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The lives of machines in postcolonial territories

Alberto Preci, Nicolas Richard et Pierre Gautreau
Cet article est une traduction de :
La vie des machines dans les territoires postcoloniaux [fr]

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1People who watch the remote parts of the world seldom stop at the machines which pepper the landscapes and mark the rhythm of daily activities, so insoluble they seem in the common representations which are conveyed about those spaces and the populations that live there. They remain a blind spot for documentary makers, anthropologists and geographers – an object that is best kept out of scope, an alien intruder thought to contaminate the stage of an original pre-mechanical reality. The first machines to exit this stage are those of the observer, as those of missionaries, armies or NGOs had done previously – their trucks, their 4x4s and their avionnettes. But then the machines that inhabit those realities disappear as well: the shepherd’s motorcycle, the hunter’s snowmobile, the fisherman’s outboard motor, the small miner’s compressor or the old community tractor forsaken in a derelict barn (illustration 1). Overall, eyes have been fixed on the strong bond between these populations and nature, making speedboats, trucks, bulldozers, chainsaws or sewing machines mere props in a ubiquitous mechanical set, but a set that remains unexplained and silent. Isn’t this gaze also that of NGOs, or of administrations which, as far as they are concerned, keep pushing for more mechanization and the arrival of new machines without wondering about the destiny of the machines that already exist or have existed: disused trucks, dismantled boats, broken-down motor pumps? The same bias may be found, yet again, in those ontologies of nature which examine the relation between humans and forests, all the while disregarding the crucial point: that is, to find out whether chainsaws are being used.

Illustration 1 – The shepherd’s motorcycle (Huiñaj Pozo, Argentina)

Illustration 1 – The shepherd’s motorcycle (Huiñaj Pozo, Argentina)

Author: A. Preci, May 2023.

2If machines have so seldom been studied, it is because their exogenous and a priori standardizing nature poses a problem. On the contrary, we make the hypothesis that these materialities are a source of creativity and memory and that they constitute an ideal archive to understand these territories’ contemporary nature across the world. They help to see what would otherwise remain unseen. They allow us to look beyond the traditional dichotomies between nature and nurture, the human and the non-human, the individual and the collective, extractive industries and local populations. Their uses and malfunctions voice technical realities that are less linear and more rugged than one might think when considering the history of techniques. They are, incidentally, interwoven in the very fabric of social, gender and environmental relations, as they are a vehicle for and a way to reorganize the power imbalances and inequalities that make up these territories. However, in spite of their being ubiquitous, machines still aren’t studied much, since they are first and foremost perceived as foreign merchandise or items, the symbols of a destructive, unsettling and corrupting modernity. On the contrary, we propose to focus our analysis on machines as instruments that build and mediate social relations (illustration 2).

Illustration 2 – The Andean truck (Quetena Grande, Chile)

Illustration 2 – The Andean truck (Quetena Grande, Chile)

Author: N. Richard, 2012.

3The contemporary dissemination of motorized vehicles upsets local geographies and changes the relations to space and to others, actively contributing to the current processes of commodification of nature. On the other hand, those vehicles make several aspects of daily life easier. The chainsaw, for instance, makes felling less difficult, while the truck facilitates the transportation of logs, the generator helps light up the night, the tractor makes labor easier and the motorcycle bridges distances. But in return, those vehicles introduce new dependencies and a set of conventions, standards and norms that influence users and their practices. Additionally, the various machines studied in this special issue – whether it be means of transportation (Blondin; Garcés and Moraga; Rojas), agricultural machinery (Mugelé; Ouedraogo; Preci and Flamini) or machine tools (Fabié and Zubizarreta) – function outside of the conventional regulatory, technical and socio-economic frameworks. They raise the issue of new technical cultures and of the local forms of accompanying, repairing and functioning associated with them. As an example, the combine harvester in the Bama plain broke down twice in two years’ use, hindering the harvest (Ouedraogo); breakdowns led to the failure of tractors in Chad, since there were no engine repair shops nor spare parts (Mugélé); and the plane crash in Rapa Nui still haunts local representations of airplanes (Rojas).

4The common hypothesis would state that mechanical strength is gradually replacing animal strength and that mechanization results in a de-animalization of daily activities. Yet in the territories under scrutiny, the machines coexist and interact with an array of animals and actors, both human and non-human, through forms of animal mechanization or of animalization of machines: this raises the question of an ecology of machines in animal worlds and, in return, of an ecology of animals in mechanized worlds (illustration 3). Thus in the Pamir mountains, off-road vehicles haven’t entirely obviated horses as a mode of transportation (Blondin), just as ox-wagons exist alongside tillers in the plains of South America (Fabié and Zubizarreta). Similarly, the mechanical phenomenon adopts asymmetrical configurations in postcolonial territories marked by strong inequalities. Machines indeed bear a political existence on the field (Garcés and Moraga; Mugélé): they embody networks of cronyistic relations (Preci and Flamini); they carry on forms of coloniality inherited from the past or, on the contrary, they set free new classes of people (Ouédraogo; Rojas), by reorganizing the balance of powers at the local scale (Blondin; Fabié and Zubizarreta). As such, machines are also the target of oppositions, attacks or sabotage which highlight how contested their status is. They may also be exhibited and celebrated, both as a source of pride and community memory, or as objects of propaganda and assertion of a power.

Illustration 3 - Machines, humans and animals (Huiñaj Pozo, Argentine)

Illustration 3 - Machines, humans and animals (Huiñaj Pozo, Argentine)

Author : A. Preci, June 2023.

5This special issue gathers contributions which examine the modes of existence of machines in postcolonial territories. Thanks to various approaches, all these contributions strive to place machines back at the heart of the reflection and of field surveys, by approaching them as critical materialities and yet-to-be-explored archives of ongoing spatial, social, political or environmental reconstructions. What do machines do to territories? And conversely, what do those territories do to machines? In order to answer this question, the special issue examines various postcolonial territories: the island of Rapa Nui (also known as Easter Island), the rural areas of Burkina Faso and Chad, the Andean frontier between Bolivia and Chile and the much more leveled one between Brazil and Paraguay, the valleys of Tajikistan or even the forests of the Argentine Chaco. They are all border areas, rural margins or colonial confines whose integration is under way, with a notable presence of populations who have long been marginalized and who have a deeper and more radical relation to machinery, where the ongoing motorization process and the development of new infrastructures shape contemporary issues.

6Ronan Mugelé’s article, “The President's tractors: The Politics of agricultural modernization in Chad”, examines the place of machines in the building of the relations between the State and peasant populations, by analyzing a project of dissemination of tractors in this isolated country. He studies mechanics as a multifaceted resource for various actors, whether it be to pass on foreign powers’ influence strategy or to symbolize the President’s voluntarism. This approach enables the author to question the modalities of South-South cooperation, while demonstrating that the dissemination of tractors in the country’s rural areas actually stems from the State’s wish for visibility more than from a search for productive efficiency in the agricultural sector. The article highlights the political dimension of this agricultural machinery, as the tractors become actual tools of government.

7In keeping with this idea, Alberto Preci and Marco Flamini’s article, “The politics of the tractor among the Wichís of the Argentine Chaco”, tackles the role of these machines in remodeling politics at a local scale, by pointing out how they contribute to outlining new policy scenarios. The introduction of tractors is not without consequences regarding the way these individuals perceive politics. As symbols of impending progress and transformative modernity, tractors are less useful in plowing the land than they are in bolstering the process of social differentiation, in consolidating cronyistic networks, and in modifying the distribution of power within communities. This politicization of machines incidentally allows to question the relevance of community management in the case of these machines, which provide particularly interesting insights into how the different actors build and negotiate their relation to the State.

8Agricultural machinery is also the topic of Laurent Ouedraogo’s article, “A combine Harvester on the Bama Rice Farming Plain (Burkina Faso): Lessons and prospects of a shared agricultural mechanization service”. Since the country was colonized, the history of this plain has been marked by the introduction of agricultural equipment through various development projects supported by public authorities and international cooperation. However, the author goes beyond situating this project in the long history of the mechanization of Burkinabé rural areas, or documenting the process. By analyzing the role of cooperatives in the acceptance and use of a combine harvester, he raises questions about the management and maintenance of this machine, while also showing how the success or failure of a project mainly depends on how the machine adapts to local specificities.

9Alejandro Garcés and Jorge Moraga’s article, Paving a route: Transportation and Aymara politics between Bolivia and Chile, offers an ethnography of the road infrastructure that cuts through the border on the tableland between Chile and Bolivia, based on the trucks, buses and taxis that use them on a daily basis. The main focus is on the roads, the migration flows and the movement of people and of goods, more than on the machines. Though this approach, focusing on infrastructure, the authors show how the covering of a road and the acceleration of flows that it triggers contribute to transforming the landscape and remodeling socio-political relations, especially thanks to the consolidation of cross-border ethnic networks. In this respect, machines work as factors of socio-economic differentiation and promote processes of capital accumulation.

10Infrastructure is also at the heart of Roberto Rojas’ article, “The social impact of the aeroplane (Manutara) on the Island of Rapa Nui”. Through the description of the arrival of the airplane on Easter Island, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, the author emphasizes the multiple impacts brought about by this machine, which is taken both as an object, an experience and a symbol. The airplane, along with the infrastructure it implies and the exchanges with the continent that it makes possible, have played a major part in the transformations of the island since its first air link, thus marking the shift from a maritime era to an aeronautic one. By redesigning the geography of Rapa Nui, the airplane influenced the creation of hotel infrastructures, supermarkets, taxi services, restaurants, and, more generally, the development of a tourism offer that has widely contributed to the reconfiguration of the island space and has played a key role in reshuffling the political, economic and social dynamics on the island.

11The article by Paul Fabié and Joaquín Zubizarreta, “Mechanical dysfunctions in the interstices of infrastructure. Ethnography Mbya Guarani and Paĩ Tavyterã/Kaiowa between Paraguay and Brazil”, shows how the machines and infrastructures of agrobusiness have radically transformed the landscape and impacted the communities’ lifestyle. Those transformations can be seen through the large farms that have replaced the forest, but also in the many toponyms which are evidence of the presence of machines since the colonization. And yet these machines are not only to be found in the fields. They may also be found within the communities, which they infiltrate through development projects. By analyzing this rush to mechanize, the authors highlight the porosity of communities, which are too often pictured as rigid entities, as well as that of extractive enclaves, which largely run over their enclosed area, revealing how complex these territories are.

12Unlike the above contributions which all examine the arrival of machines, Suzy Blondin’s article, “Doing with and without machines in everyday life: post-Soviet trajectories in Tajikistan”, focuses on the impacts of Soviet machines, and more specifically means of transportation, on the lives and mobility of the inhabitants of Gorno-Badakhshan, a region in the Pamir Mountains of Tajikistan. By pointing out how the deterioration of these vehicles in the post-Soviet period has made the inhabitants’ everyday lives more challenging, leading to mass emigration and the establishment of new mobility strategies, this article helps understand the contemporaneity of the valley through the lens of machines. The deterioration and disappearance of means of transportation indeed change perceptions of space and distances, now demanding some level of physical involvement from the inhabitants who express a form of nostalgia for machines.

13Whether they are running or at a standstill, deteriorated or brand new, past or present, machines have long appeared as mere stage props. Yet, were it on an island in the Pacific, in rural Africa or in the Chaco plains, on the borders of South America or in the mountains of Tajikistan, the articles gathered in this special issue show to what extent machines offer a rare vantage point to watch the social, spatial, political and economic dynamics that travel through these spaces. This goes to prove that machines are worth analyzing in order to grasp the trajectories of postcolonial territories.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Illustration 1 – The shepherd’s motorcycle (Huiñaj Pozo, Argentina)
Crédits Author: A. Preci, May 2023.
Fichier image/jpeg, 921k
Titre Illustration 2 – The Andean truck (Quetena Grande, Chile)
Crédits Author: N. Richard, 2012.
Fichier image/jpeg, 465k
Titre Illustration 3 - Machines, humans and animals (Huiñaj Pozo, Argentine)
Crédits Author : A. Preci, June 2023.
Fichier image/jpeg, 1010k
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Alberto Preci, Nicolas Richard et Pierre Gautreau, « The lives of machines in postcolonial territories »EchoGéo [En ligne], 65 | 2023, mis en ligne le 30 mars 2024, consulté le 29 mai 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Alberto Preci

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Nicolas Richard

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Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.

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