the Convention by using their power and resources to annul the meaning and effects of the Convention. This conclusion is not surprising when we understand the historical context of Chile and its relationship with its Indigenous Peoples.

During 17 years before Chile made its decision, the Congress was studying what the implications of the Convention could be.  In the discussions, the most remarkable conflicts points were the questions about what the words “Pueblo,” “Territory” and “Indigenous” are and, most importantly, what the consequence of these words will be for the Nation and for private property and individual rights.

The mention of “Pueblo”[i] has caused a lot of controversies inside the diverse commissions that were in charge of this Convention. Concern about this term has been related to what the definition implies about the relationship between self-governance and autonomy.  In the report presented in 1999[1], there is a long discussion about the word “pueblo” and its meaning in the Convention and for the Chilean nation. Some selected phrases are[ii]:

…el término “pueblos” en el marco de este instrumento no deberá interpretarse en el sentido que tenga implicación alguna en lo que atañe a los derechos que pueda conferirse a dicho término en el derecho internacional.

se estimó necesario hacer esta precisión para impedir que pudiera insertarse en el derecho a la autodeterminación.

dicha norma tiene por objeto no crear situaciones que puedan poner en peligro la unidad de los Estados o su integridad territorial.

…los derechos que se reconocen son a los individuos de los pueblos no a éstos como sujeto de derecho.

It is necessary to mention that the perception that Collective Rights are at a governmental and legislative level. The common citizen in Chile agrees with the idea that the status of “pueblo” implies a potential danger to national sovereignty and could give the Indigenous People too much power. Homogeneity and uniformity are the premise of the National identity. The concept of appreciating and recognizing the multi-ethnic character of our country is contrary, apparently, to the traditional way in which Chile was built.  Therefore, the only way to tolerate the diversity, in this case the “indigenousness,” is to consign the “other” (potentially threatening) to an inferior position in which she or he needs help to overcome poverty and injustices.

This point is, in my opinion, related to the a-historic view that Chile tends to have in all order of things. This vision is complementary to the idea that Indigenous People were a “primitive” people before the conquers arrived and therefore, as primitive people, did not have organization or rights over the territory they ancestrally occupied.

In addition, there is great concern about the demands that Indigenous People might make if they are recognized as “pueblo”. Much of the Chilean growth and “modernity” is has fed off of (or relied on) indigenous blood and if Chile recognizes that, the government  could be obligated to take reparation actions,  a task nobody wants to be in charge of.

Another concept highly resisted it is “territory”. The territoriality for Indigenous People means not only the land, but also the life in its totality. In the particular case of Mapuche people, the territory is part of their cosmovision; in fact, Mapuche means people of the land.

Unfortunately, the indigenous concept of land as “mother” does not resonate with the modern and capitalist concept of production or productivity. Occidental societies such as the Chilean one cannot understand why Indigenous People fight for their land if they are not going to use it “productively”.

A critical point at this time is the concept and practice of the “Consultation ”. As was largely explained, the current Consultation does not live up to the standard to which it is obligated. However, when we review the previous discussions on the Congress, it is possible to understand that the Government never pretended to fill the Convention requirements. These are the words that J. Viera Gallo, (Secretaría General de Gobierno) told to the Congress about the Consultation:

…Reitero que la obligación consiste en oírlos, no en acatar necesariamente las observaciones. (Again, the obligation is to hear them, but necessarily abide by the observations)[2].

“Declarations” like this were made profusely by governmental representatives as well congressmen/women. Here is a selection of some of their opinions[3]:

…se reconoce a estas etnias el derecho de conservar sus costumbres e instituciones propias, mientras no sean incompatibles con los derechos fundamentales definidos por el sistema jurídico nacional (Senator Munoz Barra. Pag. 45)

…permite que aquellos sean escuchados frente a las decisiones que el Estado deba adoptar. Obviamente, ello no significa necesariamente que el Estado resuelva en cada caso en concordancia con lo que determinada comunidad piense (Minister Viera Gallo. Pag. 50)

…su texto no contempla innovación alguna más allá de la obligación de escuchar a los pueblos originarios frente a proyectos que impliquen intervención en su territorio. (Senator Letelier, Pag. 55)…. las recomendaciones y declaraciones son solamente eso. No son obligaciones que deba asumir el Estado de Chile.

These quotations are meant to show that, since the Convention 169 was officially approved, there has been a tacit agreement about its limitations in order to limit the effects of the 169 Convention. In brief, the current proposal of Constitutional Recognition for Indigenous People is contrary to the spirit of the ILO Convention because it denies the category of Pueblo to Indigenous Peoples and, as a consequence, the concept of collective rights and territoriality has been limited and suppressed.

The current consultation process of this reform is only an informative process created by the government to legitimate the reform and contravene the two most important articles of Convention 169, Consultation and Participation.


  • There is no evidence that the correct application of this Convention would change the order and structure of the States. Therefore, most of the concerns of Chilean politics are based on false ideas and a traditional misunderstanding and ignorance of what Indigenous People want and need.
  • The current state of the ILO Convention 169 implementation in Chile is highly controversial and could be potentially highly dangerous for the future of the Indigenous People.
  • Even though flexibility is one of the characteristics of this Convention, currently Chile is infringing upon its fundamental principles.  This action has been denounced by Indigenous Organizations, international agencies and the Special Rapporteur of the UNFPIA, James Anaya.
  • Chile is ignoring its obligations regarding the Consultation and Participation process. The current Consultation is only an informative process and does not constitute a free, informed and well developed consultation.
  • By signing the ILO Convention 169, Chile agreed in to be evaluated periodically by international agencies. If this situation persists, Chile will face the international concern and consequences for its actions.
  • Chile is losing a unique opportunity to re-build and re-define its relationship with the Indigenous People.
  • The ILO Convention 169 is a tool which can be powerful only if Indigenous Organizations are capable to work together and demand to the State the fulfilling of the Convention commitments. Therefore, the effects this Convention could have are depending on the efforts that both, the Chilean State and the Indigenous People Organizations, can make.
  • Finally, the Chilean Government must be clear about the Convention’s obligations. The International experiences should be useful resources to understand some of the future scenarios Chile could face.

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