Predator Urbanism: On the Birth and Growth of Nueva Loja

Durán Calisto, Ana María. Beyond Petropolis: Designing a Practical Utopia in Nueva Loja. Buenos Aires: Loft Publications, 2010-2011. Michael Sorkin, Matthias Altwicker & Ana María Durán Calisto, eds.

“Quirin, the god of production, or Hermes, who presides exchanges,
can sometimes contain violence in a more efficient manner
than Jupiter or Mars and, to reach their goals,
they may use the same procedures as the latter.”
Michel Serres, The Natural Contract
*Translation from Spanish by the author

Those of you who have watched the movie The Gods Must be Crazy (Jamie Uys, 1980) probably remember the scene in which a glass Coke bottle lands in the middle of the Kalahari desert. The history of Nueva Loja has a similar plot, but what landed was not a Coke bottle, it was a light aircraft from Texaco; and the land was not the Kalahari desert of southern Africa, it was the northwestern edge of the Amazon Rain Forest in South America. And who were the characters? Not the Ju/ʼhoansi of the desert, but the Kichwas and Cofanes of the jungle. What remains common to both stories –however fictional and speculative the first one may be- is that the presence of this foreign element which landed on indigenous territory changed the life of their communities forever. As I write, the Huaorani, the famous headshrinkers who came into contact with the outside world in the 50s and used to be known as Aucas, face a similar plight while the subsoil of their territory and the Yasuní National Park, one of Ecuador´s largest oil reserves and a Biosphere, is being negotiated for carbon credit or other so-called “environmental services” in the international market, in order to “keep the oil in the soil” –as the motto of the ITT (Ishpingo-Tiputini-Tambococha) Initiative succinctly runs. The ultimate goal is to spare this land and these peoples from reproducing the fate of Nueva Loja and its surroundings.

Nueva Loja is an unnatural town, and I mean “unnatural” from the urban, not the environmental point of view. It was not born from an indigenous settlement which grows and prospers (the original inhabitants of the Amazon are, for the most part, nomadic or semi-nomadic -or were). It was never a colonial implant with a gridded bone structure whose adiposity increases as the blocks surrounding the central plaza with its Catholic Church and the headquarters of the city government become infilled, all in accordance with the Laws of Indies that dictated the first and most impressive process of systematic urbanization in the Americas. It didn´t stem from an orderly Mission and develop from its rural, agricultural hacienda pattern. Nor was it the spontaneous outgrowth of the forces of commerce that collide in the main intersections of a bustling vehicle urbanism. It was not a tertiary fluvial port of the rubber boom that became reactivated in Modern times, nor was it ever a company town. The heart of Nueva Loja is an oil well; this town is the bastard child of car cities in the midst of one of the many ecosystems that sustain them. It simply sprang. A point and a line were its cradle, the mechanism of its inception. First came the plane (in the 60s), then the oil prospecting strips, then the dots of the oil wells that were interconnected in a branching structure as they multiplied. These, in turn, were tied through a road to the settlement which started as an oil camp and turned into a boom town; which is in turn linked to the more “natural” settlement along the Aguarico River. As the pioneering arrival of the plane implies, the oil wells brought with them an airport strip, highways, and, eventually, pipelines: the SOTE (Sistema Oleoducto TransEcuatoriano) in 1972 and the increased capacity of the OCP (Oleoducto de Crudos Pesados) in 2003. Both link Nueva Loja to the outskirts of Esmeraldas, a port in the Pacific Ocean, after traversing the Andean Cordillera. One could argue that the secondary town revolved around the water source, the main town around the oil source, and that the extraction infrastructure provided the support for entropic colonization.

Diagrams that illustrate the way in which Nueva Loja grew. Author: Matthias Altwicker

If we try to wedge Nueva Loja into some sort of an urban typology, it does not fit. It provokes a taxonomic impulse; it is wanting of a last name, a genealogy, as its offspring proliferates throughout the Ecuadorian Amazon and beyond: an extraction slum? An entropic settlement? Hernán Orbea Travez, former Dean of the School of Architecture, Design and Arts of Universidad Católica del Ecuador, refers to it as “predator urbanism.” I picked his insightful name as the title of this short essay because it captures the essence of both settlers and settlement. Most citizens of Nueva Loja are there to leave; the town is, or was, a passage into a better, more prosperous life elsewhere. Mines and petroleum engineers (generally male) move to Nueva Loja temporarily from Quito and abroad; oil workers flock from all provinces attracted by the higher wages of the oil companies; prostitutes migrate into the town to profit from the newfound wealth; refugees displaced by violence from Colombia build a temporary shelter in its peripheries, hoping one day to return home; business men arrive into the area in order to open up liquor stores, supermarkets, restaurants and all sorts of entertainment venues; narcotraffickers, paramilitary and guerrilla members cross the border in order to rest and entertain themselves; loggers come and go with their trucks and their chain saws; and the very few who moved to the area in order to settle, develop cash crops and raise cattle (many of them motivated by the 1964 Land Reform and Colonization Law), become displaced as the land is rendered useless. The informal sector of Nueva Loja is also a vibrant commercial force that has attracted settlers who seek in its promise for fortune a better future for their children.

And those who are taking their stakes may be at the right place, for in spite of its problems, or for this very reason, Nueva Loja lies at the center of a plight that will transform environmental laws and transnational commercial relationships forever. A group of 30.000 inhabitants of the Ecuadorian Amazon were fearless enough to stand up against a mighty corporate giant –Texaco/Chevron- and demand that it cleans the mess it left behind. It is this very town –the lost and invisible Nueva Loja- that “will set a precedent, forcing companies operating in developing countries to comply with the same anti-pollution standards as in the industrialized world.” (1) Both the ITT Initiative to “leave the oil in the soil” (2) and the Texaco/Chevron lawsuit constitute an attempt to develop what Michael Serres has termed a “natural contract.” National and transnational negligence, which he terms “objective violence” (the violence caused by raw economic thinking) can have devastating social and environmental consequences that equate to those of an undeclared war. There is no law regulating these encounters. Thanks to Lago Agrio, this may not be the case in the future.

1. See
2. See

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