Histories of the Constructed South American Landscape

Map of the Amazon by Charles Marie de La Condamine

The histories of some of the most important biotas located in the South American continent have yet to be told beyond national, naturalistic and ethnographic narratives. Diverse forces have driven the transformation of the continent´s territory throughout time. During the Spanish Conquest and the ensuing Colonial period, a quest for resources, particularly gold, and the impulse to evangelize drove treasure seekers and missionaries deep into the South American hinterlands and along its coasts in the first systematic and continental process of urbanization (urbanization and colonization remain synonyms in this period) of the region. The Republics, in their zeal to establish their sovereignty and clearly outline the borders of a fragmented Spanish Empire, pushed -once again- deep into the interior of the continent, the outer archipelagos and Antarctica, as they implanted their flags and articulated a sense of national identity. Science and positivism contributed some of the most “neutral” geographic narratives, although an underlying utilitarian lens kept the eye of explorers and naturalists alert to uncovering useful natural and cultural materials, such as rubber and the syringe, first described for the West by Charles Marie de La Condamine. The scientific accounts of the members of the French Geodesic Mission (1735-1739) catalyzed a series of explorations, among which the visits of Alexander von Humboldt (1799-1804), Charles Darwin (1831-1836), and Alfred Russel Wallace (1848-1852) stand out. During Modernity, South America became one of the main territories upon which to test the tenets of utopias that stemmed from industrial nations, and in the name of progress Nation States (whether democratic or dictatorial) throughout the region reformed their agricultural policies and promoted the incorporation of the interior by facilitating a new wave of colonization of deserts, forests, swamps, pampas and archipelagos.

Mt. Chimborazo, Ecuador
Source: Geography of Plants, by Alexander von Humboldt, 1807

Photograph: Ana María León
SAP proposes to renew a geographic knowledge of the South American continent in an attempt to reframe development and redirect integration efforts towards a healthy inter-regional network of collaborations and exchanges that does not merely open up the territory but tends it in a projective inversion of our recent history of expanding environmental degradations, entropic urbanization, social stress and violence. The need for such knowledge is extremely needed today, given IIRSA, and the push for regional integration at a continental scale.