Indigenous entrepreneurs thrive in Chile

Chile entrepenuers

For decades, the Mapuche indigenous community has been at war with the Chilean state. When the region of Araucanía was annexed by Chile in the 19th century, Mapuche lands were expropriated by the state. Venancio Coñuepan – founder and executive director of Fundación Chile Intercultural, an Atlas Network partner based in Temuco, Chile – argues that government intervention has hindered the Mapuche community’s progress. His organization’s Indigenous Private Enterprise project seeks to show the history of indigenous people who overcame adversity and legal pitfalls to engage and thrive in private enterprise and to spur a change in the status quo that continues to support the legal barriers to prosperity and opportunity.

“There’s a stereotype in Chile that the Mapuche people are lazy, that they don’t like to work, and that they live off welfare and government subsidies,” Coñuepan explained. According to Coñuepan, politicians often feed this stereotype, claiming that the community has continually received government handouts and yet has nothing to show for it.

Coñuepan claims the stereotype is politically motivated. “It's easy to justify taking land away from its rightful owners by arguing that they are not productive landowners.”

In order to turn the tide in this debate, Coñuepan and his team put together a compilation of stories on the lives of Mapuche entrepreneurs. For Coñuepan, this project is very personal. “I am Mapuche, my family is Mapuche. So are our friends and neighbors,” Coñuepan said.

The Fundación Chile Intercultural team identified Mapuche entrepreneurs from all occupations, from individuals in the beginning stages of launching a business, to successful business leaders who became millionaires. Coñuepan especially admired the moxie of female street vendors from Temuco. In Temuco, operating informal businesses is prohibited, and yet it is difficult and expensive to register officially. The Temuco street vendors went to great lengths to play by the rules, but government regulations continue to impede their success.

“The biggest issue the indigenous community faces today is not a lack of intelligence or entrepreneurial spirit,” Coñuepan says. “It is that the very policies sold as ones that will benefit the Mapuche people are tinged with government paternalism and end up actively harming the community’s interests.”

Through this project, Coñuepan aims to chronicle the history of the Mapuche community, explaining that the community’s economy had never centered on agriculture, but rather on livestock. When the Chilean government expropriated Mapuche land in the 19th century, they completely transformed the once-thriving Mapuche economy. Each family was allotted only one or two acres of land by the government, and the Mapuche went from being prosperous landowners to small-scale farmers. Today, the Mapuche people represent almost 80 percent of the indigenous population of Chile, and most of the community lives in abject poverty. Rather than allow the Mapuche people to prosper, the Chilean government has continued to implement barriers to the community’s development.

In recognition of Fundación Chile Intercultural’s work, former Chilean president and current president-elect Sebastián Piñera invited Coñuepan to a meeting of various civil society leaders to discuss what the government should do concerning the indigenous community in southern Chile. Coñuepan was then invited to join the Commission of Indigenous Peoples, which is tasked with developing a conceptual and programmatic public policy proposal on indigenous peoples. Coñuepan has also been featured on several regional and national media outlets, further cementing his reputation as a national thought leader on the issue. Fundación Chile Intercultural is fostering a change in the conversation in Chile about the Mapuche people and the state’s relationship with them.

Fundación Chile Intercultural is a recipient of Atlas Network’s Liberating Enterprise to Advance Prosperity grant for its Indigenous Private Enterprise project. The grant offers support to think tanks outside of North America with ambitious and achievable plans to improve the public policy and regulatory environment in their countries, particularly in relation to limits on enterprise and entrepreneurship as measured in the Doing Business Index.