January 19, 2018

Panama Canal Forum: From the Conquest of Nature to the Construction of New Ecologies

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Forum Introduction extract by Ashley Carse and Christine Keiner

The year 2014 marked the centennial of the opening of the Panama Canal. Its construction is often narrated as a tale of triumph in which the US government conquered tropical nature using modern science and technology: dominating diseased landscapes, unpredictable rivers, and even physical geography itself. In this Forum, we combine environmental history with the histories of science, technology, and empire to complicate that well-known story. The essays that follow explore the new ecologies that emerged around the canal during its construction and the decades


that followed. We collectively show how the US Canal Zone, the Republic of Panama, and the borderlands that separated them became ecological contact zones and important sites for imagining, understanding, and managing tropical environments transformed through human activity. Rural and urban residents, health officials, natural scientists, and tourists discursively and materially constructed different environments on the isthmus. Their efforts were facilitated and hindered by the US government’s numerous environmental management projects, from flooding artificial lakes and depopulating the Canal …

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