28 May 2024
DocTalks x MoMA
Session 3

Taming the Desert: The Great Man-Made River Project and Libya’s Extractive Colonialities

RCA London

Respondent: Klearjos Eduardo Papanicolaou, ETH Zurich LUS

20 Dinars/LD 20, 2002, map of the Great Man-Made River project and watermark illustrating resistance fighter Omar El Mukhtar. Banknote printer De La Rue, UK. The Lybian Dinar, preceded by the Libyan Pound, the Algerian Franc, the Italian Lira, and the Ottoman Kuruş, was introduced shortly after the Gaddafi 1969 coup.

On 10 September 2023, Storm Daniel brought torrential precipitation to the Balkans, Greece and Turkey to finally reach the Libyan coast of Derna. The accumulated body of water, resulting from a surface runoff of the Derna Valley, exceeded the capacity of the Bu Mansour and Derna Dams. On 11 September, the dams collapsed. To date, estimations count a loss of 20,000 lives or a staggering 20% of Derna’s entire population. Environmental disasters highlight a pressing need not only to restore sustainable resource management given the effects of climate change but also to understand the historiography of extractive infrastructures. Spatiotemporally, this event extends beyond the collapse of the Bu Mansour and Derna Dams. It is the accumulation of past matter, past mismanagement and past injustices extending into the present.
This research argues that the Derna and Bu Mansour Dams need to be understood within the colonial continuity of the Libyan territory and a broader nation-building scheme in the attempt to tame the desert; hence, the Great Man-Made River project (GMMR) as one of the most critical infrastructure ever undertaken by the Libyan government.
The Libyan desert hid the largest fossil water aquifer, the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer System, until its discovery in 1953 during a race for oil in the region. This discovery and the water extractive activities following it must be situated in their spatiotemporality and anthropogenic fabric.
After a protracted colonial period under fascist Italy (1911–1943), followed by British and French military occupation (1943–1951), the United Kingdom of Libya declared independence in 1951. Western oil companies – predominantly American, British and Italian – began strengthening their ties to the monarchy and aiding the establishment of a Libyan elite.
Amid the climate of a new world order of the Cold War and the rise of the Non-Aligned Movement in the early 1960s, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi overthrew the monarchy and undertook massive territorial development based on a long-awaited process of decolonisation in the hope of a flourishing independent Libyan economy.
The GMMR project and its gargantuan attempt to tame the desert rapidly revealed a past returning at a gallop. This was not only an irony of the past but an architecture of extraction transposed onto the location of colonial atrocities, making space for extractive artillery.
After years of planning, the construction of the GMMR started in 1984. The infrastructure often appears spectacularly engineered and utterly detached from Libya’s sociopolitical and environmental fabric, putting the accent on the technocratic capitalist extractive aspects of the project. Tracing the continuity of the colonial imperialist legacy and attempting to decolonise the archives and nationalist narratives is at the core of a new understanding of contemporary extractivism and environmental and cultural despoliation of the desert and the habitat of humans and non-humans alike.


Conservation Nationalism

Yale University

Respondent: Isabelle A. Tan, Princeton University

Elephants demolish homes in villages on the fringes of Kaziranga National Park.
The Atlantic. 2017

In 2015, the World Wildlife Fund declared the One-Horned Rhinoceros “Asia’s biggest success story”; in the conservation of an endangered species. The same year, the Guwahati High Court, in India’s northeastern state of Assam, delivered a judgment to violently evict people, mainly Bengali Muslims, inhabiting the fringes of the Kaziranga National Park—home to the largest one-horned Rhino population and the only Indian Rhinoceros Sanctuary.
Animal conservation is an indispensable environmental concern. However, it has mixed with Hindu Nationalist meanings under the rising ethnonationalism. The Rhino has been inflated as a cultural and political symbol to expand the boundaries of the national park, equip park rangers with guns, and establish a profitable ecotourism economy.
My presentation attends to how ‘wilderness’ and ‘nature’ are constructed as nationalist symbols and how ‘nature’ is contoured for patriotic influence. I argue that these require spatial formulas that map, demarcate, emborder, bulldoze, evict, and delete populations that do not meet the ideologically summoned idea of the nation. Therefore, my presentation, entitled “Conservation Nationalism,” showcases how spatial and environmental practices converge to orchestrate dispossession.
This project unfolds how the law and logic of environmental protection employ spatial knowledge and technologies like GIS mapping and satellite imagery to make legislated denials of rights possible. The presentation will demonstrate how tectonics of pixel resolution of Google Earth satellite images, collection of geo-referenced data, plot or property sizes, and informal construction of dwellings constituted evidence for denial of rights. It interprets how infographic technologies have become increasingly employed in governance and judiciary processes.
Borrowing from spatial and architectural thinking, the presentation will illustrate how technologies of spatial representation are employed as evidence for eviction around the national park to represent ‘on-ground truth. Through “Conservation Nationalism,” the paper locates how ideas of the nation and national identity get domiciled in environmental icons like the Rhino, architectural icons like the bulldozer, and technological determinism in governance practices to organize dispossession.

DocTalks is         Past Talks         Submit        Network