Governing resources in contested territories

Hydroelectricity, Mapuche communities and the role of the Indigenous consultation in southern Chile

Proyecto de investigación FONDECYT 11180970

Policy makers at global and national levels are promoting the further development of renewable energy sources as a response to climate change. In Chile, this has led to an increasing implementation of hydropower in the water-rich regions in the South of the country, characterized by a high percentage of Indigenous population, namely the Mapuche. This has posed governance challenges, as Chile ratified the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention (C169) in 2008, which protects amongst others the ways of life and cultural practices of Indigenous peoples. Since 2013 the so-called “Indigenous consultation” has been implemented as part of the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), applied for hydroelectric projects with power outputs greater than 3 MW.

As a consequence, struggles regarding the use and control of natural resources have gained a new dimension, which will be accounted for in this research study through an environmental governance lens. This theoretical perspective engages in the patchwork of institutional systems that characterize decision-making processes regarding natural resources. The water-energy-nexus involves several public and private agencies, however, these actors hardly address the resource coupling or dialogue with each other. Additionally, these organizations do not take into account Indigenous matters either. Although environmental governance has engaged over the last years in the analysis of the Indigenous peoples' role and their concerns in governance processes and structures, this perspective only considers them as a further, mostly homogeneous, stakeholder without taking sufficiently into account their aspirations to self-determination and autonomy linked to their knowledge systems. Hence, this investigation combines issues related to identity, culture, and environment in a cross-scale analysis.

The main objective of this research study is twofold. First, the research project assesses the impacts of hydrosocial transformations on governance processes and structures through hydroelectric projects in southern Chile. Second, it analyses the effectiveness of the Indigenous consultation to overcome power inequalities and represent Indigenous peoples in contested territories. The following research questions guide the study: How are governance processes and structures modified in contexts where different conceptions of water and its use are in dispute? How does the Indigenous consultation process consider the heterogeneity of Indigenous communities and accounts of their attempts to self-determination and autonomy? The analysis of the Indigenous consultation in Chile is especially novel as this participatory process has only recently been set up and its role in triggering power shifts has not yet been analyzed. An understanding of the consultation in hydrosocial transformations is also attractive, as the mechanism is inserted in a challenging setting: A neoliberal, market-based system of water and energy institutions without mayor integration of Indigenous issues.

The methodological approach consists of a multiple-case-study. Three hydroelectric projects in southern Chile with Mapuche communities involved that have undergone the EIA and the Indigenous consultation, namely Rucalhue in the Bío Bío Region, Añihuerraqui in the Araucanía Region and Neltume in the Los Ríos Region have been chosen. These illustrate the fusion of struggles over control of resources and over who defines culturally and organizes politically these resources conceived as socio-natural systems. Thus, they have been selected to analyze the heterogeneous socio-natural relations as well as the multiple governance processes and structures at play. The methods to investigate the three cases are qualitative and include document and media analysis, semi-structured interviews and ethnography.

Expected results of this research comprise of an in-depth understanding of the multi-level governance processes and structures at play, which are altered by hydrosocial transformations, as well as of the actors and positions involved. Power struggles shaped by different discourses are understood in a holistic way and light is shed on the legitimation process of the Indigenous consultation and its role in contested territories. Thus, a contribution can be made to scientific debates regarding the complex role of Indigenous peoples and their ethnic identities in governance processes and structures. Moreover, this research project aims at a better understanding of local participation processes, which could lead to further improvements of these instances avoiding conflicts and court proceedings.