Things That Matter

Well-Known Chilean Indigenous Leader Alberto Curamil Has Been Acquitted

After worldwide protest, Indigenous leader Alberto Curamil has been acquitted of charges related to his actions to stop the construction of a dam on a sacred river. Curamil, along with his co-defendant Álvaro Millalén, would have faced 50 years in prison for “raiding a compensation fund,” “gun theft,” and “illegal possession of weapons.” If it weren’t for the four international environmental and legal nonprofit groups who advocated for Curamil and Millalén, it’s likely that the case wouldn’t have received international pressure from the public. The judges assigned to the case unanimously decided to acquit both of all charges last Friday, but that’s not often the case.

The criminalization of environmental defenders, who are often Indigenous leaders, is on the rise in Latin America.

Alberto Curamil’s efforts have earned him this year’s Goldman Environmental Prize, often considered the “Green Nobel Peace Prize.”

CREDIT: @JAIMECUYANAO / TWITTER

Alberto Curamil is an indigenous Mapuche and Lonko (traditional leader) to his people. The Mapuche are the largest indigenous group in Chile, their name translating to “people of the land.” The Mapuche view the natural world around them, including rivers and forests, as kin to their brothers. The Mapuche have long been victimized and criminalized by the Chilean government. In the late 1800s, the Chilean army was tasked with invading their land to privatize and sell it to individual owners. The government forcibly stole the Mapuche land and would go on to privatize water in the entire country. 

In the last decade, Chile’s minister of energy announced a project that would include building 40 dams on the Mapuche’s rivers, two of which would be in the heart of their community. While the project would generate more energy for the country, it would irreparably harm the riparian ecosystems. Alberto Curamil, 45, has dedicated his life to protecting Mapuche rivers and preserving the Mapuche native language of Mapudungun. He formed a coalition with other community members, academics, environmental organizations and launched a massive public, media and legal campaign against the projects. For his work, he earned the 2019 Goldman Prize, also known as the “Green Nobel Peace Prize.” The government acknowledged his work with criminal charges that would effectively mean he’d die in prison.

Police accused Curamil of disorderly conduct and beat him while he was in custody.

CREDIT: @RAYBAE689 / TWITTER

According to the Goldman Prize organization, “police arrested Curamil and two other Mapuche leaders and accused them of disorderly conduct and causing public unrest for organizing protests. Police beat Curamil while in custody, badly bruising his face. Police also attacked his pregnant wife.” Still, his legal battle with the Chilean government proved fruitful. Two years after Curamil was arrested and beaten, his continued campaign yielded a victory: Chile’s Third Environmental Tribunal ruled that one of the two dams would be canceled because the government violated its own laws to consult with the Mapuche or environmental experts on its impacts.

Two years after the victory, police arrested Curamil once again in what many believe was a frame-job to take Curamil out of the picture while Chile approved another hydroelectric project on the same river.

CREDIT: @TWEETLIAM / TWITTER

Curamil was arrested in August 2018 after an “anonymous tip” connected Curamil, Álvaro Millalén, Alberto José Cáceres and Víctor Llanquileo Pilquimán with a $76 million peso robbery. Curamil has spent the last 15 months in Temuco prison awaiting trial. He wasn’t even able to attend his own awards ceremony to receive the Green Nobel Peace award. His daughter, Belén, 18, went to accept the award on behalf of her father, who she called a “political prisoner,” according to NBC News. Many believe the firearms “found” in his home were planted given that his DNA was not found on the weapons.

“I am very happy because we knew that both Alberto Curamil and Álvaro Millalén were innocent,” Curamil’s daughter, Belén, told press outside the courtroom that finally allowed Curamil to walk free, according to NBC News. “If they were imprisoned for so long, it is because they raised their voices and fought for our territory, for the freedom of our ‘mapu,’ the freedom of our rivers and the freedom of the Mapuche people.” Curamil’s advocacy for the environment as inadvertently spurred another advocacy in his daughter: to decriminalize environmental human rights defenders.

Belén has spent the last 15 months of her father’s imprisonment to speak out against the rising criminalization of indigenous leaders for defending their land. In September, she spoke in front of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on the topic.

READ: Indigenous Leaders And Environmental Groups Have Concerns Over President AMLO’s Tourist Train In The Yucatán

Notice any needed corrections? Please email us at corrections@wearemitu.com