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.


Santos-Granero, Fernando, and Frederica Barclay. Ordenes y desórdenes en la Selva Central: historia y economía de un espacio regional. Instituto de Estudios Andinos, 1995.

Federica Barclay and Fernando Santos Granero treat the Selva Central provinces of Chanchamayo, Satipo and Oxapampa as constituting a “regional space” subject to the constant ordering and disordering of its ebb and flow from the influence of coastal and highland markets. Using cadastral data on tenurial regimes and land use, Barclay and Santos argued that production of export-oriented crops—namely coffee and fruits—operated as a model for increasing waves of migrants despite the fact it was often done on unsuitable land slated for other extractive pursuits like logging. For Barclay and Santos, deforestation in the Selva Central was the product of the region’s unruly status as hinterland, where extraction and demographic pressure met with ecologically sensitive lands with disastrous consequences. As but one example of the devastating effects of road colonization, Barclay and Santos analyzed SAN photographs from the Kivanaki region of the Perené Valley. They concluded that between the years 1977 and 1983—while La Marginal was in construction through the area—annual deforestation rates rose to more than twelve percent of the land surface. (229-247)

Merchant, Carolyn. Ecological Revolutions: Nature, Gender, and Science in New England. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989.

Almost thirty years ago, Carolyn Merchant demonstrated how a confluence of social and ecological pressures triggered a shift from predominantly subsistence-based agriculture to a surplus-oriented agricultural structure in eighteenth-century New England. She argued that the increased demographic pressure caused by colonization coupled with new demands on the regional ecology to push farmers toward a capitalist mode of food production with massive ramifications not only for soil fertility, but for the gendering of social relations, as many “farm women were not only wives, mothers and grandmothers, but also vegetable and poultry producers, food processors, cheese and butter makers, spinners, carders, weavers, sewers, herbalists, healers, and sometimes teachers or midwives, as well”.[1] The concomitant exhaustion of soils and feminization of commerce was something that Merchant also attributed to the system of patriarchal inheritance and its effect of reducing farm sizes over generations and exacerbating their dependence on dwindling ecological reserves. Merchant’s insights are invaluable, for they demonstrate the complex socio-ecological tensions between production and reproduction that push settler societies toward destructive, export-oriented agriculture. Moreover, the analytical nexus she draws between ecology, economy and gender offers a useful paradigm for understanding those tensions.[2] However, her analysis neglected the important realm of representation, especially the gendered representation of space.

[1] Carolyn Merchant, Ecological Revolutions: Nature, Gender, and Science in New England (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989), 150–53.

[2] I am drawing especially from Part Two: “The Capitalist Ecological Revolution” Merchant, Ecological Revolutions.


“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.  

Sawyer, Suzana. Crude Chronicles: Indigenous Politics, Multinational Oil, and Neoliberalism in Ecuador. Durham: Duke University Press, 2004.

Discussions I’ve had about this book tend to orbit around how bad it is. I don't think it is that bad, but I do see some shortcomings. So rather than simply summarize it, as I would usually do in a post like this, I want to examine a few of its strengths and weaknesses.

I think that as a study of environmental justice its merit lies in the idea that Sawyer develops of the mosaic of alternative nationalisms that are at play in the OPIP struggle against Texaco and an Ecuadorian state that increasingly abandoned its representative role and took on the role of fiscal manager. I think that her analysis of Oswaldo Guayasamin’s mosaic in the presidential palace becomes her metaphor for the idea of plurinational space that was espoused by the indigenous movement in Ecuador (and I would say uncritically embraced by Sawyer). Yet unsurprisingly, Sawyer’s personal commitment to the indigenous struggle poses a problem for her critical engagement with important concepts at play. I think is is very difficult—and commendable—to tread that thin line between political commitment and scholarly distance, but it will almost inevitably raise critical concerns.

For instance, Sawyer fails to problematize race. Sundberg has struggled to point out how Latin American environmental justice literature has failed to look critically at race and I think Crude Chronicles is a case in point. While Sawyer does take race as something that is constituted and masked through official spatial discourses, what she centers on is the negation of identity (50-51).

Horna, Hernan

Horna, Hernan “South America’s Marginal Highway.” Journal of Developing Areas, Vol. 10 No. 4 (1976): pp. 409-424.

This piece comes across as an apologist ode to Belaúnde, peppered with statistics—the same ones Denevan uses, drawn from Stokes—and resting on a toothpick foundation forged from press accounts—Peruvian Times, Time, The New York Times and Semana en el Perú. There are, however, some redeeming qualities. For instance, Horna, while absolving Belaúnde of any guilt in his administration’s 1968 lackluster performance, focuses not just on the APRA-UNO opposition, but also in the American backlash to Belaúnde’s modest protectionism. Also, Horna gives a cursory account of the ways in which the Velasco administration carried the Marginal mantle into the context of the 1970s Amazonian oil boom. Interestingly, here Horna seems to continue embracing the view that road colonization will assuage the social strife caused by demographic pressure placed on land, while at the same time recognizing that roads were mostly built because of their value on the international stage: securing boundaries and resources, integrating markets (Andean Pact 1971, LAFTA), etc. This unique local-transnational symbiosis seems to result in part from the exorbitant costs of jungle road construction—$200,000 / mile in 1967 (416)—and the dependence that generates on international lenders.

Two other valuable aspects of this piece are the brief mention of Colombian, Ecuadorian and Bolivian participation in the continental dimensions of La Marginal’s construction. Also, this article is littered with anecdotal delicacies: like Belaúnde’s 1963 birthday gift of 25,000 tools (415); The pomp and circumstance where the Bolivian and Peruvian sections of the road were joined (414); Velasco’s effort to connect La Marginal to the Trans-Amazonian (418); and the quixotic hope of continental completion by 1995 (420).

Thurner, Mark.

Thurner, Mark. From Two Republics to One Divided: Contradictions of Postcolonial Nationmaking in Andean Peru. Durham: Duke University Press, 1997.

From Two Republics to One Divided marshals subaltern theory to address the rocky relationship between the Peruvian state and peasantry during the long nineteenth century. By foregrounding the agency of highland alcaldes and varayoc (a power holding subaltern class, much like the K’iché elite that Grandin looks at), Thurner positions his narrative in between those who saw no forms of peasant nationalism emerge surrounding the War of the Pacific (Spalding, Bonilla) or saw indigenous insurgency as representative of little more than ethnic tribalism (Bonilla, on p. 97) on the one hand, and those who argue peasant communities were a crucial locus of national mobilization (Manrique and Mallon) on the other.

Ostensibly the story of the post-War of the Pacific Huaraz uprising lead by Pedro Pablo Atusparia (an alcalde originario), I would argue this book is more broadly a story of taxation, the contradictory institution by which the state-peasantry relationship was primarily mediated. Thurner spans the period from the Tupac Amaru II uprising to indigenismo, and looks at the way the residual colonial tribute system clashed and converged with postcolonial Liberal reforms in a way that positioned local alcaldes as the linchpin of republican order (127).