Blind Spots in the Road Builder’s Bible: Nature’s Role in the Construction of Peru’s Marginal Highway

Saturday, January 4, 2014: 3:30 PM
Forum Room (Omni Shoreham)
Tucker Sharon, University of British Columbia
This paper addresses the process of knowledge production that fueled colonization schemes in mid-twentieth-century Peruvian Amazonia. Looking specifically at the 1960s effort to build the Carretera Marginal de la Selva, or La Marginal—a 1,200km-long trunk road that traverses the sub-montane forests of the eastern Andean flank—I question how road construction was influenced by the region’s geological and hydrological particulars. James Scott (1998) has argued that the state’s scopic view of nature negated and eventually erased other, local knowledges. I try to build on this argument by assessing the agency of natural actors and their ambivalent relationship to developmentalist science.

La Marginal was the brainchild of Peru’s architect-president, Fernando Belaúnde Terry (1963-1968, 1980-1985). Billed as a response to worries of demographic explosion and concentrated land ownership, politicians and international boosters resorted to racial and gender imaginaries to tout La Marginal as a crucial motor of economic growth and regional interdependence. Yet parallel to the discursive tropes wielded to promote its construction was the scientific appropriation of the region’s socio-ecological realities. Enlisting the technological know-how of major international construction firms, Peru’s National Planning Institute dispatched a legion of surveyors, engineers, laborers and what Paul Josephson (2004) has called brute-force technology, to produce a road builder’s knowledge of Amazonian Nature.

Using feasibility studies, political writings, newspaper accounts, and climate data, this paper uncovers the ambiguous presence of natural actors in the road building process, revealing how the scientific appropriation of the region made road construction possible, but how it also fell short. Feasibility studies demonstrate how soil science, ecology and topographical knowledge dictated the road’s course and the methods of its construction, but accounts of unanticipated landslides and flash floods hint at some of the blind spots in the state’s scopic view.

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