Unpacking Ethnotourism: Mapuche Struggles, “Development with Identity” and Tourism in South-central Chile

Editor’s Note: This article was published originally in the Spring 2012 edition of CLLAS Notes, the newsletter of the Center for Latino/a and Latin American Studies.

by Ignacio A. Krell Rivera

Since the 1990s, Latin American governments and powerful development institutions working throughout the region have adopted notions such as “development with identity” to address questions of ethnic and indigenous rights in the context of development policy. Critical scholars have considered neoliberal multicultural reforms and programs to be, paradoxically, both political spaces won to, and a form of governance exercised by, the same dominant institutions and powers. Many argue that this new form of “government through subjects” has been attained only through sophisticated tools for social control operating on the basis of de-politicized narratives of indigenous development. In this context, the promotion of ethnic ecotourism as a vehicle for a “win-win” situation between the expansion of markets and the strengthening of ethnic identities has become a key narrative and practice of this de-politicized “development with identity” discourse deployed “from above.”

My master’s thesis critically examines intersections between such governmental development interventions and the targeted actors and their own agendas within Mapuche communities of south-central Chile. I inquired how “development with identity” encounters were reshaping the ongoing transformation of rural Mapuche livelihoods, places, and identities under globalizing pressures; to what extent Mapuche actors were mediating these outcomes; and finally, who was winning and losing from touristic recomposition, and how. Elucidating Mapuche touristic entrepreneurs’ economic practices and the discourses surrounding and shaping them has been a key focus of this project, particularly its fieldwork component.

With support from CLLAS, I conducted fieldwork during the two months I spent in Chile in summer 2011. I visited four locations where Mapuche communities are creatively engaging in tourism practices and discourses. I chose cases that allowed me to compare several key narratives surrounding and shaping Mapuche agency in touristic recomposition. The cases of Budi, Curarrehue, and Melipeuco, where I interviewed key entrepreneurs and leaders, helped me examine some effective forms of Mapuche politicization and re-shaping of tourism development. At Lake Icalma, where I spent almost a month conducting participant observation, I was able to problematize from different angles the tensions and ambivalences of Mapuche engagement in touristic self-commodification of labor, space, and culture. I also observed how development staff on the ground, some of them Mapuche themselves, are mediating development networks and shaping touristic recomposition of rural Mapucheity in south-central Chile—just like their ethno-preneurial counterparts. I also analyzed policy documents, which proved just as important as field observation and interviews. Through an analytical juxtaposition with discourses deployed “from above,” I shed light on the dissonant narratives and meaningful practices of Mapuche actors who encounter these policies on a local scale.

A de-politicized, top-down approach to “ethnotourism” has effectively been re-politicized by Mapuche subjects as they engage with ethnotourism in the role of cultural, political, and economic entrepreneurs. Committed to Mapuche social agendas, these “ethnopreneurs” are developing ambivalent and often tense relationships with neoliberal development networks, confronting a series of dilemmas when striving to incorporate tourism practices on their own terms. Finally, I found that in order to effectively re-politicize and influence touristic development and its effects on Mapuche places, livelihoods, and identities, these Mapuche communities are exercising a form of situated de-colonial praxis. This knowledge/practice not only entails learning practical ways to adapt tourism practices to the capacities and aspirations of the rural Mapuche, but also, I argue, might inform cross-cultural and academic debates on the possibilities and shapes of indigenous agency in development, sustainability, and globalization. ■

—Ignacio Krell Rivera is a master’s student in the Department of Environmental Studies.