Latin America & Caribbean

Why Chile's Mapuche do business their own way

A dish served in the restaurant of Mapuche chef Jose Luis Calfucura Image copyright Jose Rodriguez
Image caption The cooking of Mapuche chef Jose Luis Calfucura has garnered national and international praise

"Left-wing, right-wing - all the governments say the same: produce, produce, produce! But this doesn't work," Rosamel Millaman Reinao says.

Mr Millaman is an anthropologist and a member of Chile's largest indigenous group, the Mapuche.

The rampant poverty many Mapuche live in has rung alarm bells with successive governments. But their policies have so far failed to improve Mapuche living conditions.

Mr Millaman argues this is because government policies have not taken into account the group's particular worldview, and sometimes even go against it.

The government of President Sebastian Pinera (2010-2014) for example, followed commercial production logic and focused on generating opportunities for individual indigenous entrepreneurs, whose success was then measured according to their earnings.

But Mr Millaman says this was the wrong approach as "the Mapuche don't seek great wealth".

He says traditional Mapuche society was egalitarian, with members aspiring to "Kume Felen" - a good life - based on the balance between humans and their social, cultural, ecological and cosmological environment.

This means that they aspire to manage natural resources in a sustainable manner. The family and the community, rather than the individual, are at the centre of Mapuche economic activities.

Clash of two worlds

The Mapuche feel that economic progress in harmony with their worldview is difficult to achieve under current government rules and regulations.

They complain that the government body which offers financing to small and medium-sized enterprises, CORFO, will not support some kinds of business projects.

Hugo Alcaman is the president of ENAMA, an organisation promoting Mapuche economic development.

He says that some traditional Mapuche businesses, such as herbalists, find it hard to obtain financing because their business model may involve extra costs a non-indigenous business would not incur.

"Plants are the life that gives us life. We cannot use them without rituals performed by a machi (spiritual healer). CORFO wouldn't pay for this," he explains.

Image copyright MIra Galanova
Image caption Mapuche pharmacies have sprung up in a number of towns
Image copyright Mira Galanova
Image caption Leonardo Sandovala opened his in the city of Concepcion in central Chile

The government expected them to do "business like any western person", Mr Alcaman adds.

Mr Alcaman and his organisation have been searching for an economic model which will marry the Mapuche way of life with Chile's capitalist economy.

ENAMA Vice-President Pedro Cayuqueo says there is no lack of entrepreneurial spirit among the Mapuche and that a number of them have been able find a compromise between their ideals and the economic reality surrounding them.

Self-made man

According to the latest census, a quarter of the economically active Mapuche own businesses of their own.

"The Mapuche have a natural knack for envisaging the future. This helps them do business," says Wilfredo Antilef.

Image copyright Mira Galanova
Image caption Wilfredo Antilef has brought his seven siblings into his business

His is a story of a self-made man. Starting with no capital and without any help from the state, he ventured into a range of businesses.

Today, he owns a machinery company with offices around the world.

As the business grew, Mr Antilef brought his seven siblings into it. "This is not an individual struggle," he explains. "It is a way forward for the whole family."

Channelling the spirit

Silversmith Ximena Painepan is another example of how some Mapuche manage to incorporate their heritage into their business model.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Her Mapuche heritage plays a crucial role in silversmith Ximena Painepan's work

She says the fact that she was born in the capital, Santiago, makes it easier for her to move between "the ancestral and the modern world".

In her work, Ms Painepan combines modern and ancestral techniques as well as traditional and contemporary designs.

She has resisted commercial pressures to produce more pieces faster. Jewellery has strong religious significance in Mapuche culture and the silversmith believes it is her duty to pass it on.

"I could buy a machine and cut jewellery on a mass scale, but the tradition would be lost," she explains.

"With every piece of jewellery, my clients are also buying my spirit. The best of me," she stresses.

Spice of life

Chef Zunila Lepin also incorporates her Mapuche roots into her cooking. She says only organic food "with its own taste", finds its way into her tiny kitchen.

Image copyright Mira Galanova
Image caption Chef Zunila Lepin buys produce from indigenous farmers

Ms Lepin says that as well as introducing non-indigenous customers to indigenous recipes, her business benefits Mapuche farmers, from whom she buys produce.

She is unlikely to get rich on the 1,500 Chilean pesos ($2.70, £1.60) she charges for a hearty breakfast, but she does not seem to care.

"Too much money will do you harm" she says, smiling.

It is a view shared by celebrity chef Jose Luis Calfucura, whose cooking has attracted the attention of the Chilean and international media.

Image copyright Jose Rodriguez
Image caption Jose Luis Calfucura wants people to be able to afford to eat his culinary creations
Image copyright Vicente Moreno
Image caption He prides himself on cooking with fresh produce from his own garden

But rather than take advantage of his newfound fame, Mr Calfucura keeps prices low in his restaurant in Santiago. He says he wants people to be able to afford to taste his cooking.

His successful venture was one of those turned down for funding by government financing body CORFO, so the chef raised the money to set up his company by selling home-baked pasties.

Mr Cayuqueo, of ENAMA, says the answer may lie in the Mapuche creating their own version of CORFO.

Economic empowerment, he hopes, will bring about a solution to many of the other problems the Mapuche are facing.

Related Topics

More on this story

Related Internet links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites