World Rainforest Movement

Chile: Documentary-maker jailed for filming a documentary on the Mapuche struggle against forestry companies

The occupation of the Mapuche peoples’ ancestral territories by large-scale eucalyptus and pine plantations belonging to major forestry companies such as CMPC and Forestal Bosques ARAUCO relies for its expansion on the support of State machinery. Repression, torture, death and criminalization of Mapuche resistance are the background for the “forestry model.”

The Mapuche conflict is a sort of leprosy in Chilean society: concealed, stigmatized and denied.

Elena Varela, a documentary-maker and music teacher had become interested in Mapuche music and decided to carry out research work in the 9th Region to learn more about their music and instruments. However, the situation she found there changed the focus of her work.

According to her declarations “I saw that they are impoverished, that their lands are dry, that behind the forestry companies there is a whole political and military machinery and I saw that the forestry industry spends any amount of money to silence anyone rebelling against the system. The raids on Mapuche communities are constant and terrible. I believe that some people are still searching among the Mapuche for that terrorist Pinochet [former Chilean dictator] imagined, a terrorist that will never be found in the Mapuche area because that terrorist does not exist.”

So Elena Varela devoted herself to filming a documentary which she called “Newen Mapuche” (the Force of the People of Earth), endeavouring to record the conflict the Mapuche communities are facing with the forestry industry over their historical territorial claims in defence of their collective rights and the protection of their environment from the depredation of monoculture tree plantations (see WRM Bulletins Nos. 120, 106 and 101).

Over the past few years, in the framework of social, cultural and environmental degradation caused by the territorial expansion of forestry industries, the legitimate social protests of the Mapuche people – the most affected party – have been answered by violent repression against them and against those who address this issue supportively.

The long arm of criminalization is reaching out. Ranging from the murder of Matías Catrileo, a young man who was killed from behind to the imprisonment -during the current administration- of more than 55 Mapuche accused of attacking the tree plantations, who were given prison sentences of up to ten years (see Bulletin No. 26), to the dozens of people injured in demonstrations or subjected to situations of intimidation and fear.

On 7 May, while she was producing her film, Elena Varela was arrested by over 20 armed police. In her declarations during an interview with the journalist Jaime Diaz Lavanchy, Elena Varela stated that “For 24 hours they would not let me talk with a lawyer, nor would they tell me what I was accused of.” It was only later that she learnt that she was being accused of “illegal association with the intention of committing a crime.”

She claims that she is innocent and affirms that she is in jail because of her film. “I am a prisoner because of my professional work as a filmmaker, because of the information I handle, because of my interaction with Mapuche activists who are struggling for their beliefs, because of my interviews with people from repressed Mapuche communities who dare not say anything, because I know many cruel things that make me sick. The Mapuche people have been humiliated, have been persecuted. I have seen so many people who have been emotionally and psychiatrically crushed, so many people who do not dare to talk! That is why I am in prison.”

“What hurts me most, are the children” says Elena “the sick children of Temucuicui! [a Mapuche community in the area of Ercilla, subject to constant raids by the Special Police Forces] You can see it from their drawings. They paint soldiers inside their homes, explosions of tear-gas bombs. That is what they don’t want people to know! And they also want to know the whereabouts of the Mapuche who are fighting, in order to exterminate them, as they want to do with me. I wanted to make a film and they put me in jail. This is a way of exterminating me, of silencing me.”

Amnesty International has officially declared that it believes that “the authorities have arrested her in an attempt to curb the investigation on this conflict and to try to intimidate both her and the Indigenous Mapuche people. The police confiscated video tapes, sound equipment, cameras and mobile phones and the wardrobe needed to film the documentary from her home.  They also took the research material prepared by Elena Varela and documents related with the funding of the film by the Fund for Audiovisual Promotion of the National Culture and Arts Council. Amnesty International fears that this information may be used by the Chilean security forces to intimidate and harass Mapuche activists and those who contribute with their opinion to the research.

The situation experienced by Elena Varela is not unique. Since March 2008, the authorities have arrested three filmmakers who denounced the conflict between the plantation companies and the Mapuche people. The Mapuche Mapuexpress news programme reported that “Two French journalists, Christopher Cyril Harrison and Joffrey Paul Rossj, were arrested on 17 March in Collipulli, while they were filming a Werken [a traditional authority of the Mapuche people]. The police confiscated their filming equipment and the tapes containing the work they had done up to then. Although there was an attempt to extradite them, the French consul avoided it. Two days later, together with the Werken, they were attacked in the street by a group of twelve people. On Saturday 3 May something similar happened with Giuseppe Gabriele and Dario Ioseffi, two Italian documentarians, while they were filming a Mapuche demonstration taking place on one of Forestal Mininco’s plots, claimed for almost two decades by a Chupilko community.”

Amnesty International recommends a series of actions in the case of Elena Varela, among them addressing letters to the President, the Minister of Culture and the Minister of the Interior (see in For their part, various well-known people from the film world have circulated a letter addressed to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, demanding the liberation of Elena Varela and stating their “concern over the situation of freedom of expression in Chile” (see and a video of the press conference:

Elena Varela’s grief is very great “because I cannot show what I had to show. But I must be strong, because now it is I who is suffering the pain of the Mapuche people.”

Article based on “Estoy presa por la información que manejo”, Jaime Díaz Lavanchy / La Nación Sunday 9 June 2008,
; “Chile: Libertad de Expresión”, Amnesty International; “Documentalista de Film Mapuche y las graves violaciones al trabajo documental”, Mapuexpress,; input from Alfredo Seguel, Coordination of Mapuche Territorial Identities (Coordinación de Identidades Territoriales Mapuche),