[the glyphs constructed by the Nazca people of Peru at the base of the Andes mountains some 2000 years ago, now bisected by the interoceanica highway]
Our South American correspondent DRDLM brings us big news from the STLO (Southern Theater of Landscape Operations, or St. Louis). Claiming he needed some “tiempo propio” (aka “me time”), he took off for Peru to check out the pre-Colombian geoglyphs of the Nazca people. And to imbibe copious amounts of psychotropic ayahuasca. When he finally resurfaced he filed this report.
The economic growth of China and Brazil in recent decades has stimulated Peru to complete the Carretera Interoceanica (Inter-Oceanic Highway). The highway will connect the Brazilian and Chinese industrial and financial centers through Peruvian ports, with a side effect of serious cross pollination across Peru. Possessing prime wharfage and situated between these two behemoths, Peru’s situation is like Holland happily finding itself between Germany, France, and Great Britain in the 1700’s, only with 1 billion more people involved. The economists, industrialists, and most of the politicians are ecstatic, and as an alternative to mercury-intensive small-scale gold mining or devastating agricultural practices, infrastructures of commerce as economic driver has a certain appeal.
[agricultural clearing patterns in the Amazon rain forest]
[the last tree falls in flood plain of the Madre de Dios River]
The highway promises a shipping alternative to the Panama Canal or the treacherous Drake Passage, a prospect so enticing that Brazil built their road through the Amazon decades ago, the implication being “c’mon Peru, if I gave you some money out of my wallet would that make you feel better?” This opened up the Brazilian Amazon to almost-unchecked exploitation by farmers and loggers, with fantastic short-term financial benefits. Until now, a dirt track on the other side of the border was the only road and could take weeks to traverse in the rainy season, and so Brazil remained severed from the Pacific.
The ambition of this infrastructural project is on the scale of the US Interstate Highway System or the Incan Road, and will bring as many changes in the economies and ecologies that it is connecting. The port cities of Peru stand to see a huge increase in activity, bringing with it opportunity and problems. In Lima the port at Callao just signed a contract with Maersk to enlarge the Muelle Sur (South Dock) to handle PANAMAX and POSTPANAMAX container ships. In the southern port towns of Puerto Matarani, San Juan, and Ilo tiny residential populations figure to double in the coming years, requiring infrastructures for drinking water and energy that are not yet in place. Meanwhile the last remaining link, the Continental Bridge, is defying engineers’ attempts to complete it, with the anchor caissons on either side of the Madre de Dios Rio developing structural fractures when it was loaded back in December of 2010. It projects to finally be finished in June of this year and when it is, the changes that have already started will likely intensify by orders of magnitude.
[locals cross one of the new bridges of the inter-oceanica highway]
[the inter-oceanic highway snakes through the Amazon state of Madre de Dios]
This highway project continues a trend of unification on the continent through environmental and engineering projects. It is an infrastructural version of Simon Bolivar’s 18th century dream of a unified South America, albeit one not of political hegemony, but environmental heterogeneity. Many environmentalists raise concerns about the project slicing through the Madre de Dios River basin, which is one of the most biodiverse areas in the Amazon, and rightfully so. But as we’ve noted previously, infrastructural civilizations have existed here before and the result was so effective that the European mind literally exploded when they experienced it, leading to the invention of all types of silly concepts such as “wilderness”. The infrastructure and increased connectivity itself isn’t a problem, just a situation, and one that should be approached intelligently.
[muelle 5 in the port of Callao, Lima, Peru]
[the Puente Continental, the longest span bridge on the inter-oceanica highway, spanning the Madre de Dios River]
Viewed in this light, Parag Kanna’s provocative claim that the cities, not nation states, are now the fundamental building block of civilization becomes more compelling. What must first be embraced is the fact that cities themselves are only one piece of the urban object which is a larger network assembled from resources and waste sinks, tied together with infrastructures. This is not to suggest that the nation-state will be going the way of the dodo any time soon, but the concept of the westphalian state was always and remains a tenuous-at-best proposition in the post-modern, post-colonial, mestizo condition of the Americas.
We’ve mentioned before that the dominant infrastructural paradigm of the Americas has largely been that which was imported from the smaller geography Europe. This has proven wonderfully efficient in certain applications, especially at first. But it is limited. Instead of wholeheartedly importing the newest ideas from Spain or Germany for high speed rail and park-ified cities, we would like to see the development of an authentically American mestizo landscape praxis, one which enables infrastructures to be constructed and adapted across the vast, variegated reaches of the continents, adaptable to the unmatched heterogeneity of the place. The recovery and development of authentically American infrastructural urbanisms is key if we are to ever break out of our Europhilic infrastructural tautology.
[just Don Roman de la Mancha and the open InterOceanica Highway]