Abstract: This paper interrogates the function of violence as a catalyst in the construction, proliferation, and transfer of developmentalist environmental imaginaries between state and non-state actors in Peru’s Huallaga Valley during the latter half of the twentieth century. Specifically, I ask how the 1960s project of road colonization helped to codify a set of masculinist and capitalist spatializations (Ojeda Ojeda 2011, Sundberg 2003, Merchant 1989) that were repeated, mimicked and reformulated through coerced confessions in cases of criminal drug trafficking through the 1970s and 1980s.

Work on the spatial dynamics of state formation pits dominant state fixations (Craib 2004) against localized discourses of resistance. By blending work that examines nature through a modernity / coloniality and decolonial thinking (MCD) lens (Blaser 2010, Escobar 2008) with Michael Taussig’s  (1986) concept of the space of death, I examine the land narratives generated through legal encounters. I contend that, in the court, subaltern actors hardly resisted the Peruvian state’s discourse of jungle colonialism. Instead, they often lent exceptional detail and nuance to the state’s broad understanding of the Huallaga Valley as a developable space. Torture and other forms of coercion figured significantly in such encounters and were a catalyst for the invention of the Huallaga’s cocaine imaginary.

This paper’s contribution is two-fold. First, it introduces new archival sources that significantly complicate and sometimes contradict the burgeoning historiography of Huallaga cocaine. Second, it situates the growth of Peru’s illicit cocaine industry along a broader trajectory of state-orchestrated experiments in jungle colonization.


“The government convenes the greatest highway bidding in the country’s history.”[1] That announcement in Lima newspapers in March 1964 presented the Tarapoto-Río Nieva road to the public in a fashion typical of development boosterism—brash, bold, and only partially true. Tarapoto, nestled as it was in the remotest corner of the Huancabamba Depression, was only reachable by air on its western approach, and the new highway promised at last to connect coastal markets with the vast arable lands of the Huallaga Valley. The Huallaga, a diverse and dynamic area of the Western Amazon, was the site of rich, transnational imaginings for a host of actors ranging from national planners and global construction giants, to early climate scientists, campesinos and cocaine cartels. The highway was the lynchpin in President Fernando Belaúnde Terry’s pet project, the Carretera Marginal de la Selva,[2] which enlisted Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and Colombia in a quixotic enterprise aimed at colonizing the eastern Andean flank through one vast road network. 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 that hinged specifically on exploitation of the subtropical dry forests that dotted valleys like the Huallaga. La Marginal represented the reigning development doctrine’s imposition on the Huallaga landscape and a critical component of its construction was a scientific appropriation of the region’s socio-ecological realities. One phenomenon that fed this boom in Huallaga development was the early introduction and utilization of aviation as a means of transport and study.    

A close reading of V.S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River (1979).


Bigburger pictures looked like smooth white lips of bread over mangled black tongues of meat. (97)


Bigburger: Singular pronoun. Bigburger—“The Big One,” (ibid) curiously set opposite the Big Man, the president—is not merely a brand, product or franchise, it's a pseudo-state, assuming the role of accommodating refugees (99) and constituting the "New Domain" by rivaling the state's role in growing local real estate. Indeed, Bigburger represents Mahesh's "coup", (97) presumably displacing, or at the very least challenging, the Big Man's authority with the backing of international capital's new colonialism.

Pictures: Plural noun. Graphic representations of the Bigburger universe, conceived, manufactured and shipped in from the white outside. These representations interestingly condition our narrator's perception of that outside—in the end, after all, Bigburger becomes a sort of outside, resembling his notions of the U.S., (98) at least in that it provides a space of escape from "real Africa" (100).  These pictures contrast the photographs of the State Domain, which serve the same function in reverse, following an Africa-Europe trajectory.

Looked: Verb, preterit tense, indicating vision, or more generally, perspective. In this case the perspective can be assumed to be that of the narrator, wrapped up in all the complexities of his very fluid subjectivity.

Like: Conjunction, grammatically indicative of union between two clauses: here the representations (i.e photos) and our narrator’s interpretation of them. This term also embodies a sense of approximate resemblance, qualifying that interpretation as subjective and dependent upon the narrator's subject-position as a third-generation African of Indian descent whose loose use of the subject pronoun ‘us’ often includes characters of Indian, Middle-Eastern or European origins as well as Africans. At different times, all of these subjects are equally set up as others depending on the narrator's chosen point of view.  

In his 1925 essay “The Morphology of Landscape,” Carl Sauer launched an impassioned appeal for geographers to return to a classical phenomenological approach to areal study. In the wake of nineteenth-century positivist specialization, in which the natural sciences became a stand-in for chorology and geography, and causality was reduced to a simplistic environmental determinism, Sauer questioned the very essence of his field. Arguing for more integrated, social science-based approaches to geography, he stressed that landscape be treated as both a natural and cultural phenomenon. He lamented the degree to which the natural sciences of geomorphology and physiography had penetrated his field and in response he advocated a static treatment of landscape. For Sauer, landscape was seen as defining the range of possibilities for historical succession, but as far as he was concerned causality and change with time came from cultural processes, not natural ones.[1]

Despite much of the work that I will be discussing below, it is still difficult to speak of environmental history embracing the so-called cultural turn. That said, to argue that environmental historians have been blind to the theoretical and methodological challenges posed by cultural studies would require resorting to a simplistic caricature of what by now is a vast and continually expanding field.[1] Indeed, I think it is best to characterize the meeting of environmental history and cultural studies as a tacit recognition, one of the other in equally guarded suspicion. I say “meeting” because I think it should be acknowledged that the relationship goes both ways, and that cultural historians have perhaps been just as slow to embrace the questions raised by looking at the social and ecological ramifications of change in environment over time. That, however, is an issue for another time.

In this essay I will examine the dynamics of this uneasy encounter by looking at how environmental historians have engaged with three particular aspects of the cultural turn, arguing—along with Sörlin and Warde—that, were environmental historians more in tune with developments in the social sciences and humanities, then what have been seen as watershed moments in the field might be recognized as reflections of decades-old innovations.[2] I will begin with an overview of some work that has taken on the challenge posed by the cultural turn and will end with some reflections on what environmental history has to offer historians interested in the cultural turn.

To begin with, it should be recognized that, as a moniker, “the cultural turn” has been used to cover such a wide breadth as to purge it of any real significance. So for the purposes of this essay I will resort to a restricted working definition that highlights three specific—although clearly intertwined—criteria.     

In The Blood of Guatemala, Greg Grandin poses a hypothetical: “Would the [Guatemalan] revolution have endured if the United States had not interfered or would internal contradictions have forced its demise?” Rather than pursuing the counterfactual, Grandin goes on to admit the answer cannot be known. But he nonetheless defends the question’s utility for it “shifts the focus to include the role Guatemalans played in the making of their own history.” Thus, while Grandin is interested in understanding how “larger structures of power articulate with local interests and tensions,” he ultimately contends that the best way to do that is by closely examining the local, for “if capitalism and imperialism think globally, they need to act locally if they are to succeed.”[1]

Grandin’s concept of the local, however, is not simply global capitalist imperialism’s Other, nor is it a unified national polity. Instead it lies at the interstices of three assumptions: 1) that Nation is produced through social relations and thus a cultural artifact, not a superstructure; 2) that as a cultural artifact, nation is produced by multiple and competing processes, and thus can be localized; 3) the local is not only a site where nation is negotiated, but it is where hegemonic processes encounter global structures.

In this essay I examine three general and interwoven literatures as well as how they reflect these three ideas underlying the local. Beginning with a discussion of nationalism and Nation, I outline how ideas of imagining have extended the local beyond a mere spatial category. As part of the New Cultural History, the local has become an enunciation; more than just a town, or “the street,” literature and performance have been treated as sites of contestation and resistance. Next I look at the interventions of Subaltern Studies and the ways that “decentering” has produced a shift to the local. Finally, I explore how concepts of the “contact zone” and the encounter have infused the local with a global hue.