Prince Frédéric I, the exiled monarch of the so-called Kingdom of Araucanía and Patagonia, admits that Chilean authorities did not take kindly to his 2019 letter to the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

The kingdom is an unrecognised state, covering more than a third of modern-day Chile and Argentina. But in the letter, the prince complained of human rights abuses against the indigenous Mapuche people, who are fighting for autonomy.

Prince Frédéric, who lives near Toulouse, has been a pretender to the throne since the death of his predecessor, Prince Antonio IV, in 2017. It is a title that dates from 1860, when the eccentric French lawyer Orélie-Antoine de Tounens was appointed by the Mapuches in the south of Chile as their king, before he was captured and then exiled by the newly independent Chilean government.

“My role is very humble,” confesses Prince Frédéric, a French aristocrat who speaks a little Spanish but not the Mapuche tongue, and has never been to Chile. “I am keeping up tradition, memory . . . This could be important in the fight of the Mapuche people, as a piece of history and an international legal argument for their autonomy.” He was elected by a council of 15 people — eight of whom were Mapuches living abroad.

The Mapuches themselves regard Prince Frédéric with “a lot of curiosity and distance”, says Pedro Cayuqueo, a Mapuche leader and historian who is based in Chile. The letter is unlikely to make much of a difference to the Mapuche cause, admits Cayuqueo, but it will raise greater international awareness. The prince is a “symbolic” figure in their fight for autonomy and self-determination, Cayuqueo argues, seeing similarities with struggles by indigenous communities in North and South America, as well as countries such as Australia and New Zealand.

Mapuche communities had their territories annexed by the Chilean state in the 1860s. And the outburst of social unrest in Chile in 2019 — when the Mapuche flag was adopted by protesters demanding greater economic equality — has breathed life into the indigenous people’s cause. So, too, have international human rights movements, such as Black Lives Matter.

Chile’s 2019 demonstrations have triggered a decision to rewrite the constitution. Elections to choose people to sit on a constitutional assembly are to be held next month and 17 Mapuche representatives will be among the 155 people chosen to draw up the new document.

“Until recently, there was no institutional solution in sight but, miraculously, constitutional reform has led to the possibility of change,” says Cayuqueo. “I’m optimistic that [it] could lead to a qualitative leap in the recognition of indigenous rights.”

When President Sebastián Piñera returned to power in 2018, he made solving the Mapuche problem a priority. Initial advances were set back when security forces accidentally killed the Mapuche Camilo Catrillanca as part of an operation intended to capture alleged Mapuche terrorists, and police tried to cover up the incident.

Some of the violence in southern Chile has been described as terrorism, because it involved the burning of churches, schools and lorries, the theft of cattle and timber, and the deaths of some, including Mapuches. Incidents have become more frequent since 1993.

In that year, Chile’s first democratic government after the fall of the military dictator Augusto Pinochet created a fund to finance the return of the disputed land. But while land worth about $1.5bn has been given back — including hundreds of thousands of hectares previously in the hands of forestry companies and other private landowners controlling critical water resources — the Mapuches’ status as one of the most disadvantaged groups in Chile has hardly improved.

Giving back the land without doing anything else is not enough, says Pablo Ortúzar, a Chilean anthropologist.

“The attempt to improve their situation over the past 30 years has yielded little; [policies] have clearly failed,” says Ortúzar, who recognises a need for reparations but criticises the use of violence to that end. “No one has taken [the issue] seriously enough . . . Those efforts require a level of attention that — not only among the Chilean elite, but at a more general level among the population — we are far from conceding.”

Marcel Oppliger, the author of a book about the victims of violence in Araucanía, is also pessimistic. He argues that politicians are hamstrung by twin problems. First, the difficulty in treating violence in Araucanía as a security matter that has little to do with the legitimate Mapuche cause; and second, a fear of using force to quell the violence, especially after the traumas of the brutal Pinochet dictatorship.

The problem is also complicated by its magnitude. About 1.9m of Chile’s 19m population identify as Mapuche, even if only half of those live in the mountainous and forested ancestral land of Araucanía, in southern Chile. The rest mostly live in the metropolitan area of Santiago, the capital city.

“It is a nightmare,” says Oppliger. “There is a fear that any move to recover public order will be expressed in those terms; that it is about political repression and not security. With those two conditioning factors, it is very hard to advance. [Whoever solves this situation] will have to be a very bold politician prepared to pay political costs . . . but no one is even remotely willing to do that.”

A senior official in the Piñera administration says that, so far, politicians on both the left and the right have failed to fix the problem, unable to leave their differences aside.

With strong leadership required, the situation appears unlikely to be helped by an outgoing government facing an opposition more focused on winning presidential elections in November.

Nevertheless, the official says that “tremendous” newfound popular support for the Mapuche people’s plight, as well as the process of constitutional reform, are reasons for renewed hope: “After the darkest hour comes the dawn.”