Richard Kernaghan, an Assistant Professor in Anthropology, used his 2015 Rothman Faculty Summer Fellowship to conduct ethnographic fieldwork in Peru’s Upper Huallaga Valley for his second book project, provisionally titled, Semblance in Terrain: On the Legal Topographies of Postwar. In his current research Kernaghan focuses on shifting patterns of rural mobility, transportation technology, and land tenure as a critical lens for assessing how landscapes are materially refigured and affectively transformed in the wake of extended periods of political violence. In this tropical region of central Peru—where the Maoist Shining Path insurgency at one time asserted territorial control over vast stretches of the countryside—Kernaghan draws on oral histories, photographs, video, and storytelling as well as the writing of ethnographic encounters in order to document the day-to-day lives of farmers and rural transportation workers (transportistas). In so doing he examines the broad economy of images through which this postwar terrain acquires temporal density today: in ways that haunt, but sometimes simply disregard the past.
In 1980, the Communist Party of Peru-Shining Path launched a guerilla insurrection in Peru that lasted the better part of two decades (1980-2000). The Upper Huallaga became an important military front of the conflict as distinct armed groups vied for control over the illegal cocaine trade that then dominated the region’s economy. One under-appreciated effect of the violence was how it severely fragmented rural space. In the Huallaga, death threats, spatial prohibitions, and other more concrete obstacles to movement—imposed by insurgents and pro-government forces alike—turned even routine journeys between geographically proximate locales into fraught and precarious trajectories. And yet, in the midst of the unfolding conflict local transportistas—riverboat and barge operators but also truckers, taxi- and bus-drivers—became expert navigators, enabling everyday passage between rural and urban domains. Kernaghan asks what their experiences disclose not only about the history of the war but about the possibilities for ethnographically and visually depicting its aftermath. Kernaghan also asks what role transportation infrastructure, especially rural roads and river crossings, plays in physically altering the landscape (thereby, changing the itineraries that landscape allows) in the present-day times of postwar.
With the assistance of the Rothman Faculty Summer Fellowship, Kernaghan traveled to Peru and carried out ethnographic fieldwork in and around the Huallaga towns of Nuevo Progreso and Aucayacu. During his stay, he documented recent transformations of rural transit practices as well as on-going land tenure conflicts. Kernaghan spent much of his time observing Huallaga River crossings where in the absence of bridges barge and canoe operators manipulate levers, wood blocks, iron rods and wire, to forge temporary material surfaces linking earth and water. While the spontaneity of those surfaces responds to the ever-changing course of the river itself, Kernaghan shows how boats and their implements but also the small bits and threads of matter which river operators deploy to secure passage have the uncanny effect of rendering history visible. They not only bear unspoken traces of a violent past, they draw attention to the transience of an ever-passing present in which the crafting of livelihoods remains fragile for transportistas and for their passengers, both of whom must respond to new and onerous demands.
Rural transit in the Huallaga Valley conveys people to and from farms, which is why transportation unfolds in close proximity to disputes over land use and ownership. Land tenure conflicts are one register in which the region’s former era of political violence permeates the present, entangling the lives and children of those who were dispossessed by the Shining Path, who wittingly and unwittingly profited from former insurgent rule, or else who had no choice but to flee in the face of army counter-insurgency operations. Kernaghan’s research underscores how the transition to postwar can be grasped aesthetically through the subtle but deliberate ways people of the Upper Huallaga mark off territory as they craft their own itineraries. It reveals as well the extent to which the wartime past remains unsettled: through struggles over land but also through rural travel made possible by the seemingly most insignificant of objects. Kernaghan’s work affirms that war does not end by ending. War persists, and its effects resonate across material registers that belie the setting of firm temporal boundaries.
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