University of Tasmania
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Becoming Emblematic : lessons from a mediatized megaproject conflictin Chile

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posted on 2023-05-27, 09:43 authored by Marie-Gabrielle MocattaMarie-Gabrielle Mocatta
The construction of megaprojects ‚Äö- large, landscape transforming infrastructure projects ‚Äö- is booming. Megaprojects are becoming more immense and more environmentally damaging. Requiring vast, often transnational investment, megaprojects have escaped the boundaries of the nation state, and are often enacted in transnational contexts. Research has shown that megaprojects almost always rely on a combination of overstated benefits and underestimated environmental impacts in order to be approved, attract investment, and be built. Megaprojects therefore typically rely on highly targeted strategic communications and attempts to steer public discourse, in order to emphasize their advantages and downplay risks. This leads to accusations that they are insufficiently transparent, even deceptive. However, in a hyper-connected world, megaprojects and their risks are now more visible than ever, and are increasingly contested in local, national and global public arenas. Megaprojects are constructed in discourse both by project developers and their supporters, and by protest groups, as well as through their representation in the media. During the protracted communicational sparring that often accompanies them, megaprojects can become conferred with symbolic meaning. This case study reveals the mediatized construction of a Chilean energy megaproject over eleven years from the project's inception, to its final dissolution. The proposed HidroAysen hydroelectric scheme for Patagonia was at first a largely invisible project, unknown outside the potentially affected region, until protest made the project visible. Presented by the developing company and by authorities as a nation building project to bring Chile energy independence, over time it garnered such vehement opposition that it sparked the largest protests that Chile had seen since its return to democracy. By analysing discourse in influential print and social media during the debate, using interviews with key actors, and strategic communications material from both sides, this study traces the discourse over the megaproject through several key stages. It shows what the symbolic communication of HidroAysen led the megaproject to represent, arguing that when a megaproject becomes layered with multiple symbolic meanings over time, it can become emblematic: a situation which is hard to shift. Though this study focuses on the case of one megaproject in Chile ‚Äö- and indeed shows how the nation was changed by the HidroAysen debate ‚Äö- it also draws wider lessons from the emblematic case of HidroAysen, enabling a better understanding of the communicational unfolding of transnational megaprojects, and the frequently transnational protests that oppose them.


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