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Conservation Policing:
Park Rangers, Resource Management, and Enactments of the State

Marcos Alexander Mendoza

Department of Anthropology
University of Chicago


1 - Introduction

The first punitive enforcement act I witnessed in Parque Nacional Los Glaciares (PNLG)

happened very early in my dissertation pre-fieldwork, during a routine recorrida [patrol] of the

frontcountry. Patricio Macri, the most veteran ranger working at Seccional Lago Viedma (SLV),

the northernmost ranger station in the national park, interdicted a large group of middle-aged

Dutch trekkers wending their way down a mountain trail, trudging through the plentiful rains of

early summer.1 He hailed the group, first in Spanish and then, noting the lack of comprehension,

in English, asking for the guide and their commercial permits. A period of interactive tension

ensued in which the trekkers appeared not to understand what Patricio wanted, even as Patricio

raised the level of his authoritative voice, shifting his questions to determine whether or not they

were on a commercial guided tour from the Netherlands. Initially it seemed as if they did not

have a guide, but after a few minutes the guide finally identified herself, which triggered a wave

of rebuke from Patricio. “Trying to get around the rules, I see.” Patricio then tried to explain the

sanctions he would impose on the group for not having a permit, but the guide appeared not to

understand why or with what basis they were being fined. Eager to diffuse the conflict, I tried to

interject and explain what I interpreted to be the Dutch guide’s position to Patricio. He snapped


back at me, and told me to stay out of the middle of things. While I smarted, Patricio finally

communicated to the guide that they needed a permit because this was a commercial trekking

tour, and that she would receive a ticket at the trailhead. He radioed the infraction down to the

station, and then told her that if she felt the ticket was unwarranted, she should take it up with the

SLV director. An unhappy group of trekkers then walked off, although they accepted culpability

for the transgression.

After the group departed down the trail, Patricio explained that what appeared to me to be

a miscommunication, both speaking semi-fluent English, was actually a form of deception on the

part of the guide, something that I would learn to identify in my fieldwork the more time I spent

studying the political life of park rangers. He used rather salty language to describe not just this

particular guide, but local guides in general, individuals who often tried to get away with not

having the proper certifications and licenses to operate in PNLG. Given this initially contentious

event, I was very surprised during the course of my fieldwork to discover just how infrequently

rangers gave out tickets, or imposed sanctions on park visitors. Other rangers noted that Patricio

represented an outlier of sorts, “an old school ranger who was trained during a different time for

Parques [Parks],” as one ranger noted. The conservation policing practices of the SLV station,

which represent the focus of this chapter, indeed speak to the rapidly changing institutional life

of a ranger corps attempting, in their own words, to “hold the line” as custodians of the park and

executors of the environmental regulations of Argentina’s Administración de Parques Nacionales

[National Park Administration (APN)] in a social landscape subject to intense transformations

through the rise of multinational ecotourism. This “ethnographic moment” with Patricio actively

demonstrated to me the very real limits of my own assumptions about what was happening “in

the field,” expectations shaped by my own experiences in North American, European, and South


American protected areas. My initial judgment that conservation policing in PNLG represented

yet another iteration of “fortress conservation” (Brockington 2002) turned out to be mistaken in a

number of crucial ways.

Conservation policing refers to the everyday practices of park rangers tasked to enforce

the environmental regulations and directives of the APN, the federal agency managing the public

natural and cultural resources contained in 35 protected areas spread across Argentina.2 Rangers

not only engage in law enforcement in the policing of conservation, but a variety of educational,

epistemic, spatial, and place-making practices that construct particular and historically shifting

notions of conservation. Policing conservation certainly involves direct engagements with what

the rangers identify as la naturaleza [the natural world] and the human visitors (trekkers, guides,

alpinists, researchers, etc.) who participate in various recreational, scientific, and commercial

uses of park resources. However, conservation policing inhabits a wider set of social, cultural,

and economic terrains that proffer particular tensions, opportunities, and hazards fashioning the

SLV rangers as a local institutional enactment of “the state.” In this chapter I explore a variety

of questions: How has this ranger corps shifted away from the “old school” “law enforcement

focused” manner of conservation policing? What type of political thinking – about governance,

subjects, and selves – has replaced this past paradigm? How are ranger practices coordinated to

produce this form of resource management? Where does their project fail? In this chapter, I

approach conservation policing as a way to shed light on the political cultures of the Argentine

state in the “post-authoritarian era” (Auyero 2007, Auyero and Swistun 2009, Levitsky and

Murillo 2006), while also shaping the contours of environmental capitalism in Patagonia.

The contested politics of conservation in protected areas has become a significant terrain

of multidisciplinary research (Braun 2004, Tsing 2005, Hughes 2005, Kosek 2006, Peluso 1993).


Brockington’s account of the Mkomazi Game Reserve dwells on the authoritarian politics of

what he labels “fortress conservation,” defined as “the preservation of landscapes without a

human presence” (2002: 32). The construction of a mythic wilderness is a crucial aspect of the

preservationist approach to protected areas, one which often results in the expulsion of rural

peasantries or indigenous peoples from these areas to make room for spaces sans humanité, a

point that William Cronon makes elsewhere (1996). A second pillar of fortress conservation is

the capacity for wealthy tourists, national elites, and resource managers to marginalize the

surrounding rural populations from walled-off resources. PNLG indeed reflects, as I argued in

Chapter One, the history of geopolitical insecurity within the Patagonian borderlands and a series

of moves to construct capitalistic landscapes anchored first around the pastoral economy and

later shifting towards wilderness tourism. The Chaltén Border Area (CBA) and its national park

reflects a mythic wilderness that imposes a fundamental erasure on the social history of space

and the former presence of the Aonikenk people in this landscape, prior to their violent

liquidation at the hands of the Argentine cavalry during the War of the Desert (Bandieri 2005).

The estancieros [ranchers] and paisanos [gauchos] who then populated the CBA have borne the

brunt of the rise of wilderness, the growth of ecotourism, and the development of a stronger

institutional apparatus for conservation policing. More than any other social group, the racinated

paisanos have found themselves increasingly excluded from the new economy and the land, with

local estancieros finding greater sources of revenue from ecotourism.

Many scholars have explored the global shift in resource management away from fortress

conservation towards participatory engagement with local communities that abut protected areas

or groups that live inside spaces of nature (Neumann 1998, West 2006, Walley 2004, Agrawal

2005). Mirroring wider changes in global development discourses, resource management has


unevenly sought to incorporate the surrounding local “stakeholders” into the economic benefits

provided by protected areas, such as tourism businesses for national parks or extraction rights in

forest reserves, under a variety of new “conservation-as-development” (West 2006) approaches

that include integrated conservation development projects (ICDP), community-based

conservation (CC), community-based natural resource management (CBNRM), among others

(see Neumann 1998: 207). Christine Walley explores the newly created Mafia Island Marine

Park, spearheaded by international development agencies, NGOs, and the Tanzanian government

to develop a new ecotourism destination that explicitly utilized the “politics of inclusion,” not

only allowing local communities to remain inside the park, but also attempting to inscribe them

into the apparatus for resource management itself. Even as Mafia residents have sought to

appropriate “participation” and to construct alliances with NGOs that enable them to contest the

existing power dynamics, Walley argues that participation has “been a hollow and even cruel

promise” that has continued to exclude residents from park resources and failed to transform

“underlying power relationships in relation to national and international institutions” (2004: 65).

Arun Agrawal (2005) provides arguably one of the more interesting optics for the new

politics of conservation in the analytic approach of “environmentality.” Examining Kumaon

villages in northern India, Agrawal explores the colonial and post-colonial politics of indirect

rule represented by decentralized village councils that have taken over collective management of

local forests. Utilizing Foucault’s concept of “governmentality,” Agrawal explores the relations

of power represented by decentralized forest councils, and how “the state” achieves its explicit

goals not through constraint or coercion, but by turning villagers into “environmental subjects.”

As Agrawal puts it: “The very individuality that is supposed to be constrained by the exercise of

power may actually be its effect” (2005: 217). Forest councils, each generating an instantiation


of decentralized resource management, not only generate subjects in the sense of subjection to

the institutional goals of state conservation, but also individuated agents regulating the forest

resources of the community. Seeking to de-center “the state” and to explore the multiple ways in

which “the state” and “the community” become joint effects of governmental strategies, Agrawal

points us toward an understanding of the political life of park rangers that emphasizes the ways

in which rangers contingently enact the Argentine state through the policing and creation of

subjects. Park rangers create an iteration of “the state” through the strategies of power they use

to transform human visitors into political subjects. Of course this creation of political subjects

that enact the state mandated environmental regulations pertaining to the park, as the opening

vignette suggests, may fail. These failures, however, are important opportunities for accessing

the landscape ideologies that inform the basis of the rangers’ political project. Landscape

ideologies refer to the way “certain classes of people have signified themselves and the world

through their imagined relationships with nature, and through which they have underlined and

communicated their own social role and that of others with respect to external nature” (Cosgrove

1998: 15). I wish to explore how the politics of subjection and its failure relates to how society

and nature are situated within the landscape ideology of “wilderness.”

This chapter, in exploring conservation policing, seeks to provide an ethnographic

account of the everyday practices through which political power emerges. I follow Timothy

Mitchell’s call to “move beyond the image of power as essentially a system of authoritative

commands or policies backed by force,” or what he calls the “legalistic approach” to political

power (1991: 92). This approach, imagining state power as an external coercive force, often

serves as the background assumption for accounts of conservation politics that seek to prove the

empirical validity of fortress conservation. My point is not to suggest that fortress conservation


is an invalid characterization of much twentieth century resource management in protected areas,

but rather to draw attention to how state power is represented in these accounts. Park rangers, as

state actors, are represented as an abstract force in many of these works, a conceptualization of

the state that not only fails to show the “actual disunity of political power” (Abrams 1988: 79),

but also reinforces the fetish meaning of the state as “an entity set apart from society,” an

abstract “structural effect” (Mitchell 1991: 94-95). My approach in this paper takes seriously

Abrams’ notion that the state should be studied through its political practices, drawing attention

to its disunity of power as it engages in acts of presenting “legitimate, disinterested domination”

(1988: 76). I explore the conservation policing practices of SLV rangers as they perform a

particular enactment of the state through an institutional shift towards environmental education

directed at constructing particular types of political subjects, as well as how rangers respond to

the failures of this educational approach.

Patagonia reflects a wide range of conservation politics in its protected areas related to

the historical, geopolitical, economic, and settlement forces that make each area contingent.

Participatory management has become central to PN Lanin under the notion of co-manejo in

which indigenous communities living inside the park have partial political input into resource

management, even as PN Nahuel Huapi remains a hot spot for land conflicts, lawsuits, and

contentious politics between indigenous communities and conservationists (see Martín and

Chehébar 2001). Fortress conservation has long dominated APN management logics, but has

increasingly changed to countenance the new participatory face of conservation, a transformation

accompanied by the rise of indigenous rights movements in Argentina and Chile in the post-

authoritarian era. The protected areas in Southern Patagonia (including PNLG) have received far

less attention in the foreign and national media because of the apparent lack of natural resource


conflicts, a situation that underestimates the ongoing struggle between the ranchers and resource

managers, as well as the contentious class and racial politics that lie at the heart of ecotourism-

led development. In PNLG, even as the superintendant’s office has pursued the end of all

pastoral uses of the park, “national reserve zones” within the park, set up as ecological “buffer

zones,” the “appropriate location” for tourism infrastructure, have provided important resource

grounds for the commoditization of nature by the two communities abutting the park (El Chaltén

and El Calafate). Patagonian parks have emphasized tourism since their inception – thus the

move to create “buffer zones” earmarked for local development uses suggests a legal redefinition

of parklands to normalize them with international park standards. The Park Management Plan

acts as the central “participatory” document for PN Los Glaciares, having brought together a

variety of state actors, business interests, and community groups to delineate and objectify the

trajectory of sustainable development and the appropriate use of park resources for the public

good. Nevertheless, there is little in the way of local participation in the making of

environmental regulations – rangers remain formally accountable solely to APN managers even

as social pressures are certainly evident in creating informal spheres of accountability especially

to middle class business owners in the community.

This chapter contributes to scholarship on environmental politics and protected areas by

examining the conservation policing of park rangers, a subject that has remained curiously absent

from the literature. Various scholars have examined park ranger practices and their impacts on

vulnerable rural communities (Neumann 1998, Walley 2004, Brockington 2002), but these texts

have either situated rangers in the abstract terminology of “the state,” or have dealt with the

isolated effects of particular practices by rangers in shaping access to resources. Little effort has

been made to understand rangers ethnographically as socio-cultural actors in their own right,


individuals who generate a particular institutional enactment of the state, and who respond to the

multiple terrains of risk – from nature, space, tourists, and guides – through which their

institution is constituted. The focus on the risks incumbent to the political thinking of rangers

acts as a central methodological move to encounter rangers within their own disunity of political

power, as located within the multiple registers of potential hazards, benefits, and opportunities

that they struggle to contain, manage, and engage.

This chapter argues that the ranger corps represents an enactment of the state that

attempts to shift conservation policing away from its authoritarian pasts into a participatory

present that is bound up with environmental education and the fostering of ecological agents who

experience a wilderness landscape. This enactment of the state is, itself, a multilayered mask in

which rangers attempt to generate the productive agency of political subjects traversing the park

to experience wilderness. This enactment fails in certain ways with respect to “problem

populations,” both human and non-human, which act without the proper ecological conduct,

violating the eco-normative order of wilderness, whether by circumventing the environmental

regulations, participating in commerce, or threatening urban residents. This local “stating”

represents a culturally specific critique of the Argentine state at large, and it is through an

exploration of ranger practices that I will examine how this critique is reflected in the mode of

legitimacy that rangers seek to construct. To prove this thesis I begin by investigating the

political-economic history of the SLV ranger station and the development of institutional

expertise. I then examine environmental education, frontcountry patrolling, and the construction

of the built environment to understand the production of political subjects through the

deployment of educational and spatial power. I then look at how rangers seek to manage a “self-

governing” natural world, as well as to insulate this wilderness from human impacts. I finish by


examining the ecotourism industry and the institutional threats the market poses to rangers

seeking to fashion a regenerated wilderness.

2 – Seccional Lago Viedma and the Division of Ranger Expertise

Parque Nacional Los Glaciares (PNLG), created in 1937 to protect Argentine territorial

claims over the Hielos Continentales [Southern Patagonian Icefield], formed an integral part of

the system of national parks built along the Chilean border in Patagonia to foment national

colonization, tourism-based development, and geopolitical security, as I argued in Chapter One.

The contemporary internationalization of Patagonia – centered on natural resource extraction

fostered by foreign direct investment, privatization, and market liberalization – has accelerated

since the 1990s, generating massive commodity flows to national centers and foreign countries.

Deepening inscription of the region’s valuable natural resources into the world market has also

involved the expansion of multinational ecotourism flows into protected areas localized largely

in the alpine ecologies of the Patagonian Andes. The mode of environmental capitalism that has

arisen in recent decades through neoliberal globalization – synergizing ecotourism markets and

resource management with the proliferation of protected areas throughout the region – has had

powerful effects on the political, ecological, and economic dimensions of PNLG and the Chaltén

Border Area (CBA) centered in the northern zone of the national park. The 1990s and 2000s,

following the Chilean and Argentine shifts from “orthodox” to “Third Way” neoliberal policies

(Taylor 2006, Barsky and Gelman 2009), witnessed the development of bi-national eco-travel

circuits between Patagonia’s parks.3 In the face of ongoing privatization of domestic natural

resources, parks increasingly signified powerful spaces of national heritage. Like PN Iguazu,

Los Glaciares also denoted a world heritage site, becoming a UNESCO protected area in 1981

(Alonso 2004: 9). With the explosion of multinational ecotourism centered on “alpine” glaciated


mountain wilderness landscapes, PNLG now has the distinction of being Argentina’s most

visited national park, eclipsing both PN Nahuel Huapi and PN Iguazu.

The northernmost ranger station in PNLG, known as Seccional Lago Viedma (SLV),

founded in 1965, has witnessed vast institutional change in the face of the internationalization

that followed the founding of the village of El Chaltén, in a small pocket of land expropriated

from the park, and the development of ecotourism oriented first around alpinist expeditions and

then mass trekking. Until the early 1990s, the SLV had only two full-time rangers, but with the

expansion of park revenues from user fees generated at the southern park station that abutted the

Perito Moreno Glacier, which had become a major tourism destination, the SLV began to grow

its institutional capacity, garnering more personnel, financing, and equipment. The SLV began

to expand through the recruitment of rangers at a national level, attracting people especially from

highly urbanized centers around Buenos Aires, Cordoba, and Rosario, which mirrored wider

shifts in the peopling of the CBA, displacing the Santacruzeño residents who had worked in the

area as estancieros [ranchers] and paisanos [gauchos] for decades, they themselves descendants

of earlier waves of European immigration and white settler colonialism. As acute border

conflicts with Chile and the threat to sovereignty diminished in the late 1990s, rangers coming to

the CBA sought professional opportunities, frontier living in a small remote community, and an

internationally recognized wilderness area specialized around adventure trekking and “big wall”

alpinism, as discussed in Chapter Two.

The ranger station has served as an institutional site for defining professional expertise

within the social space of the CBA increasingly shaped by alternative middle class identities and

lifestyles. Largely white, educated, bilingual middle class rangers from national urban centers –

social characteristics very similar to small business owners, professionals, public servants, and


other skilled workers within Chaltén’s growing service economy – migrated to the area to work

temporarily or permanently for the SLV, seeking to leave metropolitan areas and their “crime

and pollution,” and to forge new lives in “one of the most beautiful and untouched places in

Argentina.” The SLV is part of the national ranger corps and the contentious distribution of

personnel, contracts, and professional opportunities across the federal system of protected areas.

Those parks with the highest numbers of visitors receive greater sources of funding from the

APN Central Office in Buenos Aires, which collects the revenues generated by user fees

(visitors, concessions, etc.) and redistributes them to support those areas that are not self-

sustaining. The SLV is an anomaly of sorts – given its highly developed tourism market – in that

the northern zone of PNLG is free to visitors, foreign and domestic, the station relying on the

financial support of the superintendant’s office.4 The SLV corps has expanded, almost every

year, from five in the mid-1990s to nearly thirty year-round or seasonal rangers by the 2010-

2011 season.

Seccional Lago Viedma reflects the hierarchical division of expertise structuring the

national ranger corps, distinguishing three levels of authority, even as the SLV institutional

culture seeks to diminish these differences through an egalitarian distribution of work. “Full”

university trained rangers, guardaparques (GP), can write tickets, carry guns, and are legally

allowed to perform all potential actions the APN designates for rangers in policing conservation.

One level below this is the guardaparque de apoyo (GPA), or the assistant ranger, who has not

completed the formal university ranger degree, but legally does everything that full rangers do

except issuing tickets or bearing arms. Full and assistant rangers are year-round professional

positions with benefits and pensions, while the last category of ranger is the brigadista (BD),

specializing in emergency mitigation, such as forest fire suppression and performing mountain


rescues. BDs are the youngest rangers working at the station, typically with seasonal contracts

for those months with higher probabilities for fires and visitor injuries. The SLV institutional

division of labor acts directly to counter “specialization” and “bureaucratization,” and to foster

“an equal sharing of all the work that has to be done in the park.” Although GPs are formally

focused on the law enforcement aspects of the job, and even though BDs formally specialize just

in emergency mitigation, with the exception of the SLV director, all other rangers divide up the

work equitably. This non-bureaucratized division of labor seeks to create more egalitarian

relations of power, to rotate personnel through different types of work to counter the ennui of

routine, and to create corps actors capable of performing any necessary task.5 The historical and

geographic isolation of the SLV from the PNLG superintendant’s office in El Calafate, located

nearly three hours away by auto, and the self-selection of this station by rangers has contributed

to the formation of local institutional identities organized around a set of social expectations,

material and symbolic practices, and reflexive ideologies.

The ranger corps reflects wider trends in Argentina towards a “flexibilized” labor force

that diminishes labor costs for businesses or the state (Auyero 2000). Rangers are unionized, but

BDs are cheap labor compared to GPs in terms of education, training, wages, and benefits. The

SLV thus relies heavily on the flexible labor of BDs, who often have some university training in

fields related to biology, ecology, or tourism, but do not have technical degrees from the national

Escuela de Guardaparques [School of Park Rangers]. BDs are often young adults (18-26) that

largely seek to gain entry into the Escuela de Guardaparques by spending a few seasons first as a

park volunteer and then working a few years or seasons as a brigadista.6 Growing ecotourism in

PNLG, along with federal agency decisions to utilize cheap labor in lieu of expanding the pool of

available fully certified rangers, has contributed to an institutional culture dependent on a less


credentialed, less experienced, and younger workforce. Yet many BDs, unlike older rangers, are

experienced skiers, rock climbers, and alpinists – again, reflecting wider local shifts during the

last decade – which has brought technical mountaineering expertise to the corps, expanding their

participation in backcountry rescues with the local volunteer search and rescue team.

Until the end of the 2000s, rangers lived at the station on park property across the river

from the village, which generated and reflected the socio-political distance separating custodians

of the public domain from community residents living off tourism-led development, the only

legally permissible economic activity in El Chaltén. With their numbers growing, rangers have

increasingly moved into the village, where they are renting apartments, receiving land grants

through the province as residents, and building homes. Rangers have the option to circulate

through the national park system, moving every 3-4 years to a new station or protected area, but

most have sought to establish their long-term residency in the Chaltén Border Area, as the urban

landscape has exploded with speculative and entrepreneurial activity, generating one of the

highest costs of living in the nation. Some retired rangers from the 1990s and 2000s settled in

Chaltén, building both homes and businesses, facilitating the ongoing integration of the park

service with the middle class business community and the Chamber of Commerce. Although the

superintendant’s office in El Calafate has ultimate authority over the allocation and management

of concessions and service contracts, the SLV rangers wield regulatory influence over the local

companies that capitalize on the provisioning of adventure tours to visitor populations. Political

authority, mobilized by rangers, over the “sustainable development” of park resources has led to

a variety of land conflicts with well-positioned actors, including former President Kirchner and

current President Fernandez, and community groups, which I examine in future chapters.


SLV rangers view their work as professionally terminal. From BDs to GPs, almost every

ranger (except the director) seeks to avoid upward mobility in the APN bureaucracy, whether to

become a station director, a park superintendant, to work at the Patagonian Regional Technical

Delegation (DTR), or for the Central Office in Buenos Aires. Physical work “in the field” and

one’s proximity to and engagement with nature is critical to their group ideologies. Rangers

expressed everything from mild disinterest to visceral condemnation of the world inhabited by

the bureaucrats and office workers in the APN, as well as other state agencies. “This line of

work is a vocation,” noted one ranger. “You have to love what you do, and love the park.”

Although rangers identified as “working for the state” and being “state employees,” they worked

hard to distinguish their institutional culture and practices from the popular discourses about

public employees. Rangers face public criticism from certain groups in the village, but labor to

produce an enactment of the state that works. One ranger noted about public criticism, “They

just can’t believe that there are aspects of the state that function properly.” Working in the field

with nature, resource management expertise, as well as their rigorous devotion to serving the

public interest, for rangers, legitimized their wielding of political authority. They were not of the

same breed as those “asshole politicians in Buenos Aires” (cf. Goddard 2006), as one GP noted,

but were laboring to perform a competent, professional, and legitimate enactment of the state (cf.

Abrams 1988: 76).

Against the backdrop of the multinational world of Chaltén, the rangers constitute an

identifiable social group in the community, wearing distinguishing professional clothing and

being associated with the political interests of Parques [Parks], even during their leisure time, or

when they transition into different work.7 Through deepening engagements with the world

market, rangers have become emplaced within the CBA as a white middle class institution whose


members forge alternative forms of living with respect to previous lives in metropolitan centers,

though most have family connections to farms and ranches in the campo [the countryside].

Rangers contribute to the formation of the emergent social relations of production tied up with

environmental capitalism, playing a crucial structural role as custodians of the protected area,

even as individual rangers exhibit agency in shifting political strategies to create more effective

authority, to minimize emergencies, and better safeguard the vulnerable wilderness. In the next

section, I will explore practices of environmental education that are key to how rangers police


3 – Environmental Education and Ecological Agents

Environmental education represents a key discursive practice by which rangers manage

human populations posing potentially enormous hazards to the protection of park resources, as

well as a crucial enactment and “facialization” of state power. Elana Shever defines faciality as

“how the perception of particular human faces can reinforce the inequities of large-scale power

dynamics,” discussing oil companies in Buenos Aires and performances of corporate personhood

(2010: 26). I take this concept and extend it to the embodied performances of the state contained

in environmental education, and frontcountry patrolling (explored in the next section). The

faciality of state power that rangers perform for park visitor audiences not only has important

political consequences for conservation policing, but also for producing an institutional culture

organized around eco-centric values. The focal point of educación ambiental [environmental

education] is what rangers call the charla, a term signifying an informal chat or talk. The charla

is a key discursive vehicle for envisioning national park space, for enacting the transfer of

governmental power from rangers to visitors, and for constructing ecological agents, as I will


show. Park rangers communicate directly with visitors throughout the national park, but their

principal and, by their own accounting, most effective form of education occurs in the ranger

station where visitors stop on their way into town. The charla is a 20-25 minute speech given by

a ranger either in Spanish or in English to an audience ranging from a handful of people to

upwards of forty individuals at one time, with hundreds receiving the talk every day. The charla

draws on the past experiences of eco-travelers in protected areas to acclimate them to local

parkland, the public services that are provided, and opportunities for wilderness exploration. It

also seeks ideologically to take those travelers without any past experiences in wilderness and

fashion them as eco-travelers who are conscious and conscientious of their ecological impacts on

nature. The ideal political subject is the ecological agent, who follows the rules prescribed by

rangers dictating rational and ethical engagements with nature. Of course ecological agency is

an institutional construct, historically changing with respect to transnational conservation

discourses, protocols, and practices, and local conceptions of what “ecological” actually means.

As an ideal political subject, this form of fictive agency is institutionally malleable in responding

to the political, economic, and ecological conditions shaping resource management in the CBA.

The charla represents, according to rangers, the most “exceptional” practice within the

institutional life of SLV, helping forge an institutional identity through the imagined difference

of the SLV ranger station from others in Argentina. Further, the charla is the enactment of not

only a responsible state, but also one inspired by vocación, or the vocational importance ascribed

to the work they perform, distinguishing rangers from public servants and private sector workers

at large in Argentina. Environmental education is an integral component of managing protected

areas throughout the world, and their publicly stated objectives of transmitting the values of the

outdoors, nature, and ecology to visitors. The commitment of the SLV corps to talk to every


park visitor – to give the charla to more than 60,000 annual visitors (as of 2010-2011) – “makes

us different from every other ranger station in the nation,” noted one GPA. Direct

communication of rangers with tens of thousands of turistas represents a key mode of difference

making whereby Seccional Lago Viedma comes to signify a national leader within the park

system for more effective conservation policing. Other ranger stations represent “lazy” and

“typical public servants” who let visitors circulate through parkland domains without needed

background ecological knowledge and services information. Some visitors communicate their

satisfaction with the face time and attention they receive both in the visitor center and on the trail

system. Scientists working in PNLG, as well as regional directors within the APN, have equally

communicated this sense of an exceptional “work ethic” identified with the SLV, generating a

multinational public discourse with which rangers identify, and explain by invoking vocación as

what separates them from the rest. “I was really impressed with the speech they gave us at the

ranger station,” noted a ranger from Canada’s Banff National Park who was trekking in the area,

“they obviously know and love what they’re doing here. You get much more personal attention

than in [Parque Nacional] Torres del Paine [in Chile].” If multinational visitors and other APN

employees often spoke glowingly about the work ethic and personal interactions that the SLV

prioritize, then these narratives contrasted with critiques levied by village residents. Indeed there

is a substantial division within the local community between those aligned and opposed to park

management practices, reflecting a common finding in the literature on protected areas (West et

al 2006). These coalitions, never static, have changed with the internationalization of the CBA

and the inflow of more Argentine service workers, business owners, and public servants into this

dynamic landscape. There is a history of land conflict and political contestation, often fractured

along class and residency divisions, which I explore in Chapter Five.


The charla is a powerful political technology for managing populations, especially when

facing structural conditions of institutional resource scarcity with respect to personnel, financing,

and equipment. Most other stations in PNLG are either infrequently visited or – in the case of

Peninsula Magallanes where the Perito Moreno Glacier is accessed – densely populated with

eco-travelers who circulate within highly circumscribed scenic platforms and walkways, take

boat tours of the fiords, and participate in guided glacier treks where surveillance is more easily

established. Northern PNLG is the only part of the park constructed specifically for “open

access” frontcountry trekking and backpacking, where it is more difficult to generate synoptic

surveillance across the extent of their policing domain. The trail system is a crucial delimitation

of parkland that creates channels and routes of constrained movement that make surveillance far

easier to achieve. Policing in light of a circulating population requires other political measures,

namely the construction of self-governing actors who (ideally) regulate their own conduct as

ecological agents attuned to protocols for minimizing human impacts on nature and creating

sustainable environments.

The charla in fact is an old practice for the SLV station. Resident retired rangers who

worked during the late 1980s and 1990s, after the founding of the village, recalled the centrality

of the charla to institutional life even then, a form of regulatory enforcement that predated the

massive acceleration of ecotourism-led development in the Chaltén Border Area, originating in

an obscure past. The importance placed on the charla as an iconic form of creating self-policing

actors has only intensified throughout the 1990s and 2000s as hundreds of eco-travelers quickly

became thousands and then tens of thousands following the devaluation of the Argentine peso

during the national political conflict and economic collapse of 2001- 2002 (Bonnet 2008, Auyero

2007). The charla, performatively salient to institutional identity, facializes state power through


the attempt to mask political processes in ecological discourses. The speech seeks to interpolate

turistas into a form of ecological self-government that shifts the source of discursive authority

from the state – the APN as the federal agency with jurisdiction – onto the environment itself.

Nature with a capital “N,” not the state, becomes constituted as the source of authority for

rangers to educate visitors about the ecological norms that Nature itself dictates. Political power

is coded during this process not as originating with the democratic “consent of the people” or

with “sovereign violence” (Benjamin 1978), but with eco-centric values. The punitive face of

the state, of course, never disappears entirely into ecological discourse. Rangers perform their

expertise – ostensibly disinterested, professional, and above the play of power – by elaborating

the “scientifically prescribed” rational dictates of ecology and the “Leave No Trace” (LNT) rules

for land management. The state thereby inscribes its authority into a set of values that appears to

transcend both visitors and the ranger corps. Global and national environmentalist discourses

provide the contextual backgrounds against which the charla emerges as a particularly salient

weapon for rangers in generating ecological agents who police their own actions in the park.

Nature prescribes and proscribes specific forms of conduct, ways of being-with-nature,

according to rangers. This is not a self-conscious tactic of deception, but emblematic of rangers’

ardent beliefs in Nature as an authority for dictating – through ecological interpretations – the

contours of legitimate and illegitimate, ethical and unethical practices. Rangers indeed extol

attunement to Nature as the way to cultivate lives of self-actualization: finding peace, spiritual

depth, and the reorganization of personal values away from materialistic, consumerist, and

money-centered pursuits. Even as teaching ecology serves as a technology of government, this

particular form of enacting the state represents an entrenched critique of the state at large and the

lip service paid by political elites to the environment. Rangers desire transformation of the state


apparatus to roll back multinational corporate extraction of Patagonian resources, the halting of

local commercial pressures to exploit park resources, and greater efforts by the federal

government to safeguard and conserve the national environment. This eco-centric world,

communicated by rangers, is universally available to all travelers, regardless of race, class,

gender, or nation. The universalism of this eco-centric discourse, however, conceals the socio-

economic inequalities at the basis of national park travel and access to wilderness areas. The

audience arriving in PNLG represents an economically privileged cosmopolitan bourgeoisie: a

multinational set of middle and upper middle class actors. The vast majority of Argentines and

Chileans do not have the discretionary income necessary to travel to Southern Patagonia and

spend days or weeks hiking in the alpine wilderness. Even as rangers enact a local form of state

power that critiques wider dimensions of the state apparatus by calling attention to eco-centric

values, this facialization of power masks the legitimization tactics whereby state power is

extended, as well as the socio-economic inequalities rendered invisible through universalism.

The ranger station is divided into two rooms, each with a large visual display presenting

the trail system, destination images, the wildlife that visitors might encounter inside the park, and

diagrams that signify specific prohibitions. Personal agreements between local bus companies

and the PNLG superintendant’s office have mandated that bus lines stop at the ranger station,

where visitors are conducted into the two rooms, one for English speakers and the other for

Spanish speakers.8 Half the rangers have a fluent command of English to give the charla, but

their audience often comprises a multinational group from countries like Germany, France,

Israel, Japan, as well as English-speaking nations. Similarly, the Spanish collective involves

Argentines and Chileans, as well as Spaniards, Italians, Portuguese, and Brazilians. The speech

positions travelers within an eco-centric world that establishes humans as only one species in a


more encompassing ecological system that grants enduring state protection to wildlife, forests,

plants, lakes, and the geophysical habitats that sustain these species. Rangers envision a form of

nature that is largely self-regulating, but is also highly vulnerable to the impacts of humans and

the potential hazards of erosion, long-term damage to plant life, the flight of fauna from the park,

the pollution of the water, and forest fires. At the same time that rangers seek to construct

ecological agents attuned to the hazards they present to nature, they also communicate the

dangerous position of travelers with respect to the Patagonian wilderness. This wilderness is

environmentally harsh – exposing travelers to climatic extremes that require self-regulation and

approved equipment – and potentially harmful, resulting in numerous accidents and occasional

fatalities (especially for alpinists). Park rangers communicate the potential destinations, routes,

campsites, and trekking circuits that visitors may take, even as this panoply of hazards seeks to

construct vigilant actors. This communicative transfer of governmental power works to create

ecological agents who orient their practices according to the legitimate conduct of Nature, or

what rangers refer to as la naturaleza [the natural world].

Eco-normativity depends on the capacity to create understanding – this communicative

understanding can and perhaps often fails in the ranger station. This potential for failure, very

much recognized by rangers, shapes their political thinking and repertoire of policing practices.

Rangers note that by and large the travelers coming to El Chaltén are “eco-travelers,” collectives

with heightened sensibilities about LNT practices and environmental ethics. This multinational

audience typically needs nothing more than the reminder provided by the charla to engage in

“proper behavior.” However, two national populations, according to rangers, represent the most

difficult collectives with respect to eco-normativity: Argentines and Israelis. “We generally have

no problems at all with the Americans, the English, the French, or the Germans. They know how


to pack out their trash and interact with nature. It’s the Israelis and the Argentines. They have

no respect for the environment.” These two “problem populations” represent those collectives

that most require interdiction when patrolling the frontcountry trail system and campgrounds.

Environmental education for park rangers represents a central expression of their authority to

enforce the environmental regulations and directives coming from the APN bureaucracy at the

superintendent, regional, and national levels. Even the practice of patrolling, as I will turn to

next, largely represents an expression of educational power for the ranger corps, rather than an

enactment of “authoritarian” interdiction.

4 - Patrolling the Frontcountry

The ongoing attempt to construct self-policing ecological agents through the charla

confronts a local park history replete with accidents and deaths in the frontcountry and the

backcountry, forest fires that have burned thousands of hectares of forest, and innumerable

violations of the eco-normative order, as defined by rangers. The corps is the law enforcement

agency of the APN within parkland, but to understand ranger practice as strictly enforcement of

APN regulations is to fail to grasp the ways in which these actors seek to facialize state power

through education. Patrolling the frontcountry trail system, which I explore here in this section,

does represent a preventive measure to anticipate the potential problems suffered by visitors and

a punitive mode of identifying illegal activities and criminalizing actors. Patrolling, however,

represents a key mode of educación ambiental for rangers as they extend the charla via face-to-

face encounters with the visitor public. Against the backdrop of multiform potential hazards,

patrolling represents one key political practice whereby rangers actively enforce environmental


regulations in ways which enable them to generate institutional self-understandings that what

they do is primarily educational.

The corps sends one or two rangers up the two major mountain valleys – Valle Fitz Roy

and Valle Torre – every day, which are the principal trekking corridors for day-hikers and

backpackers. They carry a first aid kit, a walkie-talkie, and official park maps given out free to

the public during the charla. The recorrida, as it is called, represents another important way in

which SLV rangers construct institutional exceptionality. “Argentine rangers, anymore, treat the

job like they are office workers, sitting on their butts all day, drinking maté, and just talking, like

they do down at the Comisión de Fomento [the local government]” noted one GP. “We are one

of the few ranger stations that still have people out in the field every single day.” Whether or not

this is an accurate understanding of Argentina’s national ranger corps, the ethnographic salience

of this position lies in how it contributes to an understanding of institutional identity in the face

of the imagined bureaucratization of the national corps and the retreat of ranger bodies back into

offices. Popular impressions of the Argentine “public office worker” are often severe, even for

public office workers, who criticize the perceived inefficiency of the state and ineptitude of most

workers. SLV rangers, by way of contrast, embody through their labor vigorous engagements

with the field and represent a critique of the spectatorship and weakening of the ranger corps.

Recorridas enable rangers to do what they “love best,” “spend time in nature, in the field, away

from the station, and away from town.” Being “in nature” is a vital part of the identity of these

social actors: rangers perform recorridas during the working day, and often backpack, camp,

rock climb, bike, or mountaineer in their leisure time. During a recorrida, rangers spend the day

hiking one of the major mountain valleys, engaging visitors in conversation about the park,

discussing hiking and camping options, distributing official trail maps to orient travelers, and


continuing the charla started back in the ranger station by answering questions, reiterating the

rules of public use, and personalizing the corps. Many eco-travelers in PNLG noted that they

had never witnessed so many face-to-face interactions between rangers and visitors in other

parks in Patagonia, Europe, and North America, among other regions. Through the charla in the

station and on the trails, state power becomes facialized as an educational force for protecting

valuable ecosystems and sublime environments.

Patrolling acts as a preventative measure for rangers to maintain visitor compliance with

APN environmental regulations. The act of making rangers visible inside the park draws upon

the popular understanding that rangers can issue tickets for illegal acts, can ask for compliance

with ecological principles, and can eject people from the park. This imagined popular threat

about rangers – as law enforcers acting with APN jurisdictional authority – provides a crucial

background condition, according to rangers, for maintaining relatively high compliance with the

regulations, especially among the “problem populations.” As mentioned earlier, only the GPs

can issue tickets for infractions, while the rest of the corps can identify illegal acts, but have to

communicate this information over radio back to the station so that a GP can later issue a ticket,

provided they can find the culprit. This lack of ticketing power is almost always not apparent to

visitors, giving non-GP rangers the social aura of having more power than they actually have.

Even as rangers might enjoy the appearance of uniform authority, the SLV corps makes a point

of acting far “less rigidly,” giving visitors more latitude, engaging in “gentle reminders” about

the rules, and seeing illegal activities as opportunities for “more education.” Rangers perform an

enactment of the state this is, by their own estimation, “less authoritarian.”

The shift towards educational policing, especially by an increasingly younger corps,

represents an explicit rejection of the past generation of rangers, both locally and nationally, who


were “far more militaristic, because this was when rangers were almost like another wing of the

army in Argentina,” as one ranger put it. The armed forces and the military governments of

Argentina had important institutional impacts on conservation policing in the Argentine ranger

corps, from its inception in the 1930s to its professionalization in the 1980s and 1990s (see, for

example, Bustillo 1988). Park rangers reflected the “fortress conservation” paradigm prevalent

in global resource management ideologies during much of the twentieth century (Brockington

2002). Rangers guarded the natural resources of protected areas in ways which sought explicitly

to exclude surrounding communities from utilizing these resources – except for tourism related

development – and marginalized local groups from resource management decisions (cf. Martín

and Chehébar 2001).9 If the “older generation” of rangers acted to impose a strict militaristic

authority over local and national parks, then the “current generation” of rangers has sought to

practice a more participatory, education-oriented, and softer embodiment of state power, which

is consistent with global shifts towards the language of “participation” (Walley 2004, Neumann

1998). There are, according to rangers, a few “old school” rangers still working for the SLV, as

noted in the opening story about Patricio, but the vast majority represents a new breed that uses

the hard edge of law enforcement only as a last resort. Indeed, this educational facialization of

state power connects with the progressive history of the SLV. The very first female GP or full

ranger spent her career in PNLG, first in El Calafate and then in El Chaltén, where she worked

during the 1990s as the first female ranger station director, before retiring in the mid-2000s to

become a small business owner in the village. The SLV has long nurtured a progressive stance

towards the national ranger corps, and environmental education – realized in the charla and the

recorrida – is the preeminent way to construct a new face for conservation, one which seeks to

set aside the militaristic and misogynistic cultural politics of the APN.


Patrolling enables a soft form of state power that seeks to preempt the expected problems

that arise for the corps and to continue cultivating multinational visitor populations as ecological

agents. The massification of adventure travel in PNLG has injected an increasing number of

day-hikers with minimal outdoors experience into parkland circulation, where they often lack

even a rudimentary knowledge about navigating trails, understanding weather patterns, and

dressing for rugged hilly terrains subject to Patagonia’s notoriously harsh climate. Rangers seek

to identify those visitors who lack outdoors experience, attempting to steer them towards places

that are not too far from trailheads, and to preclude them from heading too deep into the park,

citing a number of problems they have increasingly encountered: dehydration, environmental

exposure, disorientation, and accidents resulting from these three conditions. Rangers, indeed,

actively evaluate the presentation of the visitor self: whether they have a trail map, know the

LNT rules, have an itinerary, and comport themselves through dress and clothing, equipment and

confidence. “If I see a lady wearing dress shoes or a man wearing a collared shirt, for example, I

immediately know that they have absolutely no business being in the park, so I politely try and

either send them back to town or direct them somewhere safe and populated.” This judgment of

travelers separates those visitors who are experienced and capable of self-government from those

who do not even realize, because they lack experience, that they are exposed to higher degrees of

environmental danger. Sending these inexperienced day-hikers to populated areas places them in

sites where there are not only other visitors, but also professional guides who have radios and

can communicate problems back to the ranger station if they crop up.

Rangers depend on trekking and mountain guides, who are dispersed and distributed

much more extensively throughout the park, to act as an alternative force for conservation

policing. Guides must complete a short technical education to become certified nationally,


before taking a test specific to a protected area to become licensed for that site. Guides in

Chaltén typically have extensive outdoor experience, and come to the CBA not only because

employment opportunities have increased markedly since the 1990s – every year, that is, until

the 2008-2009 season following the global financial crisis – but also because they often engage

in alpinism in the mountains and rock climb down in the village. Guides, mostly young males,

represent a different form of professional expertise, alongside rangers and alpinists, establishing

the social dimensions of multinational middle class expertise in the Patagonian wilderness.

Guides care for and police the members of their adventure tour, and communicate with the

ranger station if an emergency occurs, whether client or non-client injuries or seeing smoke

plumes in the forest. Even as they trust guides to communicate emergencies, rangers often

dismiss guides as blindly selfish in their pursuit of money, incapable of “truly working for

conservation” in tandem with rangers. According to this critique, guides prioritize making

money at the expense of recognizing that if “they don’t help our [ranger] efforts more broadly,

the environment is going to be damaged and no one will want to come here anymore.” While

rangers care for the long-term welfare of the park, guides “do the least amount possible” to

maintain their license, and certainly cannot be trusted to enforce LNT regulations and promote

eco-centric values among clients or visitors they encounter on the trails. “They haven’t taken

ownership over the park,” noted one BD. Rangers have created this public-private partnership

with the guiding industry, enabling guides to capitalize on public natural resources, in exchange

for extending the security apparatus and synoptic surveillance of conservation policing and the

limited labor force of the corps. Even as this partnership represents a widely used global practice

in park management, the stakes of this political-economic exchange remain shot through with the

social forces of local space, which I will discuss later in the chapter.


Patrolling has become an educational practice in the field for SLV rangers concerned

with projecting a mode of state power that is softer, less overtly authoritarian, and codes political

processes in ecological discourses that shift the origin of legitimate authority away from the state

and onto Nature. This cultural shift has important implications, especially in Argentina, where

the nation still lives with the brutal legacies of Operation Condor, military dictatorship, and the

state of emergency used to liquidate the insurgent left and any citizens (and foreigners) caught up

in the dragnet of sovereign violence (Robben 1996, Feitlowitz 1998, Taylor 1998). Patrolling

not only enacts a “stating” that critiques the ranger corps association with authoritarian

militarism and the armed forces, but also the national collapse that followed the return to liberal

democracy and civilian rule. The state suffered massive de-legitimization following the

neoliberal 1990s in the precipitous collapse of the Argentine economy and the wave of popular

protests – the widely heralded bridging of lower class, working class, and middle class citizens –

that erupted in December 2001 (Carassai 2007, Carranza 2005, Tedesco 2002). While the

Kirchner and Fernandez Administrations represent a center-left turn towards the strengthening of

national sovereignty within a neoliberal world system and the recovery of state functionality

(whatever the degree of “corruption” and “cooptation”), the enactment of state power by rangers

attempts to shift the origins of their legitimate authority onto Nature. Eco-centrism becomes a

discursive vehicle for recoding state power in the face of widespread de-legitimization of state

institutions among national citizens, which becomes especially important to the interactions that

middle class rangers have with middle class Argentine citizens. At the same time, this

universalistic discourse enables foreign travelers to participate equally within this regime of

value, crucial considering foreigners number half the total eco-traveler market.


The punitive basis of the state power wielded by rangers, however, appears from time to

time during the recorrida, setting aside ecological discourses and subjecting visitors to legal

interdiction. Rangers, identifying problematic actions, remind visitors of the LNT rules for

ecological conduct, typically resulting in compliance. The situation, however, can escalate if the

visitor disagrees or challenges ranger authority, requiring the ranger to exert a more forceful and

threatening facialization of state power. Backpackers who leave their rubbish or light campfires,

visitors who bring pets onto the trails, guides without a license – these events can enable explicit

threats of ticketing. Finally, the last resort of rangers, something that occurs very rarely, is the

threat of physical compulsion. Rather than carry rifles inside the park to enforce this hardest line

of state power, rangers threaten violators with calling in the army. “Do you want me to call the

gendarmes down in the village?” Yelled one ranger at a group of backpackers refusing to leave

the park, “They all are friends of mine, you know.” The two “problem populations” for rangers,

Israelis and Argentines, are identified as the most intransigent and most likely to engage in illicit

actions, a situation that has provoked ascriptions of racism to rangers by Israeli travelers and

volunteers for the park. In the case of Argentines, rangers often interpret their misbehaviors as

symptomatic of a lack of environmental knowledge and outdoors experience among the urban

classes who predominate. However, the rangers charge Israelis with gross misconduct resulting

from a distain for authority and a lack of respect of Latin American countries. Racism directed

at Israelis inhabits a wider social world of anti-Semitism within Argentina (Faulk 2008).

Ascriptions of probable deviance to entire populations create law enforcement dynamics

whereby rangers, as an institution, encounter more criminality in these two populations as a

result of more systemic scrutiny of their actions. Euro-American travelers receive far less


attention given institutional biases suggesting far less probable deviance. “They don’t challenge

our authority,” maintained one ranger, “in the way that Israelis and Argentines often do.”

5 – Wilderness and the Built Environment

Rangers construct ecological agency through environmental education and the threats of

legal sanctions ranging from ticketing to physical coercion, although SLV institutional culture

seeks to maximize the former technique of power while minimizing, insofar as possible, the

latter. Ranger acknowledge that the force of ecological agency, however, will not come simply

from visitors “being told how to act ecologically in nature,” but must involve direct encounters

with park wilderness. “Wilderness” is the central landscape ideology shaping the natures of

Patagonian parks: a form of seeing, experiencing, and encountering nature that is bound up with

the “domesticated sublime” of late romanticism, “primitivism” and hostility towards modernity,

and the false dualisms of an external nature separated and separable from society (Cronon 1996).

As I argued in Chapter Two, alpinism played a historically significant role in the culturing of

Patagonian nature as an extreme alpine wilderness and formulating Andean ecologies as spaces

for having adventures. While mountaineers directed their sights towards the backcountry – a

zone that had long remained central to the cosmological narratives of the Tehuelche Aonikenk

tribes that inhabited the CBA prior to the War of the Desert – these glaciated and mountainous

terrains had remained, visibly at least, unaltered by anthropogenic forces. The frontcountry,

however, presented a more difficult problem for rangers, which was dominated by pastoral uses

and livestock herds well into the early 1990s. Over the last two decades, rangers have labored to

construct a frontcountry “wilderness” (even as the backcountry still remains legally off-limits to

any infrastructure, including an official trail system) in which multinational visitors learn how to


become local ecological agents. This project structurally responds to market factors, such as the

increasing bourgeoisification of eco-traveler flows, but also international norms surrounding

resource management, particularly the technical design and engineering of trail systems. Ranger

practices to schematize parkland space, I will show, is an integral part of conservation policing.

The alpine ecology of the national park has a social history bound up with the productive

relations fostered by the estancia institution and the use of parklands for livestock pasturing – as

well as game, fuel, and building materials – long after the legal creation of PNLG in 1937. The

SLV rangers working in the 1990s and 2000s, following the founding of El Chaltén in 1985 and

the rise of environmental capitalism, encountered a material environment that they perceived to

be polluted with the traces of past commercial activities, forest fires, and the eco-systemic effects

of livestock grazing. Erosion was a key concern for rangers by the late 1990s as the trail

network, starting in the village and radiating out towards various destinations in the frontcountry

and backcountry, experienced a massive increase in foot traffic following the rise of mass

tourism. Rangers found a frontcountry defined by its “spontaneous trails.” After strong-arming

and politicking the estancieros and paisanos still using the national park as pastureland for their

herds, rangers successfully facilitated the removal of livestock from the Valle Torre and Valle

Fitz Roy, the first step in the political production of a wilderness ostensibly devoid of human

influences. Rangers recognize, like many political ecologists, the “social production of nature”

(Escobar 1999, Biersack 2006, Pálsson 2006). “It’s impossible to divorce human influences

from the nature we see today inside the park, whether through fire or grazing or the introduction

of exotic species,” commented one GP. This position makes the creation of wilderness, for

rangers, not an exercise in either/or absolutes, but the relative matter of degrees of re-wilding the

park in order to approximate its “natural state” prior to European colonization when nomadic


indigenous populations inhabited the area. Even so, the ranger position on what constitutes an

appropriate landscape for the park reflects the ongoing hegemony of “Anglo-American”

romanticism in what Neumann calls the “national park ideal” (1998: 9-10), provided that one

expands the notion of “American” to include Argentines, Chileans, and the other nations of the


The next phase consisted in designing and engineering a landscape that enabled travel

flows through the park, while creating trails that could handle the impacts of human passage.

Rangers worked to turn spontaneous paths into a trail system, an ongoing project that intensified

tremendously in the late 2000s as the number of eco-travelers surpassed 60,000 per year. A trail

system is a political technology for managing the movements of populations through space,

much like any road network, but rather than being surrounded by private property, this system of

routes operated within a public space open to exploration by visitors. Visitors have the right to

leave the trail and amble up a slot canyon to see a waterfall, or to cut across a dense thicket of

beech trees. As noted earlier, the northern zone of PNLG has an “open access” public use norm

with the exception of an “intangible zone” located in a remote area surrounding Lago Viedma

that only scientists can access. Rangers rarely tell the public that they have this open access

right, and when they do, they frame it within LNT rules, such that staying on the trail minimizes

the distribution of human impacts on nature by focusing them on specific lines of “sacrifice.”

The trail system, then, channels and distributes traveler movements across space in ways

which concentrate the long-term damages caused by public use into lines of sacrifice that enable

the flourishing of the surrounding nature. The fundamental problem with the reduction of human

“impacts” on parkland to the material traces of their passing (especially in trail erosion) is to

neglect the interactive effects they have on non-human species that are less visible: noises, visual


presence, smell, food sources, and garbage affect, for example, wildlife habitats and migratory

patterns. As more eco-travelers arrive to the CBA with less outdoors experience, rangers have

responded by flattening and widening the trails, explicitly in order to provide “comfort” during

peripatetic transit. A feedback loop has accelerated with increasing eco-travel whereby rangers

must devote increasing labor power to correcting trails and mitigating erosion, often expanding

the range of the primary trail system to accommodate greater numbers, which requires even more

maintenance laboring. The correction of trails – to make them comfortable for the cosmopolitan

bourgeoisie dominating eco-travel – also seeks to eliminate or minimize potential injuries from

rough terrain.

Wilderness access through the trail system constructs a parkland space that enables

specific productive relations. With the rise of ecotourism markets, dominated by upper middle

and middle class multinational consumers, park rangers have transformed the trail network inside

PNLG to accommodate greater numbers of visitors with far less outdoors experience than

mountaineers or trekkers, to mitigate their erosion impacts on space, and to make their travel

experience more comfortable by widening trails and reducing “unnecessary” rough terrain.

Travel times have decreased from the village to the backcountry, where many of the key scenic

destinations are located, which has enabled the entry of more people into the frontcountry. On

the one hand, increasing the public use of the park is integral to the ideological project of

rangers: to provide visitors with the wilderness experience necessary to create ecological agents.

On the other hand, the increasing traffic has alienated the more experienced trekkers and

backpackers who explicitly seek solitude in wilderness, a theme I explore in Chapter Four. The

cultural politics of wilderness is precisely what is at stake in this zone of the national park, as

more eco-travelers arrive without the expectations of experiencing complete solitude, while the


smaller collective of more hard-core trekkers feel crowded out or that Patagonian wilderness is a

“myth.” Also, more traffic has demanded a greater allocation of labor to trail maintenance and

emergency services like mountain rescues. Many local groups and interests have heavily

criticized the bourgeoisification of the national park, especially lamenting the decline of its

“wilderness qualities” and recalling the times when there were far fewer people and rough terrain

was the expectation.

The trail system schematizes space in ways structurally key to conservation policing

insofar as it enables the self-government of travelers. Eco-travelers experience a mediated

wilderness with specific pre-given destinations that provide different opportunities for defining

personal adventure experiences, as well as a semiotic system that coordinates these movements

through orientation. Signposts conduct travelers from site to site through the park, enabling

travelers to orient their bodies in relation to the totalizing sign system represented in the free

official park map given to all visitors at the ranger station. By reducing the possible interactions

with this “wilderness” to a delimited field of potentiality organized within an overarching sign

system, rangers construct terrains of action in which self-government is mediated through a

universal semiology, using English and Spanish, but also attempting to post icons that are

transculturally accessible, even to those visitors without these two languages. The agency of

eco-travelers, for rangers, operates with this politically constructed semiotic and material space,

whereby visitors appear to make autonomous decisions as to what to do, where to go, and how to

appropriate wilderness before them to satisfy their pre-given consumption desires. This mode of

agency is constitutive of the “discursive subjects” (Foucault 1991: 58) that are produced at the

intersection of the institutional project of rangers and the consumption codes framing wilderness

adventure. However, this agency also depends on the “imagined autonomy,” freedom, decision-


making, and self-direction whereby the political subjects come to participate in those very

“practices of conservation encouraged by state officials” (Agrawal 2005: 197). As pointed out

by governmentality scholars, the conduct of individuals emerges at the points of contact where

the subject is made through structures of coercion, provided one views “coercion” as a positive

form of enabling power, as opposed to violent interdiction (Burchell 1996, Rose 1996). By

channeling action through the trail system, rangers patrolling the frontcountry and various guides

leading tours can expect to encounter the vast majority of travelers in definite terrains, as

opposed to being evenly distributed across the “open access” landscape. The state power that

underwrites this schematized space is masked in the geographic neutrality of signposting, with

the active presence of a commanding state disappearing from the wilderness. Also, minimizing

their embodied presence in the frontcountry (only one or two rangers per day travel the trails),

rangers attempt to create a space of “secure insecurity” that advances the ideology of adventure

travel in the wilderness. The embodied state disappears, leaving only its signposted suggestions.

The political construction of wilderness by rangers involves not only removing livestock

and engineering a trail system, but also organizing a series of destinations as the endpoints for

travel. To what degree eco-travelers actually risk insecurity in this environment is debatable –

what is, however, ethnographically salient is that travelers experience “exposure” to the physical

dangers of this wilderness. The park service not only fosters these discourses by eliminating any

extraneous buildings or constructions that might contradict travelers’ impressions about being in

a pristine wilderness – dirt trails, camps, and a few shelters are the only visible signs of a

permanent human presence – but also by structuring the dramatic arc of adventure experience.

The trail system, beginning in the village, winds its way up through forested hills until a climax

at the first mirador [scenic viewpoint], where, if the weather cooperates, one first gets a complete


view of the entire massif in that valley. This dramatic denouement at the mirador is a crucial

way in which rangers shape the aesthetic experiences that justify the kinesthetic labor that went

into arriving at this destination. The first mirador is about 3 km away from the village and the

second, and even more spectacular destination, is between 8-13 km. The sublime sentiments of

eco-travelers, reported on the trails but especially at their terminal scenic viewpoints, formulate

the affective groundwork for legitimizing the “value of nature” and justifying the eco-centric

values promoted by rangers.

Beyond eliminating livestock to recuperate “natural” ecosystems, beyond creating a

mode of public use of park resources entirely committed to tourism, rangers have resisted the

building of more park infrastructure. Other protected spaces in Patagonia have created lodges,

refugios, hotels, restaurants and other structures to expand the basis for commoditizing nature via

private concessionaries and service providers. Chaltén represents an explicit counterpoint to

growing infrastructure in Patagonian protected spaces, with the SLV, working together with

vocal wilderness advocates, seeking to reverse this trend, and to roll back the bourgeoisification

of wilderness identified with these structures. The demolition of three refugios [huts] by rangers

in 2006 generated an enormous amount of friction with alpinists, who used refugios as sheltered

public spaces around which they built a base camp while waiting for the weather to stabilize so

they could climb. The elimination of refugios sought to purge the environment of visible

structures, disruptive to the notion of pristine wilderness, as well as eliminate the user conflicts

associated with refugios. These shelters became linked with crime and disorder during the

2000s, as trekkers reportedly stole gear and food from alpinists. Climbers, who considered these

huts to be dwellings solely for climbers, pushed back against trekkers who felt entitled to use

them, especially during storms, generating a growing number of user conflicts. Rangers have


worked more broadly with the local community to resist forms of economic development that

seek to privatize certain public resources of the national park, but rangers have also exercised

unilateral political action over user conflict flashpoints – rather than creating a negotiated

settlement, rangers have opted to simply eliminate the public resource that is involved. Even as

the trail system has reflected bourgeois eco-values, the park infrastructure also attempts to pare

back any unnecessary accommodations and services catering to these bourgeois travelers. In this

way, Chaltén has maintained its regional eco-travel niche as a wilderness trekking park, a space

that is commercially valuable because its space represents itself as non-commercial.

6 – Managing a Self-Governing Naturaleza

Policing conservation operates on a “human impacted” park landscape founded upon an

entrenched dualism between society and nature that calls forth a pristine wilderness located in a

long distant past even as rangers struggle to generate a “re-wilded” wilderness that approximates

this mythic nature. The natural world that rangers locate within the regenerated wilderness is

one that itself rarely needs active policing to control its dangerous consequences, but rather is

given, within this eco-normative order, an imagined autonomy to exist “on its own terms,” as one

GP noted. Whereas they once sought to change nature to fit with the European Alpine landscape

ideal in the early history of the park service, rangers, in keeping with global discourses on

ecology, resource management, and the changing mandate of park rangers, have sought to

minimize their “active intervention” into eco-systemic integrity. “There is too long a history of

failures when it comes to intervention,” noted one ranger. “For example, we might try to cut

back the European rabbit population, which is an exotic species, but we just don’t know how this

would affect the functioning of ecosystems.” In this section, I explore resource conservation


through acts of knowing and acts of segregation from human impacts, which is part of the wider

political project to fashion wilderness.

Rangers, indeed, organized conservation policing within a wider understanding that

naturaleza [the natural world] is itself largely “self-governing.” This discourse is crucial to the

political practices of conservation policing in that it enables rangers to shift resources, labor, and

energy towards the regulation of visitor populations. Naturaleza exists apart from society, and

although these natures were transformed through socio-economic actions and the productive

relations that have created the CBA, these natures were “gradually recovering” and would,

potentially, “endure in some form into the distance future.” Precipitation and glaciers, river

flows and fish populations, the windswept treeline and alta montaña plants, lenga forests and

predators – the complexity of forces and interactions between these visible actants within park

nature remain, according to rangers, largely beyond their governmental reach. Natural resource

management would be achieved, or not, based on the assumption of the hands-off management

of a self-governing naturaleza. This political, partial conception of nature has proven difficult to

reconcile along a number of fronts, with the global discourse of climate change becoming a

central threat to long-term conservation of the park’s namesake mountain and outlet glaciers.

Rangers display different levels of naturalist expertise. There is a substantial acquisition

of biological, taxonomic, and ecological knowledge by young rangers, but the older rangers,

especially the GPs, perform their expertise through their ability to communicate knowledge

about plant and animal species, understandings of habitat, eco-systemic interactions, and biotic

variability throughout the region. Acts of identification, using common and/or Latin names,

demonstrate institutional expectations about how young rangers should develop throughout their

careers, individuals often with some experience in farming, life in rural Argentina, and outdoor


survival. Nevertheless, there is an important division within the APN between rangers and the

personnel that dominate the management of the national park within the Technical Delegation of

Patagonia (DTR), which is the regional set of actors in charge of the “scientific sustainability” of

all the protected areas throughout Argentine Patagonia. These natural scientists (biologists,

ecologists, etc.) and other professionals (anthropologists, lawyers, etc.) have explicit hierarchical

command over PNLG and the natures that the SLV corps manages under their direction. This

division informs an important cleavage in the knowledge and expertise shaping conservation and

the sustainability of public wilderness resources.

Rangers intimately know the naturaleza they manage, operating as an “epistemic culture”

(Knorr Cetina 1999) that attempts to know their object of study through naturalist classification

systems and categories that differ from the quantitative methods utilized by the DTR scientists

conducting field studies and baseline studies. Some rangers seek to gather “scientific data” that

can be published in journals pertaining to the biological and ecological sciences. Rangers thus

might assist university and national researchers, or applied scientists working in the CBA,

sometimes playing a role in gathering scientific data, becoming authors or co-authors on papers

very rarely. These rangers remain deeply concerned about the dearth of knowledge regarding

non-human species inhabiting the park, or temporarily transiting the park through regional

migrations. Their criticisms of other rangers and the APN hierarchy reflect deep concerns over

the adaptation capacities of non-human species and their chances for survival, important aspects

of long-term conservation that have been abdicated in the increasing time spent on policing

humans and ongoing desarrollo [market development] of park resources. Other rangers,

typically those with more hierarchical power, are sensitive to the need for more knowledge about

biological and ecological dynamics of the park, even as they recognize “the reality of situation.”


Tourism has accelerated, structurally amplifying the range and depth of dangers generated by

visitors, which has demanded greater access to money and labor that will be allocated to

contending with these problems. Desarrollo is a dialectical process in which market expansion

and access fees generate greater revenues for the park and the capacity of the agency to in turn

create a stronger regulatory apparatus in parks. Capitalization of the adventure tourism industry

structurally connects with the development of state power, so long as multinational adventure

travel flows to Patagonia continue to expand, and the federal government maintains its “hands

off” policy with respect to APN internal revenues.

Even as rangers take a light management approach to nature, they recognize their lack of

information concerning human and non-human flows, as well as knowledge concerning

migratory patterns of fauna, the ecological conditions sustaining vegetation, plants, and forests,

and their relationship to local, regional, and global climatic forces. This lack of knowledge

constitutes an important limitation for rangers. Despite being a signatory to the endangered

species act for huemules, a native deer species, and treating them under federal law as a “national

natural monument” deserving the strictest protection, the APN has little notion of just how many

huemules there are inside the northern zone of the park. This holds true for all the large animals

and birds: pumas, condors, eagles, and huemules. As the DTR increasingly attempts to make the

bio-ecological flows, systems, and complexity of PNLG (and other protected areas) scientifically

legible through cataloguing, monitoring, and surveillance efforts, the SLV rangers have become

more attuned to these concerns. This bio-ecological “system” comprises having a baseline study

for the most significant wildlife populations, understanding where these species move depending

on the season, and being able to track their movements (APN 2007). Rangers track certain

species like the patos torrentes [torrent ducks], which are also “species of special value”: a legal


designation granted to certain wildlife that are endangered and considered to have a high

biodiversity value. “This would be the ideal case for other species if they weren’t so hard to

track,” noted one ranger. Rangers rely on visitors to gather information and take photographs

about highly mobile wildlife, especially huemules and pumas. This institutional expectation that

rangers will generate knowledge about species of special value runs up against limitations on

labor-power, the increasing centrality of tourism management for the park, and highly mobile

wildlife within the park and beyond. The habitats of wildlife are quite extensive up and down

the sub-Andean precordillera, stretching hundreds of kilometers to the south and north, in

essence making a mockery of the islands of protected areas dotting this massive region, and the

difficulty this presents to wildlife managers aiming to achieve systemic knowledge about

migratory species.

The discourse of a self-governing local nature taking care of itself runs up against the

crosscurrents of the global embedding of this regenerated wilderness. The introduction of

European hares, Spanish cattle, horses, and other “exotic species” centuries ago, has transformed

the idea of what is meant by “native nature.” Rangers recognize that while hares are exotic to

the region, and thus ought to be “subject to extermination,” this would be highly unfeasible

without producing “unpredictable consequences.” Hares have been integrated into the food

chain, serving as the primary food for the puma population. “They [pumas] would start killing

off the huemules in far greater numbers if we tried to get rid of the hares,” noted one ranger.

Patagonia inhabits a long-standing position of integration into the world market through its

strategic continental location for maritime commerce and exploration (prior to the Panama

Canal), as well as its sundry natural resources developed for commoditization and exportation to

national and foreign markets. Travel, exchange, and flows linking Patagonia with national


centers and foreign landscapes have meant that innumerable people, genes, plants, animals,

objects, and representations have transited its terrains. The discourse of native and exotic species

– a central distinction within global ecological thinking – centrally informs the rangers of PNLG

as they distinguish between European hares and Patagonian huemules, or Patagonian lenga and

Oregon pino forests. Yet even as rangers recognize this distinction, they exhibit precaution

regarding the untold eco-systemic effects the extermination of certain exotic and invasive species

would have. “Nature is shaped by society,” noted the director of the SLV corps, “and we can do

nothing about many of these man-made forces.”

Rangers recognize the past and present interconnections and exchanges between society

and nature, even as they attempt to separate the two and recover a more pristine naturaleza. Yet

it is not only society that impacts a vulnerable nature, but also nature that “acts up” too. In the

late 2000s, puma sightings became more common in El Chaltén. Concerned villagers, especially

parents, feared for the safety of their small children, prompting rangers to investigate these

sightings, particularly since the pumas appeared to have acquired a taste for domesticated

animals like cats, dogs, and llamas. Rangers recognized that pumas were becoming comfortable

at the urban interface instead of retreating further back into the forested interiors of the park.

These fears for human safety – especially children – prompted the park rangers and provincial

police to set up a task force to deal with the puma problem. They shot and killed a large female

puma in early 2009 with the idea that this would dissuade pumas from the village. This recalls a

point made by Mike Davis about the “pacification of nature” in Southern California,

Although predator control programs did keep cougars, coyotes, bobcats, and foxes virtually invisible to the postwar
urban millions, a wilderness, defined by the survival of carnivores, continued to border the increasingly fractal edge
of development. Then, suddenly, in the 1980s, baffling numbers of predators reemerged from the foothills and
became routine visitors in suburban neighborhoods. This was most dramatically a “return of the repressed,” and the
initial charm of such encounters quickly gave way to hostility and panic as predators began devouring pets and
attacking small children. (1999: 237)


Indeed, despite more than a century of state financed regional campaigns to exterminate pumas –

or at the very least to push them back into their “acceptable” habitats inside parks, away from

estancias and livestock – Patagonian pumas continue to survive throughout the region, inspiring

fear in Chaltén residents about a wilderness nature that’s “acting up.” The “secure insecurity” of

wilderness fails here, as the “problem population” of pumas stop being icons of observed nature

and become threatening pests, villains, and killers within the boundaries of society.

Despite the recognition that Patagonia’s naturaleza is infused with social forces and

foreign natures, rangers still valorize the purity of this nature to visitors. For example, rangers

note during the charla:

The water is pure inside the park. This is one of the special privileges of visiting such a pristine place, so we need to
keep it this way. If you are camping, please do not wash your dishes directly in the river. Draw some water, walk
away from the river, and then wash your pots.

The purity of the water, drinking directly from a flowing glacier-fed stream, is an important

material factor facilitating the notion of Patagonia as a pristine wilderness. This material factor

intersects with landscape ideologies that visitors inscribe on the environment – ancient looking

forests, abundant vegetation, vast glaciers, and rugged mountains – as they experience this space

as a virgin wilderness that is markedly different from the social-natures rangers recognize. In the

process, Patagonia becomes a pristine nature in the global eco-travel imaginary alongside regions

like Alaska, Northern Canada, Siberia, or Antarctica. The purity ascribed to the water, for

example, by rangers often remains incomprehensible for incredulous Northern and Southern

tourists who had never consumed untreated fresh water, most using filters or tablets before

drinking. However, the possibility of completely pure water – fresh water flowing from glacial

melt – serves as a powerful trope in the construction of this desirable wilderness. Nevertheless,

this wilderness landscape ideology not only seeks to achieve a categorical distinction between

nature and society that is impossible, but in doing so entirely erases the social history of the park,


the genocidal violence directed by the state against indigenous societies that paved the way for

this myth to take root in a very “well-preserved environment.”

7 – The Ecotourism Market in the National Park

Environmental capitalism in Patagonia achieves its discursive ends not only through

generating the ecological agency of its multinational tourist visitors, but also by demonstrating

that its natural environments – the destinations for these visitors – are “publicly protected” and

“ecologically sustainable,” the latter notion a topic I discuss in Chapter Seven. Park rangers play

a central role in generating a natural environment that is visibly “protected” through practices of

environmental education, frontcountry patrolling, trail system maintenance, and demonstrating

their knowledge and expertise concerning wildlife conservation. Global enchantment with this

environmentally conscious and conscientious development has become a powerful consumption

ideology for the tourism-travel industry and has increased the profile and importance of national

park services within federal governments as engines of economic growth in Argentina and Chile.

Environmental capitalism – centered on multinational ecotourism in protected areas – inhabits a

wider field of national and international capitalist logics that directly challenge the ecological

validity of this market order. As the dissertation will show, environmental capitalism operates in

a wider regional political economy that generates increasing state environmental protections and

powers even as it foments urbanization, poverty, pollution, dependency on long distance flows of

commodity supplies and travelers, expanding automobile transportation, and other factors hidden

or rendered invisible within the discursive hegemony of an “environmental” form of capitalism

in Patagonia. This section brings to a close the discussion on SLV conservation policing and

focuses on park rangers as they police the ecotourism market inside the boundaries of the park.


As I will show, the social imagination of this “market,” for rangers, does not include eco-traveler

wilderness consumers, but only adventure tourism companies, their guides, and other personnel.

Whereas visitor turistas are the ecological agents of rangers’ political project, the tourism

business is viewed partially as a predatory force for exploiting public resources even as rangers

recognize that it provides important services and contributes to security and surveillance within

their public-private partnership. Rangers regulate “the market” to protect the environment and

harmonize capital’s relationship with nature, while inhabiting a wider political-economic world

in which these same market interests may outflank their regulatory maneuvers. The primary

threat of the tourism industry, relative to eco-travelers, is the limited power rangers command

over the industry, which cannot necessarily do as it likes, but wields far greater influence in the

province and the nation than this one lone ranger station.

Rangers actively protect the national and world natures represented by PNLG, providing

the legal enforcements and policing of regulated tourism markets that exploit its public resources

for private ends. Adventure tourism is the industry devoted to capitalizing on multinational eco-

travel flows, both through concesionarios [concessionaries] and prestadores de servicios [service

providers]. Concesionarios hold legal monopolies over “capital intensive services” within the

park, such as boat-based fiord tours that may involve glacier trekking, and are given multiyear

monopolies to reduce the environmental impacts and service redundancies that would emerge if

anyone could exploit this particular resource. Legally speaking, a concession requires an open

competitive bidding. Prestadores provide “less capital intensive” services within the park, such

as backpacking trips, icecap traverses, ice-climbing classes, and glacier trekking tours. Various

businesses many provide these services, but local companies face restrictions as to how many

clients they many have per tour/guide. Whereas concesionarios are typically wealthy national


investors, many often not even living in the area, prestadores are often small business owners

who directly manage their company and live in the community. The state is thus a central force

for capitalist relations of production, but rangers, as a concrete set of social actors, cannot be

reduced simply to merely replicating or advancing capitalist processes. As regulators of

“environmental” businesses, they have eliminated pastoral uses in favor of restricted tourism,

which they consider the “least impacting industry” consistent with the public use of the park.

Whereas other national parks in Patagonia have granted a wide range of concessions and

promoted hotel and restaurant infrastructure, the SLV has sought actively to resist concessions

and more infrastructure to not only maintain an intact public domain, but also to expand the

range of protected areas locally and regionally. That said, the public domain of Patagonian parks

has always fomented private property, capital accumulation, and possessive individualism,

whether this refers to ranching or ecotourism markets. As shown in Chapter One, national parks

represented the capitalist strategy par excellence in the post-war era for colonizing Patagonia,

promoting geopolitical security on the border, and kick starting a new kind of natural resource

exploitation. Rangers, as state actors, institutionally advance capitalism through a locally

specific form of regulated market activity, even as they remain highly critical of commercial

forces in the park.

Rangers distinguish between eco-travelers circulating through the CBA to hike, camp,

and climb in PNLG, and those companies, guides, and porters engaged in remunerative activity.

The question of where or when one locates the market is not only important for anthropologists

(Zaloom 2006, Taussig 1980, Ho 2009), but also for actors and groups carving out certain

domains of social life as commercial, while others remain symbolically positioned outside the

market. The “market” inside the national park, for rangers, refers to those interests that extract


monetary value from their labor or surplus value from the labor of their employees, signifying

concesionario and prestador corporate groups. Whereas these two market “interests” thereby

become subject to regulatory commercial scrutiny, rangers locate travelers within a different

social category. Turistas are not “consumers” of symbolic capital, but “users” whose actions are

defined by rangers as “leisure,” “outdoor recreation,” “wilderness exploration,” “vacation,” and

“spiritual discovery.” Outside the park, these actors become bound up in the same commercial

forces as rangers, residents, and everyone else. They pay thousands of pesos to get to Patagonia

and spend hundreds in El Chaltén. The free access to the northern zone of PNLG serves rangers

as a prestation to eco-travelers – something framed as aberrant in the world and highly unusual in

protected areas – in return for which they expect travelers to act ecologically. The lack of an

identifiable commercial gain by rangers from visitors, because the park is free, further helps to

establish this park space as set apart from the normal order of things, a space of spiritual and

aesthetic encounter with naturaleza. The non-market reciprocity contained in exchanging “free

admission” for ecological agency helps situate visitors beyond the regulatory system of permits

and the legible accounting of tourism flows. Unlike the tourism industry, eco-travelers should

not be subject to a permitting process, quota systems for trails and campgrounds, or the paying of

entrance fees to support the ranger station. The preservation of this reciprocal exchange – liable

to change in the near future according to rangers – intersects with local representational frames

that position Chaltén as “bohemian,” “hippie,” and “alternative,” but also under siege from the

forces of modernizing desarrollo. My point is not to suggest whether or not protected areas

should have quota systems or user fees, but to show how market and non-market terrains are co-

constituted, even as they are subject to historical change. While rangers likely will come to

embrace the new system of user fees – indeed this logic is already apparent – for the moment the


lack of user fees is part of the wider discourse that represent rangers and this part of the national

park as “exceptional” aberrations regionally, nationally, and internationally; the last stand of the

Patagonian frontier.

The market, by way of contrast, resides in the “selfish,” “money-interested,” “greedy”

actions of adventure tour companies. These actors – business owners, office workers, trekking

and mountain guides, and porters – are quite capable of engaging wilderness without any

commercial interest, rangers acknowledge, given that many of these individuals are alpinists,

trekkers, or even members of the volunteer search and rescue team. Tourism development has

accelerated dramatically over the 2000s, promulgating massive changes to the social life of El

Chaltén, adventure companies expanding with growing masses of eco-travelers, attracting more

guides to the CBA in search of employment as skilled, credentialed workers. By the end of the

2000s, there were 20+ adventure companies and hundreds of guides coming to Chaltén during

the season. In the northern zone of the park there is only one concessionary grant, involving boat

tours on Lago Viedma to Glaciar Viedma, where adventure tourists disembark, don crampons,

and experience hours of “extreme” alpine trekking on the glacier. The majority, then, of local

service providers are prestadores, some specializing just in guided adventure tours, while others

have various business ventures related to urban tourism services (hotels, hostels, restaurants,

bars, shops, etc.). Prestadores register with the SLV, pay a small yearly fee as compensation for

private exploitation of public resources, and must abide by the regulations imposed by rangers as

to the competencies of the guides, the number of clients they can have at any one time, and the

tours they can sell. Rangers note that while they have been increasingly effective in eliminating

“illegal guides” from working without credentials, as well as enforcing the restrictions on client

group sizes to decrease the guide to client ratio and increase security, they have been far less


successful in democratizing the prestadores business class. Legally, any resident can tap into

park resources to start a local business, when in fact, capital barriers, competition, and social

networks (see Chapter Six) play a crucial role in whether or not a business venture is viable in

Chaltén. Current prestadores, with vested interests, unsurprisingly seek to crowd out potential

newcomers and, according to rangers, can circumvent the restrictions on per company client

quotas. “You basically just need to find some other person to open up a tour business and apply

for a prestadores license, even though this person is not the real owner,” noted one ranger. The

“silent partner” or the “front company” are two ways to circumvent restrictions imposed to limit

the number of daily clients per tour company in order to democratize the market opportunities

the park provides for the community. Because of the open access norm, prestadores can create

new destinations and tours for clients, such as the ice cap traverse, a weeklong extended trek in a

rope team out onto the Hielos Continentales. For rangers, local adventure companies represent a

direct threat to institutional capacities to regulate ecotourism, as prestadores continuously push

to open up new tours in the park, to expand client quotas or circumvent them by illicit means,

and to decrease the guide per client ratio in order to generate more surplus value.

In recent years, the SLV has required guides to carry not only their identifications, but

also paper printouts that specify how many people should be in their group, where they should be

traveling, and what activities they are allowed to perform. Rangers have sought to regularize the

guiding industry, which has often remained in the gray zone of the law, with some guides having

too many clients or not actually having a professional license. In this respect, rangers create the

legal conditions for the guiding market to operate, ticketing guides and businesses for violations,

and banning those companies or individuals who fail to comply. Many guides view this recent

move as unfair targeting by rangers and a sign of an increasing political scrutiny being applied to


their profession. Their position arises from the recognition that the SLV has become far more

effective in projecting its policing power as a result of growing institutional capacity, often, it

seems, in ways which not only consolidate their power over other groups (guides, estancieros,

paisanos, and campers), but align with particular interest groups (the Chamber of Commerce).

The local Chamber of Commerce indeed represents, according to one GP, the “only organized

political power in the community” except for the ranger corps, representing the federal interests

of the APN, and local community council, representing the provincial government. “The rest of

civil society is unorganized,” noted the SLV director. The youth community, alternative social

groups, service workers, climbers, racialized populations, and guides represent a dominated

social class with respect to the political-economic institutional interests in the community. Even

as guides remain subordinated to the adventure companies they work for, and subject to policing

scrutiny from rangers, many are often friends with younger rangers – climbing together, working

on NGOs, and socializing – attenuating some of the friction that arises.

The political pressure exerted by the tourism industry on the rangers has increased over

the years as they seek more opportunities for providing tourism services and to open up the park

to new concessions. According to rangers, the tourism industry has occasionally “gone behind

our backs and got friends in Calafate [the park superintendant’s office], Bariloche [the DTR],

and Buenos Aires [the Casa Central] to pull strings for them to get what they wanted, whether

concessions or service contracts.” This political power ascribed to the tourism industry is only

compounded by the contentious moves made by then Governor Nestor Kirchner and Senator

Cristina Fernandez, well-established business owners in the tourism industry in the Province of

Santa Cruz, to open up new roads into PNLG around El Chaltén in order to build hotels and

expand the privatization of park resources, a proposition that the community rallied behind to


defeat through media cunning (see Chapter Seven). Given their self-described “low position” in

the APN hierarchy, and the “limited control” they have over halting the ongoing privatization of

park resources, rangers view the tourism industry as a predatory force in the CBA, even as they

recognize the security and surveillance aid the industry provides, as well as the role the industry

plays in generating the international profile of Chaltén as a wilderness destination. Rangers do,

however, recognize the legal and moral rights that residents have to “good jobs” and to “making

a living,” even as they fight to limit desarrollo.

The wilderness landscape ideology that underwrites how rangers see and envision nature

shapes the contours of legitimate and illegitimate actions within the national park. Wilderness in

its hegemonic representation not only seeks to “preserve nature” without a “human presence,”

but also to exclude extractive and commercial activities except tourism. This protected area,

collective natures disarticulated from the landscape of private property defining Patagonia,

heritage spaces for the nation and world, represent enclaves of wilderness apart from the power

of capital. This wilderness ideology, as existing beyond the sphere of capital, shapes the way

rangers conceive of visitors, as beyond the market precisely because they engage in recreational,

aesthetic, and spiritual activities. The national park is, as Neumann argues, “the quintessential

landscape of consumption for modern society,” organized through the “removal of all evidence

of human labor, the separation of the observer from the land, and the spatial division between

production and consumption” that places production outside the park (1998: 24, emphasis not

added). The ideal political subject, for SLV rangers, is the ecological agent, a consumer subject

unmarked by productive labor or commercial entanglements with the park. On the other hand,

guides, porters, and tourism companies represent a “problem population” on a different order

than Argentine or Israeli eco-travelers, because these actors are explicitly bound to converting


parkland into a commoditized landscape to generate wages and profits. The tourism industry,

even if it is legally inscribed into the global framework of resource management in national

parks, remains uncomfortably excluded from the wilderness ideology.

State power both fails partially and is highly focused with respect to the tourism industry.

Even as rangers recognize the right that owners, guides, and porters have to exploit the park for

wages and profits, their commercial pressures – because they are occasionally effective in

outflanking the authority of rangers – are coded as market actions situated beyond the eco-

normative order of wilderness, which, after all, is a political project as much as a landscape

ideology. The capacity for the tourism industry to resist political subjection is precisely what

generates their categorical exclusion from the domain of legitimate practice in the landscape. In

this respect, rangers recognize that the national park is their jurisdictional space of authority, but

this authority is limited, partial, and overshadowed often by the forces of desarrollo that have

gained influence over the park through their capacity to outflank the rangers within the Argentine

state. Thus the SLV enactment of the state is also a critique of the state at large, which supports

and foments local desarrollo, accelerating the very forces that challenge rangers’ stating of what

constitutes legitimate and illegitimate practices within wilderness.


Patricio’s interdiction of the Dutch trekkers represented a punitive facialization of state

power that ethnographically remained a marginal occurrence for the Seccional Lago Viedma

rangers in PN Los Glaciares. Indeed, the institutional culture of the rangers positioned its socio-

political practices as a softer, participatory, and educational enactment of conservation policing

that explicitly sought to distance the corps from the legacies of militarist authoritarianism that


once characterized the APN. Brockington defines fortress conservation as characterized by a

strict wilderness preservation ideology than politically marginalizes the local populations that

abut protected areas. While it is true that SLV rangers presuppose a wilderness preservation

ideology that deeply informs their political practices of governance and resource management,

this landscape ideology only selectively marginalizes certain local groups and social uses of the

park. The national park, representing a collectively owned and inalienable natural space, serves

to marginalize the social history of genocidal sovereign violence directed against the indigenous

inhabitants who once lived in the Andean precordillera, as well as the productive relations and

social groups connected to the estancia institution. Upon this groundwork of exclusion, the

ecotourism economy has arisen, generating a different set of productive relations that includes

not only flexible service workers, business owners, and professionals, but also multinational

trekkers and mountaineers; and, of course, park rangers. The growth of specialized sectors in

Patagonian towns and cities, or even entire urban areas – like El Chaltén, El Calafate, and Puerto

Natales – specializing in ecotourism have generated the “appropriate” socio-economic forces for

these protected areas, but in doing so, they have also spawned poverty, urbanization, growing

energy consumption, pollution, as well as class and racial contradictions within the productive

relations of environmental capitalism, a theme I will explore in upcoming chapters. Participatory

development, the new face of conservation, exists in PNLG not in terms of bringing communities

directly into the resource management process, or generating what Agrawal (2005) has called

“regulatory communities,” but rather insofar as local communities are now structurally

connected to the political economy of wilderness. These communities directly participate in the

extraction of revenues from the park to create profits and wages, as prestador and concesionario

ventures develop viable markets. Perhaps, then, we should treat “fortress conservation” and


“participatory conservation” as discursive paradigms for broad historical changes in resource

management, environmentalism, and protected areas. However, to more accurately understand

conservation policing, we need to use these two paradigms as points of departure for exploring

the political practices deployed by the state at the porous boundaries between society and nature,

conservation and development, consumption and production. And part of this process is

attempting to move beyond the abstract and “totalizing viewpoint normatively ascribed to the

state” (Coronil 1997: 84).

I have argued in this chapter that the ranger corps represents an enactment of the state

that attempts to shift conservation policing away from its authoritarian pasts into a participatory

present that is bound up with environmental education and the fostering of ecological agents. In

drawing on a wilderness landscape ideology, rangers have situated tourist visitors, market actors,

and wildlife within a normative field dictating legitimate and illegitimate interactions between a

“society” and “nature” that cannot remain categorically distinguished. The multiple projections

of political power onto this socio-natural field of action and interaction confront the multiple sets

of risks relating to wildlife, tourist visitors, and market actors that rangers struggle to manage

and engage. The central risk that rangers confront is the potentiality encapsulated in the making

of political subjects. I explored the educational faciality of state power represented by the charla

and the recorrida, through which rangers attempt to facilitate ecological agents attuned to the

LNT environmental principles for conscientious action in nature. The risk of failure, however,

proves equally important in the recorrida, with punitive power (monetary and physical coercion)

lying in wait if needed to deal with problem actors and populations. I then looked at the building

of a regenerated wilderness enabled by a spatial – material and semiotic – system whereby actors

became agents of wilderness exploration, doing so in ways which enabled them to internalize the


values of eco-normativity. Then I examined the self-governing order of nature, partially known

through the epistemic practices of rangers, and a crucial political assumption about eco-systemic

integrity that allowed rangers to focus power onto policing subjects. Finally, I looked at how and

where rangers located the market, a terrain of commerce integrated into the social life of the

park, but also subject to strict policing and categorically situated at odds with the wilderness

landscape ideology forwarded by rangers. The market represented the greatest threat to the

political autonomy of the corps, and a particular problem population in relation to which rangers

understood the limits of their own capacity to legitimize their particular understanding of what a

national park should be.

These multiple deployments of political power through the practices of conservation

policing served to create “the state” dialectically in relation to the material environment of the

park, its wildlife, market actors, and political subjects. As Timothy Mitchell has argued, the

distinction between the state and society should not be grasped as a “boundary between two

discrete entities, but as a line drawn internally within the network of institutional mechanisms

through which a social and political order is maintained” (1991: 78). Like the porosity of the

society-nature dichotomy, the state-society dualism is characterized by fuzziness, mutations, and

inexactitudes. Conservation policing in PN Los Glaciares continues to change, not only with the

rise of environmental capitalism in Patagonia, but also through the institutional transformations

that Seccional Lago Viedma has historically experienced as more personnel, equipment, and

financing become available, allowing the corps to redefine their policing practices. The

boundary making between state, society, and nature accordingly shift with the redefinition of

productive relations in local space.



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End Notes

I have given pseudonyms to all persons identified in the text, the only exceptions being those
from the public record.
The federal protected areas cover some 3,656,300 hectares of land, and provincial areas cover
an additional 17,858,700 hectares. Mirroring wider trends in the ongoing expansion of protected
areas throughout the world, despite a decline in overall rate since the 1980s-1990s high (West et
al 2005), between 1997-2007 Argentina’s protected areas grew from 5.26% to 7.71% of the total
national land surface, a figure still below the 11.5% world average according to the World
Commission on Protected Areas/IUCN (APN 2007: 20).
The primary eco-travel circuit in Southern Patagonia links Chile’s PN Torres del Paine with
Argentina’s PN Tierra del Fuego and PN Los Glaciares. In Northern Patagonia, the primary
travel circuit links Argentina’s PN Peninsula Valdez, PN Nahuel Huapi, and PN Los Alerces
with Chile’s PN Villarrica and PN Vincente Perez Rosales.
Rangers expect the APN to mandate the charging of entrance fees in the near future, a

development that would threaten to commercialize the park in their eyes, but would also provide
the SLV with greater political-economic autonomy from the contested politics of revenue sharing
within the superintendant’s office.

The only exception is the Brigada de Senderos [Trailwork Brigade], formed during the 2010-
2011 season, which focuses exclusively on trailwork maintenance, receiving special federal
funds from the Central Office to pilot the project. The director of this brigade envisions the
project expanding into a separate division of brigadistas devoted exclusively to the recuperation
of trail systems in Argentine protected areas.
In addition to rangers, there is a unit of park volunteers, ranging from 5-15 people mostly from
Argentina but also including foreigners (Canadians, Germans, Israelis, Americans, etc.), who
supplement the SLV corps during the tourism season. Volunteers work for free, but the station
supplies living accommodations. They staff the ranger station, shadow rangers during patrols,
and provide a substantial component of the labor power for trail maintenance. Most brigadistas
get their foot in the door of the park service first by becoming volunteers.
Indeed, during my fieldwork, I spent two months volunteering with the SLV rangers, and
quickly became identified in the community as a member of Parques, which enabled access to
some groups and constrained it with respect to others.
This informal political agreement essentially adds 20-25 minutes to the journey from El
Calafate, the international transportation center in the Province of Santa Cruz, to El Chaltén.
As community engagement and participatory development have become key to public APN

discourses, there are many hotspots of resource and management conflicts in protected areas that
involve indigenous actors, including PN Lanin and PN Nahuel Huapi in the north of Argentine
Patagonia. Given the “disappearance” of indigenous groups in southern mainland Patagonia,
following their brutal liquidation by the Argentine armed forces during the War of the Desert, the
SLV rangers have not faced the same kinds of socio-political conflicts as other parks.