Author: Alberto Valz Gris, PhD candidate in Urban and Regional Development, Politecnico di Torino.
It is tempting to interpret the entire lithium-based development between Argentina and Chile through a single infrastructural line. Indeed the continuously paved and highly trafficked artery formed by the Ruta Nacional 52 on the Argentinian side and the Jama-Antofagasta road in Chile plays a territorial a role encompassing many scales.
This 800km-long segment actually forms part of a much discussed and much more extended corredor bioceánicoforeseeing the connection between the Brazilian port of Santos with the Chilean hubs of Antofagasta and Iquique through Paraguay and Argentina, seeking to further facilitate export activities to the Asian continent. From a more restricted regional point of view, the RN52 clearly functions as the main territorial axis sustaining the economic development of the Puna in the Jujuy province[i]—materially leading from the provincial capital to numerous mining operations, an extra-large solar field and a projected free-trade zone—while the Chilean segment literally traverses a myriad of mining operations scattered across an almost unpopulated desert landscape. At a sub-regional level, the provision of smooth infrastructure plays a crucial role in allowing and accelerating the urbanisation of previously rural or outright natural areas[ii].
Lithium-based activities are no exception in this sense, forming a perfectly smooth, progressive and linear confluence of extraction and transformation, logistics and exchange. All of the functioning operations in the area, in fact, seem to pour their output at a certain point of this infrastructural flow: salares, chemical plants, containers, trucks, customs and ports all pertain to this uninterrupted line.
Yet, this seemingly intuitive linear interpretation falls short of rendering the complex socio-spatial assemblage allowing this stretch of economic activity to take place. Rivers coming from hidden glaciers provide necessary freshwater to mining companies. State actors extend high voltage electric lines into previously ‘virgin’ territories. Local inhabitants set up family-run enterprises to sustain the reproductive requirements of the labour force. Air transportation companies rapidly increase their flight frequencies from the capital in order to meet the rising demand of commuters. Toxic spills leave white marks on the asphalt, paving the way for collective action against highly polluting activities.
These brief, on-field reflections suggest how we might better grasp socio-spatial activity while researching infrastructure through theoretically expanding the linear through the assembled, the consequential through the interdependent, commodity chains through production networks (Coe, 2012). How does this shift transform the way we conceptualise ‘the making of the urban’?
Coe, N. M. (2012). Geographies of production II: A global production network A–Z. Progress in Human Geography, 36(3), pp. 389–402.