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Beyond the Big DitchPolitics, Ecology, and Infrastructure at the Panama Canal$
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Ashley Carse

Print publication date: 2014

Print ISBN-13: 9780262028110

Published to MIT Press Scholarship Online: May 2015

DOI: 10.7551/mitpress/9780262028110.001.0001

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Life along the River (Miocene-1903)

Life along the River (Miocene-1903)

5 (p.71) Life along the River (Miocene-1903)
Beyond the Big Ditch

Ashley Carse

The MIT Press

This chapter analyzes the historical construction of the transportationeconomy aroundtheChagres River. Departing from a widespread discourse suggesting thatPanama’s role as a global transportation service provider was inevitable due to its geographic position (or “natural advantages”), the chapter shows howcapitalists, governments, engineers, and laborershave reshaped isthmiansociety and environmentsto facilitate interoceanic movement. The problem with thegeography-as-destinynarrative is not that it assigns physical geography an active role in human affairs, but that it naturalizes engineered systems like the Panama Canal, rendering the constant background work of facilitating transportation invisible and, thus, seemingly inevitable. In fact, centuries oftransportation projects—a Spanish colonial road, a US railroad, a failed French canal—along the Chagres River produced a sedimented transportation landscape in which each route depended upon its precursors and laid the groundwork for subsequent projects.

Keywords:   background work, Chagres River, geographical determinism, labor, landscape, historical geography, natural advantages, Spanish colonialism, transportation economy

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