1. University of Virginia
  2. Arts & Sciences

A Demanding Environment: How Nature Became Infrastructure at the Panama Canal


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  • Reception follows in Brooks Hall Commons 

It is hard to imagine water scarcity in a tropical rainforest. But, since the 1970s, Panama Canal administrators have worried that the famous waterway might run dry. In this presentation, I analyze how managing Panamanian water for shipping—long the domain of engineers—became an anthropological and ecological problem for canal administrators. The canal’s locks drain 52 million gallons of fresh water from the surrounding watershed into the oceans with each ship transit. That water is managed by a sprawling engineered system that corresponds with the popular understanding of infrastructure as built of concrete and steel. Over the past 35 years, however, canal administrators have worked to construct a natural infrastructure of watershed forests to ensure a consistent supply of water for the canal. As forested landscapes have been assigned new environmental service functions (water storage and conveyance), campesino farmers have been assigned a new responsibility (forest conservation) at odds with established agricultural practices. As a result, moving ships now entails both technical work and managing relationships with communities who conceptualize and use the same landscapes in different ways. The recognition that global infrastructures like the Panama Canal are embedded in deeply cultural landscapes calls us to critically analyze how infrastructures are designed and managed in ways that have profound implications for the distribution of natural resources.

Event Date: 
Friday, 10 April 2015 - 1:00pm to 3:00pm
Speaker: 
Ashley Carse
Speaker Title: 
NSF Postdoctoral Fellow in Science, Technology, and Society University of Virginia