Environmental Conflicts and Historical Political Ecology:A Genealogy of the Construction of Dams in Chilean Patagonia

UoM administered thesis: Phd

  • Authors:
  • Hugo Romero


This research aims to understand environmental conflicts generated by large investment projects. Theoretically, this research locates itself within the historical political ecology perspective. It seeks to understand environmental conflicts as a clash of historical representations over the environment that can be traced from the process of dispossession by colonialism and the consolidation of the national state. It is argued that certain places have been constructed as specific socio-natural entities for the reproduction of power relations over nature and people through environmental transformations by discourses and frameworks about environment and society, the establishment of material practices, and the collapsing of biophysical features within political-economy. The case under analysis is the construction of dams in Chilean Patagonia through the HidroAysén project. This project belongs to the transnational company ENDESA and the Chilean private company Colbún. HidroAysén aims to build five dams across two rivers located in the Aysén region in Western Patagonia, a region that has been a scene for the territorialisation of the colonial and postcolonial state over the last four hundred years. The research questions to understand this environmental conflict are: How has Chilean Patagonia been socially constructed in the past? What political economic conditions and discourses enable dams to be built in Chilean Patagonia? Which discourses are in conflict regarding the HidroAysén Project? This research follows a qualitative approach focused on Foucauldian genealogy to understand discourses and representations about the environment. Data have been collected through secondary sources about the history of Patagonia, including accounts from explorations, government reports, scholarly articles, information from the HidroAysén company, and information from the anti-dam campaign Patagonia without Dams. I have also used fifty interviews conducted in Patagonia with people who live in the places that could be affected by the construction of dams. Data have been analysed through the constructionist approach of grounded theory and critical discourse analysis. The main findings are that environmental conflicts have historical and cultural content. Patagonia is a cultural landscape created through the territorialisation of the colonial and postcolonial state, and at the same time, through a process of counter-territorialisation spontaneously performed by settlers. Elites have used Patagonia to increase their power in a material and symbolic way through the mobilization of pre-existing discourses. Therefore, Patagonia does not pre-exist its construction: there is nothing natural about Patagonia but a revisited history of otherness and dispossession. Consequently, environmental conflict over HidroAysén is not only about the hydroelectricity project, but about how territories are constructed and socially and environmentally transformed through the mobilization of representations. The conclusion is that the environmental transformations are one of the most severe forms of inequality.


Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
Award date1 Aug 2014