Beyond the Big Ditch: Politics, Ecology, and Infrastructure at the Panama Canal.
Beyond the Big Ditch: Politics, Ecology, and Infrastructure at the Panama Canal
Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2014. Infrastructure Series.
ISBN: 978-0-262-02811-0 (HB) $24.95. xi + 298 pp.
Transporting a ship via a series of locks across the Panamanian isthmus appears to be a straightforward technically engineered event. But in Beyond the Big Ditch, Ashley Carse demonstrates that it was far more than that. Fifty-two million gallons of water are necessary to carry a single ship through the canal. The canal is big business, representing five pre cent of global trade. Carse, an anthropologist by training, has offered us an interdisciplinary study of the canal that originated from a research project at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. Published on the centennial anniversary of the waterway's opening, Carse tells a transnational and environmental story that is obscured by traditional narratives.
Technical achievement and global commerce are two pillars of the Panama Canal narrative that justified its construction and continued existence. Scholars interpret the canal project as either a triumph of progress or a colonialist production. Carse enters the crowded field of Panama Canal historiography to build on and extend the work of established Panamanian scholars with a new interpretation framed in infrastructure history. Infrastructure is the result of technical and political moments, but infrastructures can outlast them as well. Infrastructure studies reveal more than power relations. By studying human agents and networks where infrastructure and environment merge, Carse reveals the ways that local populations are bound up and rendered invisible in global networks. After engineers design and labourers construct infrastructure and depart, it still must be maintained. This allows Carse to demonstrate the continuities and divergences of policy before and after transfer of the Canal Zone to Panama. What began as a question about how to ensure enough water to transport a single ship through the canal became a question of managing forest resources and people in the Chagres River basin across two national zones. The Panama Canal then is not simply a 'big ditch'. It is a 'sprawling, living organism' (p. 2) that can only be understood by removing the canal from the centre of the story.
Carse tells a thematic story rather than a chronological one. While this does lead to some chronological overlap, one immediately sees the complex tapestry of conflict between local, regional and international actors that comes with such an approach. Carse traces the tentacles of infrastructure in four areas of the Chagres River Basin that provide the essential water feed to the canal: the headwaters, the foodplains, the interior and backwaters. In Part I, we see that two competing understandings of the land came into conflict. Rural swidden agricultural practices were incompatible with the forest protection demanded by canal authorities. Machete wielding campesinos became a threat to global shipping, and shipping interests won out. Campesinos saw their longstanding agricultural practices ended as authorities limited the amount of time land remained fallow, which reduced the quality of ash fertiliser after burning. The area became a protected park with the sole purpose of producing canal water. The decisive turning point came in the 1970s when a map created by a hydrologist in 1952 caused panic among Washington decision makers about deforestation.
Part II explores the infrastructure built by the United States in the Canal Zone. Carse redefines the concept of la posicion geografica of Panama by challenging the idea that Panama's geographical destiny led the region to commerce and transport. The concept obscures other potential areas in Central America just as amenable to transport and the very human story of capital infrastructure projects on the isthmus. Infrastructure projects created transportation clients who reorganised economic and social life between the oceans. Carse traces Spanish, American and French infrastructure projects from roads and rail to canal to demonstrate that it was not a smooth, continuous, deterministic process. The decision to build a canal in Panama was not just due to the isthmus's natural advantage but was also the result of stakeholder choices in response to a series of local and global transport and geopolitical pressures. In part III the author details the impact of getting around a divided Panama via road and the unfinished rural infrastructure projects of Panamanian governments. Government policies that sought to transform forests into agricultural production clashed with the need of watershed managers to deliver water to the canal. Rural people driven into the forests as a result of the canal project now feel that unfinished road and electric projects are meant to drive them out of the watershed. Part IV, 'Backwaters', is the weakest part of this strong book. It includes a chapter on the invasive water hyacinth that came with damming the Chagres River and a concise concluding chapter ruminating on the main issues of the book. Both chapters offer room for development. For example, readers may wish to know more about engagement with weeds beyond the narrow chronology offered here. The final brief chapter highlights the themes of maintenance and interdependence that allow the canal to function as part of the global transport network.
A close reading of the endnotes, where the majority of technical and historiography discussion is confined, reveals Carse's impressive command of interdisciplinary scholarship. The author examines a broad array of primary sources, including newspapers, maps, government documents and published reports. Archival sources are used selectively but with great effect. The bulk of the argument is supported by extensive oral interviews with residents and officials in each of the four areas under study, as well as by personal communications with historical actors involved in the creation of the Chagres Basin watershed. The result is a rich multi-vocal story that clearly demonstrates the canal is not simply a 'big ditch.'
Carse provides a timely and engaging interdisciplinary exploration of the ways the Panama Canal transformed, and continues to transform, the Latin American isthmus. Innovation in global transport continues to challenge the efficacy of the canal with significant consequences at multiple levels of Panama. It meshes well with other books in the Infrastructure Series and with new historical scholarship published in Germany by Gerrit J. Schenk, Jens Ivo Engels and others. Scholars and students in environmental studies, anthropology and history will benefit from this compelling work.
RANDALL S. DILLS University of Louisville
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|Author:||Dills, Randall S.|
|Publication:||Environment and History|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Nov 1, 2016|
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