Engendering Landscapes, Creating Citizens: Colonization and Resettlement in the Mid-20th-Century Tropical World: Examples from Latin America and Africa

AHA Session 259
Conference on Latin American History 57
Sunday, January 10, 2016: 11:00 AM-1:00 PM
Room A602 (Atlanta Marriott Marquis, Atrium Level)
William French, University of British Columbia
William French, University of British Columbia

Session Abstract

Cold War tensions, decolonization and the spread of Green Revolution technologies transformed the era of developmentalism.  This turbulent global context produced a unique form of migration characterized by state-sponsored efforts to resettle and colonize areas long portrayed as abandoned and unoccupied hinterlands. In the process of reforming their national landscapes, state officials, espousing a range of ideological positions from the revolutionary to the reactionary, conflated places and populations, portraying both as recalcitrant, traditional and backward, but most of all, ready recipients of modernization.                

By juxtaposing case studies from Latin America and Africa, this panel examines the role that gendered notions of landscape and citizenship played in the planning, promotion and execution of mid-twentieth century internal colonization and resettlement. Moreover, it marks a broader critical return to the history and legacy of such projects throughout the tropical world.  While James Scott has characterized these phenomena within the rubric of high-modernist engineering, environmental historians of the declensionist style see them as part of the unprecedented alteration of tropical nature in the 20th century.  Like many of the anthropologists and rural sociologists that first envisioned the projects, these historiographical currents emphasize the failure of such initiatives to achieve their stated aims.  Yet the implications of internal colonialism extend far beyond narratives of failure, degradation or planners’ hubris.

Contributors to this panel address the confluence of four phenomena: the developmentalist impulse to incorporate economically marginal lands into national economic folds; the migration patterns engendered by resulting colonization schemes; the ways in which a gendered rhetoric of conquest, the family unit and national progress was mobilized to justify them; and the degree to which subaltern actors critically responded, at times appropriating that rhetoric to frame their demands while engaging development projects with their own intentions at the forefront.

In Peru and Bolivia this translated into a new round of state incursions into the forests of the Amazonian lowlands.  In Southern Mexico, colonization emerged as counterpart to the construction of a massive hydroelectric dam.  In Tanzania, the nascent postcolonial government’s anxieties to cultivate citizenship and develop the country along the principles of ujamaa (African Socialism) resulted in citizens unwillingly abandoning their homes and livelihoods to resettle into government-designated communal villages.

While all these projects shared a common economic ideology of national development, they varied significantly in substance, especially with regard to the racial, class and national make-up of the new citizens imagined through them.  While Bolivian colonization schemes recruited ex-miners and small farmers from the nation’s highlands, the Peruvian lowlands were used as a pressure release valve that redirected floods of rural migrants away from the urban slums of coastal cities. In Mexico, citizens from across the country settled alongside indigenous residents displaced by the dam.  In Tanzania, mandatory resettlement presented rural women in Lindi district with a paradoxically unique opportunity to strengthen their biological and kinship relations by relocating to villages where their kin already resided or were also relocating.

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