An Interview on Patagonian Imaginaries

A recent paper in the Journal of Latin American Geography, “The Patagonian Imaginary: Natural Resources and Global Capitalism at the Far End of the World,” analyzes the construction of southern Andean Patagonia as an “ecoregion,” a label that has come to dominate the representation of the glaciated territory of Chile and Argentina. Through this representation, resource extraction and environmental preservation coalesce within a shared framework of green development, which then circulates globally and perpetuates the ecoregion narrative.

The incomparable beauty of the Patagonian Andes near Ushuaia (Source: Trey Ratcliff/Creative Commons).

The paper is a collaborative research effort by five scholars, and it differs from other work in the region in that it attempts to produce a unifying regional framework via a coterie of academic interests and field sites. GlacierHub spoke with the anthropologists Marcos Mendoza and Laura Ogden, two of the paper’s authors, about their findings.

GlacierHub: Briefly describe the importance of your research.

Marcos Mendoza: There are three contributions that the paper makes. It provides the first theorization of southern Andean Patagonia as an ecoregion that simultaneously examines multiple resource regimes. Most previous studies have focused rather narrowly on one type of resource. Instead, we sought to build our argument across three resource domains: land conservation, forestry, and hydropower. Second, we have developed a conceptual model for understanding the Patagonian ecoregion as an example of what we termed a “regional territorial imaginary.” To understand the Patagonian territorial imaginary, we attended to the: 1) geopolitics of space, particularly the development of protected areas in the wake of ongoing border conflicts between Argentina and Chile; 2) the intersection of global neoliberal capitalism with green development; and 3) the diverse forms of natural capital at work within “conservation” and “extraction.” Third, we hope it shows how useful it can be to theorize across resource regimes and bring together like-minded scholars working on similar problems. 


GlacierHub: Describe your own work, and how that fits into this collaboration.

Laura Ogden: Patagonia, like Amazonia, has functioned as a mythic imaginary for a very long time [see Hugh Raffles’ classic “In Amazonia”]. Every hostel in the region seems to have several well-worn copies of Bruce Chatwin’s “In Patagonia” lying around, which says something about how and why a particular figuration of Patagonia endures. For the last several years, I have been doing fieldwork in southernmost Patagonia, in the Fuegian archipelago, both on the main island and on Navarino Island. My project, which I am calling an alternative archive of loss, change, and wonder, explores the ways global environmental change articulates with other histories of loss and change in the region, as well as the limitations of this optic.

For the past few decades, environmental anthropologists, and particularly political ecologists, have been interested in understanding how neoliberal forms of capitalism are transforming conservation efforts and forms of environmental concern. I have always been fairly skeptical of totalizing critique, and so was not surprised that some of the key manifestations of neoliberal conservation— interest in carbon markets, ecosystem services, eco-tourism, etc. — are mostly rhetorical or strategic devices in the parks, estancias [estates or ranches], and communities where I have been working. In reality, the infrastructure just isn’t there yet — even though a range of communities evoke that language in hopes that the places and livelihoods they care about will be protected and/or remain economically viable. Of course, this could change quickly. Yet, our collaborative exercise showed me how the idea of Patagonia is becoming operationalized in new ways to support conservation and ecotourism throughout Chile and Argentina— sometimes to counter older forms of capitalist extraction and development initiatives, such as hydroelectric power. 

The jagged ice has captured the imagination of tourists from across the globe (Source: Killy Ridols/Creative Commons).

GH: If past research within Patagonia has been limited to specific sites and has failed to tell a broader regional story, what are the limits of the spatially and temporally multitiered methodology you and your co-authors implement in studying the region?

MM: The obvious next step to this methodological approach would be to perform a similar “regionalization” study of the eastern/non-Andean zone of Southern Patagonia, which has its own history of resource exploitation and representational value. However, eastern Patagonia has been primarily focused on agro-extraction—mining, petroleum, and livestock farming— with less coverage by protected areas. There is a fundamental asymmetry within the global imagination of Patagonia, which privileges its Andean landscapes (glaciers, mountains, lagunas, forests) and erases its non-Andean landscapes (steppe, monte, and coastal ecologies). This is one limitation to our study, which should be expanded to include the rest of Southern Patagonia.


GH: In what ways does the regional territorial imaginary of Patagonia as ecoregion create a new space for indigenous rights? I assume the ecoregion label and the commodification of pristine natural beauty also comes with foreign desire to experience indigenous cultures. What role does the territorial imaginary grant to the indigenous?

MM: The ecoregion is a green developmental framework to which indigenous groups— most located in Northern Patagonia— could tether their projects, goals and movements. This provides indigenous groups with a framework for potentially opposing mining, forestry, and hydropower companies and interests. However, green capitalism also presents its own set of risks to indigenous groups in the form of land grabs, control of water rights, inequality, etc.  

The ecoregion does entail the commodification of sublime nature and indigeneity/heritage. However, the armed forces and settler colonists were quite successful in killing, dispossessing and marginalizing indigenous societies in southern Andean Patagonia. Since the late 19th century, part of the colonization effort has been to erase or suppress the existing indigenous presence that remains. Rather than indigenous societies, the ecotourism industry has primarily sought to commodify Patagonian rural heritage. Gauchos [cowboys from southern South America] and paisanos [country people], working on estancias [estates], have become representative of “native Patagonian frontier culture.” This heritage industry draws upon tropes of indigeneity to construct a “wild other” living on the margins of Chilean and Argentine society.


GH: There are obviously limits to place-making, and one cannot readily attract visitors to any site. Why do you think mountains and glaciers in particular are such place-makeable spaces? I am curious about the importance of glaciers in constituting the Patagonia imaginary, and how that ties into a larger ecotourism trends in other glaciated parts of the world. Why, in your opinion, is Los Glaciares the “crown jewel” of Patagonian parks? What drives these sites as spaces of bourgeois aesthetic distinction?

The mesmerizing alpine landscapes lends themselves well to the ecoregion imaginary (Source: roman korzh/Creative Commons).

MM: As someone who has worked in Argentina, let me speak to that country’s history. One of the interesting things about the founding of the National Parks Administration of Argentina was that it involved elites who had spent substantial time traveling throughout Europe. They were well versed with the connection between the Alps, tourism and the leisured class. The founders sought to refashion Argentine and foreign understandings of the Patagonian Andes in explicit reference to creating Argentina’s version of the Swiss Alps. From the 1930s onward, mountains and glaciers became crucial to the state-led tourism industry in Northern Andean Patagonia. It took many decades, however, for tourism and conservation to become integral to Southern Andean Patagonia.

The Perito Moreno Glacier in the iconic Los Glaciares National Park (Source: Dimitry B./Creative Commons).

Since the 1990s, Southern Andean Patagonia has begun to market itself more aggressively as the “end of the world” and the region with some of most accessible glaciers on the planet. Sure, you can hike 12 hours round-trip to see a glacier up close, but you can also take a charter bus to the observation deck positioned directly in front of Perito Moreno Glacier. Or you can board a boat to sail through the fjords and see dozens of glaciers. For those people who either cannot hike or choose not to, accessibility is a major selling point. Because of this suite of options, Los Glaciares National Park is the most visited park in Patagonia, for now. Indeed, the primary ecotourism circuit involves Los Glaciares, Torres del Paine, and Tierra del Fuego. The place branding of the region really revolves around these three parks, but there is a lot of work going on in Chile’s Aysén Region to add more high-profile destinations to the primary circuit.


GH: The paper refers to a new phase of global capital, in which the extraction of resources and the conservation of biodiversity operate according to the same capitalistic logic. What future do you see to this pairing?

MM: In this article, we try to show how the Patagonian ecoregion is emerging through processes of natural capital formation across industries traditionally labelled as “conservation” or “extraction.” However, one of the points we make is that these terms are themselves slippery, underdetermined and contested. The case of hydropower is a good example. Some argue that building mega-dams is an example of “energy extraction” and should be opposed in order to preserve the green development framework. Others argue that mega-dams are actually “green energy” and align with the ecoregion paradigm. Our point is that scholars need to pay closer attention to the politics of meaning surrounding these two terms, which are often opposed to one another in an uncritical fashion.  

In terms of the future of this new phase of global capital, I imagine we will continue to see the growing expansion of natural capital, of various kinds. Much of the cutting-edge work in the neoliberal conservation literature looks at financialization and the new mechanisms and technologies allowing different permutations of natural capital to circulate globally. What our paper underscores is that we should expect to see different regimes of natural capital formation begin to interlock with industries we typically think of as “extractive.” In this way, corporations and industries can make money through the extraction and exchange of natural resources, but also make money off of conserving its resource stock for a set amount of time or by certifying its products as sustainable/green/eco-friendly.

The popular Patagonia brand has profited from and contributed to the Patagonia ecoregion imaginary (Source: Yukiko Matsuoka/Creative Commons).


GH: Ecotourism seem to have a long future, but what are the ecological risks to the region if the tourists, for whatever reason, stop coming?

MM: Certainly, there are many socio-ecological risks to Patagonian societies given their increasing specialization as an ecoregion. There will be more forest fires in popular national parks like Torres del Paine. We will see increasing urbanization in towns like El Calafate and Ushuaia. And there is always the fear that Patagonia will cease being a hyped, high-status destination to visit.

As such, communities recognize that they are dependent on macroeconomic factors and exchange rates over which they have little to no control. However, Patagonia continues to benefit from its global image as an archetypal wilderness. Its ecotourism industry–based on touristic access to glaciers–will endure for many more decades to come, despite climate change. Given the scale of the Southern and Northern Patagonian Icefields (combined they are approximately the size of the state of Vermont), Patagonian ecotourism destinations will have a comparative advantage over other alpine destinations that are rapidly losing their glaciers.  

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