2018 CLAG Field Study Award Report:
Clare Beer, PhD Candidate, Department of Geography, UCLA
Project: Nationalizing Nature: Conservation, Economy, and Chile’s Route of Parks Project
My dissertation research examines a new mega-conservation project in Chilean Patagonia, known as the Route of Parks (RoP), to understand the changing role of land-based biodiversity conservation in national political economy. Chile has pursued an model of extractive capitalism for more than a century, exploiting a wide range of natural resources. Economic and trade frameworks have been coupled with an environmental legal framework that Tecklin et al. (2011) call ‘market-enabling’ rather than ‘market-regulating.’ Situated within this context are state practices of land-based biodiversity conservation, which have long been viewed by the industrial private sector and even the state itself as impediments to growth.
The new RoP project aims to disrupt assumed zero-sum tensions between conservation and development, however, by promoting conservation-as-development (West, 2006). The RoP emerges from a public-private partnership between the Chilean state and the American eco-philanthropist Kristine Tompkins. On March 15, 2017, Tompkins and then-President Michelle Bachelet pledged a joint donation of one million acres of the Tompkins’ private conservation estate and nine million acres of adjacent federal lands to the national park service. This landmark pledge qualifies as both the largest private land donation ever received by a national government, and the largest single increase to the national park service in Chilean history. My dissertation research employs qualitative and ethnographic methods to ask how conservation-as-development suddenly became politically commonsense in Chile, and what the RoP suggests about its processes and outcomes.
With the generous support of a CLAG Field Study Award, I have completed the first phase of my research in Chile: ten weeks of fieldwork in the Lagos and Aysén regions of Chilean Patagonia (February 3 – April 16, 2019). The purpose of this fieldwork was to begin to understand how the RoP is rolling out in local communities. Through a combination of participant observation, in-depth interviews, and content analysis of print and online materials, I explored three central questions: (1) How is the RoP project being received by local communities in Patagonia? (2) What are its potential impacts on landscapes and livelihoods? (3) What does a ‘conservation economy’ look like in practice, and how do residents envision their relationship to it?
Preliminary data collected in Patagonia yields several important findings. First, many local people living and working near the parks report feeling uninformed about, and excluded from, the new mega-conservation project. Often, informants attributed the lack of communication to centralismo. Second, following from a perceived lack of communication about the RoP is a perceived lack of preparedness to implement the project locally. There is concern by state and non-state actors alike that CONAF cannot maintain the Tompkins’ conservation standards due to inadequate budgets and manpower. Finally, a last-minute and controversial change to the official boundaries of the new Patagonia National Park is generating heated conflict. This reduction coincides with where an Australian mining company has been conducting preliminary, and at times unauthorized, explorations for gold. This single event, I think, captures the contradictory and Janus-faced qualities of the Chilean environmental state. The limits of conservation-as-development at least for now appear to remain defined by the possibilities of resource extraction.
Please see the full report for more details.