This thesis examined the ways in which the categories of identity and belonging are redefined in contestation over a hydroelectricity project in the Aysén region of Chilean Patagonia. Environmental anthropology in South America often focuses on the ways in which indigeneity is elicited to dispute neoliberal economic policy and its disruption to indigenous land rights. Regions with highly visible or exoticised indigenous peoples have been of most interest, such as those associated with Amazonia or the mapuche in Chile. Patagonia, on the other hand, has been mostly missing from anthropological analysis, historically constructed as a wilderness absent in indigenous stewardship. A key contention of this thesis is that conceptualisations of indigeneity as polemical, authentic, static, and straightforward discount certain broader notions of belonging. Amidst environmental dispute, ‘indigeneity’ is a convoluted construct that can be evoked and repackaged in a multitude of ways. Thought of as such, the concept of indigeneity can in fact encompass those not usually considered to have an ‘indigenous’ identity.
I argue that for Aysén campesinos, or rural residents, the gaucho has been the most empowering identity to assert to contest the hydroelectricity project. During a time in which indigeneity is denied by the Chilean State and indigenous activism criminalised, it is possible that a re-indigenisation in Aysén would not be as advantageous as it may be elsewhere. Rather, the gaucho represents a person of mixed race, a non-indigenous ‘native’. Associated with the Aysén pioneer and a hybridisation of indigeneity with Catholic Spain, this thesis finds that the gaucho identity helped campesinos assert spiritual knowledge and obligations, ‘firstness’, and closeness to nature. These are all elements that have been used to counter neoliberalism in some settings and have allowed Aysén campesinos to avoid some of the problems associated with asserting indigenous identity. This study finds that the category of gaucho received international environmentalist support by appealing to romantic and exotic notions of an historically established identity. The thesis concludes that the contestation of neoliberalism during a time when policies of multiculturalism proliferate has helped to redefine the socio-political forces that form identity classifications in Chile. Thus, campesinos are actively reshaping the social and political agenda in Aysén.