Meanwhile, in Aysén-Patagonia : Exploring discursive transformations on environment and development in a remote periphery

Bachmann-Vargas, Pamela


Patagonia, is an imaginary territory that comprises the south of Chile and Argentina. Historically, Patagonia has captivated an image of far-off lands and wilderness, embedded in a remote and peripheral context, which in turn has often been idealized as ‘pristine’. In the literature, the reader will find different terminologies referring to Patagonia, in both Chile and Argentina and diverse ideas of where the imaginary boundaries of Patagonia reside. In this dissertation I focus on the Chilean territory, specifically the territory that comprises the administrative region of Aysén, also known as Northern Patagonia. Hereafter, Aysén-Patagonia.

The current social-ecological state of Aysén-Patagonia, cannot be fully understood without looking into historical processes of idealization, territorial (re)invention and discursive transformations, which have molded the common perception towards the Aysén region, and at the same time have influenced how the region (self)transforms.

Over the years, Aysén-Patagonia has faced a series of socio-spatial transformations driven by development and environmental ideas. From a development point of view, Chilean Patagonia, and specifically Northern Patagonia transitioned from extensive livestock ranching in the early twentieth century, to small-scale agriculture, nature-based tourism and industrial salmon aquaculture. From an environmental perspective, cultural and natural heritage associated to the rugged terrains and the livestock farming traditions are being replaced with renovated meanings of pristine and wild nature, situated within national and global targets of nature conservation.

Despite the particular socio-spatial transformations that have taken place in Aysén-Patagonia, no studies have explored the entanglement of environmental and development ideas alike, nor their effects on the Aysén’s peripheral condition. This research contributes to fill this gap, by delving into three current prominent aspects for the environment and development of Aysén-Patagonia, namely: nature-based tourism, salmon aquaculture and nature conservation.

Three research questions guide this dissertation, namely:

  1. What are the predominant environmental and development discourses that are currently being (re)produced in Aysén-Patagonia?
  1. How are these discourses playing out in environment-related practices, specifically in relation to nature-based tourism, salmon aquaculture and nature conservation?
  1. What are the implications of environmental and development discourses and practices, for the (de)peripheralization of Aysén-Patagonia?

This dissertation is composed of six chapters, four of them empirical. In Chapter 1, I present a brief description of the historical context, which has shaped the socio-spatial transformations that have taken place in Aysén-Patagonia. Next, I introduce the conceptual framework. The conceptual framework is based on the definitions of discourses and practices, (de)peripheralization and the remote periphery, along with its connotations of ‘pleasure periphery’, ‘resource periphery’ and ‘wild periphery’. Subsequently, I describe the research design and the methodology carried out throughout the thesis.

In Chapter 2, I identify and analyze the most prominent environmental and development discourses reproduced in the Aysén region. Based on semi-structured interviews with key informants, six discourses were identified, namely: Patagonian wilderness, cultural and natural heritage, regional demands, sustainable energy mix, nature-based tourism, and salmon aquaculture. Based on the analysis of synergies and tensions among discourses, the chapter concludes that environmental and development discourses play a key role in the transformation of remote peripheral areas. Discursive synergies may counteract or exacerbate peripheralizing processes.

Chapter 3 follows up on the nature-based tourism discourse, and its translation into practices. This chapter analyzes small-scale tourism from a practice based approach. This chapter focuses on the case study of the Marble Caves boat tours, an iconic tourist attraction in Aysén-Patagonia. Through semi-structured interviews, questionnaires and participant and non-participant observations, the analysis shows how the reproduction of the boat tour, defined as a social practice, is particularly reliant on the tour operators’ competences, as well as on the abiotic nature of the tourist attraction. The chapter suggests that future tourism policy interventions that aim to harmonize local development and environmental protection need to carefully analyze and take into account existing social practices.

Chapter 4 delves into the discursive reproductions that are currently re-framing the salmon aquaculture industry. This chapter identifies the main discourses in the aftermath of the ISAV crisis (Infectious Salmon Anemia virus), which caused staggering effects more than a decade ago. Based on semi-structured interviews and non-participant observation, the analysis shows how the salmon industry repositions by means of the reproduction of three main discourses, namely: biosecurity, sustainable protein, and The Promise of Patagonia. The chapter concludes, that despite the severe effects of the ISAV crisis on the salmon industry, as well as on coastal communities, new discourses are focused on the legitimization to growth, in the absence of integrated marine ecosystem-related elements, indicating a crucial gap toward environmental sustainability in the Chilean salmon aquaculture.

Chapter 5 explores the interplay between the environmental discourses identified in Aysén-Patagonia: Patagonian wilderness, and cultural and natural heritage, and nature conservation practices. Based on secondary sources supplemented with (online) semi-structured interviews, the chapter inquiries into the narratives that guided the creation of five protected areas, the management approaches and the livelihood practices associated to those areas. The analysis draws upon the following protected areas: National Park Cerro Castillo, National Park Patagonia, National Park Laguna San Rafael, Marine Protected Area Pitipalena-Añihué, and Nature Sanctuary Capilla de Mármol. The chapter contends that the future of protected area management in Aysén-Patagonia will depend on how community-based management initiatives are fostered, by bringing to the fore the sense of attachment and the cultural heritage that has historically transformed the Patagonian landscapes.

Finally, I discuss and synthetize the answers to the research questions aforementioned. I reflect on three aspects of the concept of (de)peripheralization, followed by methodological reflections. Next, I propose key themes for the future research agenda of Aysén-Patagonia. The chapter finalizes with a summary of the conclusions of this dissertation. Lastly, I argue that it is time to acknowledge the local agency and the effect of meanings of discursive reproductions in the development of socio-spatial processes, which not only take place on a local level. After all, this thesis - Meanwhile, in Aysén-Patagonia - shows how remote peripheral areas keep on changing in a globalized world.