Voices of a Natural Prison: Tourism Development and Fisheries Management among the Political Ghosts of Pisagua, Chile

Authors: , ,


Caught between the sea and one of the world’s driest deserts, Pisagua’s coastal desert landscape is being transformed by the ways people utilize its natural isolation and rich protected waters. Periodically, these waters are altered by El Niño events. As distinct stakeholders -- fishermen, political activists, government planners, tourists and developers -- appropriate the site, their competing voices and identities alter the patterns of resource use. The most consistent resident group is a small number of fishermen, who have been willing to forego modern infrastructure to live in Pisagua’s harsh natural, political, and economic isolation. Because of this isolation, three separate national administrations have utilized the town as a political prison. The fishermen visualize political ghosts roaming the wooden ruins of this once thriving nitrate port. Developers today, however, aim to sanitize local political history in order to create a tourist “paradise”, and are being aided by a government plan to incorporate Pisagua into the core Chilean economy. Political activists, who use Pisagua as a pilgrimage site to indemnify the horrors of the past, protest this plan as one of political sacrilege. The plan also has concrete ramifications for the fishing families of Pisagua, who not only struggle with scarcity during major El Niño events, but now face encroaching tourism as globalization encompasses their space. The resident grassroots community leader has proffered additions to the plan that directly benefit the community. He is a former political activist with visions of a community-based “paradise” that would incorporate the marginal voices of the fishermen. We discuss his role as part of an approach which views identity and livelihood as practical and essential elements of any economically viable management plan. We examine shifting identity roles in light of the Pisagua plans, and frame our discussion within the context of three overlapping climate changes: economic, political, and environmental. This lays the foundation for a suggested adaptive management strategy that serves the economic needs of Pisagua through a recognition of the importance of stakeholder identity and livelihood.

Keywords: Pisagua, Chile, political ecology, ethnography, space and place, identity, livelihood, environment, El Niño, climate change, political activism, pilgrim, globalization, fisheries, migration, tourism, MPA, co-management

How to Cite: Meltzoff, S. K. , Lemons, M. & Lichtensztajn, Y. G. (2001) “Voices of a Natural Prison: Tourism Development and Fisheries Management among the Political Ghosts of Pisagua, Chile”, Journal of Political Ecology. 8(1). doi: