The geopolitics of subtraction - Architecture - Domus
The geopolitics of subtraction
 

The geopolitics of subtraction

It is no coincidence that the conflicted landscape of the Yasuní National Park in Ecuador is the laboratory for the development of a new counterintuitive economic model: infrastructural subtraction.

 

Architecture / Keller Easterling

This article was originally published in Domus 963 / November 2012

"If you are an architect, why are you here?" This all-occasion question or accusation seemed especially apt coming from David Suzuki, the climate change activist and TV host of CBC's The Nature of Things. It was an accidental encounter at Coca Airport in the Ecuadorian Amazon. He had flown with a National Geographic film crew. I, on the other hand, was on a self-appointed mission, seemingly credentialed only by the high-performance Khaki pants I had purchased in an effort to fit in.

Ecuador is one of the world's hotspots, where rainforest biodiversity is under pressure from development. Given that the country's rates of deforestation are second only to Brazil, the presence of architects is perhaps justifiably disquieting. When not the hirelings of developers, they often address conundrums like those found in the Amazon with a self-congratulatory or redemptive master plan. Yet it was my mission to wonder if architects might have a perverse expertise, one even tutored by the bad company they keep. Since architects know to how make the development machine lurch forward, might they not also know how to put it into reverse? Might they know how to design and incentivise not only the addition but also the subtraction of development?

Other professions and sciences that have long been working in the region have emerged with important variables to leverage the politics of deforestation. Lawyers have spent 18 of the 40 years that Ecuador has been producing oil litigating over what has been called Amazon Chernobyl.

Top: The Manta-Manaus link
road along the stretch
between Yamanunka and
Puerto Providencia, Nuevo
Rocafuerte, Ecuador. Photo by Gabriel Moyer-Perez. Above: The Manta-Manaus corridor
would link the Amazon free
port of Manaus to the port
of Manta in Ecuador on the
Pacific Ocean. It would
save many days of freight
journey time, but with serious
environmental consequences

Top: The Manta-Manaus link road along the stretch between Yamanunka and Puerto Providencia, Nuevo Rocafuerte, Ecuador. Photo by Gabriel Moyer-Perez. Above: The Manta-Manaus corridor would link the Amazon free port of Manaus to the port of Manta in Ecuador on the Pacific Ocean. It would save many days of freight journey time, but with serious environmental consequences


Environmental degradation from oil dates back to the 1960s, and Chevron was only last year ordered to pay 18 billion dollars in damages. Lawyers have also helped to create national parks and land preserves for indigenous tribes. When biologists and environmental scientists successfully politicise their discoveries, a tiny frog or a single plant can prevent development. And in the Ecuadorian Amazon a single plant can truly be miraculous. The yew species Taxus, for instance, provides an ingredient called taxol used for breast cancer chemotherapy, while a fungus that grows on it likes to eat plastic. Global economists have contributed a market approach to forest preservation. REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) abstracts territory as if it were a carbon stock valued for its ability to enhance the forest and reduce emissions.

Nevertheless, all of these experts along with countless others have arguably been more successful at increasing awareness than gaining control of the situation. Often it seems as if there are more and more intelligent people to witness the deforestation that somehow continues to escape control. While most of the ideas so far pivot around narrow parameters, a simple omnibus spatial variable might be at once more straightforward and — as it is inclusive of more circumstance — more complex.

REDD+, for instance, is fraught with questions about how to establish or track the values, and its abstraction invites many ways to game the system, not least of which is simply the use of carbon credits by developed countries to sanction increased pollution through emissions. Promoters of forest preservation find themselves wishing there was a market for all of the other values in the forest — biodiversity or indigenous culture — that might be at risk if the market only trades in carbon credits.

The first oil well drilled
in Lago Agrio by Texaco-Gulf,
in 1967. Photo Luis Mejía Archive

The first oil well drilled in Lago Agrio by Texaco-Gulf, in 1967. Photo Luis Mejía Archive

With a currency in market shares, REDD+ must avoid the pitfalls of, for instance, the suburban house and its mortgage in the global financial market. For the suburban house, an object in space, valued for many intangibles and yet the subject of feverish and convoluted trading, was reduced to a cipher when that trading was exhausted, with no auxiliary valuation or means to recuperation. Similarly, when the expensive and cumbersome technical apparatus of the carbon market is exploited and chiselled, what values of the spatial antecedent — the forest itself — will remain?

Seeing in this situation a perfect moment for architects to take a turn at the wheel, Ecuadorian architect Santiago del Hierro has led us to the oil company town of Coca because here one can see rainforest development dialled up and dialled down. More importantly, it is on the border of the large species-rich Yasuní National Park — the site of a new protocol that approaches a spatial experiment with negative development.

 
A subtraction protocol might be appropriate in many parts of the world where, for instance, sprawling development faces failed markets
 
A stretch
of the main Manta-Manaus
highway passing through
Palmeras de Ecuador. Photo by Gabriel Moyer-Perez

A stretch of the main Manta-Manaus highway passing through Palmeras de Ecuador. Photo by Gabriel Moyer-Perez


While global markets, even the REDD+ carbon market, align with the values of developed countries, the Yasuní-ITT protocol — the invention of Ecuador's government, led by economist and president Rafael Correa — offers a flip side with new lessons and new values. The ITT (Ishpingo– Tambococha–Tiputini) oil block lies in a corner of the larger Yasuní preserve, and 20 per cent of the country's oil reserves also lie beneath it. The protocol proposes to sell certificates that will provide the Ecuadorian government with half of the revenue that would have resulted from tapping the resource — about 3,6 billion US dollars. Still, in this case, not an abstract acreage or a quotient of carbon, but rather a specific place in the forest is valued for attributes beyond those that already have currency in the global economy.

A barge on the Napo
River, Ecuador. Photo by Katy Barkan

A barge on the Napo River, Ecuador. Photo by Katy Barkan


Ecuador is one of a coalition of countries that have both tropical rain forests and oil — a block that may be changing the rules about resource extraction from developing countries. In Dubai in the 1970s, access to oil and gas resources was granted in return for an offset. Investors had to fund an auxiliary, non-oil industry led by a Dubai national that would augment the economy. The supposedly cast-iron logics of dominant forms of capital might characterise the offset as a pre-capitalist form of bargaining. Yet as countries like Ecuador exercise similar forms of leverage, they are perhaps creating a more ingrained habit of capital, one that recognises multiple markets and values where social contagions are a currency — one equal in importance to carbon credits or other financial vehicles. Since it was launched in 2010, the protocol has proven to be especially mediagenic, attracting the support and funding of movie stars and world leaders, and enough of the 3,5 billion to continue the project. In a world that can monetise anything, this protocol mixes leftist politics with the fecundity of nature and the symbolic capital of doing the right thing. At the Yasuní-ITT headquarters they even use a word that somehow substitutes for monetise — "Yasunise."

A village on
the Amazon River between
Tefé and Manaus, Brazil. Photo by Santiago del Hierro

A village on the Amazon River between Tefé and Manaus, Brazil. Photo by Santiago del Hierro


Yet, at Yasuní, another project further complicates the puzzle and mention of it brings all enthusiastic meetings about "being Yasunised" to an awkward silence. The Initiative for the Integration of Regional Infrastructure in South America (IIRSA), a coalition of South American nations, plans to engineer a widened river channel that would allow freight to flow all the way to the Pacific, thus bypassing the Panama Canal and directly contacting shipping routes to Asia and the rest of the world. This Manta- Manaus multimodal corridor would connect the free zone port of Manaus on the Amazon River in Brazil with the Pacific port of Manta in Ecuador.

The Napo River, although narrower than the Amazon, would receive westward traffic, thus saving 25 days of shipping time. There are plans to put an additional container port on the Napo en route just to the west of the Yasuní preserve. While the corridor is seen as the source of new business and new relationships with other countries in South America, this shortcut to China would draw container ships full of Brazilian goods through the middle of the Yasuní-ITT preserve and other forested areas on the Napo basin. The development engine — galvanised around a familiar tune — is already at work on the project.

The
ruins of a boat along the Napo
River, Iquitos, Peru. Photo by Santiago del Hierro

The ruins of a boat along the Napo River, Iquitos, Peru. Photo by Santiago del Hierro


As the National Geographic team set off into the deepest Yasuní forest, del Hierro and I explored the wilderness of development outside the forest. (It has to be said that the high-performance Khaki pants were not strictly necessary.) Named after the sulphurous Sour Lake near Beaumont, Texas, Lago Agrio was the site of early oil well drilling in the 1960s. Like Coca, it develops and continuously spreads new invasive properties into the forest. Cars and trucks hurtle past above-ground pipelines on roads that snake through the land, either polluting it or facilitating further unplanned development.

A worker travelling along
the Manta-Manaus highway
between Yamanunka and
Puerto Providencia, in the
vicinity of Palmeras de
Ecuador

A worker travelling along the Manta-Manaus highway between Yamanunka and Puerto Providencia, in the vicinity of Palmeras de Ecuador


Children play and walk to school on the same roads. Compounding problems of deforestation, the area is gridded with government-issued fincas, or land grants that represent to each landowner an economic opportunity if converted to palm growing or mined for timber. Issued in the 1970s to hold territory and absorb collateral benefits from oil company road building, the fincas are now a powerful multiplier of deforestation. Roads — usually associated with access and opportunity — catalyse this development and are, in the Amazon, like carriers of an epidemic.

The Manta-
Manaus highway between
Yamanunka and Puerto
Providencia, Ecuador

The Manta- Manaus highway between Yamanunka and Puerto Providencia, Ecuador


Space tightens up and the forest thickens at the edge of the Yasuní preserve. In the preserve's highly regulated oil blocks — like the one managed by the Spanish oil company Repsol — roads, utilities and an underground pipelines are bundled into minimally invasive corridors. Engineers in jumpsuits, goggles and hard hats obsess over the computer-monitored system just as they remind every person every time to use the handrail when going down the stairs. Certification processes like ISO 9000 or ISO 14000 or countless others can sometimes inoculate companies against binding regulation as they did in Lago Agrio. Yet they can also leverage "best practices" if adopted by coalitions of NGOs in the global governance cloud. When cloaked as the means to a more profitable and efficient company, what may have originated as troublesome regulation can even quickly become part of corporate policy and internal managementese.

Barges
at the Puerto Providencia
transit port along the Manta-
Manaus route

Barges at the Puerto Providencia transit port along the Manta- Manaus route


The puzzle of subtraction or negative development clearly turns on quotients of space, yet it might outwit the architect who applies only the customary approach to the familiar site, building or master plan. Global development conundrums like those in the Amazon perhaps tutor an approach to form-making that does not produce the single design event or object, but rather form in a register that the political world can more easily use.

While the remote controls of foreign developers or runaway market multipliers are the source of despair for many preservationists, they might also be a source of ingenious design by architects and urbanists who design counter-multipliers or counter-remotes. Exceeding the reach of single object form, a subtraction protocol might establish an interdependency of variables that addresses multiple sites over time — a cos X that acts as a valve or governor to suppress, leverage or offset development. Just as cos X is an expression for a stream of values, these active forms, unlike a master plan, might simply provide a delta for development concentration and contraction. Just as the individual finca is a powerful multiplier of deforestation, it might become a powerful variable in a subtraction valve or governor.

Puerto
Providencia, Ecuador

Puerto Providencia, Ecuador


A government programme called Socio Bosque has already targeted these properties as a means to control deforestation by paying individual landowners a stipend for not deforesting. Additional spatial protocols could augment this effort, playing out through an accumulation of simple moves.

Linking and making interdependencies between densified and preserved properties, revenues from preservation could actually fund the subtraction development. For instance, larger aggregations of land left undeveloped are best for tourist lodges that might be a source of income. Similarly, the biodiversity that is only found in undisturbed land is the subject of potentially lucrative material and pharmaceutical science. The contraction of development means growth of the forest and growth of alternative industry. It is considered to be entirely rational to trade shares representing space in abstract financial or carbon markets. Yet the result can link space to untraceable volatility even while the physical effects on the ground are very durable. With a spatial protocol, all the values associated with the actual property (the land, home, agriculture, soil, climate, resources, biodiversity) are in play. The subtraction game trades in shares, offsets and interdependencies, but many of the risk and reward factors are visible and tangible. Spatial properties expressed as functions of other spatial properties are potentially both more stable and more fluid.

Repsol
Refinery, Yasuní National
Park, Ecuador

Repsol Refinery, Yasuní National Park, Ecuador


A governor or remote control might also address roads and transportation. Just as global standards operate as a remote control for Repsol, the new proposed port on the Napo might be leverage out of existence by remotely concentrating the infrastructure upgrades of the port in either Lago Agrio or the coastal city of Manta. Also, the site for this transportation puzzle might not be the territory of the port but rather the 25 days' travel time. Just as rapid technological developments created the automated transshipment port in a matter of decades, the business of conveying goods in sensitive areas is a technological problem.

What are the points of leverage, trip distances or economies of scale that make air freight or rail profitable? Architects and urbanist are not themselves logisticians or inventors of new transportation technologies, but they can run the development scenarios demonstrating their spatial consequences. The license to develop may be expressed in terms of remote offsets like schools, technologies and improvements to community that recalibrate and shrink the need for roads. Roads might only exist when bundled with underground utilities, forest buffers, wireless telecommunication and other suppressors.

A wooden pyramid near
Iquitos, Peru

A wooden pyramid near Iquitos, Peru


The Ecuadorian Amazon tutors an approach that is neither prescriptive nor restricted to the region. A subtraction protocol might be appropriate in many parts of the world where, for instance, sprawling overdevelopment faces failed markets, where development confronts environmental issues, where it would be wise to retreat from exhausted land or flood plains, or where special land preserves are valued. While it might address the distended development of McMansions, it might also offer somewhat less violent tools of acquisition and more safeguards against disenfranchisement in the margins of less-privileged informal settlement. Moreover, like construction industries, the heavy industry of subtracting development becomes a new market that produces jobs and profits.

Ecuadorian lawyer Pablo Fajardo — the hero of years of litigation against the oil companies — is on the same plane back to Quito from Lago Agrio. Yet it is more fun to imagine the architect as a non-heroic, sly activist who is deliberately avoiding the righteous solution. Just as architects are learning to look past single design events or objects, some of the most interesting scientists and economists in the world are learning to look past the rational assumptions of science to test ideas in a more complex context with multiple actors and circumstances. The soupy matrix of spatial protocols is a rich test bed for these new questions and for new extra-state agreements that pivot around seemingly irrational or changeable desires. In the Amazon and elsewhere, architects may be valuable precisely because they are not offering a hard science but rather an art of subtraction. Keller Easterling, architect and professor, Yale School of Architecture