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series of metal structures in the shape of Gustav Klimpt’s “Tree of Life,” painted in bright pastel pinks, blues, and greens and adorned with bright lights, lines the major highways of Nicaragua’s capital, Managua. The trees loom over the city’s swanky shopping malls as well as some of its most impoverished settlements. They have also become lightning rods for the trenchant critiques of opposition newspapers, who rail against the high cost of constructing and maintaining them. On the streets, some say that the design of these metal trees is “satanic.” (If you look at the branches in a certain way, they seem to contain the numbers 6-6-6.)
In print or in casual conversation, many Managuans reject the trees as symbols of a national aspiration to beauty, peace, and harmony — First Lady and current Vice President Rosario Murillo’s stated intention for them. Instead, they view them as spectacularly wasteful ploys to distract from a decade of corruption and kleptocracy. Murillo and her husband Daniel Ortega have, without a doubt, become extraordinarily wealthy and powerful over the course of the past decade. They have steered millions in international aid, mostly from Venezuela, to the bank accounts of of loyal political cronies, and they have made the work of governance into something of an extended family business, with either kin or dyed-in-the-wool Orteguistas now in key positions in most branches of government.
In Managua, the metal Trees of Life are emblematic of the Nicaraguan state and its neo-developmentalist project. Not far away in neighboring Ciudad Sandino, organic trees continually resurface as vital elements of an urban infrastructure. The comparison we draw in this essay is not between the two cities, nor for that matter between infrastructures that are nonliving and living. Those boundaries are rather indistinct. Rather, we explore the distinction between “major” and “minor” infrastructures.
Major infrastructures, as we see them, are those that reproduce the conditions for state and capital by enabling economic planning in the medium and long term. Managua’s roads, for example, have long been a focal point for infrastructural development of this sort. In the 1970s, the Somoza dictatorship paved roadways connecting select locations in the country with adoquines, cement blocks produced by their own family business. Two decades later in the 1990s, the government broke ground on a “fortified network” of highways, designed to bypass poor neighborhoods and to link together the living, playing, and working spaces of the wealthy elite (Rodgers 2012).
Minor infrastructures, by contrast, are not necessarily extensions of capitalist accumulation, and they are often inconsistent with such majoritarian logics (Deleuze and Guattari 1986). Of course, major infrastructures become minor when they are reappropriated for non-designed ends. Because those cement blocks were so easy to pry up and assemble into roadblocks (tranques), for instance, they have also been critical tools for anti-government protest in the capital, from the 1979 popular revolution to this day. But minor infrastructures need not always be so concrete nor so revolutionary. Comprising a fluid relationship between material interchanges, physical exertions, visible arrays, and symbolic arrangements, as AbdouMaliq Simone (2015) argues, infrastructures are the “complex surrounds” that mediate life. In that respect, minor infrastructures do lots of things, beyond reproducing the conditions for capital, including laying the groundwork for diverse and community economies (Gibson-Graham 2006).
Infrastructures are always political, of course, but the difference in the forms of politics that gather around them matters immensely. In 2018, during weeks of mass public opposition to the Ortega-Murillo regime, the metal Trees of Life were set ablaze, spray-painted, and toppled. Dozens had to eventually be scrapped and carted off as waste. In one viral video, a woman is seen planting an actual tree in the spot where a metal one once stood. The act was widely seen as a rebuke to the government’s political priorities.
The saplings that sprout under the remains of rusting, vandalized, half-burned metal trees also signal another tension in the public mind: between the vital endurance of nonhuman life and the forceful decay of human-built forms. The Trees of Life originated as the emblem of Murillo’s comprehensive urban development campaign, “Vivir Limpio, Sano, Bonito, Bien” (Live Clean, Healthy, Beautiful, Well). That campaign explicitly invoked a Latin American concept of buen vivir, or “living well,” which was in turn inspired by indigenous call for finding socioecological harmony and an inherent value in nonhuman nature (see Escobar 2010). The campaign was also a response to a more immediate environmental crisis in Nicaragua’s urban core, which had been devastated by earthquakes, floods, and decades of state neglect. The Trees of Life, then, were designed to function primarily as aesthetic elements of the capital city’s revitalized infrastructure (Fisher 2019). As such, they were forward-looking, anticipating new forms of socio-organic life, new practices of environmental citizenship, and even new pathways for national development. But these metal trees have also provided a window into a secret and shadowy parallel present. Their shining lights and bright, unnatural colors – combined with their strong association with Murillo, sometimes nicknamed la bruja (the witch) – signify the brazen flaunting of the spoils of an occult economy, an illicit, profligate, and immoral exhibition of power at the expense of the Earth itself.
Our research in urban Nicaragua began as an investigation of how Murillo’s Vivir Limpio project intersects with actually existing efforts to meet the challenges of urban life in a time of climate change, increased population density, and chronic poverty. Over the past four years, we have organized a series of ten group workshops with 35 residents of Ciudad Sandino, a low-income Managua suburb. Our participants come from sectors as diverse as local government, the informal recycling economy, NGOs, schools, and urban farms to perform that idea of buen vivir in different guises, from visual art to photography to pop-up drama. Despite a number of divisive factors, like divergent memories of both historical and current events, people in Ciudad Sandino remain adamant that fostering collective political and ecological responsibility is key to building a livable urban future.
In these cohort workshops, waste is one prominent motif. After all, a sizeable number of residents of Ciudad Sandino (and a significant subset of our cohort) make their living by trading in recyclable waste, a form of work that implies the illicit, the undead, and the corrupt (Nading and Fisher 2018) — albeit on the opposite pole from Murillo’s Trees of Life.
The other overarching motif concerns trees of the organic variety. Before it was a city, Ciudad Sandino was a wheat and cotton plantation. A scant few trees dotted the landscape, and to this day, the soil harbors the residues of decades of petrochemically driven cultivation. Most residents of Ciudad Sandino moved there after being displaced by natural disaster (a flood, an earthquake, a civil war, and a hurricane, in that order). They now mark their historical relationship to the place through the trees they have planted.
The practice is far from unique, but it is worth noting that while waste is well-known for circulating through cities in both licit and shadow infrastructures, plants move around a lot, too (Archambault 2016). Trees, in particular, are carted around in plastic bags, gifted, traded, cut, and molded nearly constantly. Distributed in such a way, trees become key elements of a city’s vital infrastructure, not unlike the flexible and provisional intersections between lifeways that Simone (2004) has described in his argument for “people as infrastructure.” Obviously, trees stabilize the soil during the widening extremes of wet and dry seasons. They provide shade for people and homes for birds and insects. But this kind of majoritarian understanding of trees, cast in the limited role of providing ecosystem services, is also misleading. In Ciudad Sandino, trees also provide the community with a sense of rootedness in place.
One of our cohort members, whom we call Don Nicho, lives on the outskirts of Ciudad Sandino in “Los Neem,” so named because it was once the site of a now defunct neem plantation. The neem tree (Azdirachta indica) is not native to Central America, though corporate interests had high hopes for the production of neem oil, an organic pesticide, when they planted tens of thousands of neem saplings in the area a few decades ago. The project proved unprofitable and was eventually abandoned. Since Don Nicho acquired land in Los Neem, he has been cultivating his own small home garden, planting avocado, lime, nancite, mango, sour orange, plantain, banana, and a number of other trees, in addition to intercroppings of flowers, vegetables, and fruits — all of which grow alongside the bequeathed neems.
We could tell stories about any one of these species. A tracing of their historical geographies, medicinal or nutritive itineraries, and their co-minglings with fungi, insects, birds, and mammals would certainly attest that urban infrastructures are very much alive. In such stories, trees are no longer symbolic and material manifestations of scalar hierarchy and linear time — they are simply the most visible elements of what Anna Tsing (Tsing and Elkin 2018) calls a “rhizosphere.” Tsing’s claim is that attention to the workings of the rhizosphere can attune us to the un-natural violence of accumulation, the treatment of nonhuman nature as resource rather than relationship.
When we asked Don Nicho about trees, though, we heard a slightly different kind of story, one that is more resonant with what Julie Archambault (2016, 248) calls an “anthropocentric” rendering of the vitality of trees. Don Nicho told us, for example, about his mango tree. The tree was tall and thin, almost calligraphic, like the man himself, when we first saw it. He planted that tree from a cutting he obtained from another tree that stood in the patio of his brother, Tuco. Tuco lived a few miles away, near the center of town. He seeded his mango, which was rather more gordo (thick), like himself, from a cutting from a tree planted by their father, one of Ciudad Sandino’s founders.
This raises a question: was the mango tree in Los Neem a singular organism, or was it an element of an uncountable mango multiplicity, a living infrastructure? The answer seems to lie somewhere in between. Living trees are not, actually, arborescent in the ways in which they are often depicted. Though they are often marshaled to the cause of the state, or to figurings of “development,” trees exhibit a tendency to non-arborescence, an “arbo-reality” that is tethered less to capital than to community and ecology. The mango assemblage created by Don Nicho, Don Tuco, and their father formed the connective tissue in a kin network — a family tree, as it were. Despite their dominance in anthropological studies of kinship, however, trees in themselves also do not do a great job of performing lineal descent. The mango seemed, instead, to continually reappear as itself, not as a child or grandchild.
Don Nicho included the mango in an ever-changing semi-subsistence garden. The value of the tree might depend on its use or the market price. The fruits have good years and bad years, but if he gets a good crop, he might be able to make a few extra córdobas by selling them. Certainly no way to make a living, though. Whether or not they fruit in abundance, mango trees grow quickly and aggressively, which means that they would provide welcome shade from the sun and protection from flooding and erosion — something that neems are notoriously bad at doing.
Don Nicho’s brother Don Tuco was thinking about shade and rain when he planted his mango tree in his urban houselot. In Tuco’s case, though, the tendency of mangoes to grow quickly presented a challenge. Mango branches get easily tangled up in electrical and phone wires, invade others’ property, and they can be a nuisance when they begin to drop pound after pound of sticky fruit and leaves.
Mangoes are particularly territorial, which is precisely why Nicho and Tuco’s father and his neighbors had chosen to plant them and other species along the old access road to the city back in the 1970s. From the outset, the planting of trees was a way for the residents and community activists of the area to mark the space as theirs. Arrayed in linear formation along the road, the living trees their father planted did something akin to what Murillo’s metal ones have done in Managua: materialize a history of family relationships.
Though the two stands of trees – metal and organic – could certainly be seen in terms of a simple binary of living and nonliving, we think this would be misleading. If we are to understand these cultivated groves as infrastructure, we also have to jettison the temptation to make our cut along in/organic lines. In doing this, we are in some ways echoing the suggestions of a whole list of scholars of waste, debris, and ruination. Whether it’s through rubble (Gordillo 2014) or imperial debris (Stoler 2013) or geontopower (Povinelli 2016), purportedly nonliving, inert human-made things exude force in all sorts of ways.
These theories are helpful, but when we reject the life-nonlife binary, we are mostly responding to the suggestion of our own research participants. For them, there is no question that inorganic things, including waste, matter. Whether it’s the agro-chemical residues that lurk in the soils, or the plastic bags that get hung up in the upper branches of the mango trees, rubble persistently operates on and through people, animals, and plants.
There is also no question, for our participants, that organic trees are necessary infrastructures for a vital city, but we must also take care that we do not turn trees into facilitators of capital, as ecosystem services perspectives often do. As much as the concrete-lined cauces that carry away seasonal rain and debris, trees are much more than a milieu for action. They are historical actants within their “complex surrounds.”
In the case of Ciudad Sandino, trees make time, they don’t just mark it. The decaying metal sculptures of Managua appear to make political time as they materialize the power of the Ortega-Murillo family. They do so, moreover, in a manner that is distinctly arborescent: arching toward a certain apogee (or declining into waste, corruption, and dictatorial rule, as the case may be).
By contrast, the organic trees of Ciudad Sandino – like Don Nicho’s historic mango tree – are not so linear. They are certainly materializations of familial relationships, like their counterparts. They take root, are moved, or cut down. Yet these organic trees have also made Ciudad Sandino what it is for very different reasons. These trees are the unique materialization of generations of human cultivation and care, combined with a distinctly nonhuman propensity to survive. For residents in Ciudad Sandino, these trees are suspended between memory and hope, embodying the past and present. They indicate no single logic or goal. Just as each tree is a version of another, no single one of them is a summation of the now.
If we join our cohort in seeing trees as more-than-human infrastructures of the vital and vibrant city, then we must also acknowledge that their value extends far beyond their traditional role. First, cast as minor infrastructures, trees open up possibilities for an urban development that refuses both idealistic notions of multispecies flourishing and narrowly technocratic visions of sustainability. Second, trees can help to expand our conception of infrastructure itself. If the key question, as Simone (2015) puts it, is “What is it that enables us to be held in place?”, then infrastructure is still more than a fluid and productive relationship between inanimate things and the people who animate them. Ecologizing infrastructures, in this respect, means recognizing nonhumans as actants that work on and through people and things, just as people and things work on and through them. Finally, trees also show us something about the temporal dimensions of infrastructural projects. These are not always fated to disrepair, but can potentially grow and flourish, or sow the seeds of new projects.
The material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 1648667.
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Alex Nading is a sociocultural anthropologist who studies the relationship between health and environmental change, mostly in Central America.
Josh Fisher is a sociocultural anthropologist who studies community development and environmental change, also in Central America.