Environmental Capitalism in Patagonia

A review of Topographies of Risk: Social Practice and Environmental Capitalism in Patagonia, by Marcos Alexander Mendoza.

Andean Patagonia is often depicted as a scarcely populated periphery with a breathtakingly beautiful and wild landscape. While this seems to be true, from Marcos Mendoza’s well-written and highly relevant dissertation, one also learns that this corner of the world is at the heart of global processes that Mendoza conceptualizes as “environmental capitalism.” This concept is defined as a particular regime of capitalism that is ideologically connected to saving nature (p. 3). However, the “environmentality” of this regime does not necessarily have anything to do with what is commonly recognized as ecological or planet-friendly, but can in fact be detrimental to wildlife, habitats, and ecologically-sustainable consumption patterns. Analytically, Mendoza focuses on the notion of “risk” and how this is constitutive of environmentalism in Andean Patagonia through linkages to the sustainable development of ecotourism markets and service economies within publicly-protected areas in the Chaltén Border Area in Argentina. This analytical approach allows readers to grasp local configurations of subjectivities and values that constitute this particular capitalist regime. Through multi-sited ethnography, Mendoza’s study pinpoints how regional processes of resource commoditization, as well as national politics surrounding neoliberal reform mainly in Argentina, interconnect with localized regimes of risk and the global distribution of value.

Mendoza’s analysis is an anthropological contribution to the field of Latin American political ecology and in particular to the study of the “neoliberalization of global conservation” of natural environments (p. 24). He shows his intellectual skills in bringing together different theoretical bodies on economy, power, risk and space, drawing on work ranging from Marx, Keynes, Gramsci and Bourdieu to Mary Douglas, David Harvey, Jean and John Comaroff, and Joe Masco, to mention a few. Mendoza’s study problematizes the universality of what Anna Tsing has coined “frontier capitalism,” which denotes the savage resource extraction and capital accumulation occurring along natural resource frontiers throughout the world. The environmental capitalism that takes place in the Chaltén Border Area is, more than savage, “…scientifically planned, regulated by conservation protocols, and buttressed by cultures of ethical consumption” (p. 2). This does not mean that conflicts about resources are absent in the area. On the contrary, “friction” in Anna Tsing’s sense is also produced here. The people who inhabit this area constantly face and fight risks produced by the presence of other actors. In Mendoza’s view, the particular strategies of risk management that different actors employ are precisely what feed the reproduction and expansion of environmental capitalism in Patagonia. This contributes to the (re)production of this region as a “resource neo-colony,” providing natural resources, ranging from tourist experiences of “wilderness” and professional mountaineering to oil, gas and mineral commodities destined for domestic and foreign markets (pp. 21-23).

The introductory chapter of Mendoza’s dissertation sets the stage for the study, both theoretically and ethnographically. It situates the study within the context of contemporary Argentina, where federal governments of the twenty-first century have been headed by Nestor Kirchner and Christina Fernández de Kirchner through a “Third Way” neoliberalism. This Third Way draws on well-established discourses and policies within the Peronist Party to combine capital accumulation with selective intervention by the state into capital and labor markets (pp. 18-24). Interestingly, in the context of this study, the political platform of Kirchnerismo (a word that loosely means support for politics espoused by Kirchner leadership of the country) has old and concrete links to the region, through the presidential couple’s political trajectory and ownership of real estate and investments in the tourism industry. Chapter 2 provides the reader with a geopolitical and historical overview of Mendoza’s research field, depicting how the Chaltén Border Area was made. Here, the reader learns about the Conquest of the Desert at the turn of the 20th century, which was an Argentinean military campaign to solve what was widely called “the Indian problem” by way of extermination, in turn enabling white settler colonization in the now “uninhabited” region. In part, this conquest was in response to growing Chilean cultural, economic, and military influences and land claims in the area, and eventually escalated from territorial tension to conflict between the two countries. One effect of this history was the creation of the Argentinean national parks system, formed in the 1930s and onwards, which led to the 1985 settlement of the village of El Chaltén along the international border.

Based on 18 months of multi-sited ethnographic fieldwork, including archival work and mountain climbing in and around El Chaltén, Mendoza eloquently depicts in his study how a number of different social groups in this area construct particular regimes of risk, which the author argues are constitutive of environmental capitalism. Being a village—and furthermore the most recent settlement in Argentina—the location displays a strikingly heterogeneous population that is in regular flux. The six ethnographic chapters of the dissertation display this diversity through rich and detailed description, analyzing how different risks are framed and managed by various groups or within distinct ethnographic sites. Chapter 3 depicts how risk-taking is at the very heart of Patagonian alpine mountaineering. How to actually climb a mountain and with what gear, are skills linked to ethical style, distinction and environmental knowledge enacted by Alpinists who see themselves as transnational experts. Chapter 4 focuses on national park rangers and how these enact and enforce state policies of preservation by way of the everyday policing of tourists, guides and others visiting the park area. The predominantly young seasonal migrant workers who sustain the service economy in El Chaltén take center-stage in Chapter 5. This focuses on the precariousness of livelihoods, both in terms of labor and living conditions, but also how risks associated with this insecurity are framed in terms of youth culture and enacted through leisure-time play.

Meanwhile, Chapter 6 turns to those actors supporting the uncertain livelihood of service workers, namely the large and small-scale entrepreneurs who own the tourism businesses and rental properties in the area, and how these mobilize risk imaginaries to justify their own capital accumulation. Chapter 7 describes the cosmopolitan tourists from Argentina and abroad, who travel to Chaltén to undertake adventure trekking in the area. The chapter analyses how these actors experience consumption practices in the area in aesthetic, ethical and sensuous terms. Finally, Chapter 8 does not really zoom in on any one particular social group on the ground, but rather analyzes how the discourses of sustainable development and ecological security are produced through the work of environmental science and “participatory conservation” enacted by public land managers, as well as through collective action mobilized by local residents against the threat of privatization of public and protected lands. The dissertation ends with a concluding chapter that summarizes the analysis of how local hierarchies of risk imagination have constituted the emergence of environmental capitalism in the Chaltén Border Area.

Mendoza’s dissertation is a timely and important contribution to scholarship on efforts and consequences surrounding sustainable development and the growing “global green economy” in times of environmental crises, such as the present. Paraphrasing Mary Douglas, Mendoza uses the analytical concept of risk as “a common forensic lens for ethnographic analysis” (p. 2, 379). The analytical framework is not only intellectually productive, but also novel. Mendoza’s work demonstrates the concrete entanglement of different local and global risk regimes, arguing that these are best understood by “bringing together such disparate registers of risk as climate change, sustainable development, national inflation statistics, grand power, wilderness adventure, informal economies, precarious laboring, and investment futures” (p. 379). This is precisely what Mendoza eloquently achieves. His study appeals to scholars in multiple fields, including those interested in globalization and transnationalism, capitalism and political ecology, and also anthropologists focusing on risk and tourism. More broadly, this work speaks to Argentinean politics and economy, and is therefore an illuminating ethnography for appreciating Argentina’s position within the so-called Latin American “turn to the left” of the twenty-first century.

Susann Baez Ullberg
CRISMART
Swedish National Defence College
susann.ullberg@fhs.se 

Primary Sources

18 months of ethnographic fieldwork in the Chaltén Border Area in Argentina and Chile, 2006-2011

Dissertation Information

The University of Chicago. 2013. 416 pp. Primary Advisor: Joe Masco.

Image: El Chaltén, Argentina. Photo by Author.

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