Transforming the Extraction Economy in Latin America
How strategic design can preserve natural resources and transform Latin American economies
Interview by Paola Ladino and Mala Parikh with Ana Maria Duran Calisto
Issue 11 Winter 2012
The South America Project (SAP) is a research network of Latin American architects and academics who actively endorse the role of strategic design within the rapidly transforming geographies of the South American Continent.
From the 17th-century silver mines to Brazil’s recent oil and soybean boom, the economy in South America has been fueled by the extraction of natural resources from the Earth. Currently a program called The Initiative for the Integration of the Regional Infrastructure of South America (IIRSA) is an 83 billion dollar effort by many South American nations to integrate neighbors’ economies and open the continent’s hinterlands to drilling, mining, and industrial agriculture. For example, the construction of highways has been initiated for shipping soybeans to China resulting in the destruction of 75% of Amazonian forest within a 30-mile radius. In response to these types of developments, the goal of the SAP is to employ the use of strategic design to find alternative solutions to more comprehensive models of urbanization.
CATALYST editors Paola Ladino and Mala Parikh sat down with Ana Maria Duran Calisto, a Director and Founding member of SAP, to learn more about the urbanization process in the Amazon, the impact of infrastructure integration in South America, and the forces shaping contemporary Latin American design practices.
Catalyst: Your work is based on an understanding of the consequences of South America’s role in the global market, how do you see this role changing today?
Ana Maria Duran: First we need to change the very passive role we have been playing since the conquest and colonization of Latin America by Spain. Latin America has provided the raw materials that were needed to support the process of industrialization in England and in the United States. For example, the whole Amazon developed an industrial rubber extraction process because rubber was needed to make tires. Then when the industrial rubber process was developed in Asia, the market in South America collapsed.
Today, South America serves the needs and interest of companies. Just as once the United Fruit Company created monoculture farming as a form of extraction in Latin America, now the same pressure for monoculture production is coming from China. We are satisfying the need for export of raw materials and threatening our own resource base. Once again, we are not investing in technology or education. We are serving the needs of others, but we also need to serve the needs of our own people.
Each day our newspaper headlines are evidence of this conflict that is both historical and current. They describe mining of gold, copper and lithium as well as water necessary for agriculture and energy. Due to oil extraction, the whole Peruvian and Bolivian Amazon is being sold in blocks, and the Ecuadorian Amazon is already lost. It is a pity that neighboring countries are making the same mistakes; if you analyze the territory, you see the same pattern in Argentina, Chile, and Brazil.
“Finding new revenue opportunities from manufacturing and industry that do not involve resource extraction is what countries should be focusing on to build healthy, sustainable economies in South America.
One of the reasons that we created SAP is that with design we can contribute to this process and help to achieve this goal. By rethinking our economies and the way we structure our territories, we can reshape and increase our value within the global community in the short and long term. One of the reasons we created SAP is that we believe in design.
Catalyst: You often write about South America as the perfect test model for green infrastructure and sustainable cities, can you explain why?
AMD: South America is developing right now. We can follow the industrial model that China is following, and build infrastructure that only has one function, like large hydro-electric plants. Or, if we are smart, we can take this as an opportunity to develop alternatives. We can develop infrastructure that is low impact in terms of energy and water resources. We could even rethink concepts like highways. For example, do highways in the Amazon have to be made from asphalt? Instead of roads on the ground, we could envision a new approach to surface area. We could imagine, what our highways would look like if we incorporated the use of suspension mechanisms?
It is important to learn from other countries.
“Many minds need to be engaged in rethinking the development of South America, and the new generation needs to be involved in rethinking our future.
The way South America has been defining development is not necessarily sustainable development. Development is not sustainable if it increases poverty and environmental degradation.
Catalyst: Many people do not have an understanding of the impact of economies of extraction in Latin America. Can you explain what this means?
AMD: The patterns are not the same from country to country. For example, Chile has an economy that is largely developed, and they have been successful in lessening their dependence on the copper industry. Ecuador, where I am from, is less of a success story. My country is highly dependent on the oil from the Amazon basin. The oil industry makes up almost 70% of our GDP, and even still, a large amount of our population lives in poverty and does not have access to education or healthcare. The economic value that Ecuador has received from oil has not been fairly distributed throughout the population. This problem tends to be very common. The same situation is true for Venezuela, a country ten times the size of Ecuador. Both countries are dependent on oil, and in both countries, oil has led to centralized power and centralized control of resources.
We should also look at the case of Brazil, which has a totally different pattern of development. The former Brazilian president, Lula, was able to channel the resources of extraction because Brazil is building a soybean monoculture. For Brazil, rapid growth presents a different set of problems, like an ever-increasing deforestation. However, in Brazil, they have also managed to improve the quality of life for many Brazilian citizens by investing in education and public health care. In addition, Brazil has managed to diversify its economy by increasing its manufacturing industry, unlike other South American countries.
Colombia is a particularly fascinating case. Since the Amazon in Colombia includes the presence of the guerilla force, oil companies would rather not get involved. Ironically, this has saved the Colombian Amazon, and prevented big companies from extracting oil from the Colombian Amazon basin. Colombia is also becoming a cultural leader in South America, and we are really looking to Colombia as a model for urban development. Medellin’s urban and economic development is a good example. I think Colombia, Chile and Brazil are playing important roles in the way we are looking at South America as a whole.
Catalyst: What kind of solution do you see as a way to balance macroeconomic forces, urbanization, social wellness, and the conservation of natural resources?
AMD: If speaking specifically about the Amazon, I have to say I do not believe that pure natural resource conservation is the way to go; conservation alone would not allow us to compete economically. Instead, it would be more strategic for us to focus on managing the Amazon’s resources in a sustainable way. We have to be creative and think “outside–the–box” when it comes to our efforts to make the Amazon more productive. Again we need to ask ourselves – how can we preserve the Amazon as a productive landscape that creates economic gain and preserves the environment?
Additionally, part of Latin America’s current economic landscape, is the high value of soil and lumber. The pay-out for these two resources is so enticing that people do not care about the bigger picture, and deforestation continues to destroy the Amazon. We need to help people find other sources for generating income. This could be achieved through an increase in development from many different types of industries such as medicine and organic food and fruit. The goal here is simple– create economic gain and cultural productivity without destroying our eco-system.
Catalyst: Can you talk about the work that SAP is proposing to do with IIRSA?
AMD: SAP strongly believes that integrating design with economics, politics, cultural and industrial development is the best way for us to achieve a true postcolonial condition for South America. Part of this postcolonial condition depends on our ability to develop regional markets, strong cultural networks within the region, and extensive networks of people, capital, goods, and ultimately knowledge.
Therefore SAP is looking to work within the structure of IIRSA. We aim to work with them and with their proposals. For example, they want transatlantic corridors, and we agree. We need to create the infrastructure for someone from Montevideo to travel within a reasonable amount of time to Quito’s mountainous regions, and then be able to trade effectively. And, it is a goal of SAP to design a plan for this new infrastructure in a strategic and well-designed way that preserves the integrity of the eco-system.
The problem I see with IIRSA right now, and many people have the same fear, is that they are simply creating corridors that open up routes to the Pacific in order to export materials to China, whether they are agricultural materials like soybeans or minerals. They are investing billions of dollars in building larger infrastructures, many times at the cost of greater international debt and environmental destruction. If this is the case, IIRSA will not take Latin America to that postcolonial condition of autonomy and independence. However, if they work with designers like us, together we can create a sustainable and effective network of exchange throughout Latin America and the world. A network that strengthens our bonds and our ties and creates unity is key to Latin America becoming more autonomous and less subservient to the needs of the global market.
Catalyst: Can you tell us more about the IIRSA and why you think it is not well known in Latin America or internationally?
AMD: That is an interesting question; I am not sure how they have managed to stay out of the public’s view. They started in 2000, but it was not until 2007 when I became aware of their existence. It is a massive continental project, and it has major implications in terms of our destiny as a continent. I actually discovered IIRSA through a conversation I was having about architecture and design. I was talking to the former Minister of Environment, a wonderful Ecuadorian woman named Yolanda Kakabadse Navarro in New York. I was telling her that I was very interested in the relationships between infrastructure and landscapes, territory and architecture, and architectural paradigms. She said, “You must be super interested in IIRSA?” My response was, “what is IIRSA?” She then directed me to their webpage, where I easily found all of their information. Thus far, most of this information is provided through informal sources. In regards to IIRSA you barely read about it in newspapers; you barely read about it in formal media. In 2000 the lack of formal information was understandable. It was just a plan, and it did not have a real impact in the territory. Now that the plan is actually being executed, and conflicts, especially social conflicts, are starting to emerge, the lack of media coverage is surprising.
For example, the Brazilian mission of integration and development is finding a lot of resistance in the Andes. This is mainly from indigenous cultures that do not want highways crossing through their territories. In Bolivia, the president, Evo Morales, had to stop one of the highways he had agreed to build as part of the IIRSA portfolio. You must have seen the images in the newspapers of the huge indigenous protests that demanded his resignation In the beginning he said would stop the project for six months, but then he literally had to withdraw the project completely otherwise he was going to have to leave office.
Catalyst: Are there prototypes outside of South America that inform your work?
AMD: Absolutely! There are other countries that have already gone through the stage of development that we are currently in, so they have more experience than we do. The United States for example is in a post-industrial period. And I use this example because I think now that the Amazon is being proposed as a fluvial corridor, we have a lot to learn from the Mississippi. In regards to the Amazon, it would be very healthy to connect with designers, politicians and other professionals in New Orleans area to have a dialogue about the Amazon. The same could be said about the Ganges, and the Nile. These are all important rivers from which we have a lot to learn about fluvial corridors and development.
This type of collaboration is the reason that one of our goals is not only to build a network in South America, but also to extend that network in to the United States, Europe, and hopefully Asia. We also have plans to include Australia and Africa, but that is further down the road. We want to connect with networks everywhere, because we strongly believe that external feedback is an extremely important part of our process. Considering points of view that are external and unfamiliar is one of the most insightful ways to gain perspec¬tive. Better projects and better alternatives can emerge when you are able to engage in dialogues that are transcontinental.
Catalyst: Designers are often left out of the development conversation, can you talk about the danger of this and if you see an opportunity for designers to be a part of the process?
AMD: If you visit Latin American universities, or at least the universities in Ecuador, and you ask students to design an infrastructure, they will usually respond by saying, “that is not architecture.” If you want them to do something with a territorial vision or if you ask them to bring landscape architecture into account, again they will respond with, “Well that is not architecture.” When I hear this same response over and over I think to myself, “What are we doing to architecture?” We are shrinking it to nothing. Then we complain that everyone thinks designers are irrelevant and that our only purpose is to decorate at different scales– an apartment, a house, a city. I think that this is a shame.
With Latin America in this somewhat fragile state of development it is a pity that design is being viewed as irrelevant. I think it is vital for us to bring design back into the conversation, and many people are talking about this. People are disturbed by the ugliness of the landscapes in the Amazon right now. It has been destroyed, and the deterioration is just part of the threat of an unhealthy and unsustainable future. We need to consider aesthetics, but we also need to involve the economy, social factors, and politics. Strategic design needs to be part of the conversation because designers have a lot to contribute.
Designers have neglected the importance of their role. Designers are always talking amongst themselves, therefore, their amazing ideas remain on paper, in a book, or within a discussion that never reaches the outside world. Latin America is an excellent example of this point. This continent keeps building itself through the lens of economy, politics, and engineering, but has yet to consider the benefits that design can provide when combined with any or all of those areas.
This is unfortunate because designers have a different way of approaching a problem, and can contribute a significant amount of value that others are not able to provide. As designers, it is our duty to apply our understanding of economies, cultures, and social agendas through design. That is our task and we shouldn’t abandon it, but instead put it into the service we believe in. For me the big eye opener as an architect happened when I came across a book by Ian McHarg, Design with Nature. This book ignited my interest in landscape architecture, which I had never formally studied.
In his book, McHarq demonstrated that it was possible to influence the political, economic and engineering decisions associated with the building of highways. He had tools for identifying the value that these highways provided in different ways including, historical, environmental, cultural and economic. I thought, “wow.” For those of us living in South America this seems impossible. In the way we are educated in architecture, we are not taught to believe that we can influence decisions at that level, but of course we can. And we can do it with the tools of design. When we fully understand that there is an economy involved, cultures involved and a social agenda involved, we can apply this understanding and use the full value of stra¬tegic design. We have tools like mapping and ethnography, using them is our strength and our duty.
Catalyst: What kind of information do designers need to complete their education?
AMD: I would say do not abandon design, instead apply it to the service you believe in. If you have social concerns, if you have environmental concerns, use the skills you have as a designer to the address your concerns. But do not abandon design. Don’t try to be social scientists or economists, it’s more valuable to learn about each discipline, create multidisciplinary groups, and incorporate this knowledge into the way that you think about design, but do not abandon your duty because we really need designers. We need designers because they have the ability to take this collective vision of our future and communicate it in a way that everyone can understand. We need people who can draw, project, imagine and visualize a better future in a way that everybody can understand. Fields, especially in the social sciences, are very good at identifying and diagnosing problems, but they do not necessarily manage to reach the level of projection and imagination that architecture does. Architects play an incredibly important role in the world, because there is an urgent need for new visions. Architects are always projecting, drafting and figuring out how things are put together, it becomes a part of how we think. Whether it is a space or a highway, or a building, or a territory, we cannot help it.
We need it, we really need it, and that will actually empower designers because through design, we can provide economists, or the president of a country, or the politician or the engineer with what they cannot provide for themselves. The power of design lies in design.
Sustainable urbanization is one of the major challenges in the 21st century. It requires trans-disciplinary research and a design platform that can synthesize architecture and landscape architecture, reorganize the infrastructure of cities, and transform urban planning. It is also calls for collaboration with politicians, financial institutions, local communities, engineers, economists and scientists, etc. to allow designers to participate in decision-making processes and exert a positive impact on places.
STRATEGIES IN ACTION:
Design new processes that rethink economies and redesign territories that can achieve long-term competitive advantage.
Rethink development and progress concepts, addressing poverty and environmental degradation.
Make territories economically viable and environmentally sound.
Create multidisciplinary teams and put design tools and knowledge in the service of what you believe, whether is social concerns or environmental concerns.
Add value and diversify the economy to surpass extraction economies, seeking an autonomous and independent economy.
Create networks to exchange knowledge and estab¬lish bonds within Latin America, taking the region in a new direction beyond global market demands.
Develop regional markets and strong cultural networks in order to overcome a true post-colonialism condition.
About Ana Maria Duran Calisto:
Ana Maria Duran Calisto is an Ecuadorian architect, researcher, educator and writer. She co-funded the design firm Estudio A0 in 2002, with her partner Jaskran (Jazz) Singh Kalirai, in Quito, Ecuador. She currently teaches at the School of Architecture, Design and Arts of Universidad Católica del Ecuador and has been a design studio critic at the GSD (Harvard University) and the GSAPP (Columbia University). In the year 2010, she was endowed a Loeb Fellowship in order to develop an open research network for South America (SAP) with Felipe Correa.