Between the Material and the Figural Road: The Incompleteness of Colonial Geographies in Amazonia

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Published in: Mobilities, Volume 7, Issue 4, 2012


This article asks what happens when the colonial dream of a road does not materialize as intended, and becomes instead a permanent project for distant state managers and rural Amazonian settlers. Roads have featured prominently in Brazil’s development designs, and ethnography along an unpaved road demonstrates how a wide array of actors negotiate the tension between the material challenges of moving in Amazonia and the bold modernist figurations that guide highway construction and territorial planning. Over the past 40 years, the unpaved road has itself become a central but unpredictable player in the plans and practices of colonists as well as in emerging governance projects of the Brazilian state. Colonists’ arrival in the region via what they perceive to be an abandoned and impassable road repositions their prefigured relationships with the histories, narratives, and infrastructures of colonial occupation and state-making. Newly local to a frontier zone not yet ‘connected’ to the rest of Brazil, colonists leverage an intimate knowledge of roadside material conditions in an effort to anticipate and influence future state actions.