Who killed the trains of Uyuni?


In 2009 I travelled to Bolivia for the annual human rights film festival in Sucre. Like most other tourists, we were taken to the Uyuni train cemetery. Our guide told us that the rusty, disassembled trains had been at the mercy of nature since the collapse of the mining industry in the 1940s. The header of this website is a picture we took there. When we made our way back to the jeep, a most curious thing happened. A tiny blue and white spot appeared on the horizon. Within seconds, a small train flew by, as if pulled on a string from afar. It moved out of sight as rapidly as it had appeared. All spectators were left spellbound. We had no idea where it came from, or where it headed.

The cemetery is a nice case of innovation. It shows the whole image of technology, people, governing and change. Michael Jacobs wrote a popular novel based on the letters of his grandfather, who was an assistant engineer in the construction of the railroad before the First World War. The letters describes the hardships of the engineers in dealing with the extreme climate, the material and groups of bandits that roamed the area. The construction of such a massive transportation infrastructure cannot be separated from the interests of mining companies. At the same time, heavy support of the Bolivian president, Aniceto Arce, led to the invitation of British engineers. The steel of the rails materialised a vast network of embedded political and commercial interests that stretched from La Paz to the harbours of the Pacific Ocean. Other interests were completely ignored. As a result, the system was frequently sabotaged by Aymara Indians, who experienced the freight train of modernity as a serious intrusion of their lives. This resistance did not stop the engines of “progress”, even though it was delayed.

This story recalls Bruno Latour’s book on the failed Paris subway system Aramis. By this study, he legitimised the academic thriller genre, by posing the question “Who killed Aramis?” Thinking along these lines, we could ask: “Who killed the trains at Uyuni?” Was it purely the decline of mining that called a final stop? Can it be that the material of the rails decayed to such an extent that they failed to collaborate? Or did “nature” cause problems by timely landslides?

But, you may object, this innovation has failed. The trains are gathering rust in a salt dessert. This is undeniable. At the same time, Jacobs argues that there are many things that are durable after the rails connected Bolivia and British engineers. He claims, for instance, that the local drink chufflay is an output of this shared heritage, as well as the introduction of football and freemasonry. The little blue and white train remains a mystery, at least to me.

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