Resource Extraction Urbanism in South America by Felipe Correa

This content, originally published in Beyond the City: Resource Extraction Urbanism in South America, has been published with permission of the University of Texas Press.

Outside the dense urbanism of São Paulo and the cosmopolitanism of Buenos Aires, the South American continent has seen throughout the last decade an unparalleled push for transnational integration and a renewed desire to recast the geometries of its productive hinterland. Established by former Brazilian president Fernando Henrique Cardoso in 2000 and rapidly endorsed by the eleven other South American nations, the Initiative for the Integration of Regional Infrastructure in South America (IIRSA) ((For additional information, see the IIRSA website, – a comprehensive energy, transportation, and communications network administered by the South American Council of Infrastructure and Planning (COSIPLAN) – is the most aggressive transcontinental integration project ever planned for South America. ((IIRSA projects are funded by the sources that have always been used for physical infrastructure works in the region—i.e., the public and private sectors, multilateral financial institutions, etc. See Through the systematic deployment of ten east-west infrastructural corridors, the initiative is sidelining the Americas’ time-honored north-south axis, as exemplified by the Pan-American Highway, to provide Brazil access to ports along the Pacific and to give its flourishing economy stronger trading ties with Asian markets, all while providing means of entering remote regions that have untapped surface and natural resources. ((See Enrique Amayo, “Amazonia, MERCOSUR, and the South American Regional Integration,” in The Bush Doctrine and Latin America, ed. Gary Prevost and Carlos Oliva Campos (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), 105–128.)) With a projected investment surpassing US$96 billion and an expansive portfolio of 524 projects distributed across the east-west development axes (with 61 percent of the projects under construction), ((Inter-American Development Bank. IIRSA 10 años después: Sus logros y desafíos (Buenos Aires: Primera Edición, 2011), 9, 109.)) the scope and ambition of IIRSA is effecting an unprecedented reconfiguration of the urban and rural dynamics of the South American hinterland.

The initiative has been cast predominantly under the positive light of economic development, but its many side effects present powerful caveats to the project and deserve thoughtful scrutiny. The systematic construction of heavy infrastructure – primarily of roads, fluvial networks, and maritime ports – is having a catalytic effect on the already colossal processes of resource extraction ubiquitous to the region, further compounding controversial patterns of urbanization and rapidly accelerating the unregulated urban development of vast regions outside the larger metropolitan areas. ((For a comprehensive overview of IIRSA, see Pitou Van Dijck, The Impact of IIRSA Road Infrastructure Programme on Amazonia (Milton Park, UK: Routledge, 2013).)) This polarizing urban condition, which finds infrastructure at odds both with its unstable patchwork of byproducts and with broader needs of regional continuity, is also consistent with the global emergence of the “metapolis” as defined by French urbanist and sociologist François Ascher. ((The French urbanist and sociologist François Ascher (1946–2009) developed the idea of the “metapolis” to describe an urban phenomenon in which the fragmented centers of knowledge, leisure, and production are linked through high-speed mobility and communications infrastructures into an insulated huband-spokes system that excludes territorially contiguous landscapes and urban regions. See François Ascher, Métapolis ou l’avenir des villes (Paris: Editions Odile Jacob, 1995); and Ascher, Los nuevos principios del urbanismo, trans. María Hernández Díaz (2004; repr., Madrid: Alianza Ensayo, 2012).)) As such, the gradual implementation of the IIRSA projects has proclaimed the South American interior a new and extremely relevant frontier of urbanization, opening up a unique set of design and management challenges for the disciplines of architecture and urban planning.

While the portfolio of infrastructure projects presented by IIRSA might be of a previously unseen scale, a more careful historical examination of resource extraction and regional integration in South America can help us better contextualize the spatial dimension of IIRSA and identify its stakes. This examination can work to frame this transnational initiative as the latest iteration in a long line of endeavors by the region’s leaders to pioneer the hinterland for the purposes of resource extraction. Here, Cardoso’s desire for a unified South America through IIRSA both recalls and reenacts former Peruvian president Fernando Belaúnde Terry’s dream of a South American “forest-edge highway” ((Fernando Belaúnde Terry, “Roads to New Lands,” El Arquitecto Peruano (1960): 26–27.)) proposed to run along the western border of the Amazon jungle and connect to its major navigable rivers. The parallels between the projects of Cardoso and Belaúnde suggest that IIRSA was born from a developmentalist mindset similar to that which domesticated the region’s hinterland throughout the twentieth century. Furthermore, placing IIRSA and the current territorial dynamics of the continent in the context of a broader set of models for urbanization and regional development highlights the unassailable role the disciplines of architecture and urban planning played in structuring much of the spatial identity of the South American hinterland throughout the 1900s. The centrality of the design disciplines to those efforts is perhaps all the more notable today given those disciplines’ apparent marginalization within the IIRSA agenda.

In “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” an essay presented by a young Frederick Jackson Turner at the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, the historian states, “Up to our own day American history has been in large degree the history of the Great West. The existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward, explains American development.” The concept of a new frontier in the North American context was conceived as a westward-moving target that, in Turner’s words, allowed for the transformation of the “primitive economic and political conditions of the frontier into the complexity of city life.” ((Frederick Jackson Turner, The Significance of the Frontier in American History (1894; repr., Mansfield Center, CT: Martino, 2013), 3.)) At the opposite end of the American continent, the concept of the colonial new frontier was defined as a gradual expansion inward, away from the urban settlements along the coasts and into the vastness of the Amazon basin. Also called the great “Hiléia,” a name given by the eighteenth-century German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, ((John J. Crocitti and Monique Vallance, Brazil Today: An Encyclopedia of Life in the Republic (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2011), 36.)) the Amazon River basin, along with its possible connections to the Orinoco River basin to the northeast and the Paraná River basin to the south, defined a central territorial axis to be explored and exploited. Circumscribed by colonial cities – Spanish American along the Caribbean Sea and Pacific Ocean and mostly Portuguese American along the Atlantic Ocean – the South American coastline became the staging ground for a gradual expansion into the continent’s interior. A terra incognita of sorts, it was loosely divided by the Treaty of Tordesillas (1494), which charted an ambiguous imaginary north-south line, deep into the continent, that attempted to separate Spanish America from Portuguese America. Visited by conquistadores, expeditioners, geographers, religious missionaries, and gold-seekers, this vast inner territory beyond the coastal ring of colonial cities has been, throughout the last five hundred years, South America’s expanding frontier. In the development of this extraction frontier, the major urban and metropolitan centers that circumscribed the continent’s edge – Buenos Aires, Caracas, Guayaquil, Rio de Janeiro, and São Paulo, among many others – became the main political and economic hubs for each nation, acting as the midpoints between resources in the interior and global markets across the ocean. This confluence of geography and economic ambition made the interior of the continent into an abundant site of intense resource extraction, establishing a unidirectional flow in which resources were tapped in the interior, transported to the continent’s edge, and shipped to markets overseas.

Writing in his book Sudamerica: Pasado y Presente (1906), the Uruguayan geographer Luis Cincinato Bollo claimed that “the future of the grand commercial route of South America is the canal.” This bold pronouncement channels the findings of an experimental study conducted by the British geographer William Chandless in 1854 ((William Chandless, Resumo do itinerario da descida do Topajoz en outubro de 1854 (Rio de Janeiro: Notas, 1868).)) and a technical report by the Brazilian engineer José de Moraes in 1869 ((Mentioned in Alberto Buela, “Geopolítica Suramericana: Los canales Fluviales,” Dossier Politico (Sept. 2009): 2.)) that suggested the possibility of constructing a grand commercial canal by linking the Orinoco, Amazon, and Paraná Rivers – a piece of infrastructure that would allow for continuous navigation from Buenos Aires and Montevideo to the Orinoco Delta in the northern part of the continent. A concept endorsed, supported, and studied by many throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the canal idea even drew the attention of the Argentine president Domingo Faustino Sarmiento (1811-1888), who, during his term, commissioned a feasibility study of the subject. ((Ibid.)) The South American counterpart to the Erie Canal, it was to be geared toward the expeditious transportation of resources for national and international markets. While never implemented, the notion of the grand South American canal signified a major change in the perception of the continent’s interior. This expansive territory gradually shifted from a land of surveys and explorations into a vast hinterland, rich in natural resources, which had to be domesticated and put to work.

Beyond the City: Resource Extraction Urbanism in South America ties together a series of spatial models and offers a survey of cities and regional strategies planned at the confluence of resource extraction and regional integration. By exhibiting five specific cases, the book presents an arc of projects that rest outside the traditional urban constructs that shaped the main South American metropolises along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. From provisional encampments to regional capitals, the models of urbanization featured in this volume encapsulate the affinities between nation building, design aspirations, and transnational expertise that gave shape to experimental urban projects in conjunction with sites of extreme resource extraction within continental South America. The phrase that gives this book its subtitle, “resource extraction urbanism,” was in no way utilized as a term in the conception or implementation of these projects, nor does it appear in the existing literature of any of the case studies. Rather, the phrase, which was conceived for this investigation, is used here to bring together under a single cover a collection of projects that advocate for new and experimental urban identities in the context of government-sponsored resource extraction frontiers.



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