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Transformative Topographies

Professor of Anthropology Richard Kernaghan Receives an ACLS Fellowship for New Book Project

Richard Kernaghan, assistant professor of anthropology at UF, has received a fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies to pursue his new book project, Semblance in Terrain: On the Legal Topographies of Postwar, in Peru’s Upper Huallaga Valley. Expanding upon the work of his previous book, Coca’s Gone, Kernaghan draws on his more than 20 years of experience in a region historically linked to the Andean cocaine trade. Semblance in Terrain examines how following the military defeat of the Maoist Shining Path insurgency, new relations between physical geography, territory and rural transit emerge, while carrying forth traces of political violence.

A hitch post in the Nuevo Progreso District in Peru. (Credit: Richard Kernaghan)

To simply write about the largely “undocumented” history of the Huallaga Valley does not illuminate its transformation through the milieu of war, development, and daily life. Nor does anthropology benefit from secondary glances at bureaucratic charts or casual histories — which barely exist for the Huallaga Valley, anyway — or histories devoid of spatial and behavioral shifts. To tell a fuller story of the Valley, Kernaghan combines the methods of ethnography, historical inquiry, and photography.

People load wares into a rickshaw in the Nuevo Progreso District in Peru. (Credit: Richard Kernaghan).
The Huallaga River. (Credit: Wikimedia)

Semblance in Terrain describes how attention to rural mobility in the wake of a counter-insurgency war can serve as a critical lens for reading and registering histories of violence. During his ethnographic research for the book, Kernaghan accompanied people who have spent their lives shuttling others around the valley in rafts, canoes, pickup trucks or three-wheeled auto rickshaws. His project description says it most succinctly: “I track transformations of rural routes, spatial prohibitions, and land ownership by analyzing the personal histories and material practices of current and former transportation workers (transportistas).” Despite its war-time military importance, the Huallaga Valley has not figured prominently in scholarly studies of Peru’s internal conflict. Literature on this region tends to be policy-oriented and relatively removed from the everyday experiences of the area’s longtime residents. Kernaghan contends that the voices and accounts of transportistas not only deserve to be heard, but also that without them, territorial transformations of the post-war era cannot be understood.

A transportista in Aucayacu, Peru. Rickshaws are often decorated with pop culture icons or historical figures. (Credit: Richard Kernaghan)
The rickshaws are designed to hold extra loads if necessary. (Credit: Richard Kernaghan)
A rickshaw, adorned with an artist's rendition of Jerry the mouse, awaits travelers from an incoming raft. (Credit: Richard Kernaghan)

As the conflict has waned, new legal conditions have emerged — these have made it easier for to document how the new road construction and the expansion of rural mobilities have altered local topographies in visible yet unappreciated ways. Scenes of transportistas and their vehicles fill a new special digital collection at UF’s Smathers Libraries. Comprising almost 250 photographs and video clips, the collection constitutes an important part of his ethnographic work. In a core practice of visual anthropology, Kernaghan is creating conversation between both the photographic memories and the verbal images transmitted through the accounts of transportistas. “By setting different kinds of images side by side, I show that war does not end by ending,” says Kernaghan in his project description.

Travelers prepare to disembark on a raft down the Huallaga River. (Credit: Richard Kernaghan)

Kernaghan will finish the book, which is about halfway done, over the next year with support from the fellowship. It will be published by Stanford University Press, which also published Coca’s Gone.

Footnote: Written by Rachel Wayne and Richard Kernaghan. Story edited and assembled by Rachel Wayne.