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Millaray Huichalaf: Mapuche woman’s 15-year defence of a sacred river

Mapuche leader Millaray Huichalaf defends the Pilmaiken River through legal challenges, international alliances, and the arts



For 15 years, spiritual Mapuche leader Millaray Huichalaf, representing more than 150 Indigenous communities, has defended their sacred Pilmaiken River against Norwegian state-owned company Statkfraft’s hydroelectric ambitions. Huichalaf finally succeeded in halting one power plant but the race is on to stop the roll-out of a second plant. This is the story of their peaceful and legal struggle, both in Chile and in Norway, to try and safeguard the lifeblood of their communities.

In the Roble Carimallin community in southern Chile’s Los Ríos region characterized by pristine lakes, dense temperate rainforest, and snowcapped volcanoes, Millaray Huichalaf defends a sacred river which her people depend on for survival. 

Huichalaf’s struggle has not been easy. One day in early 2013, police ransacked her home in front of her three-year-old daughter. 

Arrested on trumped up charges of possessing guns and hiding people suspected of setting a farmhouse on fire, Millaray was taken to a maximum-security prison. 

Her real crime? Leading local resistance against the building of a hydroelectric plant which could destroy the course of the 68 kilometre-long Pilmaiken river whose name means ‘swallow’ in Mapudungun, the local Mapuche language.

Millaray suffered the emotional trauma of being unfairly incarcerated in Valdivia’s Llancahue Penitentiary Complex for several months as a 22-year-old mother. After her release, she continued to face charges that took several more years to disprove. 

That same year ended with another psychological blow, not just for Millaray but for the burgeoning Indigenous movement in Chile fighting hydroelectric projects. The body of a Pehuenche Mapuche woman and human rights activist, Nicolasa Quintremán, 73, was discovered floating in the Ralco reservoir located some four hours’ drive north of Pilmaiken River. 

For 10 years, Nicolasa and her sister Berta had waged a losing battle against the construction of Spanish-Chilean-owned Endesa’s dam on the Bio Bio River. Their community was forced out of their dwellings and their ancient cemetery flooded. Nicolasa’s floating body on a reservoir she never wanted, was a symbolic reminder of that failed resistance. 

Spiritual protector of the river

For Millaray however, there was no choice but to fight on. 

Returning to her ancestral community in her late teens with her father and her sister Amanda (her family had been living in the nearby town where many Mapuche communities move to for employment), she assumed an important job. Millaray took on the role of ‘machi’, a spiritual and health leader for the ancestral community. That responsibility included leading the defence of a sacred ceremonial area named Ngen Mapu Kintuante from the threat of flooding by Chile-based investment company Pilmaiquén S.A.’s hydro-electric ambitions. 

‘Water is a pure element. Ancestral spirits can travel only by water. The Pilmaiken River brings us our information, our spirituality,’ Machi Millaray Huichalaf posted online to mark this year’s World Water Day on March 22. 

‘As Mapuche People we have a direct link with water sources, that is why we cling so closely to rivers, estuaries and lakes. Because there, the Ngen, who are the protectors of the territories, emerge and re-emerge.’ 

Water is also ‘an energy transporting element, which communicates us directly with the entities of Wallmapu’ (Mapudungun for the ancestral territory of the Mapuche people and nation, located in southern Chile and Argentina.) More than 1.7 million Mapuches live in Chile, about a tenth of the total population, according to 2017 census figures. 

Remarkably, 10 years after her imprisonment, Millaray’s continuing commitment to protecting the river bore fruit. In 2023, Norwegian energy group Statkraft abandoned one of its hydro power projects, the Osorno power plant it acquired from Pilmaiquén S.A. in 2015. 

What strategies did Mapuche sisters Millaray and Amanda pursue to achieve success– so far at least, with one dam project stalled – that alluded their much older Pehuenche sisters Nicolasa and Berta?

Maximising legal challenges

Making the most of available legal avenues was key, according to Felipe Andrés Guerra-Schleefa, a non-Indigenous lawyer and academic who for the last eight years has worked on legal strategies with Millaray and other communities defending the river. 

In 2018 for instance, Millaray and local defenders, the Koyam Ke Che Community and the Wenuleufu Association, won a legal case in the Environmental Court of Santiago when it was found that the original environmental impact studies Statkraft inherited in 2015 from Pilmaiquén S.A., failed to include the required consent from Indigenous communities. 

Machi Millaray Huichalaf looks for medicinal plants. Photo: Pablo Piovano

Companies in Chile are required to obtain Free, Prior, and Informed Consent from communities before starting projects on their territories to comply with the International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention 169 that Chile ratified in 2008. 

In a rush to seek approval for its original dam projects, Pilmaiquén S.A wrongly declared in its 2009 environmental impact study that there are ‘no legally constituted Mapuche Indigenous communities’ in the affected area, Guerra-Schleefa said.

Two historic rulings from Chile’s top court 

Later, Millaray, alongside other Indigenous associations, scored two further historic legal victories. In 2022, Chile’s Supreme Court paralysed Statkraft’s unilateral plans to transfer the land where the ceremonial Ngen Mapu Kintuantü is held, to an Indigenous association of its own choice as a way of bypassing consent that Millaray and local groups would refuse to grant. 

In its ruling, the Supreme Court labelled state agency the National Corporation for Indigenous Development (CONADI) as ‘negligent’ and obliged it to incorporate those Mapuche communities in conflict with Statkraft in any evaluation of contested land claims over the ceremonial sector.  

In a separate but equally significant ruling, the Supreme Court ordered another government agency, the National Monuments Council (NMC), to launch a consultation process with Indigenous groups after valuable archaeological findings that could prove ancient Mapuche settlements in the area were found in Statkraft’s territory.

Next action: stop Los Lagos project

Despite these legal victories, Statkraft continued to develop a second hydropower project just a few kilometres away from the cancelled Osorno dam, called Los Lagos’ which the company describes as a ‘run-of-the-river plant’ with an installed capacity of 52 MW, a reservoir and a 35-metre dam as tall as a twelve-storey building.

Pilmaiken defenders argue that one of the reasons the Norwegian state-owned company pressed ahead –the plant is near completion— was the failure by the two state agencies to act on the Supreme Court rulings. 

A spokesman from the National Monuments Council said ‘the consultation process began at the end of November’ but was suspended between December and April ‘for ceremonial reasons specific to the Indigenous communities of the territory,’ with a third planning meeting due in May.

CONADI, which was supposed to act within six months of the 2021 ruling, did not respond to requests for comment from the Latin America Bureau.

The inertia shown by NMC and CONADI to carry out their orders, has highlighted the limitations of Chilean state institutions to guarantee Indigenous people’s rights, said lawyer Carlos Guerrero Munita who has also provided legal advice to Millaray. 

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Formal talks with Norway via OECD

Not content with the impasse, Millaray and a council of lonkos (‘heads’ in Mapudungun) representing more than 150 Indigenous communities affected in Pilmaiken, decided to look beyond Chile’s borders to pursue their struggle. 

Machi Millaray performs a ceremony in front of the rewe (Mapuche altar). Photo: Pablo Piovano

In 2023, they got in touch with ProDESC, a Mexican intersectional feminist human rights defence organization founded by Alejandra Ancheita, a lawyer and human rights defender.  

With additional input from Argentina’s Colectivo de Acción por la Justicia Social, the collaboration with ProDESC culminated with Millaray travelling to Oslo last September to file a complaint against Statkraft with the OECD National Contact Point (NCP) in Norway, for possible violations of the 2023 Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises on Responsible Business Conduct. 

The complainants included Mapuche-Williche communities from the Pilmayken territory, represented by their autonomous organisation Aylla Rewe of the Ngen Mapu Kintuantü; and the council of lonkos, representing more than 150 affected Indigenous communities.

The complainants argued, amongst many points, that Statkraft’s activities have violated Indigenous peoples’ rights to free, prior, and informed consent, territory, cultural identity, and their human rights, and called for Statkraft to stop community division and violence against Indigenous Peoples.

The process is not meant to be ‘contentious’ but aimed at promoting a ‘high-level’ and ‘respectful’ dialogue in ‘fluid conditions’ between the Mapuches defending the river and Statkraft, ProDESC’s Ancheita said.

A spokesman in Chile for Statkraft declined to comment on the complaint ‘as the process is still not public, given that the NCP is in the phase of evaluating and analysing the information that both the communities and Statkraft have provided.’

What if mediation fails?: the case of Electricity of France in Mexico

ProDESC was involved in an earlier NCP case in 2018 that could prove instructive, Ancheit said. In 2018, the Indigenous Zapotec community of Union Hidalgo in Oaxaca, Mexico filed a complaint with the French NCP against Electricity of France (EDF Group) for failure to consult with them about plans to build one of Mexico’s largest wind farms. 

Unhappy with the mediation process during the French NCP process, the Zapotec complainants withdrew from proceedings and two years later filed a complaint in a Paris court against EDF under the French Duty of Vigilance Law. Even though the French courts eventually dismissed the request citing procedural grounds, a Oaxaco court did grant an injunction to block energy projects on ancestral lands, putting an end to EDF’s wind energy project.

Indigenous communities no longer have to automatically expect to lose struggles over contested land or failure of consultation as in the case of the Quintreman sisters in the Bio Bio River. ‘The “David against Goliath” story is being deconstructed,’ said Ancheit, ‘Indigenous peoples are reacting in a much more strategic, organized, specialised way.’

Communicating the Mapuche world vision

Fighting a cause, such as protecting a river, also requires affected communities to explain their different vision of life to a mainstream audience, in Chile and abroad. Millaray and her sister Amanda, who oversees communications of the Pilmaiken cause, have been very open to inviting artists to their community. 

Millaray’s fight against Statkraft, for instance, is now available in graphic form after journalist Greta di Girolamo and illustrator and comics creator Consuelo Terra spent time with Millaray to listen to her story. The upshot: ‘Millaray Huichalaf: The Protectress of the Sacred River’ is one of eight stories published in Movements & Moments, a feminist anthology of nonfiction comics chronicling Indigenous rebellions around the world.

‘Amanda, Machi’s sister, told us that this week she started reading the comic to the 9- to 11-year-old children at her school and they are fascinated to see this story that takes place in their own territory. They are now creating their own comics with ancestral stories of their land,’ Terra told LAB. 

Similarly, internationally awarded Argentine photographer Pablo Piovano, alongside journalist Maximiliano Goldschmidt, visited Machi Millaray’s community continuously over five years capturing sensitive images that he eventually turned into a free exhibition in Buenos Aires called ‘Machi Millaray, guardian of the water.’ This exhibition also toured in other Latin American countries and Piovano was awarded a World Press Photo award in April for his work ‘Mapuche, the Return of the Ancient Voices’. 

The university town of Valdivia, capital of Los Ríos region and host of one of Latin America’s most important international film festivals, was chosen last year to screen a film starring Millaray Huichalaf called Jardín Infinito by Galut Alarcón and produced by Chamila Rodríguez. 

Even a science festival, also held in Valdivia called ‘Forms of Water: Science, Territory and Art’, was able to incorporate space for Millaray last September by inviting her to talk about her struggle at the close of the festival’s inauguration. 

As a recipient of the Omega Resilience Awards, Millaray is preparing her own artistic contribution to her cause with a book that will feature more than 100 photographs of lawen, medicinal plants she uses along the shores of the Pilmaiken. 

How art can support the ‘protection of water’ cause

Millaray’s openness to artists extends to Norway. During one of her visits in 2023 she stood in front of the parliament with 22-year-old filmmaker Mihkkal Hætta to protest against Statkraft’s failure to comply with a court ruling ordering it to remove wind towers from indigenous Sámi peoples’ territory in the north of Norway. 

As Millaray said in a speech outside cultural meeting venue Sámi House in Oslo last September: ‘We value the important support of different artists in these years of struggle. 

‘Art allows us to visualize, causing a spiritual connection with our cause. Music, photography, cinema, muralism, lighting, art, and other manifestations have taken our cause to other territories,’ she said.

Just how art can unite distant territories was shown through local Bali artists @ikesholopolo and her team @Peanutdog_bali and @iniartchive sharing images from di Girolamo and Terra’s comic book Millaray Huichalaf, the protector of the sacred river in July 2023 on social media. 

These images later appeared painted on a mural on the outskirts of the market in Denpasar, the main city of Bali, reflecting how Millaray’s defence of water struck a chord with Balinese spirituality where rivers are also considered sacred. 

Can international mediation end stalemate?

On 12 May 2024, Millaray celebrated that , thanks to persistent pressure from local groups on the government, the National Monuments Council was finally to hold its first consultation of the year regarding communities in the sacred space of Ngen Mapu Kintuante. They had successfully forced the government to listen and take Mapuche voices into account. 

Internationally, Millaray and her communities are hoping that further progress can be made to break the current impasse for the River Pilmaiken, as high-level mediation talks starts in Norway with the OECD NCP. Their end-goal is clear: for Statkraft to abandon completely its Los Lagos river plant and for Indigenous communities to formally recover the Ngen Mapu Kintuante.

Header image kindly provided by award-winning photographer Pablo Piovano.

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