Safe from what? Understanding environmental non-migration in Chilean Patagonia through ontological security and risk perceptions

Wiegel, Hanne; Warner, Jeroen; Boas, Ingrid; Lamers, Machiel


Why do communities prefer to stay in place despite potentially dangerous changes in their environment, even when governmental support for outmigration or resettlement is provided? That is the key question this paper seeks to answer. Voluntary immobility is a burgeoning research topic in environmental change-related migration studies, although the role of local sense-making of perceived risks and migration pressures has received only little attention. In order to examine decisions for non-migration, we argue that we need to consider people’s ontological security, or subjective sense of existential safety, which shapes risk perceptions. We apply this to the case of Villa Santa Lucía in Chilean Patagonia, where the local population has rejected relocation policies after the village was severely damaged by a mudslide in December 2017. We show how this rejection is not based on the lack of abilities to move, but on a fundamentally different risk assessment grounded in locally specific social representations of nature and human-nature relations. This alternative understanding of environmental risks allows the local population to uphold their sense of ontological security while remaining in Villa Santa Lucía, and renders relocation to avoid exposure to natural hazards futile or even inconsistent with local identities. We conclude that local sense-making of environmental risks is an important component of a more fine-grained understanding of environmental non-migration decisions.