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Tunnels, corridors and cables – conduits that can become “chokepoints” – places where malfunction, blockage or strategic pressure constrict the flows and connections of human systems. In 2016, CURS Faculty Fellows Townsend Middleton and Gabriela Valdivia convened a group of scholars called the Chokepoints Collective as part of an ongoing National Science Foundation-funded, CURS-supported, collaborative research project examining chokepoints around the world.

Ecuador's Refinería Estatal Esmeraldas flare stacks viewed from a nearby neighborhood. When the winds die down, refinery emissions are sensorially evident. (Photo by Yarita Giler)
Ecuador’s Refinería Estatal Esmeraldas flare stacks viewed from a nearby neighborhood. When the winds die down, refinery emissions are sensorially evident. (Photo by Yarita Giler)

In June 2018, some early returns on the fieldwork done by Middleton, Valdivia, and their partners were published by the scholarly research publication Limn. In an expanded effort beyond the six core researchers included in the NSF grant, 22 Limn contributors explored chokepoints in the myriad ways in which they exist. From Bolivia to Vietnam to Senegal and beyond, 18 essays delve into the geographical and social challenges of chokepoints.

Middleton, associate professor of anthropology, and Valdivia, associate professor of geography at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, each contributed an essay to the Limn issue.

Valdivia examines the story of Ecuadorian oil in “Viscosity: A Minor Theory of Oil Capital Flow.” From the port and refinery city of Esmeraldas, oil is “hidden in plain sight: pressurized underground; commodified by pipelines, tankers and processing facilities; and amalgamated into everyday derivatives.” Through her research, Valdivia asks questions about how this system’s operational chokepoints can become ways to generate wealth through interruptions, leaks and inefficiencies. From OPEC data to personal accounts of residents of Esmeraldas, her research tells a story of politics, money, trade and public health.

A lorry in the Siliguri Corridor of India awaits inspection. (Photo by Townsend Middleton)
A lorry in the Siliguri Corridor of India awaits inspection. (Photo by Townsend Middleton)

In “The Art of In/Detectability,” Middleton patrols the rail stations and highways of the Siliguri Corridor of India with anti-human trafficking workers and customs inspectors. In this 20-mile wide passage, goods and bodies move between India, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, China and onward to Myanmar and Southeast Asia. “Oil pipelines, rail lines, military convoys, humanitarian aid, trucks, smugglers, and scores of people all compete for passage through this congested artery,” explains Middleton. There is a paradox here in that the need for fast circulation battles against the need for security and regulation. With up to 25,000 vehicles congesting this chokepoint’s roads in one hour, this chokepoint offers a study that amplifies “opportunities that might otherwise go unexplored, and make visible dynamics that might otherwise go unseen.”

In the other 16 essays, ranging from the migrant “jungles” at the mouth of the Chunnel to Somali pirate attacks to transcontinental internet cables, Limn’s Chokepoints contributors seek to answer the questions “When and why do these sites of constriction and connection emerge? How and for whom do they work? And what do chokepoints reveal about the past, present and future?”

The Chokepoints Collective has been glad to partner with Limn, an interdisciplinary scholarly magazine that concentrates on contemporary problems of our interconnected world and works to bridge the worlds of scholarship and design. You can visit Limn Ten: Chokepoints, as well as their other issues here.

Scanning for victims of human trafficking. (Photo by Townsend Middleton)
Scanning for victims of human trafficking. (Photo by Townsend Middleton)
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