Multiple territories in dispute : water policies, participation and Mapuce indigenous rights in Patagonia, Argentina

Moreyra, A.


This thesis is about the multiple territories which dispute the shape and control of
the development of the Trahunco-Quitrahue watershed, at Cerro Chapelko,
Neuquén province in Argentinean Patagonian. Built into these disputes are the
struggles of Mapuce peoples -indigenous peoples of the region- for the
recognition in practice of their indigenous rights and the implications these have
for natural resources management policies and actions, as well as for participation
in decision-making processes.
This study began focusing on a proposal of local and provincial water agencies to
resolve local water demands by creating a water users association proposed for a
small watershed49, the Trahunco stream in San Martín de los Andes (SMA),
Patagonia. This territory was claimed by Mapuce communities and hosted several
tourism enterprises. As fieldwork developed, the unravelling of the multiple
realities involved in the water policy process, whether through the WUA or
outside of it, made me broaden the scope of the research.
The interethnic character of the site is reflected in its multiple actors, which
include among others, tourism investors and allied businessmen, employees and
administrators of an International Ski resort, different state agencies relating to
the use and control of water resources and the impact of development projects -
and two Mapuce indigenous communities, one of them very active in a Mapuce
political organisation. All have different views, interests, possibilities and rights in
respect to how development is to be defined.
Therefore, once into the writing of this text, I decided that the notion of territory
was the most appropriate for bringing together into the analysis the multiple
dimensions intertwined at this local water policy implementation process.
Territory is a concept that allows articulating the processes of social interactions
and relationships, disputes for resource uses and control and, identity formation.
The main questions of the research are:
-What are the social interfaces of the WUA in San Martín de los Andes and how
and why are the different meanings, projects and representations negotiated?
-What are the processes involved in creating alternative policy spaces as Mapuce
countertendencies for furthering their indigenous rights and their notions of
For answering these and other nested questions, I followed an actor-oriented
perspective which engages with ethnographic research and participant observation as one of my main research strategies. This implied social interaction
with the groups researched within their daily activities, gathering information in
a systematic, non intrusive way, in order to get a view from ‘within’ the location
selected for study. It required entering the fieldwork without a “formal
hypothesis” but only with a preliminary comprehension of the problem to be
studied. These notions guided the first steps of fieldwork, allowing for an
accommodation to the circumstances found and the identification of what the
actors consider as the problem around the topic of my interest as a researcher. My
primary interest was to do research on the processes of genesis and
implementation of a Water Users Association. While doing participant
observation I combined a number of research techniques such as informal and
formal discussions, individual interviews and meetings with focus groups.
Attendance at local meetings, works and other events such as street protests,
celebrations, markets, also drew attention to some aspects of the research and led
me to new, unexpected insights and questions.
For carrying out the fieldwork of this research, several periods of time were spent
at San Martín de los Andes: seven months during 2001, three months in 2004 and
shorter (one or two weeks) visits in 2003, 2006 and 2007. During the year between
September 2006 and August 2007, I was working as a consultant within the
Directorate of Indigenous Peoples and Natural Resources, at the National
Secretariat of Environment and Sustainable Development. In this opportunity I
worked closely to the Director, who is also one of the main Mapuce
representatives of the political organisation whose actions this study focuses on.
In this period, I met and shared discussions with many indigenous people's
representatives and other Mapuce actors.
This study analyses Mapuce peoples struggles for carving alternative policy
spaces for enforcing indigenous rights and establish a ‘new relationship with the
state’. For doing so, I firstly focused on a participatory water intervention in
which a variety of actors were involved. Acknowledging the politics of
participation in policy processes aiming to regulate the management of such vital
resource led me to other arenas of action where actors excluded from the formal
intervention, were actually generating new spaces of negotiation, not without
The social fields of interaction and dispute related to territory and sovereignty in
Cerro Chapelko, at San Martín de los Andes, in the province of Neuquén are
contextualized in the historically constructed cultural repertoires which influence
today’s relationships between the hegemonic elites in power, other members of
society and the Mapuce indigenous peoples of the region.
Despite the formal recognition of indigenous rights in the national Constitution
and the state’s agreements to International Conventions, the indigenous peoples
of Argentina do not have access to their enforcement. Contemporary debates
about the pre-existence of indigenous peoples in the region still influence the
practical recognition of their rights. This is not a minor issue due to the relevance
it has for exercising the autonomy in their territories.
This permeates into the workings of state institutions involved in water, natural
resources and environment management and control. At local level, the study
focuses in the particular workings of such institutions in the process of
implementation of a participatory water policy that brings together the multiple
users at the watershed level, leading to the creation of a Water Users Association.
The dynamics of this process reveal the processes of inclusion and exclusion that
emerge out of these interfaces, so much related to the denial or ignorance of
indigenous rights. The study shows how contemporary local state agencies
manage to reproduce the state’s historical notion of territory as a homogenizing
process of control and the denial of the rights of indigenous peoples.
The exclusion of Mapuce political organisation from the scheme to develop a
Water Users Association was not a cul-de-sac for them to pursue their political
project. The strategies and tactics that the Mapuce deployed to create alternative
policy spaces for their exercise of territoriality, which is a main element of their
struggle for the recognition of indigenous rights, resulted a much more effective
way for their participation in decision making. The construction of these
countertendencies, that Mapuce call in general ‘the new relationship with the
state’, emerge as alternative modernities which by incorporating difference into
policy agendas and institutions, start to put in practice a recognition that in
general is still only on paper.
Therefore, the watershed is a site where multiple notions of territory are being
disputed through different means and for different interests. Tourism
developments advance their economic territorial projects supported by the
sector’s businesses at local and regional level, The state, which influences the
control through interventions as tools, shapes the territory sometimes favouring
such projects. Mapuce people’s community members and political organisation,
and their allies from different civil society sectors, claim their rights to participate
in such definitions and propose new forms of participation.
The meanings of ‘participation’ therefore, become a central issue of debate among
these different actors struggling to get their notions on the political agenda. A
main issue for getting indigenous rights right therefore, is the notion of
differential modes of citizenship rooted in the concept of autonomy expressed
within a pluri-national state, whose institutions and parliament should include
Mapuce -and other peoples, as such. This is the issue from which all other aspects
of indigenous rights unfold, therefore, constituting the motor of Mapuce peoples
political movement.
However, state institutions approach participation as an invitation to stakeholders
to be informed on policy programmes and actions. Participation is reduced to a
method or technique even in the best of the cases. From the discourses of state
functionaries and legal advisors, in this study it becomes clear that the issue of
differentiated citizenship is not incorporated into how institutions work.
The coexistence of multiple territories without conflict requires that the state and
wider society acknowledge in practice these rights the Mapuce are defending.
Otherwise, the meanings of participation that are embedded in institutional
practices that in fact over-rule or ignore these rights, most probably will continue
to generate conflicts and disputes.