Multiple territories in dispute : water policies, participation and Mapuce indigenous rights in Patagonia, Argentina

A. Moreyra

    Research output: Thesisinternal PhD, WU


    This thesis is about the multiple territories which dispute the shape and control of
    the development of the Trahunco-Quitrahue watershed, at Cerro Chapelko,
    Neuquén province in Argentinean Patagonian. Built into these disputes are the
    struggles of Mapuce peoples -indigenous peoples of the region- for the
    recognition in practice of their indigenous rights and the implications these have
    for natural resources management policies and actions, as well as for participation
    in decision-making processes.
    This study began focusing on a proposal of local and provincial water agencies to
    resolve local water demands by creating a water users association proposed for a
    small watershed49, the Trahunco stream in San Martín de los Andes (SMA),
    Patagonia. This territory was claimed by Mapuce communities and hosted several
    tourism enterprises. As fieldwork developed, the unravelling of the multiple
    realities involved in the water policy process, whether through the WUA or
    outside of it, made me broaden the scope of the research.
    The interethnic character of the site is reflected in its multiple actors, which
    include among others, tourism investors and allied businessmen, employees and
    administrators of an International Ski resort, different state agencies relating to
    the use and control of water resources and the impact of development projects -
    and two Mapuce indigenous communities, one of them very active in a Mapuce
    political organisation. All have different views, interests, possibilities and rights in
    respect to how development is to be defined.
    Therefore, once into the writing of this text, I decided that the notion of territory
    was the most appropriate for bringing together into the analysis the multiple
    dimensions intertwined at this local water policy implementation process.
    Territory is a concept that allows articulating the processes of social interactions
    and relationships, disputes for resource uses and control and, identity formation.
    The main questions of the research are:
    -What are the social interfaces of the WUA in San Martín de los Andes and how
    and why are the different meanings, projects and representations negotiated?
    -What are the processes involved in creating alternative policy spaces as Mapuce
    countertendencies for furthering their indigenous rights and their notions of
    For answering these and other nested questions, I followed an actor-oriented
    perspective which engages with ethnographic research and participant observation as one of my main research strategies. This implied social interaction
    with the groups researched within their daily activities, gathering information in
    a systematic, non intrusive way, in order to get a view from ‘within’ the location
    selected for study. It required entering the fieldwork without a “formal
    hypothesis” but only with a preliminary comprehension of the problem to be
    studied. These notions guided the first steps of fieldwork, allowing for an
    accommodation to the circumstances found and the identification of what the
    actors consider as the problem around the topic of my interest as a researcher. My
    primary interest was to do research on the processes of genesis and
    implementation of a Water Users Association. While doing participant
    observation I combined a number of research techniques such as informal and
    formal discussions, individual interviews and meetings with focus groups.
    Attendance at local meetings, works and other events such as street protests,
    celebrations, markets, also drew attention to some aspects of the research and led
    me to new, unexpected insights and questions.
    For carrying out the fieldwork of this research, several periods of time were spent
    at San Martín de los Andes: seven months during 2001, three months in 2004 and
    shorter (one or two weeks) visits in 2003, 2006 and 2007. During the year between
    September 2006 and August 2007, I was working as a consultant within the
    Directorate of Indigenous Peoples and Natural Resources, at the National
    Secretariat of Environment and Sustainable Development. In this opportunity I
    worked closely to the Director, who is also one of the main Mapuce
    representatives of the political organisation whose actions this study focuses on.
    In this period, I met and shared discussions with many indigenous people's
    representatives and other Mapuce actors.
    This study analyses Mapuce peoples struggles for carving alternative policy
    spaces for enforcing indigenous rights and establish a ‘new relationship with the
    state’. For doing so, I firstly focused on a participatory water intervention in
    which a variety of actors were involved. Acknowledging the politics of
    participation in policy processes aiming to regulate the management of such vital
    resource led me to other arenas of action where actors excluded from the formal
    intervention, were actually generating new spaces of negotiation, not without
    The social fields of interaction and dispute related to territory and sovereignty in
    Cerro Chapelko, at San Martín de los Andes, in the province of Neuquén are
    contextualized in the historically constructed cultural repertoires which influence
    today’s relationships between the hegemonic elites in power, other members of
    society and the Mapuce indigenous peoples of the region.
    Despite the formal recognition of indigenous rights in the national Constitution
    and the state’s agreements to International Conventions, the indigenous peoples
    of Argentina do not have access to their enforcement. Contemporary debates
    about the pre-existence of indigenous peoples in the region still influence the
    practical recognition of their rights. This is not a minor issue due to the relevance
    it has for exercising the autonomy in their territories.
    This permeates into the workings of state institutions involved in water, natural
    resources and environment management and control. At local level, the study
    focuses in the particular workings of such institutions in the process of
    implementation of a participatory water policy that brings together the multiple
    users at the watershed level, leading to the creation of a Water Users Association.
    The dynamics of this process reveal the processes of inclusion and exclusion that
    emerge out of these interfaces, so much related to the denial or ignorance of
    indigenous rights. The study shows how contemporary local state agencies
    manage to reproduce the state’s historical notion of territory as a homogenizing
    process of control and the denial of the rights of indigenous peoples.
    The exclusion of Mapuce political organisation from the scheme to develop a
    Water Users Association was not a cul-de-sac for them to pursue their political
    project. The strategies and tactics that the Mapuce deployed to create alternative
    policy spaces for their exercise of territoriality, which is a main element of their
    struggle for the recognition of indigenous rights, resulted a much more effective
    way for their participation in decision making. The construction of these
    countertendencies, that Mapuce call in general ‘the new relationship with the
    state’, emerge as alternative modernities which by incorporating difference into
    policy agendas and institutions, start to put in practice a recognition that in
    general is still only on paper.
    Therefore, the watershed is a site where multiple notions of territory are being
    disputed through different means and for different interests. Tourism
    developments advance their economic territorial projects supported by the
    sector’s businesses at local and regional level, The state, which influences the
    control through interventions as tools, shapes the territory sometimes favouring
    such projects. Mapuce people’s community members and political organisation,
    and their allies from different civil society sectors, claim their rights to participate
    in such definitions and propose new forms of participation.
    The meanings of ‘participation’ therefore, become a central issue of debate among
    these different actors struggling to get their notions on the political agenda. A
    main issue for getting indigenous rights right therefore, is the notion of
    differential modes of citizenship rooted in the concept of autonomy expressed
    within a pluri-national state, whose institutions and parliament should include
    Mapuce -and other peoples, as such. This is the issue from which all other aspects
    of indigenous rights unfold, therefore, constituting the motor of Mapuce peoples
    political movement.
    However, state institutions approach participation as an invitation to stakeholders
    to be informed on policy programmes and actions. Participation is reduced to a
    method or technique even in the best of the cases. From the discourses of state
    functionaries and legal advisors, in this study it becomes clear that the issue of
    differentiated citizenship is not incorporated into how institutions work.
    The coexistence of multiple territories without conflict requires that the state and
    wider society acknowledge in practice these rights the Mapuce are defending.
    Otherwise, the meanings of participation that are embedded in institutional
    practices that in fact over-rule or ignore these rights, most probably will continue
    to generate conflicts and disputes.
    Original languageEnglish
    QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
    Awarding Institution
    • Wageningen University
    • Vincent, Linden, Promotor
    • Long, N.E., Promotor
    Award date3 Jun 2009
    Place of PublicationWageningen
    Print ISBNs9789085853862
    Publication statusPublished - 2009


    • water policy
    • participation
    • participative management
    • social participation
    • argentina
    • community participation
    • indigenous people

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