El varadero: when interfluvial paths became objects of technopolitical speculation

Updated: Oct 31, 2018

Detail of a 1905 map near Iquitos. Red lines and text indicates the varaderos between rivers and their walking time.

The fluvial space of Amazonia is articulated by a constellation of streams, creeks and rivers that, in their meandering and irregular flow from the Andes towards the Atlantic, gradually weave into each other and, ultimately, converge and feed into the long course of the Amazon, the king river. In the case of Peru, where many major rivers that nurture the Amazon are born as humble streams flowing through the Andean piedmont, rivers do not necessarily communicate easily with each other. Imagine a young military man stationed in a Peruvian garrison in the Putumayo river in the early 1900s. If he was to travel to Iquitos, in the Amazon river, he would need to pursue a long trip across the course of the Putumayo that would take him well into Brazil, where he would eventually reach the crossing of the Putumayo and the Amazon and could then turn back and navigate upstream through the Amazon into Peru. A similar situation applied (and, in a way, still applies) to thousands of Peruvian bureaucrats, military and traders living in the banks of rivers like Purús, Yurúa or Madre de Dios, rivers whose headwaters might reside in Peruvian territory, but whose courses extend mostly through foreign soil. It is because of these reasons that contemporary loggers and traders, as XIX Century rubber tappers before them, usually find it much easier to live their lives facing Brazil than they do to the rest of Peru.

The awkwardness emerging from these fluvial disconnections can be traced back to the cartographic vagueness that early XIX Century diplomats actualized when negotiated Amazonian national boundaries by pointing their fingers in the uncertain latitudes and longitudes of Amazonia's terrae incognitae. While these discussions might have referred to entire regions and rivers that were unknown to the very people conducting such deliberations, their cartographic cutting of major rivers gestures towards a series of complications that grew as Peruvian Amazonia gradually turned into a privileged site of economic and political speculation among late XIX Century technical and bureaucratic elites. In the context of the crisis that assaulted the country in the aftermath of a disastrous war, emerging positivist schemes of national modernization envisioned Amazonia and its rich rubber trees as means to redeem the Nation, and given its unknown contours and stubborn courses, the fluvial space of Amazonian territories began to be faced with an growing sense of anxiety. For many late XIX Century and early XX Century engineers, politicians and explorers, the natural flow of major Peruvian rivers into Brazil, for instance, gave yet one more advantage to the already almighty South American giant. As rubber tappers in Putumayo, Yurúa or Madre de Dios were seen as likely to avoid paying taxes in Peruvian custom agencies, the interest in finding ways to "overturn" the flow of these rivers grew in the saloons of the Geographic Society, the Promotion Ministry and the School of Engineers in Lima. Forty years before, the Italian naturalist and patriarch of Peruvian geography Antonio Raimondi had captured very graphically what for late XIX Century Peruvian elites became an increasingly dramatic reality: the geo-strategic advantage that rivers, their flows and their  interrupted spaces provided to the giant neighbor to the east. 

"The condition of Peru with respect to that of Brazil seems to me that of a commercial warehouse, of which another has the key and impedes the free entrance to everyone else. What might this warehouse sell if it is forced to solely bargain with that who possesses its key...?"

Varaderos were an increasingly visible object of concern in the discussions pursued by technical and bureaucratic elites in this context. Both in the technical literature of these years and in contemporary Amazonian lore, varaderos are defined as "natural passages" that bond two unconnected river basins through a relatively walkable path in the rainforest (a walking segment that normally can be crossed by also dragging a small ship and cargo.) "Discovered" by rubber tappers in the course of their long jungle journeys, many of these varaderos were not new inventions, but were rather historical routes that have been used and shared by indigenous peoples for centuries. Today, varaderos are definitely out of the scope of the state gaze. Far into the headwaters and absolutely uncharted by official cartography, they serve as distant crossing points where many of the hidden traffics of today can take place: indigenous peoples visiting relatives in nearby regions, young "passers" smuggling bags of cocaine into Brazil, or isolated indigenous peoples hiding from outer populations. In the eve of the XX century, however, the existence of these "passages" began to be increasingly documented by explorers and engineers that visited Amazonia. The potential of varaderos to connect territories fragmented by the fluvial space that articulated Amazonia evoked a variety of plans for building and maintaining roads, railroads and telegraphs in them.  

1905. Excerpt from a report on the varaderos crossing the boundaries of Peru.

"The rubberman's machete claims for itself the honor of discovering and opening these paths, that in their primitive and sylvan harshness, lack the most minimal safeties for those who are not used to the life of the forest. But even that being the case, these paths bring the most useful of services, not being the least of them the opening up of new fields of scientific research, with the best and most accurate knowledge of the national geography"

"How do you cross a boat to the Madre de Dios basin. A section of the varadero Souza Vargas."

Varaderos were associated with the names of famous rubber tappers and became objects of care and speculation for a variety of Amazonian entrepreneurial forces. Famously, the now-infamous rubber tapper Carlos Fermín Fizcarrald "discovered" during the late XIX century what came to be known as the Istmo de Fizcarrald, a crossing by which the fluvial networks of the Madre de Dios and the Amazon became connected, thus allowing for the rubber extracted from the Madre de Dios region to flow into the Iquitos custom agency, in the far Loreto region, and in the port of Mollendo, in the Pacific coast. Similarly, rubber tappers like the Spanish-born entrepreneur Máximo Rodriguez built and maintained road networks that did not only allow for his working brigades to extract hundreds of tons of rubber from various unconnected fluvial courses, but eventually allowed for the circulation of military patrols and state agents in a region with unclear boundaries and a fragile sovereignty. In 1911, Rodriguez elevated a request to the Peruvian state offering to maintain and conserve the road network he had originally built for himself for the benefit of the Nation, asking in exchange for huge land adjudications in the Madre de Dios region. In a different latitude, Jorge Von Hassel, a legendary German-born explorer, engineer and steamship manager in Loreto, proposed the construction and maintenance of a network of water channels, bridges and roads that would connect the Putumayo and the Amazon rivers, asking in exchange for it lands and a fix payment per built road kilometer. In the documentary flow that followed the proposals of both entrepreneurs, bureaucrats, engineers and military representatives in Lima and elsewhere intensely debated about the worth and status of such real and imagined roads, thus bringing to the fore the difficulties of defining the limits of public and private interest, economic activity and territorial control, and fiscal regulation and political sovereignty in the loosely controlled regions of the Peruvian Montaña.

"Transportation of a boat through the Istmo of Fitzcarrald."

Upper Serjali river, the pass of a canoe through a few fallen trees."

In sum, while being originally crossings "discovered" (or, we could rather say, diffusely cultivated) by generations of indigenous peoples, rubber tappers and traders, varaderos gradually emerged, for a brief period of time during the late XIX Century and early XX Century, as objects of state economic calculation and strategic political control in Peruvian Amazonia. As such, over the first decade of the XXth Century a substantial amount of reports and technical maps were produced about them in order to define whether state investments should take place and, if so, under what conditions and forms. In these discussions, it was the figure of Brazil, the threatening neighbor that was unfairly benefited by the fluvial logics that naturally governed the flows of peoples and trade in Amazonia, that which emerged as the main geopolitical threat to be overcome by the Nation. In this endeavor, positivist engineers and bureaucrats envisioned walking roads, railroads and telegraphs as the main infrastructures that would interrupt these fluvial logics and help them produce a self-contained national space for capturing (rubber) rents and securing territorial sovereignty.  

"Yo, como ingeniero y viajero de muchos años, puedo afirmar que el proyecto de unir la región del Putumayo con el Amazonas, por medio de caminos que crucen los istmos o varaderos, no sólo es practicable sino de provechoso resultado para el Perú. 

El Brasil posee las bocas de los ríos, pero, en cambio, el Perú tiene los istmos o varaderos para establecer sus comunicaciones."

"I, as engineer and traveler of many years, can affirm that the project of joining the Putumayo region with that of the Amazon, by means of paths that cross the istmos or varaderos, it is not only practicable but of huge advantage for Peru. 

Brasil possess the mouths of the rivers, but, instead, Peru has the itsmos or varaderos for establishing its communications."

1902. A topographic map detailing the "new route" of the varadero between the basins of Putumayo and the Amazon

Developing amidst a historical period when the Peruvian state dramatically intensified its bureaucratic, political and technical activity in Amazonia, the sudden and ephemeral transformation of humble jungle "crossings" into sites of political and economic speculation is  a manifestation of what I would like to call fluvial anxiety: the irruption of rivers - their capricious courses, unpredictable annual movements and inconvenient geopolitical directions - as flows to be mastered through the technical and bureaucratic pulse of built infrastructures amenable to revert the fluvial interruptions of a national and sovereign space.   

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