Welcome to a new episode of So You Think You Can Settle La Patagonia?
Buckle up. Patagonia has been settled on and off for at least the past 9 to 11 thousand years. In the following link, you’ll find a graphic presenting a series of archaeological locations that have been studied in recent decades, and which are the subject of an interesting paper on archeological analyses of the population densities and migration patterns of the area, both in Argentina and Chile, of the native nations and tribes that inhabited the area in what’s typically known as the Pleistocene-Holocene transition era, some ten thousand years ago.
Very, very broadly speaking, this study, called Poblamiento, movilidad y territorios entre las sociedades cazadoras-recolectoras de Patagonia (2004) finds archaeological evidence suggesting that over the centuries in this period, the climatological, geological, and volcanological conditions were so rapidly changing that they forced different populations to switch between either new or previously inhabited lands, due to extreme modifications to their environment in humidity, hydric efficiency, availability, and even conditions of saturation, changes in plant development, volcanic eruptions, you name it.
But before we go on, we’d just like to clarify that, at least on the Argentine side, and we know this is also true for most of the Chilean Patagonia, the whole grasslands and lush forests just ain’t it. Not even close.
Argentine Patagonia is over 1 million square kilometers in extension, nearly half of the entire surface of the country. And of all those Km2, the vast majority of it is desertic. Is it extremely cold? That depends on what individual perceptions, doesn’t it? Some people can’t stand it. Some people faint when it’s too hot and many others thrive in the warm summer sun or whatever it is people do.
Even if there are beautiful forests, even if there are enough rains to get by in the regions closest to the Andes or the Ocean, the rest of it, what lies in the middle, is a gigantic desert, most of it privately owned. Don’t worry, we’ll come back to that
So let’s talk a bit about more recent events, shall we? Let’s talk about, let’s see what’s on the aquatermain bingo for this week. Tango? Nope. Military coups? Nope. We know! Genocide. More specifically, the genocide of my ancestral tribes, the Aonikenk and Gününa Küne. These two tribes, cousins, some legends even tell that the Gününa Küne were Aonikenks who just broke off, lived together across the “grasslands, lush forests and rain”.
But they did populate the area we now call La Patagonia. They had a lot of trouble dealing with their neighbors the Mapuches, who constantly crossed the Andes to raid their populations and enslave their people. See? Fast forward to 1867, when, under the presidency of Bartolomé Mitre, one of the first constitutional presidents of Argentina, Congress passed Law 215 of Land Occupation.
Among its first articles, the Law reads “Forces of the Army of the Republic the banks of the river Neuquén, from its origin in the Andes to its confluence with the Río Negro in the Atlantic Ocean” (Article 1°), “The nomadic tribes existing in national territories within these areas, will be provided with anything necessary for their subsistence” (Article 2°), “If all or some tribes were to resist the peaceful subjugation to the national authority, a general military expedition will be organized against them, until they have been subjugated and thrown South of the rivers Negro and Neuquén.” (Article 4°).
This lovely law had to be put on hold, by its final article no less, because the newly formed Argentine government was in the middle of genociding other people, the Paraguayans, with the help of the Uruguayan and Brazilian governments. Fast forward again a few years, to the presidency of Nicolás Avellaneda. I’ve spoken briefly about him before here.
In 1874, President Nicolás Avellaneda was sworn in. He had intended, following in the footsteps of his predecessor Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, to induce an influx of European immigrants that could work the land. In 1876, he introduced to Congress the Law of Immigration and Colonization N°817, which sought to promote Argentina as a growing economy, making it attractive for immigrants, who would be granted land for farming and cattle raising, while also authorizing the creation of exploratory expeditions into the “uninhabited” areas south of the border.
Heavily influenced by the Eurocentric beliefs of the civilizing mission and the American manifest destiny, the oligarchy used several native Malones, raiding parties the natives did to steal cattle, as the perfect excuse to exterminate the natives in what is now called the Conquest of the Desert, a series of military campaigns deep into native territories led first by Adolfo Alsina, then Minister of War, and second by general Julio Argentino Roca.
The Conquest of the Desert started in 1878, following the congressional approval of Law 947, which was instituted as a follow-up to Law 215, and is intended to push back against several large scale raiding parties led by the Mapuches and the Aonikenk, who were usually called Patagones at the time, the inhabitants of Patagonia.
Law 947 gave the presidency one million six hundred thousand pesos fuertes, the currency at the time, which, if my calculations are correct, and they might absolutely not be, equals about 200 million current day USD. This money, according to the first article of the law, was to be spent in “subjugating or evicting the barbaric Indians” who lived within the borders that had been established by the previous law.
Once the frontiers had been expanding, the newly annexed territories were to be sold to landowners to reimburse the State for the expenditure incurred in the military campaigns. Let’s also keep in mind that, as we said in the answer we linked to earlier, in order to be able to keep up with the international demand for meat and agricultural products that the newly imposed agro-export economic model was creating, Argentina required more and more territories to be converted into farmlands.
And so, the Conquest of the Desert started. The most violent part of it was carried out under the leadership of Roca, who would summarily execute several captured natives per group, making examples out of them.
By the time the Conquest was done, millions of hectares had been annexed to the Argentine territories, and according to the report produced by a Scientific Commission that accompanied the army, which is a staggering 610 document thoroughly documenting what was done and seen, states that “pasa de 14,000 el número de muertos y prisioneros que ha reportado la campaña”, the reported number of dead and prisoners exceeds 14,000.
The awful truth we have to contend with is that we simply don’t know. The Scientific Commission was there to document flora and fauna, not natives. We have some clues as to the number of captives that were taken back to Buenos Aires, some of them walking up to a thousand kilometers. They’re estimated to have been three thousand, separated from each other to avoid them from reproducing. You know, eugenics. But we digress again, we want to talk about Patagonia.
In the decade that followed the Conquest, several laws were passed by Congress allowing the State to grant free land to those who would be willing to populate Patagonia, creating colonies of immigrants, and ensuring the enlargement of already existing colonies, like Gaiman and Rawson, colonies of Welsh immigrants founded a few decades prior to the Conquest; and the newly formed colony of Trelew, created in 1886, in Chubut province.
The cities of Cipolletti, Viedma, and San Carlos de Bariloche in Río Negro, the last one infamous for having been used as the location for a scene in one of the X-Men movies (for reference, the actual city of Villa Gesell is located halfway across the country, right next to the Atlantic, very much not in the Andes), San Martín de Los Andes in Neuquén, Río Gallegos and Caleta Olivia in Santa Cruz, all were either created or significantly expanded after the Conquest. But all of them remained small settlements, mostly designed to either create or maintain a sovereign presence in territories that could otherwise be easily taken either by Chile or by European nations.
As for recent history, the answer remains similar to what we said at the beginning: Patagonia isn’t a hospitable region. Sure, it’s not Siberia, but it’s as close as it gets in this area of the Global South. Extremely harsh and fast winds, very little rainfall in most of the region, inedible plants and scarce fauna, and, perhaps most importantly, a gargantuan distance separating the region from the rest of the country, which worsens the more you venture South.
Being so far away from the rest of the country causes prices to rise significantly, especially for imported goods, even those imported from other provinces. And while, by comparison, wages and income are significantly higher in Patagonia than in any other region, the prospect of having to abandon one’s life and family to go live halfway across the country isn’t particularly appealing to most people.
But, once again, we digress. We have to remember that Argentina, even though it may not look like it by looking at a regular world map, is the eighth-largest country in the world by area. You have to travel over three thousand kilometers to go from Ushuaia, the southernmost city, to Buenos Aires.
If we look at Argentina’s population density compared to that of, say, the US, we can see that Argentina’s is only half of the US. Large countries tend to be vastly depopulated, density wise, and Argentina isn’t the exception. It’s not just Patagonia, it’s most of the country.