SANTIAGO – An unoccupied rural school and a storage house were burned before dawn Monday by unknown arsonists in an Indian-populated area of the southern Chilean region of La Araucania, authorities said.
The school, which had not been in operation for a year due to lack of students, was located in Villa Chihuaihue, some 570 kilometers (353 miles) south of Santiago, officials said.
In the area there have been frequent incidents linked to the conflict between Mapuche Indian communities and forestry and agri-business firms occupying parcels the indigenous people consider part of their ancestral lands.
Residents said that before the flames appeared in the school they heard gunshots.
The building was completely destroyed in the blaze.
Police said the school was doused with some type of fuel before it was set alight.
Authorities said that a storage house located a kilometer (0.6 mile) away where various agricultural items were being kept was burned at about the same time the school was going up in flames.
The incident coincided with the sending of 200 members of the Carabineros – Chile’s militarized national police – to La Araucania from Santiago tasked with preventing potential attacks on agricultural lands.
The deployment came in response to a request by farmers in the area, attorney Carlos Tenorio told Cooperative radio.
“The lands that need special protective measures are an important number, at least several dozen, to look after the safety of the agricultural and forestry workers,” the lawyer said.
Authorities said that starting Monday in the surrounding province of Malleco about 100 policemen were making rounds every eight hours to watch over 37 properties, while another 17 are being visited by the officers more sporadically.
The 650,000-strong Mapuche nation, Chile’s largest indigenous group, is demanding constitutional recognition of its identity, rights and culture, as well as ownership of the tribe’s traditional territory.
Their struggle to reclaim ancestral lands led last year to the deaths of two Indian activists in confrontations with police, while a number of Mapuche militants are facing charges for attacks on cargo trucks.
Earlier this month, a Chilean military court handed down a two-year suspended sentence to a Carabinero who fatally shot a Mapuche Indian activist in the back during a protest in January 2008.
The United Nations and organizations such as Amnesty International have voiced concerns about Chile’s treatment of the Mapuches. EFE