Hobby Ranching and Chile's Land-Reform Legacy*

By Klepeis, Peter; Laris, Paul | The Geographical Review, July 2008 | Go to article overview

Hobby Ranching and Chile's Land-Reform Legacy*


Klepeis, Peter, Laris, Paul, The Geographical Review


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A prominent theme in environmental, or landscape, histories of Latin America is the impact of land tenure on land use. Research on both colonial and postcolonial periods explores the environmental and social implications of latifundios and minifundios, even though this dichotomy oversimplifies the diversity of land-tenure types and is concerned primarily with agriculture (Thiesenhusen 1989; Dorner 1992). Rangelands tend to receive less attention.

Research on land reform in rangelands usually focuses either on the privatization of communal grazing lands or the displacement of smallholders--often indigenous and largely subsistence producers engaged in agriculture--by largeholders who clear the land and produce for the market (Hecht 1985; Gerritson and Foster 2001). An underappreciated phenomenon is when landowners subdivide large grazing properties that are already devoted to market production. Our case study from southernmost Chile considers this kind of rangeland subdivision and exposes the impact on the complex interaction of the region's social and biophysical systems.

Through the subdivision of estancias in its southernmost region, Tierra del Fuego, the Chilean government sought to achieve two familiar land-reform objectives: to provide opportunities for campesinos to earn a living from the land and to settle its southern frontier with smallholder ranches. Implicit in these goals was to change the region from one dominated by a handful of large, extensively managed estancias to one occupied by hundreds of intensively managed ranches, effectively modifying the cultural landscape. In this article we use the term "cultural landscape" in its broad sense, incorporating cultural change as well as the impact of that change on the material landscape.

Today, more than eighty years after it began, subdivision has transformed the material landscape in a manner that reflects the vision of a region dominated by smallholders: Fences and roads fragment the rangeland, and small houses pepper it. Chilean Tierra del Fuego now contains some 500 ranches, giving the impression that the land-reform plan achieved its goals.(1) But our study of land users finds otherwise: Land reform failed to achieve its socioeconomic goals--social justice, increasing land productivity, and evenly settling the landscape with smallholder ranchers and their families.(2)

The contemporary cultural landscape reflects an alternative reality to that envisioned by the government. Instead of vibrant rural communities consisting of families who live and work on the land, the landowners are largely absentee elites, and the livestock sector has been in decline for decades. Today's absentee owners value the land as much for cultural reasons as for its economic potential. Many of them are, in effect, "hobby ranchers." In contrast to those of active, professional ranchers, land-use decisions made by passive, hobby land managers are not entirely profit driven (Coppock and Birkenfeld 1999; Sayre 2004).

We position the land-reform history of Chilean Tierra del Fuego within a broader literature on the impact of land subdivision and the rise of hobby farming (although in Tierra del Fuego, ranching is the primary land use). In contexts worldwide, studies link hobby farming to amenity migration--the movement of people from urban to rural areas due to smog, land prices, or other push factors and to the pull of particular amenities, such as spectacular vistas, recreational opportunities, and land investment (McGranahan 1999; Evans, Morris, and Winter 2002; Stewart 2002; Holmes 2005; Lage 2005; Buxton and others 2006; Moss 2006b; Argent, Smailes, and Griffin 2007; Loeffler and Steinicke 2007; Wilson 2007). The amenity-migration literature often describes a transition from productivist to postproductivist or multifunctional landscapes. In other words, landscapes that supported rural livelihoods through "productive" use--farming, logging, ranching, and so forth--are giving way to new land uses introduced by landowners who value the land's amenity characteristics rather than solely its economic potential.

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