Anthropologists are increasingly turning to the study of infrastructures as material forms that enable the circulation of goods, people, and ideas, reorient spatial and social relationships, and provide insight into the workings of power and politics across multiple scales. In this book, Penny Harvey and Hannah Knox draw on over a decade of research on roads and road construction in rural Peru to investigate how roads, approached as “infrastructural technologies,” can provide new perspectives on the politics of contemporary social relations (4). Their work adds to the growing literature on infrastructure by focusing squarely on the form of the political: the political purchase of infrastructural forms; the material politics through which infrastructures are brought into being, sustained, or undermined; and the ways in which infrastructures are constitutive of political power (5). Roads promise social transformation, and they rearrange the spaces of everyday life. They create spaces for institutional forms of governance exercised by state representatives and experts such as engineers. They reflect the gap between the intended effects of infrastructural practice and the way those intentions play out in actual practices. They work as scaling devices, so that state power is present in the lab and in measurements, and global capital is there in confrontations over ownership of land (14). In other words, roads manifest the political (7).
To explore the politics of roads and road building in Peru, Harvey and Knox focus their analysis on two specific roads. The first is Route 26, 700 kilometres of the Interoceanic Highway, which runs from the highland town of Urcos to the Brazilian border at Iñapari. The construction of the highway was a multi-million dollar initiative that was the subject of considerable political debate before road construction began in 2006 (23). The second road was no less controversial: a one-hundred-kilometre stretch of highway between Iquitos and Nauta in the northern Peruvian Amazon, which had a 70-year history of construction at the time of the publication of the book in 2015. Harvey and Knox write that this road is “the most expensive road on the planet” (24), based on per-kilometre construction costs. These two roads provide a focus for the ethnography and bring together a diverse cast of characters: national, regional, and local officials, local residents, pressure groups, “stakeholders,” military and police, skilled and unskilled labourers, and a diverse group of experts and professionals working within private organisations, non-governmental organisations, and state institutions.
Harvey and Knox tell a story of road construction and politics in Peru in three parts: the intricacies of engineering practice; engineering, safety, and financial regulatory regimes; and the social space of the road construction site. The text is complex and yet highly readable, complemented by photographs taken along the way. Part 1, “Roads as State Space,” describes the entanglements of past desires and future imaginaries related to state formation that emerge in the process of road construction (15). This includes tracing the history of modern road-building initiatives to explore how roads have participated in the emergence of the globally interconnected territorial state. The promise of economic and political connectivity through road construction projects is linked to the exercise of state power: roads both territorially unite the nation and promise a global reach (Chapter 1). However, the integrative ambition of a new road must always contend with prior geographies and previous histories of connectivity. Local narratives from regions where new roads were being built show that the “frontier,” past and present, entails the production of complex geographies of connection and disconnection. Out of this connective capacity, as “network infrastructures” that bring people and things into relation with each other, roads produce an ongoing politics of differentiation: between Andean regions, between permanent residents and outsiders, and between extractors of wealth and the custodians of the land (Chapter 2).
Engineering and construction also involve a politics of differentiation. Part 2, “Construction Practices, Regulatory Devices,” takes up the day-to-day practices by which political effects become manifest in road construction processes. In this section, the authors theorise the role of expertise...