transport | urbanism | adventures | pontification
The three days I spent traveling through Honduras helped me to think about some of the political and economic implications of road construction and foreign aid in developing countries. Traveling on two very different roads (a dirt road through a small village and Honduras’ busiest highway), then reading and talking with people about projects to improve them, helped me gain an awareness of some of the implications of foreign aid and ground transportation, especially in the context of agricultural goods. In Honduras, the main objectives of road construction seemed to be strengthening governmental control and improving regional market access for agricultural areas. (Or, in Swattie terms, foreign development aid for infrastructure furthered a neoliberal spatial governmentality conducive to flexible accumulation.)
The expatriate with whom I stayed in Trujillo had a great deal of experience with Honduran infrastructure projects, especially after working on electrification projects in the Aguan Valley (see the green marker in the map below). He has recently been working on a proposal to rebuild a section of a sixteenth century Spanish colonial road that ran inland from Santa Fe (see the orange and red sections in the map below). This road’s deterioration, and in some places, complete disappearance, over the centuries means that residents of Santa Fe and the surrounding villages must now take a long detour through Trujillo to drive inland (see the green section on the map below). During my visit, the expatriate was proposing the project to a US Army Civil Affairs team that was in the area to provide free medical care for local residents in a brigada médica.
I set out him and the four members of the Army Civil Affairs team on my first morning in Trujillo. Driving south, we turned off the main paved highway onto a secondary road, passing a palm oil plant and some small villages. African palms are one of the main crops in the area; processing plants (one of which has received substantial USDA aid to improve its “organizational, financial, administrative and marketing capacity”) refine the palm oil before it is sent to places like India for culinary use.
After fording a river (yes, the Oregon Trail music popped into my head) and talking with some residents in the village of El Higarito, we continued our journey up into the hills. One section of the old colonial road remains in excellent condition (see picture below), but the paving stones along remaining stretches have been eroded away or used by locals for their own construction projects. The road ends at a small cattle ranch and turns into a narrow footpath over the pass towards Santa Fe. We walked most of the 1.5 mile distance over the pass to the road’s reappearance on the Santa Fe side. If this short section were to be (re)built, there would be a second route linking Trujillo, Santa Fe, and the Aguan Valley.
View Trujillo – Tocoa in a larger map
Such a route could have numerous benefits. Amalia, a resident of El Higarito who hosted us for a delicious lunch of fresh eggs, beans, and tortillas, regularly bakes bread at her home then carries a basket of it on foot over the pass to sell. An improved road to the pass could benefit her and other participants in the local economy, such as the numerous people we saw transporting milk tins on donkeys. The more significant benefits from road improvements in the area would probably be for the larger palm oil and banana companies. A second route to Trujillo would provide more reliable access for trucks to the regional port (see map above). This year’s rainy season was the second time in three years that the Burra Bridge has collapsed. Paving the existing gravel secondary road (shown in yellow on the map above) as part of a project to rebuild the colonial route over the mountain would open better alternate routes to the port. The caves around El Higarito were used in past centuries as refuge from raiding pirates, and a road from Trujillo would foster the development of these caves for tourism, especially in conjunction with the new cruise ship port being built in Trujillo.
Though significant protections would have to be taken to avoid the pollution of local streams used for drinking-water, the project seems to have a relatively high benefit to cost ratio. The Honduran government might be eager to donate the use of some heavy equipment and funds to complete it. Such a project would help “bring the face of the Honduran government to ungoverned spaces,” a priority for the Honduran government and military as identified by the leader of the US Army Civil Affairs team. In the Aguan Valley, farmers movements have clashed with the government and security forces. A road project, framed as the government working for the people of a rural village, could bolster the image of the government in the area. Increased governmental control in the area could counter resistance to capitalist agricultural development and help keep Honduras a “stable trading partner,” another priority identified by the Army team leader.
The team leader, who works closely in Honduras with other foreign aid groups such as USAID, mentioned to me a foreign funding mechanism that has been at work in Honduras completing projects similar to this proposed road reconstruction. A five-year Millennium Change Account for Honduras was established in 2005 and concluded in September. Honduras was thus the first country to successfully complete an MCA partnership with the United States’ Millennium Change Corporation, “an innovative and independent U.S. foreign aid agency that is helping lead the fight against global poverty” established during the Presidency of George W. Bush. The MCC is an increasingly important part of US foreign aid; since its start in 2004, it has disbursed $7.4 billion.
The Honduras MCA was “designed to reduce poverty in Honduras through sustainable economic growth.” Its two interrelated project areas were rural development (through training, improved rural roads, access to credit, and an agricultural public goods facility) and transportation (focused on the CA-5 corridor, secondary roads, and vehicle weight control). The Center for Global Development, which runs an MCA monitoring program, has this excellent snapshot of MCA Honduras.
This promotional report produced by the MCC tells the story of a farmer along the CA-5 corridor “who used to grow maize, which he sold at the local market, and hardly earned enough money to support his family.” MCA training helped him learn how to flexibly farm a variety of more specialized crops for niche markets, and MCA road projects provide for more feasible transportation for these crops. In line with the tenets of flexible accumulation, MCA Honduras has helped thousands of farmers alter their production “in response to demand in local and regional markets for fruits and vegetables such as melons, squash, bell peppers, and lettuce” (from the MCC promotional report above). As David Harvey writes, “In a world of quick-changing tastes and needs and flexible production systems (as opposed to the relatively stable world of standardized Fordism), access to the latest technique, the latest product…implies the possibility of seizing an important competitive advantage” (The Condition of Postmodernity, p. 159).
A telling part of this promotional report is its assertion that “many of the improved roads will help improve access to the vital CA-5 corridor that runs between Tegucigalpa and Puerto Cortés, the principal port in Central America;” the focus is not necessarily on helping farmers bring their goods to local markets, but to international markets. Transportation infrastructure has allowed for the “annihilation of space through time [that] has radically changed the commodity mix that enters into daily reproduction. Innumerable local food systems have been reorganized through their incorporation into global commodity exchange” (The Condition of Postmodernity, p. 299). While poverty alleviation is a part of MCA Honduras, the other side of the proverbial ($215 million) coin is the fortification of global commodity exchange and the increased availability of specialized crops to international consumers.
The day after my trip through El Higarito, I rode a bus through the CA-5 corridor into Tegucigalpa. Sitting in traffic jams resulting from the MCA funded highway widening and improvements, I had plenty of time to observe the numerous container trucks on Honduras’ most heavily traveled highway. Weight control for these vehicles is another primary aim of MCA Honduras:
Since the mid-nineties, Honduras has not had an established system to control weights and measures in its road network. The lack of a control system of weights and measures has contributed to the premature deterioration of roads, thus increasing maintenance costs and reducing road safety. A recent study by the Road Fund with financial support from the World Bank found that 23% of passenger and cargo vehicles carry an excessive weight.
The excess weight significantly reduces the useful life of roads and bridges, decreasing road safety and, as a result, increases the cost of regular maintenance programs.
In order to achieve a greater useful life and security of roads, the non-refundable financing of MCC will support:
- The construction of eight weight control stations along HighwayCA-5 or along the main arteries leading to Highway CA-5,
- The purchase of auxiliary equipment for weight control.
As a condition, the Government of Honduras must make contractual arrangements with one or more private companies to manage weight control stations and charge a fee to download the overweight vehicles. The selection of these private companies should be made through a bidding process and competitive and transparent contracting mechanisms
I find the condition that the weigh stations be privately operated to be an interesting one. The government will be encouraging the private sector’s self-regulation of behavior to reduce wear and tear on the CA-5 corridor and keep infrastructure in optimal condition for flexible commodity movement. In other words, MCA Honduras is mandating private self-enforcement of new government regulations designed to improve participation in globalized trade.
The Impact Evaluation for the MCA Honduras Transportation Project was due out in October, but it is not yet publicly available online.
Whatever the findings of the official Impact Evaluation, I think it is important to recognize the spatial implications of the MCC investment: “The ability to influence the production of space is an important means to augment social power. In material terms this means that those who can affect the spatial distribution of investments in transport and communications, in physical and social infrastructures, or the territorial distribution of administrative, political, and economic powers can often reap material rewards.” (The Condition of Postmonderity, p. 233). While MCC’s publicity materials and ambassadors’ speeches may focus on the benefits for small-scale family farmers, these farmers farmers are integrating themselves into a global system based on corporate power; “the enhanced capacity for geographical dispersal, small-scale production, and the pursuit of custom-markets has not necessarily led, however, to any diminution of corporate power” (The Condition of Postmodernity, p. 158). Who is reaping the material rewards of the rural development and transportation projects in Honduras?
Cambridge geographer Emma Mawdsley writes the following:
The MCA’s goal of ‘reducing poverty through growth’ was highlighted in the November 2002 National Security Strategy, which elevated development to join defence and diplomacy as one of the three pillars of the ‘war on terror’…Drawing on an analysis of the first five MCA ‘Compacts’ with Cape Verde, Honduras, Madagascar, Nicaragua and Georgia, I argue that the newly invigorated security-development paradigm is being used to legitimate more spending on ‘development’ programmes which are primarily intended to serve the interests of US consumers, manufacturers and investors. Despite the rhetoric, poverty reduction is at best a secondary objective. The paradox of American empire is that its pursuit of economic hegemony through the extension and ever-deepening penetration of neoliberal capitalism (in which the MCA is one small vehicle) precisely undermines the conditions for sustainable profitability, as well as social justice.
I’m inclined to believe that the MCC, rather than being a purely altruistic program, is indeed “primarily intended to serve the interests of US consumers, manufacturers and investors.” But perhaps it is a successful approach to poverty alleviation in light of the hegemony of post-industrial capitalism. The MCC seems to be a successful approach for conditioning peoples’ behavior to participate more productively in a globalized regime of flexible accumulation, but does this ultimately involve more people in system that is inherently unsustainable (because of capitalist expansion and contraction cycles, peak oil, etc.)? Are the immediate tangible benefits of an MCA partnership outweighed by a long-term risk of instability (e.g. this year’s deadly farmers’ movement confrontations) arising from capitalist consolidation that could be heightened by MCC investments?
Honduran leadership (in the two different administrations that have supported the MCA) definitely thinks not. The government in Nicaragua, however, has taken the opposite stance. As a member of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA), President Ortega asserted that Nicaragua felt “freer” when the US cut its MCC aid in response to electoral tinkering. More on that soon…
One night in Corozal, I decided to wander over to the cluster of Chinese restaurants southwest of the town plaza for dinner. My experience at the one I chose, Border Chinese Restaurant, induced a cultural sensory overload. I ordered from a menu with Chinese and Belizean food written in Mandarin, Spanish, and English, trying to talk over a Taiwanese cable news broadcast, ranchera music, and chiming slot machines. Accompaniments to my fried rice included fruit juice from Honduras, Marie Sharp’s hot sauce from Belize, and La Choy soy sauce from Irvine, California. On the wall were posters for Belikin Beer (Belize’s local brew), Guinness Beer, Coca-Cola, as well as a Santa Claus mask (in July). Christmas decorations and a Chinese lantern hung from the ceiling.
In response to this bewildering array of imagery, I decided that the only sensible thing to do was to have some books delivered to me. So I had David Harvey’s The Condition of Postmodernity and Frederick Jameson’s Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism sent down, and I (re)read them with my travels, and especially this dinner experience, in mind. Postmodernity, in the words of Wikipedia, describes “the economic and/or cultural state or condition of society,” while postmodernism describes the philosophical, artistic, and cultural response to this condition. A number of concepts in these books helped me think about the Border Chinese Restaurant.
Jameson argues that a “constitutive feature” of postmodernism is “a new depthlessness, which finds its prolongation both in contemporary ‘theory’ and in a whole new culture of the image or the simulacrum” (Postmodernism, p. 6). Simulacra, images with transformed (often reduced) significance and substance, were featured prominently in the Border Chinese Restaurant. The cable news from Taiwan being shown on the TV, had very little meaning to me or the Spanish-speaking men in the bar; it was just a series of flashing images. Similarly, the Mayan temples on Belikin bottles have been reduced from their complex meaning to a society of ages past into a Belizean corporate logo, which is further transformed here by its spatial interaction with Taiwanese, Irish, and Mexican influences. The swimsuit models in the beer advertisements on the wall were women transformed into flat, inked images encouraging the consumption of alcohol. Of course, in postindustrial capitalism, simulacra are employed to spur consumption/consumerism. Perhaps Santa Claus exemplifies this; one face is instantly recognizable as a mandate to buy toys for children.
Connected to the depthlessness of simulacra is the ease with which they are superimposed. Flat images with little inherent significance allow for a “collage of superimposed spatial images” (The Condition of Postmodernity, p. 302), such as the one in the restaurant. Superposition of otherwise unconnected images is also a mark of postmodernism in art, as seen in the example below from Jameson’s book (an example which, strangely enough, includes what looks like a mirror image of the Santa Claus from the restaurant). The prevalence of these collages and juxtapositions throughout the world mean that “the postmodern body…is now exposed to a perceptual barrage of immediacy from which all sheltering layers and intervening mediations have been removed” (Postmodernism, pp. 412-413).
This “perceptual barrage” is enabled by “a whole new technology, which is itself a figure for a whole new economic world system” (Postmodernism, p. 6). The availability of local news from Taiwan (and Los Angeles, Miami, etc.) on Belizean cable television certainly illustrates the interwoven global expansion of technology and capitalism. Jameson goes on to write, “This purer capitalism of or own time thus eliminates the enclaves of precapitalist organization it had hitherto tolerated and exploited in a tributary way” (Postmodernism, p. 36). Even in a small restaurant in a small town in Belize, purchases were linked to the United Kingdom, the United States, Honduras, Mexico, Taiwan, and the web of globalized capital.
These complex global webs lead to spatial confusion. Jameson elaborates:
So I come finally to my principal point here, that this latest mutation in space – postmodern hyperspace – has finally succeeded in transcending the capacities of the individual human body to locate itself, to organize its immediate surroundings perceptually, and cognitively to map its position in a mappable external world. It may now be suggested that this alarming disjunction point between the body and its built environment – which is to the initial bewilderment of the older modernism as the velocities of spacecraft to those of the automobile – can itself stand as the symbol and analogon of that even sharper dilemma which is the incapacity of our minds, at least at present, to map the great global multinational and decentered communicational networks in which we find ourselves caught as individual subjects (Postmodernism, p. 44).
In other words, if I were blindfolded and taken from the United States to the Border Chinese Restaurant, I would probably be unable to guess with any accuracy my location, and this inability points to salient characteristics of our global economic and political system. Harvey writes the following about postmodern fiction:
Spaces of very different worlds seem to collapse upon each other, much as the world’s commodities are assembled in the supermarket and all manner of sub-cultures get juxtaposed in the contemporary city. Disruptive spatiality triumphs over the coherence of perspective and narrative in postmodern fiction, in exactly the same way that imported beers coexist with local brews, local employment collapses under the weight of foreign competition, and all the divergent spaces of the world are assembled nightly as a collage of divergent images upon the television screen (The Condition of Postmodernity, pp. 301-302)
I find his use of the beer example amusing given the coexistence of Belikin and Guinness in the Border Chinese Restaurant. I also find the image of collapsing spaces helpful; the Border Chinese Restaurant (though near the border between Mexico and Belize) was more about the implosion and mixing of various cultures rather than the separation of two.
Also contributing to this bewilderment is the prevalence of reification, turning practices and relationships into things. Jameson explains, “The other definition of reification that has been important in recent years is the ‘effacement of the traces of production’ from the object itself, from the commodity thereby produced. This sees the matter from the standpoint of the consumer: it suggests the kind of guilt people are freed from if they are able not to remember the work that went into their toys and furnishings” (Postmodernism, p. 314). Now more than ever, for example, we are disconnected from the production of the food we eat. It is difficult, if not impossible, for me to trace how a bottle of La Choy soy sauce would, like me, start off in Irvine and end up in Corozal.
How do we deal with this increasing spatial bewilderment and obfuscation, especially when it so heavily involves our participation in world political and economic structures? Jameson proposes developing “an aesthetic of cognitive mapping” (Postmodernism, p. 54). In some ways, I think this is what my project is trying to accomplish. I am attempting to investigate not production, but instead “de-production,” the re- and de- commissioning of our old goods. The environmental and economic and environmental implications of “de-production” are perhaps just as important as those of consumerist production. Following retired school buses here in Central America has given me a small, concrete foothold in attempts to map (both graphically and mentally) my participation in these wider global systems.
But maybe in a culture where images are increasingly stripped of meaning, these attempts, and my travel as a whole is just adding to the information overload. As Harvey warns, “Depthless images are deployed to capture complex meanings. Travel, even imaginary and vicarious, is supposed to broaden the mind, but it just as frequently ends up confirming prejudices” (The Condition of Postmodernity, p. 351). I don’t know whether my year of travel will truly broaden my mind to see past the image overload and spatial bewilderment of the postmodern condition. One thing’s for sure: I was able to get a lot of blogging mileage out of a plate of fried rice.