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Water as moral substance in Chilean Patagonia

Water as moral substance in Chilean Patagonia

Carlota McAllister

“Water is life” is a key slogan for anti-extractivist movements, particularly in the Americas. In a project that examines a dam conflict in the remote Aysén region of Chilean Patagonia, Professor Carlota McAllister explores how gauchos living in river valleys threatened with damming draw on this substance and the histories of its use on this “last frontier” to build collective responses to the dam proposal. The project uses archival and ethnographic methods to trace the emergence of vernaculars of private property in Aysén to show where and how they diverge from the practices for legitimating dispossession that have been deployed by HidroAysen, a proposed project for building five hydroelectric megadams on two of Aysén’s powerful wild rivers, as well as by private conservationists seeking to “rewild” the legendary Patagonian wilderness. By showing how Ayseninos were formed as agents of property, but not of the forms of power it is assumed to entail, McAllister examines the challenges to the global expansion of extractive capitalism that may also emerge from fractures within its own logics. The project seeks to open intellectual space for imagining a broader range of both cultural and ecological alternatives to capitalism and of the political alliances that can bring them about. 

The Baker River in Chilean Patagonia. Photo courtesy of Jorge Uzon.

In a recent paper titled “No One Can Hold it Back: The Theopolitics of Water and Life in Chilean Patagonia Without Dams” McAllister explored environmental politics and the role of the Catholic Church in the conflict over HidroAysén and argued that the church’s sacramental infrastructures allowed a flooding phenomenon on one of the rivers threatened with damming to be heard as a prophetic call to action. The uprising that followed produced a rare victory for dam opponents, suggesting that a theopolitics of life has powers that exceed vitalism. The paper appeared a special issue of Social Analysis on “Theopolitics in/of the Americas” that she guest edited (with Valentina Napolitano), outlining a critique of the political theology of Carl Schmitt and Giorgio Agamben, and proposing instead an anthropological concept of ‘theopolitics’ that emerges from ethnographic engagements with the oldest site of European colonialism—the Latin Americas. 

McAllister is Associate Professor in the Faculty of Environmental and Urban Change and the former director of the Centre for Research on Latin America and the Caribbean (CERLAC).  A political and historical anthropologist, she studies the formation of political and moral agency in situations of conflict or crisis, using theoretical tools drawn from the anthropology of religion, actor-network theory, feminist anthropology, and political ecology. While working in Latin America with agrarian communities in Guatemala and Chile, her interests has developed in the study of collectives, particularly those formed around contemporary art, chronic illness, and mystical and popular Catholic tradition. 

Demobilized guerrillas in Nebaj, Guatemala, 1996. Photo courtesy of Jorge Uzon.

She has co-edited (with Diane Nelson) War by Other Means: Aftermath in Postgenocide Guatemala, a collection of papers that addresses the legacy of 36 years of massive Guatemalan state violence in an aftermath characterized by both neoliberal restructuring and attempts at transitional justice. Her monograph The Good Road: Warring Histories in Postrevolutionary Guatemala is forthcoming with Duke University Press. The book shows how revolutionary consciousness-raising, Catholic traditions of moral thought, and Indigenous experiences and concepts of community under colonialism converged to produce a Mayan revolutionary consciousness; how the Guatemalan state’s genocidal response to Mayan mobilization for revolution forced them apart again; and how the history of this lost future shapes contemporary Mayan political projects in Guatemala. 

McAllister holds her BA from the University of Toronto, her MA from the University of Arizona, and her PhD from John Hopkins University. In 2016-17 she was a Faculty Fellow at the Charles Warren Center for American History at Harvard University.