29 January 2020

Historical inequalities and uncertain land tenure systems create problems in protected areas of Patagonia

global development

Systematic repression through harassment, violence and bureaucracy. This is how families experience everyday life in the hands of a powerful national park in the Argentine region of Patagonia. One hundred years ago, they were welcomed and granted land - and the right to live there. Today, they are seen as undesirables and live as second-class citizens with fewer rights than their neighbours, some of whom are among the country's economic and political elite. This, according to a new global development study from the University of Copenhagen. The study is part of a major research project that addresses the role of national parks in relation to local populations.

Foto: Getty

Wild and harsh nature. An outdoor clothing company, a TV programme “Alene I Vildmarken” (Alone in the Wilderness). Many associate the Patagonian national parks of Southern Argentina with a pristine natural paradise. And indeed, roughly one million adventurous tourists travel to experience its wildlife and raw, impregnable landscape every year.

But for 65 families in the Nahuel Huapi National Park of Patagonia, known as pobladores, this area has been home for more than a century. They arrived as settlers and were invited with open arms by the Argentine State to colonize the territory and extend the country’s sovereignty. Each settler was allocated a piece of land to farm or raise livestock on. Today the modern relatives of these early settlers occupy the lowest rung of society and live an uncertain existence controlled by the National Park administration with limited rights compared to regular Argentinian citizens.

"Today, they live in uncertainty, as dictated by the park administration, which can throw them out whenever deemed appropriate." Property rights and the inviolability of their dwelling does not exist, and the park has an 'open door policy' by which they may enter into people's homes at any time," according to Associate Professor Mattias Borg Rasmussen of the Department of Food and Resource Economics. During a three-month field study, he Interviewed descendants of the settlers, as well as national park administration employees.

Living a life in the park's grace
Only 65 of the original settler families remain in Patagonia’s Nahuel Huapi National Park. Even though the families have yet to be forcefully ejected, they live a wearying life where they experience that the park administration deliberately makes life difficult on them.

If, for example, they need to collect firewood for winter, a time of year when temperatures can hit 10-15 below zero degrees or make fences for their cattle or do carpentry work on their over 100-year-old houses, they must apply for permission to do so by park administration. This can be a time-intensive and prolonged process that takes years to accomplish if, for example, the issue of home improvements arises,

lektor Mattias Borg Rasmussen

According to the researcher, the park occasionally goes to extremes in their exercise of power. For instance, less than 10 years ago, there was an attempt to throw out an inhabitant after their house burned down.

"People still get thrown out, but for the most part, residents just experience delays and troubles in their everyday lives caused by the park," he says. "These create internal conflict and divisions among siblings and burdensome processes, when even the smallest of home improvements become delayed, or simple things are become hidden away in a park administration drawer."

Elite and poor rural population live side by side
For families like Ruben Gomez’, a source in Mattias Borg Rasmussen's research project, the park has shaped their entire lives. Gomez’ grandparents came to the area around 1915 and settled  where he currently lives. In 1937, the family was visited by unknown people who presented the family with a document. The document stated that the land upon which the family had settled, and had imagined their lives to be about animal husbandry and agriculture, had now become a national park. It was also stated that the park administration reserved the right to throw the family off of the land that they had lived on for over twenty years.

"The story of the Gomez family’s next 80 years resonates with stories recounted by other families that I spoke with. Today, the descendants of these settlers remain an undesirable element in the national park's vision of an unspoiled natural paradise, even though land rights were originally bestowed upon them," explains Mattias Borg Rasmussen.

Concurrent with the colonization by the settlers, there was also a group that was allowed to acquire large tracts of land secured as private property. Today, the white economic and political elite in Buenos Aires, among others, still have land in the area adjacent to the descendants of the early settlers. However, they enjoy a completely different basic respect for the inviolability of their private property.  

One of the 100 year old wooden cabins where the settlers descendants has lived since 1900. 

Armed family disputes and being cut off from influence
Another group living in the national park are the indigenous peoples. They have appointed representatives who sit alongside park administration and are able to influence decision making.  The conditions are different for the descendants of settlers.

"In practice, the park excludes them from participating in democratic processes. Instead, all interaction with the park takes place directly with park officers. Here, the experience is often that authorizations depend heavily upon whims and personal relationships," explains Mattias Borg Rasmussen.

Why don't they just move?

"Because the alternative is worse. They could move into the nearest major city, but they will most likely end up in slums. They have no education and their agricultural, animal husbandry and outdoors survival skills are useless," explains Rasmussen who adds:

"Many people have already been forced to move into cities. The National Park has a rule that only one family member may inherit a house in the park. Therefore, many families have ended up in bitter disputes over the right to the houses. And, at times, weapons were involved. "


  • The original settlers arrived to the area between 1900-1920. Many were invited by the Argentine State to settle as part of the colonization project.
  • The descendants of the settlers, the so-called Pobladores, were deprived of their right to the land in 1937, as the Argentine state began to transform the area into national Park, first in 1922 without the great effect and then in 1934.
  • 65 families in the Nahuel Huapi National Park are currently subject to the park administration and live without general rights, such as property
  • The descendants of the settlers occupy themselves primarily with animal husbandry and tourist functions that they perform for the park
  • Roughly half-a-million tourists visit Patagonia annually.
  • About a third of the park consists of private country estates in scenic surroundings

Democratic nature conservation
According to Mattias Borg Rasmussen, it is well documented that national parks around the world have an ambivalent relationship with local populations. In Patagonia and elsewhere in Latin America, the protection of nature began as a territorial project that provided nation states increased power over certain areas. It is a practice that ought to be reconsidered 

"The situation of families in Nahuel Huapi is in many ways deadlocked and demonstrates that deep clues of traditional performances and practices are being draw into the present. The study demonstrates the need to thoroughly rethink nature conservation, so that it not only becomes a territorial project benefitting a few, but also an inclusive and democratic project that takes the worldview’s and values of local populations seriously," he says.

65 families may seem few. But their situation is symptomatic of the consequences of how nature conservation has historically been viewed. Thus, there are variations of a well-known theme in which a dominant worldview, together with political and economic interests, helps to both create and sustain inequality. It forces us to consider the changes of ideas about states, sovereignty and citizenship that are directly related to nature conservation projects.

According to the researcher, there are many places in Latin America experiencing this development. Real change requires the political will and courage to include other views on nature conservation, which are not based on a Western nature aesthetic, with a focus on Tourism.

Read the scientific paper