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National Parks in Argentina: Scenery or Sovereignty?

Perito Moreno Glacier
The Perito Moreno Glacier, one the main attractions in Los Glaciares National Park. Source: Douglas Scortegagna via Flickr

Los Glaciares National Park in Patagonia, Argentina receives hundreds of thousands of visitors from around the world every year. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the park covers an area of 2,800 square miles and includes stunning glaciers, high mountains and beautiful natural scenery. A new study from September 2020 examines the forces that led to its creation.

The study traces how the park’s purpose has shifted from being a tool to assert Argentinian sovereignty (and not as much to fulfill conservation goals) to the source of a robust tourism economy. To arrive at these conclusions, the authors examined the regulations and laws governing Los Glaciares, conducted interviews of park workers and top officials in the National Parks Administration, and observed public hearings on land access.

The study begins with the history of the acquisition of the land on which Los Glaciares sits, as it is crucial to understanding the forces that created the park. Los Glaciares is located in Santa Cruz, Patagonia in southwestern Argentina. The expansion of Argentina into this region in the late 19th century followed a brutal military conquest in 1879 called the “Conquest of the Desert.” This violent military conquest led to the murder and removal of the Indigenous Aónikenk, or Tehuelche, peoples from Patagonia in what amounts to a genocide. As Mattias Borg Rasmussen, an environmental anthropologist, explained to GlacierHub, Indigenous people were “encamped. They were sent to other parts of the country, so you had this vast open territory… that needed to be resettled.”

Therefore, the Argentinian government encouraged the settlement of European immigrants and opened the region to a capitalist economy to develop Patagonia as part of Argentina. As Marcos Mendoza, an anthropologist at the University of Mississippi who has also studied the history of Argentinian national parks, explained to GlacierHub, the goal was that European farmers would populate the area, cultivate the land and livestock, and sell the commodities on international markets for profit. However, foreign capitalist firms consolidated control over the best lands, so this plan had limited success. Additionally, the landscape was quite “unappealing” and “unromantic” to live in, Emily Wakild, a historian of Latin American environmental history, explained to GlacierHub.

Los Glaciares National Park
Los Glaciares National Park. Source: Adam Reeder via Flickr

But because the border between Chile and Argentina in Patagonia was still undefined, maintaining Argentinian populations in this region was crucial. As a result, in 1937, the government created many national parks in border regions such as Patagonia, including Los Glaciares, to mark the western border of Argentina’s territory in southern Patagonia. Rasmussen pointed out that there are national parks all along the Chile-Argentina border on both sides because of the importance of these regions to global geopolitics.

tree and sign in chaltén
El Chaltén, a town on the border of Los Glaciares National Park. Source: draculina_ak via Flickr

Subsequently, in 1945, the national parks became scenic spots for domestic working-class tourists. Rasmussen explained that this domestic tourism played a role in supporting the regional economy in Patagonia.

The paper argues that by 1980, the focus of national parks had shifted from asserting national sovereignty to maintaining a tourism economy. A law issued in the same year banned all human activity except for tourism in national parks and placed the National Parks Administration under the control of the Economy Ministry. (Previously it had operated under the agriculture and then public works ministries.) The same law split national parks into national reserves, where some productive activities and human settlements were permitted, and national parks with more limitations on human activity. Moreover, with Argentina’s national border being well-defined, maintaining populations within the park became less important, so by 1980, human settlements were limited to 10% of reserve areas.


glacier and water
Los Glaciares National Park in Santa Cruz, Argentina. Source: Marianocecowski via Flickr

A robust tourism economy was a driving force behind Los Glaciares from its very foundation in 1937, Mendoza argues. The first president of the National Parks Administration who had spent much time in Europe wanted to model the Patagonian Andes after the Swiss Alps as a tourist destination for elite classes. This vision of Patagonia promoted tourism as an economic driver that would create jobs and attract people to the region, and “as a consequence would consolidate territorial sovereignty over the border lands. So from the original design it was deeply economic,” he said.

Since 1980, foreign tourism has boomed, especially with the declaration of Los Glaciares as a UNESCO World Heritage site. But with the growth of tourism, cattle ranching, which was the original purpose of the park, has largely disappeared. The researchers found that of the park’s five active ranches, two have given up cattle raising and become tourism ranches while the other three now focus on tourism in exchange for ownership over their houses, surrounding buildings and reduced livestock and grazing area.

Los Glaciares National Park
Los Glaciares National Park. Source: Bill Hertha via Flickr

Moreover, the growth in the tourism economy has not necessarily benefited the local residents of El Chaltén and El Calafate, the two main towns near Los Glaciares that were created with the economic growth from tourism. As Mendoza explained, “a small group of big business owners are able to take advantage of the situation and to consolidate property and consolidate holding over businesses in very, very good parts of the park that will allow them to then generate much higher returns than other tourism businesses.” Local residents have also suffered structural problems such as a lack of land for housing and collapse of water, electricity and sewage systems due to the increased population during the high tourist season.

Despite the growth in tourism, infrastructure within Los Glaciares has been relatively limited thus far, preserving the scenery. However, in 2019, the Argentine government issued an executive decree to build infrastructure such as a lookout point and paths for visitors, in violation of a 1980 law which restricts development within the national park — a signal of the focus on tourism and economic profit in Los Glaciares, according to the authors. Mendoza added that the previous president of Argentina, Mauricio Macri, retracted the project amid local backlash. However, according to Mendoza’s conversation with an official within the National Park Administration, the current administration of President Alberto Fernández will likely continue to develop infrastructure within the park.

As tourism continues to expand as the primary economy in the beautiful wilderness regions of the world under the guise of conservation, the accompanying economic and social inequalities will only increase. With a push to include and center local voices in policy and decision-making, we can try to remedy the harms of tourism. As Mendoza said, “national parks are based upon this original sin of stripping away territory from Indigenous populations — accumulation by dispossession… Initially it’s farming and then it transitions to conservation through parks and then tourism.”

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