A.B. Chastain u.a. (Hrsg.): Itineraries of Expertise

Itineraries of Expertise. Science, Technology, and the Environment in Latin America

Chastain, Andrea B.; Lorek, Timothy W.
366 S.
Reviewed for Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists by
Anna Calori, Imre Kertész Kolleg Jena

The questions of what constitutes an expert, and how expertise is formed and shaped through transnational encounters, are recurring ones in studies of global history. This is particularly the case when it comes to the scholarship on the global Cold War, which has seen an expansion in the past decade. Recent studies have sought to study the Cold War as a global phenomenon, shaped by and through the interactions of networks of expertise, knowledge production and diffusion. In order to understand the complexity of the global cold war, scholars have increasingly focused on the protagonists of these interactions, integrating studies on development projects, cultural exchanges, and international encounters with actors’ based narratives. “Itineraries of Expertise” reflects this interest in telling the Cold War history of science, technology and the environment in Latin America through the eyes of experts involved in development projects.

Understanding these as transnational phenomena, carried out through specific networks and institutions that were conducive of cross-fertilization of ideas, this book aims at challenging and subverting established geographies of the Cold War. The authors and editors of this collected volume inscribe the history of the “long Cold War” in Latin America within emerging scholarship on development, modernisation, and sustainability, while foregrounding the agency of local expertise, and countering assumptions that international expertise necessarily came into conflict with local values (p. 13).

Zooming in on local interactions and ground-level experiences, the book provides a refreshing take on the history of technological exchanges and environmental projects in the context of the global Cold War. This focus offers an opportunity to move away from established historiographical narratives that analyse this historical period primarily from the perspective of cultural or diplomatic encounters. Indeed, the essays collected in this volume seek to shift the focus towards non-state institutions and on the negotiations between different spheres of expertise – international, national and local – against the background of Cold War geopolitical divides in the region.

The analyses are connected first, by a multi-scale approach to the study of expertise, looking at the negotiations between “the local” and “the international” dimensions; second, by an understanding of the Cold War as shaping experts’ notions and trajectories; and third, by an aim of nuancing and expanding the historiography of such encounters, by including previously overlooked spaces of interaction and knowledge production. While a commitment to highlighting the agency of actors from the Global South has been emerging in recent years, the volume’s focus on Latin America’s expertise further contributes to questioning narratives of “backwardness” of the Global South still present in general discourse.

The chapters of the book are grouped thematically: Part 1 “Agrarian Antecedents and Rural Development” provides an excursus on rural development projects and cross-border exchanges between North and Central American expertise. Here, among others, Tore Olsson offers an interesting take on the political meaning of hydraulic engineering, with large projects “fostering national pride and independence” (p. 78). Timothy Lorek provides a compelling account of the ways in which travelling experts from North America learned and adopted notions and ideas of agrarian technological processes from their Columbian counterparts (p. 94). The Green Revolution’s technological and scientific innovations in the field of agricultural techniques, agrochemicals, and infrastructure, circulated between North and Central America with a high degree of reciprocity.

This aspect is reflected upon also in part 2, “Cold War Scientific Exchanges” where, among others, Thomas Rath looks at the intertwined histories of four labs in Mexico, Brazil, the US, and the UK to “trace ramifications of green revolution campaigns” as a “US project to start non-communist rural modernisation using intensively farmed, chemically enhances, scientifically bred plants and livestock” (p. 159). Reinaldo Funes-Monzote and Steven Palmer deal with livestock exchanges between Canada and Cuba, providing an unusual insight into the “genetic politics of CW developmentalism” and, more closely, into the bilateral relations between countries on opposite sides of the Cold War (p. 139).

Moving into its third part “Infrastructures of the Built Environment”, the volume is devoted to look at natural and built environments as part of a unicum. Here, authors make an interesting contribution by “demonstrating intersections among expert knowledge, technology and environment that blur culture-nature boundaries and conceptualise infrastructure […] as hybrid social-ecological environments” (p. 314). For example, Mark Healey, studying the Colombia’s Inter-American Housing and Planning Center, demonstrates the importance of looking at state-promoted development projects as spaces of negotiations between rural and urban understandings of modernisation, brought together by local experts – in this case, architects (p. 210). Fernando Purcell takes the space of hydroelectric dams, usually a site of encounter of expertise, to analyse how dams grew out to be an “energetic cold war weapon” (p. 219). He shows that, while indeed engineers and technicians navigated and connected spaces thanks to Cold War exchanges, they also translated and operated with this knowledge mostly at the local level. The chapters of this part allow to observe the Cold War in Latin America from the unusual perspective of its environmental and socio-cultural dimension.

The last part of the volume “Towards new regimes of expertise” reflects on the role of environmental science in creating new expert circles and cultures. Emily Wakild, for example, traces the formation of national parks in the Amazon, and the involvement of different sets of expertise and local knowledges in the movement to commence large preservation projects in the region (p. 275). Javiera Barandiaràn discusses the privatisation of expertise that occurred in Chile during and after the Pinochet years, and illustrates how environmental preservation, and the role of scientists, were constrained by Chile’s embrace of free market principles, an issue that became even more problematic as the end of the Cold War in Latin America brought with it a further shift from public to private funding of expertise (p. 291).

As the editors put it, the collected essays aim to dismantle core-periphery frameworks; redefine technology, nature and expertise; decentre the state; and uncover a diversity of expertise and multiple knowledges (p. 305). Some of these aims are reached in the collection more satisfactorily than others. Its approach and vision of technology, machines, and artifacts as embedded in broader nature-knowledge systems contributes to an encompassing study of the interaction between expertise, nature and technology. What is particularly striking is the volume’s exploration of local knowledge as not just local expertise, but as knowledge applied and related to the local territory understood as including nature, technologies, and artifacts. The volume provides an interesting take on the environment as all-encompassing, built and natural, animal and agricultural (p. 318). Yet, its goal of furthering our understanding of local understandings of modernity remains partly unmet. Indeed, different notions of modernity are only partially spelled out throughout the book, and it remains at times unclear how local, national and international imaginaries interacted in this context.

The volume succeeds in its aim of questioning core-periphery assumptions about the examined trajectories of expertise, and in this adds to the scholarship that has been engaging in similar efforts of dismantling perceived one-directedness of core-periphery knowledge and expertise trajectories. The role of local experts in shaping development projects, their agency in knowledge production, and their dialogue with international developers examined in the chapters contribute to placing Latin America firmly within the different networks of expertise that characterised Cold War exchanges. Indeed, some of the arguments stated in the conclusion as being a major and innovative contribution (such as decentring centre-periphery, highlighting the local agency in international knowledge and expertise) might be known to those familiar with new literature on expertise in the global cold war, but nevertheless this book contributes to the mapping of how this occurred in the context of Latin America.

While the volume aims to de-centre the role of the state in these interactions, by focusing on non-state institutions and actors, it somewhat falls short of fully disembedding such actors from the dynamics, knowledge and technologies that emerged within state and imperial structures (p. 315). In many of the chapters, states remain important and crucial actors; the role of non-state institutions in shaping environmental and technological projects and policies, rarely appears outside or beyond state’s purview.

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