Weaponizing Geography

An Environmental and Technological History of Cold War Mega-Projects in Latin America

My dissertation Weaponizing Geography: An Environmental and Technological History of Cold War Mega-Projects in Latin America analyzed how experimental nuclear science, high-modernist theories, and counterinsurgent visions were mobilized in the 1960s to agro-industrialize the Amazon jungle, “sanitize” its humid climate, and to test securitization and development models for other “wild” and “fugitive” tropical landscapes of Latin America, Africa, and Southeast Asia. 

Weaponizing Geography examined a series of mega-infrastructures promoted as unfulfilled nineteenth-century engineering dreams waiting for twentieth-century science and technology to be completed. Specifically, I followed a transnational network of scientists, developers, and “cold warriors” who sought to use experimental nuclear excavation techniques to transform the major rivers of the continent into a series of massive interlocked, channelized, and navigable artificial reservoirs, connecting the Amazon, Orinoco, and Paraguay river basins. This project -known as the “South American Great Lakes System” (SAGLS)- anticipated flooding massive swaths of the Amazon basin, building the largest artificial lakes on the planet, and recreating the Great Lakes of North America in the southern continent to provide (in theory) inexpensive riverine transportation, inexhaustible sources of hydropower, and salubrious landscapes facilitating large scale agroindustry, mining, and counterinsurgency operations in allegedly “noxious” previously “unexploited” tropical regions. 

Indeed, SAGLS supporters envisioned transforming Amazonia into a vast agro-industrialized landscape where planned colonization and counterinsurgency programs would render conflictive agrarian land reforms unnecessary. Ultimately, SAGLS enthusiasts also imagined reproducing this plan in parts of Africa and Southeast Asia. Although SAGLS was never built, its technocratic language of state-centered, regional water management plans, basin development infrastructure, and jungle sanitation programs had multiple and sometimes paradoxical consequences. I demonstrated that SAGLS served as a model -and antimodel- for policymakers over the coming decades permeating later environmental and technical controversies and designs, alternative infrastructural landscapes, new counterinsurgency schemes, and renewed development mappings and cartographies.

My research includes the study of the Chocó Development Project (CDP), a SAGLS prototype plan proposing a first pair of interconnected and power-generating artificial reservoirs for the northwestern region of Colombia (an area of marginalized riverine indigenous and afro-Colombian populations,) that were intended to demonstrate the overall “Great Lakes System” concept feasibility and to deliver a low-cost interoceanic passage alternative to the Panama Canal. 

Broadly, Weaponizing Geography demonstrated the birth, effects, and afterlives of a series of infrastructural mega-projects, what their different proponents hoped to achieve, and the successes, failures, and consequences of their actions. My dissertation explained, in short, why a transnational network of nuclear scientists, modernization officials, and counterinsurgency specialists considered tropical jungles as environmental obstacles to development and as “fertile” grounds for the rise and refuge of communist rebels; and why they expected science capable of “fixing” tropical geographies and ecologies to deliver lasting economic development, social stability, national security, and international order.

By illuminating intersecting histories of science, environment, and geopolitics, my research offers new perspectives on Latin American–U.S. relationships and on the Global South’s interconnections during the Cold War, contributing to recent scholarship in development, agrarian, infrastructure, counterinsurgency, and cartographic studies.I investigate why SAGLS was formulated, and by whom, demonstrating that for a decade it circulated among transnational networks of modernizers as a conceivable strategy for counterinsurgency and hemispheric modernization.

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