We’re heading to Argentina as part of a British Academy/Leverhulme-funded project entitled “Remembering a hydrographic society: flooding, drought, adaptation and culture in the Welsh colony of Patagonia, Argentina”. The project is investigating how the early Welsh settlers (1865 onwards) adapted to the unfamiliar arid, shrubby Patagonian environment, and particularly to the erratic floods and droughts characteristic of the lower Río Chubut (Afon Camwy) valley. These floods and droughts created havoc in the early years and on more than one occasion nearly terminated the attempts to settle the lower valley. Ultimately, however, the colony survived and indeed prospered, with other settlements also being established farther afield in present-day Chubut Province, including in the foothills of the Andes. We are interested in how floods and droughts were perceived and reported by the early settlers (e.g. in letters, stories, poems, biographies) and how the memories (myths?) regarding floods and droughts have been passed down through the generations to the descendants of the early settlers, many of whom still retain strong elements of Welsh culture. Generation, preservation and mutation of these so-called ‘cultural memories’ are interesting phenomena in their own right, but have particular relevance in an era of rapid environmental change, when notions of ‘climate adaptation’ are rapidly gaining prominence. Are the events in places like Patagonia of mere historical interest or can we learn lessons from these successful examples of rapid, forced adaptation to unfamiliar environments and climates? How do cultural memories influence contemporary approaches to management of water resources in such hydrologically-variable settings?
As a native Welsh speaker, Hywel has done much of the archival work in the early part of the project, and we have presented our findings at conferences and an open evening organised by the Aberystwyth and Esquel People in Partnership Association. The trip to Patagonia is to undertake interview work with descendants of the early Welsh settlers (probably in Welsh, but perhaps with some of my basic conversational Spanish thrown in) and to visit sites of commemoration (museums, monuments) that may relate to the early history of settlement and its struggle with floods and droughts. But I’ve got to get there first ….