How is culture embedded in social process? Can we understand change in our foci of collective meaning production in relation to transformations of property regimes and social relations? And is there a social logic behind the phenomenon of defetishisation of environments that the expansion of the tourism industry across the world is generating?
These questions underpin my study of the tourist industry in Chile and Venezuela, recently published in Dialectical Anthropology.
This study was grounded on ethnographic fieldwork in the Araucanía (southern Chile) and in Gran Sabana (southern Venezuela). It pursues two goals: 1) generating new insights on how property rights and social relations shape and are reshaped by the expansion of the tourist industry in these regions; and 2) facilitating the theorisation of how culture, and the production of meaning, is ingrained in the configuration of social relations. I thus continue the exploration of relations between cultural production and processes of enclosure and dispossession that I conceptualise as modern accumulation.
I situate this new study in relation to two debates that specialised literature generally addresses through separate theoretical streams. One debate is on the socioeconomic potential and impacts of pro-poor and community tourism, which are the business models through which local and international agents explicitly pitch tourist ventures in the locations I compare. The other debate spins around landownership rights and dispossession in Indigenous territories and the ways tourist projects might affect them.
I bring these two different streams of analysis into dialogue, seeking to shed light on impacts of tourist developments that are otherwise overlooked, be it by the lack of interest in class dynamics and intra-community differentiation that debates on community tourism convey, or by the lack of attention to forms of enclosure “from below” that often characterises the literature examining relations between tourist projects and processes of dispossession.
The grounds for comparing the case of tourism in the Araucanía and Gran Sabana are fertile:
- Tourism was an important economic activity for decades in both regions, but increased markedly in recent years (until the pandemic started, of course).
- These regions share key traits as tourist destinations, both identified as traditional Indigenous territories (Pemon and Mapuche territories, respectively) and renowned for their natural environments.
- The Indigenous population constitutes a majority both in Gran Sabana municipality and in Curarrehue (the municipality where I focused my fieldwork in the Araucanía).
- Both municipalities are among the poorest in their respective countries, too. For decades, this background of poverty has pushed people in these two regions, and particularly the Indigenous population, to feed intranational flows of economically motivated migration, whether temporarily or permanently.
With the support of a comparative perspective, my research identifies a cultural phenomenon that I theorise as a response to (and a requirement of) the social process articulated through tourism in both regions. I build on the hypothesis that social process has transformed conservation into a “language of contention” through which members of different class fractions manoeuvre to gain positions of (relative) advantage, and draw attention to the processes of meaning production through which local populations in Gran Sabana and the Araucanía demarcate a social position in that field of contention.
This occurs through the generation of discursive representations that feed an overarching argument: the nature-rich territory that tourists are visiting is the product of the practices and knowledge of the Indigenous inhabitants of those lands. In those representations, the environment appears as permanently inscribed with a type of collective labour that I conceptualise as cultural labour.
In social interaction, cultural labour is signified as labour that people perform as members of a human group defined in terms of cultural identity – that is, not as “independent” labourers, not as “professionally skilled” labourers, but as members of a particular ethnic group whose identity shapes the form, function, and meaning of that labour.
Appeals to cultural labour feed into overarching representations of natural environments as produced environments, as social spaces that permanently embody a collective person and its labour. These appeals operate as a discursive mechanism that makes visible (a type of) labour as constitutive of natural environments that are transformed into consumable spaces through tourist ventures.
This mechanism of meaning production has the crucial potential effect of (discursively) preventing that the environments that tourists visit could be objectified in separation from an ethnically defined group that creates and conserves those environments through collective labour. For the Indigenous population, this becomes an affirmation of ownership claims in territories over which their effective property rights are largely absent (as is the case for the Mapuche of the Araucanía, largely dispossessed of land) or endangered in a period of increasing territorial encroachment (as is the case for the Pemon of Gran Sabana).
Beyond that effect and the expressive and affective dimensions of these forms of meaning production, these forms of meaning production also become part and parcel of the social process that tourism as an economic activity informs, both driven by competition between economic agents and constrained by the specific conditions and configuration of social forces that these agents experience in specific locations.
This is leading to yet another naturalisation of the social relations of capitalist production, because the type of (collective) labour that appeals to cultural labour reveal is conceptually severed from any rooting in a historical field of actually existing property relations. This mystifies the social relations that give form and function to such labour. Those are nonetheless the relations that determine who benefits from the collective labour that becomes discursively inscribed in environments as socially produced spaces.
In other terms: while the environments consumed by tourists are presented as produced and conserved by the collective labour of the members of a group defined by cultural identity, the market transactions of tourist activities depend on the emergence of privatised property rights over that environment. Those who benefit economically from the product of cultural labour are therefore not the labourers themselves (they produce a surplus that is never compensated, as it were). Only those who become “proprietors” of that environment, be it by the rights granted by landownership in the current property regime (and the rent-capture those rights may facilitate in tourist locations) or be it by the generation of productive units that indirectly generate property rights over the products of cultural labour (i.e., by becoming a provider of tourist services through which the environment is shared with tourists), can potentially benefit economically from the product of cultural labour.
This is the complex political paradox that unfolds in the defetishisation of environments that, in tandem with the expansion of tourism, we see developing in peripheral parts of the world system.
Set Image: the road between Pucón and Curarrehue, Chile Wikimedia Commons