“Quisiera poder evocar más largamente esos penosos personajes de la vida amazónica… Soñadores que edifican en algún valle descuidado un imperio efímero”.
The urbanization of the Amazon basin has remained relatively unnoticed, even though it has accompanied Latin American trends of rapid urban growth (1). The reason why mainstream urban research has overlooked this region is probably related to the way in which mass media has contrived the imagery of the rain forest. The latter has been portrayed as the homogeneous ‘Lung of the Earth’, home to diverse species and unique tribes, whose very existence is being threatened by deforestation and other extractive activities.
Conservation efforts, both of an ecological and anthropological nature, perpetuate this misleading representation of the rain forest, partly inherited from the Age of Reason. Eighteenth century explorers and natural scientists provided the first scientific accounts of the Amazon basin and took pains classifying its plants, animals, and human populations. In 1745, Charles Marie de La Condamine read his Abridged Narrative of Travels Through the Interior of South America to the French Academy of Sciences, and Alexander von Humboldt is credited with having discovered the link between the Orinoco and Amazon river systems, the Casiquiare, in 1800. Alfred Russel Wallace, a precursor of the theory of evolution, spent four years on the Río Negro collecting insects and plants together with Henry Walter Bates, who has left innumerable illustrations of his findings.
Before the first empirical mappings of the South American rain forest were traced, in an effort to gradually incorporate more accurate descriptions of its geography, the Amazon basin had been the scenario where ancient European myths could be enacted. The region owes its very name to Greek mythology. The terra incognita of sixteenth and seventeenth century maps is crowded with headless men, monstrous figures and humongous lakes that purportedly lead to El Dorado. A gold fever motivated the first explorers to undertake voyages doomed to failure into the jungle, and the search for fortune still promotes both temporary and permanent incursions into what came to be known as ‘Green Hell.’
Less widespread representations of the Amazon belong to the realms of film and literature. The German film director Werner Herzog is one of the very few that has dared use the jungle as his stage set. In Aguirre, the Wrath of God, of 1972, he intertwines the narratives of two major expeditions undertaken in the sixteenth century to the land east of the Andes. The Dominican friar Gaspar de Carvajal kept a diary of the expedition organized by Gonzalo Pizarro and Francisco de Orellana in 1541. Through him we know that 350 armored hidalgos and 4,000 Indian porters set off from Quito in search for El Dorado, and that after building a brigantine for several months in the jungle, Orellana decided to leave the main expedition and forage for food with sixty other men. Pizarro never saw him again and was forced to return to the Andes. Orellana, instead, continued to move downstream and unknowingly sailed into the Amazon in 1542. Lope de Aguirre, the main character of Herzog’s movie, was part of another expedition that left Lima in 1560. The Spanish general Pedro de Ursúa had been instructed by the Viceroy of Peru to do a reckoning of the area east of the Peruvian Andes. Aguirre executed Ursúa as soon as the expedition reached the Amazon, and declared himself commander of the detachment and king of the region.
These ambitious explorers paved the way for other Conquerors to penetrate the fringes of the jungle and build ‘cities’, most of which have been relocated or have disappeared altogether. Catholic missionaries also took the lead in the colonization of the rain forest in their search for pagan souls during the XVII century. Jesuit priests and Dominican friars established numerous, temporary missions. With their presence an irreversible exodus of native populations began. La Condamine was the first to call attention to the condition of abandonment of the river banks, which had been “peopled with a great variety of nations, who withdrew to the interior at the sight of Europeans.” (2)
Ever since then, the inhabitants of the Amazon have been shuffled around, displaced by forces far removed from their immediate social, cultural and economic reality. Nomadic tribes have been forced to settle, and settlers have been pushed into a nomadic existence. Countless communities have been disbanded, and others have been explicitly modeled and deployed by nation states as a strategy to appropriate the rain forest interior. The history of Amazonian spatiality has been the result of a series of economic booms and declines; of inflated invasions followed by sudden processes of abandonment. This dynamic was magnified at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, when the surge in world demand of a product, with which the Indians had molded boots and containers, triggered the Amazonian rubber rush. The commodity flowed down the rivers of Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and Colombia, converging into Manaus, which from a garrison village called Barra, burgeoned to become the rubber capital of the world (Fig. 7).
Herzog, in the movie Fitzcarraldo, of 1981, places the story of his main character in the Iquitos of the early twentieth century rubber boom. Fitzcarraldo, a man obsessed with raising the money to build in Iquitos an opera house as grandiose as the one in Manaus, decides to open up a new navigation route over a mountain. He succeeds in this useless endeavor, which seems to parody the construction of ‘Mad Maria’, a railway stretching 350 km from Madeira to Mamoré, that was supposed to open the huge rubber reserves of Bolivia to the outside world (fig. 8). To build it everything had to be imported, charcoal from Wales, steel from Pittsburgh and, ironically, wood from Australia, because only termite-resistant eucalyptus wood would do for the sleepers (3). When it was inaugurated in 1912, rubber prices had dropped and the barons of this era were going bankrupt, unable to compete with the rubber prices of plantations in Sri Lanka and Malaysia, where the seeds smuggled out of Amazonia thirty years earlier, had prospered into vast plantations.
The Colombian writer José Eustasio Rivera also places his novel La Vorágine in rubber boom Amazonia, but with a very different purpose in mind. In its pages, he denounces the abuses committed by rubber barons like Julio Arana, head of the Peruvian Amazon Company, a man who had organized a private militia to recruit Indians in the jungle. Thirty thousand of them had been confined into company-owned villages, and by 1917, only eight thousand out of the fifty thousand that had originally inhabited the region, survived.
In his novel, Rivera already seems to announce that violence would indelibly mark the Amazonian geography. Among his characters appear military instructors who train the farmers in the arts of the guerillas. As early as 1922 Rivera warns the government that if it continues to neglect the remote forests of the Amazon, they would gain their own sovereignty within the borders of the nation. This has proven to be the case in Southern Colombia, where the rubber belt infrastructure left behind an urban network that has been reactivated and expanded by the coca industry. In this area, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) have managed to duplicate reality and created a para-estate that follows its own code and mimics the official through the logic of the illegal.
It was the fever for another sort of black gold, oil, which prompted Andean governments to take heed of their Amazonian patrimony. The first oil prospectors landed in the Colombian and Ecuadorian rain forests during the first decade of the twentieth century, hired by Oil Shell. An oil town located in the southern fringe of the Eastern Andean Cordillera of Ecuador owes its name to the transnational company. Shell left in the 50s and was superceded by Texaco, which undertook the first aerial surveys of the region and eventually found abundant oil reserves in northern Ecuador and southern Colombia (Fig. 9). Strips were carved out of the jungle during ground prospects and oil camps became the basis for a new network of towns (Fig. 10). If the main transportation routes of the rubber boom had followed the river system of the Amazon basin, the oil boom was made possible only through the construction of a road and highway infrastructure along which have grown the new linear federations of Amazonian urbanism.
Oil exploitation went hand in hand with government controlled colonization during the 60s. Along the freshly opened survey strips extended three lines of agricultural plots, of 250 by 2,000 meters each, piercing their way through the forest like an arrow. The Peruvian, Colombian and Ecuadorian governments promoted colonization for several reasons: to recruit a trained labor force needed by oil companies, to offer agricultural alternatives to farmers from other impoverished areas, and to establish living frontiers. Colombia and Peru had fought a war over the Trapecio de Leticia in the 30s, and the conflict between Ecuador and Peru that was finally settled in the 90s, was at stake since the 40s. The creation of military bases and posts in the jungle, and the promotion of settled frontiers, superimposed a new layer to the history of Amazonian landscape urbanism.
Mario Vargas Llosa, in his novel Pantaleón y las Visitadoras, humorously portrays the presence of military forces in the jungle. He mocks the Peruvian Armed Forces and their attempt to organize a prostitute service department that had the purpose of keeping soldiers sane and happy in such a remote and isolated region. Vargas Llosa also ridicules the rubber barons of Iquitos, one of whom, he says, had imported from Germany the famous Casa de Fierro, designed by Gustave Eiffel in 1897, and which proved inhabitable under the boiling heat of the rain forest. If the Eiffel Tower consolidated itself as the symbol of progress in Paris, the Casa de Fierro seems to become the caricature of a city whose progress was but a transplanted, useless and out of place ornament.
A brief survey of the history of the Amazon and its representations reveals that its urban and social geographies have sprung from the needs of the international market. The spatial configurations that have emerged from the interplay between global needs, human migrations, and the resourcefulness of the rain forest have yet to be explored and recorded. Whether it is the extraction of gold, sarsaparilla, precious stones, rubber, wood, resins, oil, pharmaceutical plants, or the cultivation of coca, the pursuit of each product has added a scar to the palimpsest of Amazonian urbanity, the essence of which has been the route (Fig. 13). An extractive economy is unthinkable without it and the system that emerges from it, the network. The river and road systems, which in some areas remain independent, and overlap in others, constitute the essence of Amazonian spatiality and its architecture of the road: that linear condition that characterizes the spaces of those who are forced to live in pilgrimage.
It must also be kept in mind that urbanism in the rain forest has not always been related to agricultural development. All attempts to describe its evolution in linear terms become inefficient. The Amazonian frontier has never been a line expanding like a razor blade through the landscape; opening land for agricultural settlements that later become urbanized. The frontier was irregular, scattered and urban from the onset (4); its development being triggered artificially by forces far removed from its immediate context. Even the categories ‘urban’ and ‘rural’ become problematic in the jungle, where a fractured landscape cannot be separated from the particles of its urban manifestations.
But the most dumfounding force that has ever distorted the migration patterns and the landscape of the rain forest has sprung from the activities of the coca-cocaine industry, which has found in the concealing nature of the canopy a perfect abode for the illicit. In the Amazon, the interplay between the legal and the illegal, or the formal and the informal, that pervades all aspects of Latin American reality, is magnified to an urban scale. A network of camps and roads, of scattered plantations and laboratories, expands in the Putumayo, Caquetá and Amazonas departments of Colombia, whereas its transportation and distribution tentacles reach all corners of the planet. The coca-cocaine production system has consolidated into a true para-state that masters the crafts of the invisible, builds its own infrastructure and establishes unique communication and transportation networks that articulate into the official ones (Fig. 15). A 40-kilometer road potentially used to transport drugs and chemicals was recently destroyed by a Counterdrug Brigade in southern Colombia, as well as an oil refinery capable of producing 2,000 gallons of gasoline a day for use exclusively in the production of coca base (5).
In the midst of the South American rain forest, a duplicate urbanism that insets itself within the network of the official one, prospers. Its clandestine nature is nevertheless developing into very visible manifestations. A fringe of towns along the northern border of Ecuador, for example, thrives thanks to the commerce that has been triggered by the narco-industry (Fig. 16). So that the land of Southern Colombia can be devoted to coca plantations, and its infrastructure to process coca leafs, northern Ecuador must provide all the resources needed to keep the industry running: labor force, clothing, services, food, precursor chemicals and even ammunitions. The Amazon region of Ecuador has also become a transition area between eastern and western Colombia, and together with the Venezuelan, Bolivian, Brazilian and Peruvian rainforests, it inserts itself into a regional endeavor that replicates that of the rubber boom but in an illegal fashion. The Manaus of yesterday is the fractured urbanism of concealment today. The riches of the coca-cocaine industry cannot be reaped out in the open, they must be filtered through the official financial system, and in so doing, they are transforming urbanities elsewhere. Money is often laundered in the shape of narco-bourgeoisie architecture in urban centers far removed from the Putumayo.
On the official side of the spectrum, employees posted at air, marine, riverine and ground posts throughout the world are being trained to uncover the deceitful packages of an illicit commerce. Military bases are being established in strategic nodes of the drug distribution network; airports, highways and marine bases are being built; spray planes are overflowing the Amazon and eradicating coca leaf plantations -and all that goes with them- as helicopters and ground troops escort them. Chemicals that could be used as precursors to elaborate cocaine hydrochloride are being taxed and their importation from Europe is being monitored and controlled. The flow of money through the financial system of the region is being tracked and documented. Military bases and control points are being reinforced throughout the forest. And last but not least, alternative development programs are building schools, factories, hospitals, community centers and refugee camps to embrace those displaced by violence, in an attempt to allure farmers who reap juicy revenues planting coca, into engaging in alternative activities.
Now, the cynical question emerges, what role can an urban planner play in this state of affairs? Within the realm of the unofficial, there is no space for planners, but at least within the official efforts much remains to be done. After all, urban development is an important component of the Andean Regional Initiative. If urbanism in the Amazon responds to global market forces that keep its cities throbbing or suffocates them into oblivion, then the first step into transforming cities that are becoming decadent unless they insert themselves into the coca industry circuit, is to pin-point alternative products and services. The city itself might become one of them. If urban planing gets involved with the development of the Amazon, cities might become for the first time independent and stable entities, instead of precocious embodiments of the market that suffer premature deaths (Fig. 17).
Footnotes (1) The population of Lago Agrio, in northern Ecuador, for example, has almost doubled in ten years according to the 2001 census. And in the North Region of Brasil, it increased from 1,462,420 in 1940 to 9,337,150 in 1991; and shifted from being 72.25% rural to becoming 57.80% urban, according to the Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatistica (IBGE). (2) Quoted by Gheerbrant, p. 67. (3) Browder and Godfrey (4) Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs Bibliography Barclay, Frederica and Santos-Granero, Fernando. Selva Central: History, Economy and Land Use in Peruvian Amazonia: Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington and London, 1998. Browder, John O. and Godfrey, Brian J. Disarticulated Urbanization in the Brazilian Amazon: Geographical Review, July 1996, Vol. 86, Issue 3, p. 441. Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs. International Narcotics Control Strategy Report-2001 (released March 2002) Carillo, Gabriela y Tufiño, Paúl, editores. El espíritu del Cuyabeno: Corporación Simboe y Ministerio del Ambiente, Quito, 2002. Cuesta, Salomón y Trujillo, Patricio. La frontera de fronteras Putumayo: Violencia, narcotráfico y guerrila, Abya Yala, Quito, 1999. Fraser, Valerie. Building the New World: Studies in the Modern Architecture of Latin America 1930-1960: Verso, London, 2000. Gheerbrant, Alain. The Amazon: Past, Present and Future: Thames and Hudson, London, 1992. Kimerling, Judith. Crudo Amazónico: Abya Yala, Quito, 1993. Levi-Strauss, Claude. Tristes Trópicos: Ediciones Paidós, Barcelona, 1988. Rivera, José Eustacio. La vorágine: Libresa, Quito, 1985. Smith, Anthony. Explorers of the Amazon: The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 1990. Vargas Llosa, Mario. Pantaleón y las Visitadoras: Santillana Ediciones Generales, S.L., Madrid, 2000.