The social life of regions : salmon farming and the regionalization of development in Chilean Patagonia

Blanco Wells, G.E.


This thesis explores a sociological approach towards understanding the contemporary process by which certain territorial relations are grouped under the notion of region. The research adopts an ethnographic perspective to reconstruct the social life of regions by focusing not only on the processes and activities that have transformed territorial units into objects of intervention, but also on the practices and sites that have turned regions into meaningful fields of action through which people carry out their life projects. This argument is sustained through research findings that recorded the spread of salmon farming in the Patagonian Region of Aysén in southern Chile.
Salmon farming expanded rapidly due to the increasing importance of trade networks that profited from the global demand of food commodities and the centrality given to regions as units of coordination between State agencies, trade networks, national or foreign capital and local livelihoods. The thesis shows how the practices and sites related to the expansion of salmon farming challenge the social organization and territorial functions attributed to the contemporary Region of Aysén. It argues that the regionalization of certain development processes have facilitated the emergence of new activities producing globally demanded commodities. The thesis critically examines the wide scope of social practices that over time have contributed to create regional entities and transform them into techno-political objects of intervention. This process went together with academic and managerial trends in which the main object of development shifted to regional modes of economic functionality and territorial coordination of actors. Since the 1980s, this trend that I have called the regionalization of development has become more relevant by the rising flows of global commodities, the new geographies of food production and consumption and new governmental patterns of territorial allocation of resources. The politics of regional development proposes a path to globalization based on the spatial organization of activities and the selective support of actors geared towards the production of successful exportable commodities.
Despite the popularity of regional development among experts, this thesis argues that the direction and hegemony of territorial approaches are increasingly modulated through the multiplicity of social groups and organizations that are contesting, subverting or adapting some of its effects until they are transformed in meaningful parts of people’s life-worlds. In this sense, the thesis shows that the form and the extent to which salmon farming relates to a politics of regional development is, indeed, controversial. In a techno-political approach to regional development actors do not struggle over one specific resource, but over a set of territorially based interventions, objects and projects that reflect differences in values, meanings and life-worlds. To understand this process differently, this thesis introduces the concept of a regional field of action in order to show a more complex and diverse landscape of activities, projects and livelihoods that are also contributing to make a region the home of settlers and workers. This living region unfolds daily within, around and outside the salmon farming industry but cannot be reduced to it. Salmon farming is already a part of the activities and strategies of local people but, contrary to the self-sufficiency of hegemonic projects, they manifest the right of seeing and imagining things differently and, accordingly, of granting or refusing the right to others to intervene in certain domains of their everyday life.
This book concludes that the existence of export-based activities and trade networks in Chile is partly made possible by the creation of a regional field of action that facilitates the re-allocation of resources and the mobilization of people, capital and materials. The concept of regional field of action allows us to unite, from a practice-oriented perspective, all the outcomes that region-making processes generate independently if they are created by rulers, entrepreneurs, workers or local people. Regional fields of action become an approach to study processes of development in a sociological sense by focusing on the effects that the formation of regions has for people’s organization of everyday life and the constitution of meaningful life projects.
In sum, this thesis explores how different social groups create, dwell in, and transform a region. The narrative does not reduce the experience of constructing a region to vertical and hierarchical techno-political perspectives. It shows a multiplicity of sites that express local forms of regaining, contesting or adapting those regional fields and transforming them into places and relations that are meaningful for people’s life-worlds. I believe this book broadens the perspective of regional development towards locally constructed forms of change that can contribute to make visible and build up new livelihood opportunities and to re-think a more inclusive perspective that values the experience of regional dwellers.