04 Apr 2019

Combusting Relations: Petro-provisioning and geopolitical shifts in post-earthquake Nepal

Paper for panel “Material and Territorial Entanglements Across South-South Worlds” at the Annual Meeting of the American Association of Geographers.

Galen Murton


The Himalayan earthquakes of Spring 2015 significantly transformed flows of petroleum and politics across Nepal’s borders with both India and China. In addition to causing nearly 9000 deaths and incalculable losses across public and private spheres, the earthquakes shattered infrastructures, generated massive new humanitarian cash flows, and reconfigured Kathmandu’s relations with Delhi and Beijing. Taking the post-earthquake aftermath in Nepal as a starting point, this paper examines the temporal and spatial dimensions of a fuel blockade along Nepal’s Indian border to argue that the materiality of this moment generated a broader shift in geopolitical relations and territorial orientations between Nepal, India, and China. Complicating what Carse calls an ‘infrastructural event’ (2017), I show how infrastructural processes in fact happen ‘in concert,’ as both singular and interconnected acts that build upon and advance one another in escalating crescendos. Following a series of infrastructural movements, this paper traces a material-territorial trajectory from the 2015 earthquakes, through the Indian fuel blockades and Chinese emergency petrol provisioning, to broader and ongoing geopolitical shifts increasingly related to Chinese investment and infrastructural development in Nepal under new Belt and Road Initiative programming. In so doing, I show how configurations of petroleum, infrastructure, and geopolitics in Nepal provides a valuable case with which to understand the link between broad international processes of South-South development and community level experiences with changing subject positions and social stratification in post-disaster environments.


Material and Territorial Entanglements Across South-South Worlds

The “rise of the rest” – the rapid increase in wealth and political power of countries in the Global South – has garnered a staggering amount of media, policy, and scholarly interest. Much has been written about the shifting axes of global power toward a multi-polar world (Amin 2006), the emergence of Southern countries as providers of development aid (Mawdsley 2017), the growth of South-South trade and investment (Horner 2016), and the role of Southern governments and corporations in land grabbing (Borras et al. 2011). While China has received the lion’s share of attention, especially due to its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the rest of the BRICS group members (Brazil, Russia, India, and South Africa) and a host of other emerging regional powers (e.g. Mexico, Indonesia, Vietnam) are squarely on the radar. The emergence of a powerful South has generated a spirited debate concerning the consequences of such shifting geopolitically and geoeconomically terrain. On the one hand, South-South integration is seen as a form of post-colonial solidarity emerging out of common historical experience and development desires (Gray and Gills 2016). One the other, such engagements have been framed as ‘neo-colonial’, producing new forms of unequal and oppressive power relations between emerging powers and still-marginalized Southern societies (Bond 2013). The current lexicon employed to understand contemporary South-South intersections insufficiently captures the unique political-economic, cultural, and historical forces at play (Bräutigam and Zhang 2013; Lee 2018).

In this session, we seek to move beyond an impasse that either demonizes or valorizes South-South engagements through ethnographic investigations of the complex, nuanced, and variegated geographical transformations actually produced. Instead of debating this emerging phenomenon at the abstract scale of relations between nation-states, we seek an exploration of the grounded, territorial, and material changes underway that underlie the entanglements of Southern territories. Capturing these dynamics can generate new understandings of the ontologies of South-South engagements and foster the theoretical language to discuss them. Thus, we invite papers that address South-South dynamics in both empirically grounded and theoretically sophisticated ways. They may cover a wide range of relevant topics, including but not limited to following:

  • Material and territorial impacts of South-South capital flows
  • Case studies of infrastructure development, changes in the built environment, special economic zones (SEZs) and resource extraction (e.g. mining, hydropower, logging, agro-industrial plantations)
  • Southern oriented or driven commodity chains and global production networks (GPNs)
  • Material dimensions of South-South financial integration
  • Environmental conservation initiatives
  • Transportation integration: ports, railways, roads; China’s Belt and Road Initiative; other types of mega-projects
  • South-South temporary and permanent migration
  • Geographies of transnational labor flows across the South
  • Gendered and/or raced dynamics of South-South integration
  • South-South tourism and related material transformations
  • Actually existing forms of land grabbing
  • The impacts of development cooperation and aid projects

Session organizers

Miles Kenney-Lazar (National University of Singapore) and Kelly Wanjing Chen (University of Wisconsin-Madison)

Highland Asia Research Group
LMU, Social and Cultural Anthropology, Oettingenstr. 67
80538 Munich, Germany
martin.saxer@lmu.de | +49 89 2180 9639

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