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Tales from the Border: Patagonia has long been a site of struggle between the state authorities of Argentina and Chile, and the people who have always inhabited these austral lands, many of whom fail to see why lines on a map should restrict more loosely defined cultural geographies.

The border separating Argentina and Chile in Patagonia is a relatively recent political phenomenon first established in the early 20th century and subject to alteration and arbitration into the 21st century. While Argentina and Chile have increasingly looked to define and physically mark their national territory, the lifestyles, cultural traditions and everyday mobilities of people living in the region continue to disrupt state attempts to consolidate their borders.

Long before the border was delimited, numerous pueblos originarios, or indigenous communities, including the Tehuelche and Chonos, inhabited Patagonia, living a nomadic, hunter-gatherer lifestyle unrestricted by the territorial divisions that were later imposed. These communities faced repression in the late 19th century at the hands of Argentine and Chilean state authorities, as well as ranch owners from Europe (many hailing from England) who migrated and settled in Patagonia and were complicit in the violence inflicted. As Dr Alejandro Gasel (specialist in Patagonian politics and literature at the Universidad Nacional de la Patagonia Austral) argues, the traditions and mobilities of indigenous communities were a direct threat to the 'pacification' of the region for economic exploitation, challenging the control of private capital, as well as state efforts to incorporate these frontier regions.

By the time a border separating the young states was eventually established in Patagonia, the indigenous communities had been decimated by years of violence. Even then, the division of Patagonia's mountains, lakes and canals was not uncontested, leading to a number of geopolitical spats throughout the 20th century that turned the frontier into a militarised zone, most notably in the late 1970s. Despite these periodic flashpoints between Argentina and Chile, the families of settler communities who made Patagonia their home during the 20th century were able to continue to move across the border for trading and agricultural purposes.


Nowhere are these tensions more evident than the border dividing the frontier towns of Los Antiguos (Argentina) and Chile Chico (Chile). Only 14 kilometres separate these interdependent towns, where family relations and business interests typically traverse the border. Today, this international boundary has been formalised with checkpoints, which vehicles and pedestrians are obliged to pass through. The approach to the Chilean crossing is replete with huge billboards that serve to remind national and foreign citizens alike that the state is present and working to develop and connect these remote regions with the rest of Chile.

The border landscape between the checkpoints spans approximately one kilometre and is scattered with a host of signs, national flags, maps and technologies that reassert the territorial sovereignty and control of each state over the goods and people that are permitted to cross. One striking object, rather dated in appearance, is the orange and white hito, or border marker, that indicates the location of the international boundary separating Argentina and Chile. As Klaus Dodds, Geographical's regular geopolitics columnist reminds us, the delimitation of borders in these regions has been notoriously difficult given their potential to animate nationalist sentiment. The militaries of both states were heavily involved in the mapping of their national territories (through their respective Military Geography Institutes) throughout the 20th century and the hitos were the physical demarcation of this shared (although not always harmonious) boundary.

State efforts to secure and monitor movement have formalised everyday crossings to an extent, though locals occasionally cross the border between Los Antiguos and Chile Chico unofficially. However, the sensitivities attached to these fluid movements across the border are temporally variable and were especially acute in the 1970s and early 1980s, an era when both countries were ruled by notorious military dictatorships that were hostile towards one another. During this time, Chilean authorities saw attempts to enter Argentina as anti-patriotic, even labelling the traditional gaucho clothing that originated in Argentina (but was used by farming communities throughout Patagonia) as a betrayal of Chilean nationhood.

The suspicions aroused by what were everyday traditions and movements across the border had deadly consequences for Jose Carrasco, a young 28-year-old gaucho from near Chile Chico, who was murdered by police forces in 1981 after being accused of state subversion, having crossed into Argentina illegally. As the Cohyaique Association of Human Rights points out in its 2017 publication, Aysen: Muertes en Dictadura, these cases of state violence left a legacy of fear in tightly knit, rural communities such as Chile Chico. While the return to democracy in Argentina and Chile has ushered in a period of improved relations and demilitarisation of the border, the death of Jose Carrasco stands as a stark reminder of how state repression was once used to criminalise border crossings that have long been central to the lives of settler communities across Patagonia.


Situated over 250 kilometres to the north of Chile Chico are the frontier towns of Aldea Las Pampas (Argentina) and Lago Verde (Chile). From the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries the Solis were among a handful of families who settled, worked and moved around this sparsely populated territory relatively unhindered. In 1936 the Comision de Limites (or state border committees of Argentina and Chile) delimited an international boundary between the two towns that left members of many families, including the Solis, located on opposing sides of the border.

Today, the boundary is inconspicuous, demarcated with gates and fences that typically divide different farms throughout the region and therefore don't look out of place. Another hito is juxtaposed alongside an old wooden gate regularly used by the Solis, with a sign urging passersby to 'please close the gate'. While the hito is a reminder of state sovereignty and authority imposed by the administrative centres of Chile and Argentina, the gate hints at how that authority can be eroded by the enduring passage of locals who sometimes come and go across the border without performing official customs checks.

Yet, despite this fluidity, it would be naive to suggest that the border has had no impact on the lives of families here, argues Dr Brigida Baeza, specialist in the history and geography of Patagonia at the Universidad Nacional de la Patagonia San Juan Bosco. For example, in 2001, Chilean agricultural authorities prohibited the crossing of animals into Argentina due to an outbreak of foot and mouth disease, halting the local tradition of riding horses across to the other side.

Despite these inconveniences, locals have adapted to living with the border restrictions by using 4x4 vehicles to get across and by retaining strong links with friends and family on the opposite side of the divide, even sharing holidays and celebrations. Members of the Solis family living in Argentina talk about their enthusiastic celebration of Chilean national holidays during the week of the 18 September (Chile's independence day).

'In Argentina, 25 May [the anniversary of the May Revolution] is celebrated on one day. By contrast, in Lago Verde [in Chile] the party lasts one week, so we all go there with our relatives and celebrate the whole week. This town is deserted!' says one resident of Las Pampas. The notion of an exclusive national identity, with its associated narratives and practices, does not map neatly onto the everyday realities of families like the Solis who live in close proximity to this section of the Patagonian border.


The border through Patagonia has left many members of the same family situated in different states, but nowhere has the erection of a boundary hito had a more striking impact than in the case of Etelvina Bahamonde.

Etelvina, who died in 2017 at the age of 97, owned a house over 100 kilometres south of the Argentine city of Bariloche, which was to be split between Argentina and Chile. Nearly 40 years ago, border authorities from the military dictatorships of both countries informed her that a hito would be embedded into her garden leaving the main house on the Chilean side and the patio on the Argentine side. 'Uniformed officers from Argentina and Chile arrived here. Some of them said that my house was there [in Argentine territory], others that it was here [in Chilean territory]. In the end they put the hito in the middle,' she commented in an interview for Chile's El Mercurio newspaper in 1985.

As a result of the positioning of the hito, Etelvina had to make some domestic adjustments, relocating a shed and windmill that she used for grinding wheat. Despite having half a house situated in Argentina, Etelvina maintained the customs of her Chilean birthplace, aligning her clocks to Chilean time, taking 'once' each day (the Chilean equivalent of afternoon tea) and listening to radio stations in Chile. Her presence in this remote, inaccessible frontier region of Patagonia was not always a simple matter for the State, perhaps best illustrated by the fact that every three months, Etelvina had her pension delivered to her house by helicopter, courtesy of Chile's Department of Social Welfare. During the course of her life Etelvina and her home attracted curiosity from the media and tourists alike and she was recognised posthumously for 'making the homeland' (hacienda patria) in a distant frontier location where few other Chileans had set foot, let alone settled.


The seemingly neat world map, with its familiar patchwork of discrete states, is an object of fascination for many but the political lines that divide and carve up territory very often obscure more than they reveal. They belie the troubled histories associated with colonial conquest or territorial conflicts between emerging, independent states, as well as the contemporary, everyday movements that bring borders between states into question.

These lines on the map are landscapes populated with an array of objects, infrastructure and people that can reveal a great deal about the geopolitical relations between states and their citizenries. The states of Argentina and Chile have attempted to stamp their authority over Patagonia, with varying implications for local people who live and work there. The most explicit and lasting physical manifestations of state territorial sovereignty are the border hitos that stand alongside houses, gates and fences, with their everyday functions seemingly resisting these strict divisions imposed from elsewhere.

In these contexts where the nation is markedly distant, national narratives and practices take on different meanings and can sometimes appear far removed from daily routines and rhythms. The extraordinary stories that emerge from the border can serve to disrupt partisan forms of territorial nationalism, instead emphasising the customs, cultures and exchanges that connect citizens of two states with troubled histories of confrontation along their austral frontiers.

by Matthew Benwell (Newcastle University) and Andres Nunez (Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile)


* 1520

Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan becomes the first recorded European in the region. He believes the native inhabitants to be giants and names them patagon

* 1529

Patagonia is granted as a Spanish colony to governor Simon de Alcazaba y Sotomayor

* 1600s-1700s

Europeans fail to achieve lasting settlements across Patagonia. The region remains largely native, with the Spanish kept at bay

* 1700s

Jesuit missionaries travel to Patagonia to spread Catholicism, bringing sheep with them

* 1774

English Jesuit Thomas Faulkner publishes a book called A Description Of Patagonia. He is credited with drawing one of the most accurate early cartographic representations of the region

* 1810

After much conflict, Chile and Argentina both succeed in defeating the Spanish and become independent countries

* 1832-1836

Robert FitzRoy undertakes the voyage of the Beagle - an expedition noted for the participation of Charles Darwin who investigates the shores of Patagonia

* 1840s-1860s

Argentina and Chile both begin expanding south, battling with the indigenous populations of Patagonia and with each other in a bid to colonise the region

* 1860s

The Argentine government grants land rights to the Welsh in coastal Chubut province. The first Welsh immigrants arrive aboard the ship Mimosa in 1865 and establish their main settlement in an area now known as Y Wladfa

* 1878-9

The Conquest of the Desert - Argentina escalates its military campaign to conquer Patagonia, eventually wiping out the majority of the indigenous population

* 1881

Chile and Argentina draw up a Boundary Treaty, agreeing how Patagonia will be divided between them

* 1902

The case is arbitrated by the British and each party accepts the terms

* 1920

The Patagonia Rebelde - Approximately 1,500 striking rural wool workers are shot and killed by the Argentine army


* Patagonia's birds include herons, flamingos, shielded eagles, chimangos (or beetle eaters) and the endangered rhea. Magellanic penguins nest in the coastal harbours while armadillos, skunks, pumas, and various kinds of burrowing rodents such as the Patagonian cavy (or mara) and the tuco-tuco are also residents. The most noteworthy larger mammal is the guanaco, a camelid related to the llama, which has been hunted extensively. The Valdes Peninsula on the Atlantic coast of Patagonia, became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1999 and is home to marine wildlife such as whales and sea lions.


* Due to the influx of immigrants from Wales in the 19th century, around 5,000 Patagonians today still speak Welsh and some 50,000 Argentinian nationals can claim Welsh ancestry. Situated in the Chubut province are towns with Welsh names such as Dolavon and Trevelin, where communities prize Welsh poetry. Some settlements, such as Trelew and Gaiman have retained their Welsh characteristics, with red dragons looking out from public buildings and the Welsh flag displayed prominently. It was the Welsh settlers who properly introduced sheep-farming to Patagonia, which became a widespread practise.


* Patagonia is influenced by the South Pacific westerly air current, bringing humid winds from the ocean which cool as they pass over the Andes, and are dry when they reach Patagonia. Patagonia can be divided into two main climatic zones - north and south.

The northern zone is semiarid, with average temperatures between 12[degrees]C and 20[degrees]C. Rainfall ranges from around 3.5 to 17 inches annually. The climate of the southern zone is cold and dry, with mean annual temperatures ranging from 4[degrees]C to 13[degrees]C. Heavy snow falls in winter and there is frost throughout the year; spring and autumn provide only short transitions between summer and winter. Precipitation ranges from about five to eight inches annually.

Patagonia's icefields remain the largest expanse of ice in the Southern Hemisphere outside of Antarctica, however they are just a fraction of their previous size. Eric Rignot, a glaciologist at NASA, described them as 'melting away at some of the highest rates on the planet'. Scientists plan to keep studying the region to help them understand what glaciers in Greenland and Antarctica may look like in the future in a much warmer climate.


* On the Chilean side, Patagonia begins just south of the city of Puerto Montt and stretches down all the way to Cape Horn. It is mainly mountainous with a very rugged coastline made up of a number of fjords, channels and small islands and islets. On the Argentinean side, it begins south of the Colorado River and ends in Tierra del Fuego. Patagonia is home to the Northern and Southern Icefields, found along the Andes mountain range, mainly on the Chilean side though some branches of the Southern Icefields extend into Argentina. These are the second largest continental ice fields in the world, after those found in Antarctica. The Northen icefield covers a total surface of about 4,200 sq km and the Southern Icefield covers a total surface of about 14,000 sq km. Central Patagonia is dominated by vast steppe-like plains of desert and semidesert which extend from the Andes mountain range to the Atlantic Ocean where former rivers that flowed from the Andes to the Atlantic have cut deep, wide valleys into the region, bordered by high cliffs. Only a few now carry permanent streams of Andean origin (the Colorado, Negro, Chubut, Senguerr, Chico, and Santa Cruz rivers).


* South American Tourism:


* Tourism has become increasingly important to Patagonia's economy since the second half of the 20th century. Originally a remote backpacking destination, the region now attracts cruise passengers travelling to Cape Horn or visiting Antarctica. Principal tourist attractions include the Perito Moreno Glacier, the Valdes Peninsula, the Argentine Lake District and Tierra del Fuego. Tourism has created new markets locally and for the export of traditional crafts such as guanaco textiles, Mapuche handicrafts, sweets and preserves.

The Perito Moreno Glacier, Argentina's most famous, is located in the Los Glaciares National Park in southwest Santa Cruz Province. It has become one of the most significant tourist attractions in the Argentinian division of Patagonia due to its size and accessibility. In recent years, trekking tours on the ice have gained popularity. The two standard tours are a 'mini-trekking' option, consisting of a short walk of about an hour and a half, and a 'big ice' version, which usually takes about five hours.
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Title Annotation:Patagonia
Comment:Tales from the Border: Patagonia has long been a site of struggle between the state authorities of Argentina and Chile, and the people who have always inhabited these austral lands, many of whom fail to see why lines on a map should restrict more loosely defined cultural geographies.(Patagonia)
Author:Benwell, Matthew; Nunez, Andres
Geographic Code:3ARGE
Date:Mar 1, 2019
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