The Tropical Silk Road
The Future of China in South America
Edited by Paul Amar, Lisa Rofel, Maria Amelia Viteri, Consuelo Fernández-Salvador, and Fernando Brancoli



China Stepping Out, the Amazon Biome, and South American Populism

OUR BOOK The Tropical Silk Road: The Future of China in South America captures the epochal juncture of two of the world’s most transformative processes: China’s “Stepping Out”1 into the Global South and the disintegration of the Amazonian, Cerrado, and Andean biomes. These two mega processes play out against the backdrop of new deployments of authoritarian populist repression and the emergence of voices and forms of resistance. And we illuminate fractious debates within the Left around the costs and benefits of alliances with the People’s Republic (PRC) and its politics of promoting “extractivism”—mining, fossil fuel extraction, and infrastructure (Gómez-Barris 2017). These projects and partnerships may promise revenue for South American states and state-allied groups and a veneer of high-modernist developmentalism. But how does this “extractivist futurism” and statist development agenda impact the environment and groups that desire autonomy from the state or who advocate alternative notions of futurity, participation, and South-South solidarity with Asia? Our volume provides answers to this question through a set of engaging case studies and activist perspectives. In addition, our book interrogates “tropicalist” figures of race, gender, sexuality, and indigeneity that animate these projects and debates.

The intersection of rising Chinese influence and new patterns of social-environmental struggle has been studied in Africa, but almost no studies of this scale exist for South America—certainly none with an inclusive methodology that creates space for intersectional critique and voices of resistance. Our project zeroes in on a critical political juncture, as cracks in the legacy of the left-leaning “Pink Tide” and failures of racist, ecocidal populisms shape new grassroots struggles, global political economies, and geopolitical possibilities. This spectrum of issues requires the mobilization of voices never before published in English: Black community leaders across South America, critical Chinese media and Latin America specialists, Indigenous organizers, feminist activists, environmental movements, and progressive economists. Here, we provide the first grounded, grassroots-based, and comprehensive analysis of a post-US-centered world order, and an accompanying map of the stakes for local communities. And this book aims to serve as a catalyst for reading groups, teaching seminars, and policy-making conversations.


What does a world look like in which China is the primary, if not exclusive, partner in trade, defense, investment and debt, contracting, and social policy? Which social landscapes and ecological geographies are shaped by the structures built and economies fostered by China in South America? Which cultural imaginaries and media representations are articulated? Which communication gaps or expectation lags occur? What forms of negotiation, resistance, and accommodation emerge?

US wealth, military power, cultural impact, and diplomatic influence are far from disappearing in a South America shaped by the Monroe Doctrine. China’s influence in the region has risen enormously, however. In the 1990s, countries across South America resisted US-centered neoliberal hegemony, shifting away from the Washington Consensus and toward the Beijing Consensus. The latter model gave pride of place to state planning and public coordination of developmentalism. During the 2000–2010s—an era dominated by the left-leaning Pink Tide in South America—China moved into position as a primary partner, funder, and contractor of infrastructure projects, mining and extraction industries, agrobusiness expansion, and military-defense relations. China is reshaping the dynamics of the region. In Ecuador, conflicts surrounding Chinese corporations have given rise to large-scale violence, such as the takeover of the Andes Petroleum oilfield in Tarapoa in November 2006. In July 2007, protests against the Chinese firm Petroriental in Orellana led to more than twenty-four deaths and the declaration of a national state of emergency (Ellis 2013). After the 2016–2019 wave of right-wing populism swept the continent, it momentarily seemed that China’s leverage in South America might be lost, as new authoritarian-leaning regimes fanned anti-Chinese sentiment and anti-Asian racism.

However, in 2020, another revolution happened. With the US retreating into radical isolationism and atavistic nationalism, the COVID-19 pandemic triggered the collapse of financial markets and exposed the catastrophic incapacity of the antidevelopmentalist political coalition. China moved into this gap, propping up state and local government infrastructure and healthcare budgets across the region, and reviving partnerships that had been frozen since the end of the Pink Tide era (Zhang 2021; Amar 2020). Municipal and provincial governments in São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Maranhão, Quito, Guayaquil, and elsewhere basked in Chinese attention. The press began describing an “inevitable marriage” between China and South America in an era of declining US hegemony. In April 2020, Chinese president Xi Jiping launched a “New Health Silk Road” agenda of aid and investment that would target South America, extending the Eurasian-African Belt and Road Initiative to the southern half of the Americas, creating a medical-humanitarian agenda for an age of pandemics. And this New Health Silk Road complemented and extended the PRC’s previously announced “digital silk road” project that would include “innovation action plans for e-commerce, digital economy, smart cities and science and technology parks” (Brown 2017).

In recent years, a flurry of editorials, debates, and blog posts have grappled with the implications of this tectonic shift in global hegemony toward China. However, no publication has yet explored in-depth the local realities and socio-ecological implications of these recent shifts. What does this new Tropical Silk Road and this “inevitable” courtship or marriage between China and South America look like for communities and ecologies on the ground? This book aims to answer that question.

In the pages that follow, we provide in-depth case-study analysis. We go beyond armchair theorizing and the satellite-eye view. Our specialists speak from grassroots contexts, offering unique, lucid perspectives and insights. Our contributing authors include economists, anthropologists, political scientists, think-tank directors, and ecologists—but also community organizers, journalists, diplomats, and activists. We bring together a wide range of voices rarely privileged in these conversations: Indigenous leaders, members of Black women’s groups, feminist theorists, and environmental analysts, as well as specialists uniquely qualified in local political economy and in the analysis of transnational mobilization.


To better provide this fine-grained analysis, we have chosen to focus on two countries in South America: Brazil and Ecuador. These represent two ends of a spectrum of relations with China. Brazil is an empire in itself: a huge country with a strong state, massive contracting and agribusiness sectors, and a highly militarized society. Brazil has a long history of aggressive economic, commercial, and religious extension into Africa and, of course, into its own internal indigenous territories. Ecuador is a smaller nation, but strategically positioned at the gateway between the vast Amazonian region, the Andean nations, and the increasingly metropolitan Pacific world. Ecuador’s Port of Manta is one of the closest on the South American mainland to China. It is a strategic point for expediting Chinese–Latin American trans-Pacific trade, through which Brazil and Ecuador will develop a transcontinental corridor connecting the Pacific with Coastal Brazil (Narins 2012). Although the presidencies of Pink Tide leaders Lula da Silva in Brazil and Rafael Correa in Ecuador were distinct, they both launched megaproject partnerships with China celebrated as marking an epochal shift away from US and neoliberal domination.

In Ecuador, the focus of these partnerships has been overwhelmingly extractivist: copper mining, gold mining, oil drilling, hydroelectric dams (producing the energy needed for these extraction projects), and roads and ports to carry these products to China and its global markets. In Brazil, the focus has been on agribusiness, and particularly on soybean harvesting and cattle ranching that has encroached on the Amazon rainforest. Here too has also been investment in oil and gas extraction, dam building, and the construction of ports and free-trade zones to service new commodity exports. Chinese public companies have also invested in Brazil in energy grids, dams, Olympic megaprojects, railroads, and port complexes.

Ecuador and Brazil also share social concerns that arise in response to Chinese investment. Both countries have significant Indigenous populations in the Amazon regions as well as in the big cities. These populations have mobilized in response to the impacts of Chinese-backed projects. Both nations have active Black and racialized populations, particularly in coastal urban and port zones. These have confronted, accommodated to, or resisted the new realities.

In the following pages, we have been insistent on tracing the gender, sexuality, and class dimensions of the new geopolitical and social profile of China in South America. Community responses to China’s mega infrastructure and extraction projects (and accompanying transportation infrastructure expansion) have included concerns about changing gender and sexual relations, unequal access to livelihoods, and the varying racialized and gendered impact of environmental hazards.

The wording of our title, The Tropical Silk Road, is a self-conscious and carefully made choice. In the Middle East and East Asia, distinct forms of power referred to as “Orientalism” have served as matrices of racial/sexual representation that enable forms of colonial and postcolonial governance, population control, economic development, and military incursion. In analogous ways, in South America and the Caribbean, “tropicalism” thrives as a persistent legacy of colonial and imperial representations of race, sex, and desire. Tropicalism in South America was not just a colonial-imperial doctrine. It was embraced by postcolonial nationalists and modernists. “Luso-tropicalism” became a founding doctrine of Brazilian twentieth-century state-driven modernization, and the Andean nationalist focus on mestizaje is narrated through profoundly tropicalist tropes. Mestizaje is a doctrine of race/gender mixing that values the “whitening” of the population as the seed of post-Spanish identity (Moreno Figueroa 2010). Articulated in the case of Ecuador by Benjamín Carrión, the founder of the Casa de la Cultura Ecuatoriana in the 1940s (Rosado 2021; Olson 2012). Carrión wrote passionately about mestizaje as “the national human climate [in Ecuador]” promoted by “political tropicalism, and its highest expression, the passion for freedom.” His book, Letters to Ecuador (1944) “constitutes an interpretation of the themes of tropicalism, Ecuadorianity, and the periods of configuration of the national personality” (Tite Mallitasig 2017). Similarly and even more (in-)famously, the influential founding father of Luso-tropicalism in Brazil, Gilberto Freyre, presented a lecture “Why Tropical China” in 1944 in the United States, which eventually was published in a book entitled New World in the Tropics in 1959, and then reissued more recently in Portuguese in São Paulo in 2011 as China Tropical to coincide with a moment in which the PRC launched a vast array of extractive and infrastructure partnerships with the administration of President Lula in Brazil and when the PRC had surpassed the US to became Brazil’s number one trading partner and investor.

Freyre’s term “Tropical China” suggested explicitly that Brazil, and maybe South America in general, had many “Oriental” sociocultural characteristics: mass rural agricultural populations socially reproduced through supposedly “positive” models of plantation-based race/sex intimacies, and so-called traditional values that could serve as a solid basis for an enriched project of modernization and expansive development and as a “tropical” alternative to Mao’s revolutionary model. Cultural expressions in Brazil were also affected by reflections on different interpretations of “tropical.” The best example was the Movimento Tropicalista, a cultural movement that flourished in the second half of the 1960s. Also identified as Tropicália, it embraced a wide range of cultural genres, including film, theater, and poetry, in addition to music transposing proposals made in the 1920s and 1930s by artists associated with the Anthropophagic Movement (among them, Mario de Andrade and Tarsila do Amaral) that proposed that Brazil should “cannibalize,” digest and regurgitate, cultural expressions exported by dominant Western cultural powers and combine them with local ideas.

Our book turns this tropicalist analytic inside out, offering critical insights into the legacies of “tropical” doctrines and uniquely exploring how China has figured in these imaginaries. Our studies also exist in a world of “tropically” identified struggles around tropical ecosystems and populations, tropical medicine in a time of pandemic, and social movements such as the Tropical Forest Alliance. In the twenty-first century, a “modern Silk Road”2 slicing through “tropical forests” has become an evocative image of futurity for enraged activists and developmentalist champions alike. In the context of these emergent and imagined futures, we launch our debates, analyses, and engagements.


Numerous books have tracked China’s increased presence in the Global South, beginning around the turn of the twenty-first century in the era of “new developmentalism.” These have focused on the Beijing Consensus of the 1990s, the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) alliance of the 2000s, and the Belt and Road Initiative of the 2010s. The majority of these books take a bird’s-eye view of geopolitical trends, mapping large-scale shifts or recounting the diplomatic maneuvers of statesmen and negotiators. Much less work has been done on grounded analyses based on fieldwork, ethnography, and social scientific methodologies. The books that have so far been published have largely focused on environmental impacts or social conflicts around Chinese investments in the African continent. Latin America—and South America, in particular—has received far less scholarly attention. That lacuna has begun to be filled by a series of recent publications.

Among these publications are David Dollar, China’s Investment in Latin America (2017); Margaret Myers and Carol Wise, eds., The Political Economy of China–Latin American Relations In the New Millennium: Brave New World (2017); Julia Strauss and Ariel C. Armony, eds., From the Great Wall to the New World: China and Latin America in the 21st Century (2013); Gastón Fornez and Alvaro Mendez, The China–Latin America Axis: Emerging Markets and Their Role in an Increasingly Globalised World (2018); R. Evan Ellis, China-Latin America Military Engagement: Good Will, Good Business, and Strategic Position (2011); Kevin Gallagher, The China Triangle: Latin America’s China Boom and the Fate of the Washington Consensus (2016); Alex Fernández Jilberto and Barbara Hogenboom, eds., Latin America Facing China: South-South Relations beyond the Washington Consensus (2010); R. Evan Ellis, China on the Ground in Latin America: Challenges for the Chinese and Impacts on the Region (2014); Rebecca Ray et al., eds., China and Sustainable Development in Latin America: The Social and Environmental Dimension (2017); and Karolien van Teijlingen et al., eds., La Amazonía Minada. Minería a Gran Escala y Conflictos en el Sur del Ecuador. (2017). With the exception of the last two titles, however, this body of work largely adopts the lens of US-based business investors, looking from afar and strategizing about long-term prospects.

New models of public-facing scholarship weave together themes of antiextractivism, indigeneity, feminist and queer mobilizations, and environmental justice. These intersectional models have inspired this collective. Macarena Gómez-Barris’s (2017) pioneering book The Extractive Zone: Social Ecologies and Decolonial Perspectives “works across spaces that might not otherwise be organized together in one study, delinking from the naturalization of national histories and from the heteronormativity of the nation state” (2), and “attends to the regions of extractive capitalism by foregrounding submerged perspectives” (1). Thea Riofrancos (2020) has also inspired our collaboration with Resource Radicals: From Petro-Nationalism to Post-Extractivism in Ecuador. In this timely book, she “explores the conditions and consequences of the radical politicization of resource extraction. . . . [her approach] expands the study of resource politics well beyond the halls of the petro-state. In Ecuador, grassroots activists were key protagonists in the contentious politics of oil and mining. In dynamic conflict with state and corporate elites, popular mobilization shaped the political and economic consequences of resource extraction” (3). Finally, Manuela Lavinas Picq (2018) has taken a lead role with her book Vernacular Sovereignties: Indigenous Women Challenging World Politics, highlighting case studies and new analyses that prove that “from their positions of marginality, Indigenous women actively challenge state sovereignty and are more enmeshed in international relation than many would imagine” (4). We also draw upon the rich conversations and field-shaping interventions in the special issue of Feminist Studies edited by Lisa Rofel and Megan Sweeney (2021), entitled “Global Intimacies: China and/in the Global South.”

We believe that public actors, classrooms, and reading audiences may eagerly appreciate perspectives that conceptualize change in new ways and convey stories that capture new relations of power, desire, wealth, and violence in this time of change. In this context, the three principal contributions that our community of “Global Asia” scholars and their intersectional perspectives offer are (1) mapping the lived experience of geopolitical change and launching a new set of global and transregional conversations, (2) centering a new generation of young activists and publicly engaged scholars in dialogue with leaders in academic fields, and (3) highlighting methodological and epistemological innovations from perspectives situated in the Global South and in sites of radical-alternative grassroots knowledge production.


In April 2020, Brazil’s vice-president Hamilton Mourão (an army general) proclaimed that Brazil and China will be united in an “inevitable marriage.” Brazil seduces with its large-scale supplies of food and fuel. And China is a superpower longing for both. For Mourão, this relationship needed to be guided by “pragmatism, not dogma,” as Asia becomes the strategic and economic hub of the world. Anticipating new kinds of geo-economic “marriages” in this changing global order, Latin American newspapers and diplomats described China as “courting” (cortejo) or “flirting” (flerte, coqueteo) with countries across the region.

These courtship metaphors are not coincidental but reflect a historic shift in sexualized subjects and metaphors of intimacy. This shift marks a set of transformations in relations between China and South America, as the two regions move away from revolutionary Third Worldism and toward bilateralism and possibly new relations of dependency. “Brotherhood” among Global South countries was the favored term used to describe a twentieth-century age that stretched from the Bandung Conference of 1955 through the 2010s Pink Tide era. At the Bandung Conference, Chinese foreign minister Zhou Enlai spoke charismatically of global cooperation through brotherhood and peaceful coexistence. The term brotherhood resonated with the masculinism of the alliance between male nationalist heads of state, leaders who had led coups or revolutions that ejected colonial rulers. The gender and class exclusivity of the “brotherhood” brand of mid-twentieth-century Bandung-era Third World Solidarity has been noted by feminist and queer scholars of the Global South. Postcolonialists, including Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, have argued that ideologies of “brotherhood” evoke a false sense of fraternal equality among Global South countries that, in fact, are characterized by extreme inequality in terms of size, wealth, and influence (Allman 2013). Within Global South countries, “brotherhood” legitimizes masculinist gender/sexual normativity and nationalist tendencies, leaving domestic patriarchy, class systems, and gender binaries unchallenged. This language of brotherhood (fraternidad in Spanish and fraternidade in Portuguese) continued through the Pink Tide era and the founding of the BRICs forums (Wanming 2019).

By 2020, however, China–South American relations had crossed a threshold. A notable shift had occurred in the gendered and social imagining of the relationship between China and its Global South partners. The previously mentioned metaphors of intimacy “courtship,” “flirting,” and “inevitable marriage” emerged in Latin America (López 2020) while the Chinese term zou xiang shijie, meaning “stepping out toward the world,” erased the era of socialist internationalism and previous eras of transregional engagement (Rofel 2019). As a synonym for “going global,” the phrase has been criticized because it implies that China was closed in on itself before. Since at least the sixteenth century, China has had economic, political, and ideological entanglements with other countries in Asia, then with European colonial powers, and, finally, with the nonaligned and socialist worlds. Nevertheless, “stepping out,” in English, does resonate in certain registers that interest us. It is defined as engaging in a more active social life, wearing new clothes and meeting new people, increasing one’s pace and scale of socializing. The term also means to begin to sexually experiment in an open marriage (Urban Dictionary 2020).

We think it is revealing that in an era of high-stakes bilateralism and renewed dependency, metaphors of courtship and marriage are supplanting those of brotherhood. “Brotherhood,” of course is also a sexualized metaphor, infused with homosocial desire and a yearning for manliness and aspirations for heteronormative validation. Perhaps the fact that “handshake politics” between strongmen leaders is described in social media and even sometimes in the conventional media as “bromances” or “courtship” or “marriage” indicates that the homosocial subtexts or the critiques of Third World brotherhood articulated by feminists and queer analysts are shaping public consciousness. This could be true. But this shift in metaphors from brotherhood to marriage implies a recognition of the binary, coupling, and unequal division of labor and affect in these emerging relationships. “Brotherhood,” for all its limitations as a concept, signifies mutuality and group solidarity. Marriage, as it is conventionally understood, signifies privacy and exclusivity. It is a bond sealed between two and only two contracting individuals. Conventionally (even in homosexual marriages), it implies a hierarchical division of productive and reproductive labor, which becomes extractive and ritualized in the context of normativity. Marriage signals a “sexual contract” of possession over desire and property. The imaginary of courtship and marriage is quite distinct, with its interpellation of a newly desiring China (as Lisa Rofel has described) and fresh logics of attraction (Rofel 2007). With gendered and sexualized metaphors that treat communities as singular actors, it is no wonder that the actual relations between China and Latin America are complex and require careful analysis.

This book addresses what the new imaginary of courtship and marriage between China and South America reveals in terms of romanticized gender, race, and sexual relationships; new structures of desire and mastery; as well as progressive yearnings for mutuality and conviviality. China’s presence in Ecuador is strategic because of Chinese regional ambitions. As Ecuadorian economics professor Milton Reyes Herrera discusses in this book, however, China’s relationship with each country in Latin America has unique features, depending on the internal political discourse of each state-society. It should be noted that Ecuador and the surrounding nations do not represent priority areas in terms of China’s strategic national defense profile (Shi 2010). Neither Ecuador nor Brazil is located within the first of China’s concentric “rings” of diplomatic and security interests (Yuan 2013; Clarke 2016; Nathan and Scobell 2012; Nathan 2015; Brown 2017). South America falls within the third and/or fourth rings, concerned with international trade, economic relations and the strengthening of state sovereignty through participation in post–World War II international institutions, for which China has developed mechanisms for regional and bilateral dialogues.

The specificity of the gendered and sexualized imaginaries that animate geopolitical dynamics between China and Ecuador is addressed by our research activists from Cuenca, Ecuador: Pedro Gutiérrez Guevara, Sofía Carpio, and Mayra Flores. In their examination of new kinds of development and its attendant masculinities, they shed light on the political rationality materializing in the form of phallic infrastructure projects that exacerbate gendered and racialized inequities faced by local populations. These authors discuss how the provision of infrastructure is intimately related to a masculinist rationality that idealizes and concretizes geopolitical “marriages” and modernist visions. In Latin America, this understanding is embedded in the colonial (Quijano 2000) dimension of development. While political imaginaries that romanticize mega infrastructure projects abound in the world, the projects themselves are linked to historic heteronormative state formations (Viteri and Picq 2016), where epistemological framings of South-South cooperation are embedded in gendered imaginings (Fernández-Salvador and Viteri this volume).

Zhou Zhiwei describes in this volume how the metaphor of marriage, discussed above, perfectly captures the moment: “This kind of metaphor is very appropriate. It very vividly summarizes the basis, motivation, and expectations of cooperation between China and Brazil. Without a solid ‘affection’ as basis, how can there be a natural marriage? Without passionate motivation toward each other, how can there be a long-lasting marriage? Without a good expectation of future life, how can there be a stronger marriage? The words ‘inevitable’ emphasized by Vice President Mourão precisely reflect the reality that China and Brazil are ‘indivisible’” 75). Chinese social media and development scholar Li Zhang analyzes the rise of a heroic and desiring “wolf warrior” culture in the wake of the blockbuster success of the Chinese film Wolf Warrior II. As analyzed elsewhere by Petrus Liu and Lisa Rofel (2018), the film depicts a handsome Chinese ex-soldier speeding through Africa to rescue local and Chinese victims of mercenaries and pandemics, developing passionate pairings along the way. Here, Zhang traces how “China’s new ‘wolf warrior’ culture among diplomats and ‘netizens’ transformed [the COVID pandemic] crisis into an engine of nationalist fervor domestically, and an instrument of diplomacy” abroad (52). Zhang continues, revealing that “the Chinese diaspora in Brazil juggles a transnational identity that places them in the crossfire of cultural struggles . . . narratives about Brazil ultimately reveal how official and unofficial, formal and informal, domestic and diasporic voices reinforce Chinese nationalism” (53). Cinematic investigation reveals the global and individual effects of such a marriage.

Duality, division of labor, and desiring subjects interpellated by the language of “marriage” and “courtship” smooth over significant tensions and contradictions in the new ideologies of China–South American partnership. Does marriage imply that Brazil must loyally stand by China as a spouse, losing flexibility to deal with the US or to challenge the economic dependency that might result from a rigid two-partner system? Will Latin America be forced into a dispute between China and the US, rearticulating perspectives in which Beijing emerges as an ally of the global south or just another imperialist agent. In this context, Ana Saggioro Garcia and Rodrigo Curty Pereira, in this volume, explore if China is installing relations of domination that foster geo-economic dependency practices like those of the last century—while legitimizing them with attitudes and performances of Global South bonding? “The ideas and narratives regarding China-Latin America relations . . . tend to either emphasize South-South cooperation and inclusive and sustainable growth or push for the exploitation of natural and primary resources” (227). Is this romanticized “marriage” just a deal cut between China and the comprador classes in South America, through which China establishes alliances with local elites to guarantee extractive industries?


The benefits of such extractions do not remain static. David Delgado del Hierro illustrates why Ecuador has less leverage and thus fewer options for negotiation, facing a debt with China that has become onerous due to declining petroleum prices (Ecuador’s main source of export income). Rafael Correa agreed to pre-sell petroleum to China “committing . . . 90% of [Ecuador’s] exportable crude . . . until 2024” (Kraul 2018). In December 2018, then president Lenín Moreno visited China to link Ecuador to its “New Silk Road” initiative (La República 2018), with the objective of securing more flexible terms for the repayment of its Chinese debt (Delgado del Hierro, this volume, 390). Meanwhile, other communities, private actors, and municipalities that have been marginalized from the privileged negotiating status of the comprador elites have seized upon the new opportunities offered by “marriage” with China, imagining this as the beginning of a new age of respect and diversification in South-South flows. As Fernando Brancoli and Wander Guerra argue in their chapter that these new discourses specifically disidentify with the forms of domination deployed by the Global North, fostering a belief that “Chinese investment tools would be linked to a reality of respect for sovereignty and local development. . . . [A new] grammar is one of investments focused on the communities . . . a discourse of horizontality and reconstruction” (370–71). This disidentification transforms the PRC in South America into a distinct presence that diverges from paradigms set by US and European superpowers.

South American Indigenous community leaders and youth activists have been articulating their own concepts and agendas for analyzing the PRC’s Stepping Out and the paradigm shifts this entails. Part 2 provides a vital alternative to nation-scale accounts that methodologically privilege national capital, statist actors, or commercial elites. Here, we center the voices of Indigenous communities, Black organizers, laborers and the working class. Alessandra Korap Munduruku, leader of the Mundukuru Indigenous nation, describes here the degree to which China represents a new ontological paradigm for indigenous communities affected by megaprojects: in addition to the risks of material displacement or biological extinction, new investments have set in motion dynamics that desecrate that which is eternal and of the ancestors. In this sense, Munduruku and Luísa Pontes Molina highlight that “the damage caused by megaprojects has reached spaces animated by nonhuman subjectivities” (125). Indigenous community organizers convey their epistemological perspectives and their existential resistance. As they insist, the phenomena we are analyzing here amount to the “putting Indigenous people and their communities at risk not only in terms of their physical integrity but also endangering the world of spirits and the organization of the cosmos” (121). We also include authors who are leaders of Black and mixed “maroon” communities in South America. Maroons constitute autonomous urban-peripheral or rural societies, self-liberated zones where enslaved Black peoples and insurgent Indigenous groups merged to create self-governed polities and economies, free from the state. In Spanish, these communities are called cimarrones or palenques. In Portuguese, maroon societies are called quilombos, drawing the word from the Kimbundo African language. These societies have survived across the continent from the sixteenth century into the modern period. Those that persisted until the 2010s achieved some degree of recognition and protected status from the government of President Lula in Brazil (Moraes 2017) and President Correa in Ecuador (specifically, in that country, for palenques near Esmeraldas, Limones, and Guayaquil) (Defensoria del Pueblo Ecuador 2016).

Indigenous territories and maroon communities have generated historic and increasing levels of mobilization, effecting dramatic large-scale changes. In Ecuador, the first large-scale copper mining project located in the Amazon Region, the Mirador mining project, has motivated both resistance and negotiation among the Shuar leadership and local communities. For many Shuar, a megaproject such as Mirador could offer material improvement and access to a better life and education. These possibilities compelled the Shuar leaders to negotiate. As Jefferson Pullaguari (136), then leader of the Shuar federation in the province of Zamora Chinchipe, writes, “because the state had a history of not treating Indigenous populations fairly, the feeling among the Shuar was that this was an opportune time to demand reasonable compensation for the exploitation of resources in their territories.” However, there was much disenchantment within the Indigenous organization after both the Chinese company and the Ecuadorean government disavowed its role in the negotiation process: “Relations between the Chinese company and the FESZCH-Shuar Federation (which had a new president) became tense, mainly because it no longer recognized the federation as an important player or as representing Shuar communities” (139). Opportunity had, once again, led to further marginalization.

The nationalist developmentalist agenda in which extractive and mega projects financed by China are key has not only worked to delegitimize and neutralize indigenous organizations at all levels, but also criminalized resistance and opposition (Arsel and Avila Angel 2011; Méndez 2012). Indigenous activists Julia Correa, Israel Chumapi, Paúl Ghaitai Males, Jennifer Yajaira Masaquiza, Rina Pakari Marcillo, and David Menacho—all students at the Universidad San Francisco de Quito—have generated an illuminating ethnographic and analytical narrative of the national Indigenous protests that occurred in Ecuador in October 2019. They trace the reasons for this mobilization to the impacts of extractivism: “China’s interest in Ecuador is based primarily on its natural resources, which are located in protected wilderness areas close to rural mestizo and Indigenous populations” (152). The government did not accept opposition from local populations directly affected by these projects. Instead, as Cholango—an Indigenous leader—asserts, the president accused “them of opposing development, technology and progress,” criminalizing, persecuting, and neutralizing organizations and resistance efforts (Cholango 2012). The authors argue that the October 2019 uprisings were a response to Indigenous organizations’ need to regroup after years of conflict, fragmentation, and suffering resulting from persecution for opposing extractivism in Indigenous territories.

The statist, “neodevelopmentalist Left” (in both Brazil and China) tends to describe Chinese-Brazilian joint megaprojects as “anti-imperialist.” They promise to “manage risk” and “mitigate impact” on ecosystems and society. In Ecuador, large-scale extractive projects are directly linked to notions of well-being. This concept, translated from the Kichwa Sumak Kawsay3 and incorporated in the Constitution of 2008, served as a guideline for state policy, justifying the need to generate wealth through oil and mineral extraction (Arsel, Hogenboom, and Pellegrini 2011).

In this volume, Munduruku and Molina make a claim that they link to a counterdevelopmentalist manifesto: “What would the white man say if we built our villages on top of their properties, their sanctuaries and cemeteries? We had this sacred place and when we died, we went there. But as the government is now exploding everything, even things of the spirit, we will end. We will die as spirits too” (122).

Similarly, Shuar leader Jefferson Pullaguari shares his concerns and goals regarding the extractivism of the Mirador Project: “[We must] protect and keep alive ancient customs, defend Li Nunke, our Mother Earth, protect the water, protect life and defend the legacy of the future generations that will want to know these majestic green mountains” (141).

Megaprojects constructing ports, mines, or dams in the Amazon region, or fossil fuel platforms, pipelines, or spaceports in the coastal areas, have been displacing long-standing autonomous communities. As this volume underlines, these processes often threaten to transform quilombos into depopulated industrial enclaves or shipping hubs. Under certain circumstances, however, the same processes can bring “modern maroon” activists from the periphery of the periphery into the nodular centers of global economies, suddenly giving them leverage and influence. Will this corrupt and coopt their historical, epistemological, and eco-social alterity? As analyzed here by quilombo activists Sabrina Felipe and Lucilene Raimunda Costa, “The [infrastructure projects] threaten to remove quilombolas from that municipality . . . Maranhão has been designate as a territory for the extraction and export of commodities, a designation that comes at a high price for the communities that have lived on these lands for centuries” (274).

In this context, the recent investments sponsored by China and Brazil are interpreted by quilombola leaders as deliberately ignoring what these intellectuals call their “nonspacialized societies”—that is, they acknowledge forms of presence or ontologies that are not immediately perceptible as currently living social beings or proximate structures. Felipe and Raimunda Costa insist that megaprojects alter the landscape and the lives of residents at multiple levels and scales. They point out that it is impossible to separate and protect “‘culture’ or mitigate social impact, since in their conception of the world, it is impossible to disassociate the material ‘resources’ from the symbolic marks inscribed in the territories” (272–75).

These massive projects have also increased the presence of foreign workers. In the case of Rio de Janeiro, Chinese men occupying management positions have begun to work in the region. In this context of intensifying “interactions between ‘outsider’ workers and the local community, the vulnerability of women and foreign workers is simultaneously aggravated: the former related to patriarchy and the latter to xenophobia” (Ana Luisa Queiroz, Marina Praça, and Yasmin Bitencourt, 358). The social imaginaries and moral panics (often racialized sex panics) that orbit around the presence of male laborers and businessmen shape conceptions of the gendered violence that accompanies megaprojects. This intersects with increasing mobilization of awareness of anti-Asian violence and Sinophobia, stoked by right-wing populism. Our intervention offers community feminist perspectives on the undeniable gender skewing of the social violence of these investments. Our authors resist victim subjectivities and convey narratives and strategies of women’s organizing in the context of the rise in levels of rape, lack of access to reproductive health, sexual rights, and family planning, and the denial of paternity and public and private support for children born in and around project sites. Their activism highlights the intensified patriarchal nature of these sites and their unequal engendered division of labor, as well as the “sexual social contract” underpinning their social organization. Although China presents itself as different from the Global North, quilombola activists do not see much difference on the ground. “Women and other residents mobilized through the legal system by filing lawsuits claiming financial damages as compensatory measures for the impacts caused by [the steel plant],” say Felipe and Raimunda Costa (358). To avoid perspectives that unilaterally critique Asian businessmen and elites, our chapters also give space for Asian workers, managers, and social media influencers to articulate nuance and forms of agency.

Quilombolas in the state of Maranhão provide an in-depth analysis of how northeastern Brazil has become a “stopover territory,” treated as a shipping corridor between commodity producing regions and China. Local organizers want to interrupt this dynamic, insisting upon sovereignty, participation, and redistribution. From investors’ perspective, the presence of Black communities is an obstacle to regional development. Community researchers offer an alternative notion of participatory development that centers upon racial justice, history, and environmental protection. They work to reimagine development through a nonstatist lens, creating a nontransitory feminist geography and bringing to life new alliances as China and Brazil “flirt” with each other across the region.

New projects have been enabled by the bilateralism being forged between China and individual countries in Latin America. This has fragmented the fragile unity of BRICS as a forum for rising powers from the Global South. As Gustavo Oliveira argues, “that Chinese capital and corporate control becomes refracted through Brazilian public and private actors. This enables Chinese firms to circumvent socioenvironmental resistance, promoting continuities in Chinese investment strategies despite Brazilian politics” (179). Brazilian scholars Alana Camoça and Bruno Hendler continues, “Logisitical corridors for the export of agricultural production through the Tapajós River Basin . . . contribute to irreversible socioenvironmental impacts in the region” (257). These “logistics corridors” are not made without resistance, however, and social struggles have gained important victories.

In 2016 in Brazil, the federal Public Prosecutor’s Office transferred responsibility for environmental licensing of ports on the Tapajós from the state to the federal government, halting further construction because previous projects were licensed individually, without considering the compounded interaction of their impacts as a block. “That triumph for local environmentalists was soon followed by a victory for the Munduruku, whose campaign reversed the environmental license of the Chinese-backed São Luis do Tapajós hydroelectric dam” (Oliveira, this volume, 187).

Local communities and governments in Brazil’s Amazon and northeast have seized upon the opportunities and aid offered by China in a time when the national government has abandoned the region to fire and pandemic, describing it with racist invective and contempt. In this context, China’s courtship gestures, expressed in humanitarian assistance, have been welcomed at the grassroots level. Zhou Zhiwei, director of the Center for Brazilian Studies in the Chinese Academy of the Sciences, describes in this volume that “The PR government has expressed a commitment to global cooperation and sharing Chinese experience in combating pandemics. . . . The government actively deployed medical resources to support Brazil and coordinated online exchanges between experts from the two countries. . . . The sincere and voluntary character of this assistance marks a historic shift in the two countries’ relationships” (77).

In Ecuador, the Yasunidos Guapondélig Collective tells the story of a partnership between these environmental activists and the Río Blanco indigenous community in the highlands of Ecuador, which fought for their right to be consulted before any company could extract minerals in their territory. While there has been resistance to mining activity in this area for almost twenty-four years, the authors argue that two factors prepared the ground for the development of a successful coalition: the shift from a Canadian to a Chinese company, which negatively affected the dynamics with the community, and the ties developed between the collective and the Río Blanco community. After a period of organization, protests, and uprisings that halted the mining project’s activities, “a civil court issued a preliminary injunction finding a violation of the communities’ right to free, prior, and informed consultation, and ordering the suspension of mining activities in the Río Blanco area . . . a ruling which ‘marked the first time an Ecuadorian community has been able to legally suspend the operations of a foreign-operated metal mining project’” (213).


The fragmentation of governance in Brazil is perhaps one of the clearest consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic that swept through South America, beginning in February 2020. With the Brazilian federal government’s refusal to adopt practices to curb the spread of the virus, state governors and even mayors tried to fill the vacuum. This has been particularly relevant when considering Brazil as a country in which the budget and the decision-making process are centralized at the federal level. Even though governors received support from the population at the beginning of the health crisis, recent polls indicate that this support is falling, reflecting a certain exhaustion with isolation measures and concern with increased unemployment.

The fragmentation of political leadership has also changed the way in which Brazil deals with international partners like China, opening possibilities for leveraging among different international actors and lobbies. Traditionally, Brazilian foreign policy has been administered by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, with few windows of opportunity for other Brazilian political groups. Although in recent years there have been some attempts by organized groups and social movements to be included in decision-making processes, most of the relevant activities have been concentrated in the hands of the federal government. The inauguration of Jair Bolsonaro as president in January 2018 resulted in dramatic changes in Brazilian foreign policy, creating space for subnational actors (right-wing lobbies more often than not) to produce different narratives. This had shocking effects in the environmental arena. Brazil was subsequently criticized for not battling the fires that ravaged the Amazon in 2019. Bolsonaro, backed by the newly mobilized agrobusiness, military, and nationalist lobbies, proclaimed that the Amazon “belongs to Brazil” (BBC News 2019) and that he would not tolerate external interference in the region, implying that local indigenous and environmental activists were agents of global enemies betraying Brazil’s national interests. The governors of the states of the northeast and Amazon regions rejected this nationalistic framework, however, moving to push for closer ties with the European Union, fearing that the bloc would create barriers to local products to retaliate for Brazil’s lack of care for the Amazon.

In the context of Bolsonaro’s presidency, the demagogue harshly criticized Beijing, in spite of the fact that China is Brazil’s largest trading partner. Bolsonaro complained that the Chinese want to “buy the whole country” (Senra 2019). A dispute erupted over the implementation of 5G Internet in Brazil. The United States already made public statements that if Brazil accepts Huawei’s offer, it could suffer reprisals from Washington. Anti-Chinese rhetoric, often containing strong anti-Asian overtones, spilled into the debates surrounding COVID-19, with Brazilian federal ministers and the president’s son, Eduardo Bolsonaro, calling it the “Chinese virus” (Jornal Nacional 2020) and repeating conspiracy theories (Chade 2020) regarding Beijing’s supposed hidden agenda during the crisis.

Li Zhang’s chapter details the nationalist uproar that Eduardo Bolsonaro caused in China. The day after his tweet blaming China for COVID, the Chinese Embassy in Brazil tweeted back, in true “wolf warrior” fashion, suggesting the president’s son had become infected with a “mental virus” in the United States, which was now “poisoning” Brazil-China relations (48). These tweets quoted Li Yang, the Chinese Consul for Rio de Janeiro, who also stated that Eduardo Bolsonaro had been “brainwashed” into becoming a US “vassal,” as his “remarks are not unfamiliar, just clearly parroting his [US] friends” (48). Despite some differences in tone, members of the Chinese diaspora and domestic social media narratives in Brazil came together to argue that right-wing, pro-US politicians in Brazil were harmful to positive China-Brazil relations.

Government fragmentation, however, also opened space for state governors and mayors to negotiate directly with China, taking advantage of the fact that the “diplomacy of masks” (donation by the PRC of personal protective equipment and vaccine supplies) was being ignored by the Brazilian government (Amar 2020).4 Beijing was quick to establish agreements with states such as São Paulo and Maranhão, providing hospital supplies and respirators. With the advance of vaccine research, China passed over the formal structures of the Brazilian federal government and established partnerships with state laboratories, promising to distribute vaccines as soon as possible.

This aspect of the prospects for China in Brazil must be taken into account when analyzing Beijing’s influence in Latin America. In the United States, there seems to be a bipartisan consensus regarding the possible threats that China entails for US hegemony. In Brazil, however, political elites are polarized into two camps with regard to the future of alliances with China. The creation of the “Consortium of the Northeast” is interesting in this context, as it brought together state governments from the Brazilian Northeast and Amazon to establish a lobby favoring massive joint projects with China. This consortium has declared it would set up a “Parallel Ministry of Foreign Affairs” (Madeiro 2020), rivaling that of the federal government in Brasília. By mid-2020, then, the age of the BRIC consensus had been irrevocably split in two in Brazil, with wildly different—even opposed—projects being proposed (Benites 2020).

Academically, Brazil’s reflections on China are not well institutionalized. Asian studies and Chinese studies research centers across South America are still scattered and poorly integrated, with the important exception of the Confucius Institutes. As Andrea Piazzaroli Longobardi (91) points out in this volume, China has been analyzed by academics in Brazil largely through epistemologies and methodologies imported from the Global North. Brazilian higher education is still widely based on European scholarly traditions and Eurocentric agendas. For a long time, “China and other Asian countries . . . [were] not even mentioned in History and Social Sciences courses, with Asians being portrayed as a ‘picturesque appendix’ of the world, and not presented as world historical subjects” (91). Piazzaroli’s founding of the unique interdisciplinary journal Leste Vermelho (Red East) and her contributions to this volume assert a more critical, Global South approach to China Studies (and to Asian Studies in general) in Latin America. Leste Vermelho’s critique has highlighted the historical tradition in Brazilian scholarship that sees Asian countries through an Iberian worldview: i.e., through lenses formed by imperial Portugal or Spain. Although there were significant waves of immigration from many Asian countries (principally Japan, Korea, and China) to Brazil, notably in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Brazilian higher education does not engage with Asian perspectives and life-worlds, much less with Asian diasporic or ethnic studies, global Asia studies, or critical East Asian studies.

In Ecuador, the IAEN, a governmental institute, funded a Chinese studies program during the Correa regime. This program is coordinated by Professor Milton Reyes Herrera, who is also a contributor to this volume. The emergence of Chinese studies in Ecuador reflects what international relations scholar David Mosquera Narváez describes as the emergence of a wave of progressive politics throughout the region during the first decade of the 2000s. This coincided with China’s win-win approach. Beginning with a strengthening of politico-diplomatic ties in 2007, Chinese financing and development financial institutions in Ecuador increased. Narváez discusses how the two countries combined China’s Stepping Out policy of international deployment with the interventionist policy of former president Rafael Correa at a time when China was already in the process of increasing its presence in the Latin America and Caribbean region. The Stepping Out geo-economic strategy primarily serves the interests of the Chinese state. The institutions channeling Chinese capital flows are state-owned (Narváez 102). During the administration of former president Rafael Correa (2007–2017), contracts were awarded to various Chinese companies—notably CAMC, Gezhouba, and Sinohydro Corporation—for the construction of large infrastructure projects. Sinohydro was the contractor in charge of building the Coca Codo Sinclair (CCS) hydroelectric project, the “largest construction in national history” (Pallares 2020). It was later found that the construction “used substandard materials . . . [and] did not carry out adequate quality control or technical procedures” (Contraloría General del Estado 2018). The Correa administration also tended to use no-bid contracts and “insider deals” when negotiating investment contracts with Chinese companies, again reflecting how bilateralism has upended the BRICs initiatives. These practices paved the way for nepotism and corruption (Delgado del Hierro, this volume, 388–91). In fact, Correa has been convicted on corruption charges and sentenced to eight years in prison. Correa was among twenty people, including his vice president, Jorge Glas, accused of accepting $8 million in bribes in exchange for public contracts from 2012 and 2016 (León Cabrera 2020).

Anthropologists Maria Amelia Viteri and Consuelo Fernández-Salvador illustrate the multiple ways in which strategic projects such as CCS alter the socioeconomic well-being of local populations. These Ecuadorian scholars analyze the promises of development, beginning with the construction of the CCS dam during the Correa government in 2009, and including the erosion of the Coca River that in turn collapsed the San Rafael waterfall, causing an oil spill in 2020. This polluted the Coca and Napo Rivers (tributaries of the Amazon), creating massive erosion due to the hydroelectric dam’s sediment management strategies (Orozco 2020). According to activists Pedro Gutiérrez Guevara, Sofía Carpio, and Mayra Flores (Part 1, this volume), the dam increased the Coca River’s erosion rate by 42 percent and caused creeping erosion along its margins—an effect known as the “white waters” effect (56).


The research presented in this volume provides a detailed and useful mapping of the disintegration of the Amazon biome, emerging logistics and extraction regimes, and the battles around infrastructure projects that have flared up across South America. Chinese business leaders and diplomats have certainly not been passive in these struggles. As analyzed by Laís Forti Thomaz, Aline Regina Alves Martins, and Diego Trindade d’Ávila Magalhães in this volume, China has shown itself to be a sophisticated actor in dealing with environmental procedures in Brazil. In the case of the largest hydroelectric plant in the country, Belo Monte, where it operates, Beijing mobilized an expressive number of experts, journalists to build its presence normatively and in the media (299). Diana Aguiar builds on this analysis, insisting that China in Brazil must also be understood as an actor in the agricultural sector with regard to the relations the country establishes with local actors through “a complex chain that includes corporate technological packages, computerized machinery, and transnational financial and logistical schemes.” (323)

In Ecuador, Chinese projects such as the CCS and the Mirador open-pit copper have faced strong criticism. Environmental organizations and scientists, economists, political analysts, and journalists have gone beyond local resistance and conflicts, digging deep into the technical problems that might cause or contribute to environmental damage (Casey and Krauss 2018). Critics have also focused on the debt negotiations between China and Ecuador, much of which were designed to facilitate extractive infrastructure projects, since a portion of the debt is to be paid in oil shipments at a fixed, preset price. For the construction of the CCS, Ecuador agreed to a loan of US$1.682 billion, which was increased to US$2.3 billion. An oil debt set at high interest rates was also revealed after Correa left office (see Delgado del Hierro, this volume, 389, and Vásconez, this volume, 292).

Megaprojects such as Mirador and CCS are rarely understandable simply in terms of their infrastructure and technical aspects. They also have huge political and economic implications. As van Teijlingen and Hidalgo Bastidas argue in this volume, the Ecuadorian government’s technocratic dream and the Chinese ambition to become the new strategic ally of Latin America resulted in disaster. The authors refer to a series of disastrous events that took place between February and April 2020 around the CCS project (events that began with the destruction of one of the largest waterfalls in Ecuador and the progressive erosion of the river that fed it). “Both Mirador and the CCS were marked by controversies about the studies and data that undergirded their design. In both cases, alternative claims by communities, civil society, critical engineers, or researchers related to environmental impacts were denied or brushed off as politically motivated nonsense. . We have seen the first indications of where such problematic politics of knowledge lead.” (242)

In this context, environmental consultant and activist Sigrid Vásconez examines the role of scientists who caught the public’s attention during the first months of the COVID-19 lockdown period, drawing news media and social media attention to catastrophic technical flaws in the CCS project. Vásconez writes that “confinement has actually favored the dissemination of news and allowed certain scientific questions about waterfall destruction to enter into the public discourse. Digital media, postings and links in social media, and some mainstream media coverage brought forth into the national arena (Basantes 2020; Pallares 2020) scientific questions that challenge the technical characteristics of the CCS on the national stage, a so far unseen form of criticism” (291). Both Vásconez and contributors van Teijlingen and Hidalgo Bastidas confirm that the government and the company were warned of technical problems that could lead to fatal consequences in both the CCS and Mirador projects. For the latter authors, not only did local communities and environmental organizations raise concerns about possible dangers, but even mining engineers’ “latest critique concerns the mine’s designs, saying are fraught with errors and are incorrectly executed. The question is not if, but when a major catastrophe will take place, they assure us” (234). These authors analyze the ways that environmental knowledge is appropriated by Chinese operators to advance projects despite possible dangers, and how the government made decisions to approve the projects. Questioning notions of “responsible mining” they show that both ECSA, the Chinese company that owns Project Mirador, and the government openly ignored crucial information on environmental impacts of copper extraction: “In the case of Mirador, the risks for water contamination with heavy metals and acid drainage was mentioned in the studies but were eventually assessed as ‘insignificant.’ . . . In a similar vein, the impacts of a possible collapse of the tailings facilities were deemed to be local, only affecting 10 km of the river downstream. In its public relations, ECSA meanwhile simply reiterated its environmental responsibility and minimal water use” (237).

Attention has also been directed to the rights of Indigenous people to defend their territories and to participate in appropriate processes of consultation in relation to extractive projects. In this regard, Emilia Bonilla, an Ecuadorian law student at Universidad San Francisco de Quito, provides an analysis of the contradictions in the 2008 Ecuadorian Constitution, a document that claims to recognize “the right of the population to live in a healthy and ecologically stable environment, which guarantees sustainability and well-being.” In 2007, President Correa convened a Constitutional Assembly to draft a new constitution in conformity with the Citizens’ Revolution platform. This was in line with the principle of Sumak Kawsay (mentioned above), which envisions a country where all people “effectively enjoy their rights and exercise responsibilities within the framework of interculturality, respect for diversity, and harmonious coexistence with nature.”5 The new constitution recognized the environment as having judicially protected rights.6 Likewise, the Constitutional Assembly expanded the rights of Indigenous peoples. The new Article 57 recognizes and guarantees the collective rights of Ecuador’s Indigenous peoples in accordance with international human rights instruments. While the 2008 Ecuadorian Constitution boasts of guaranteeing respect for nature and the autonomy of Indigenous peoples, corruption and opportunism were effectively prioritized over Indigenous rights (Restrepo Echavarría 2017) under the guise of so-called Socialism for the 21st Century (Bonilla, this volume, 246).

As analyzed by Thomaz et al. in this volume, as they examine “the participation of social actors in the decision making process,” (299) China has shown itself to be a sophisticated actor in dealing with environmental procedures in Brazil such as in the case of Chinese involvement in the largest hydroelectric plant in the country, Belo Monte.

It is interesting to note that traditional resistance groups, such as those linked to the democratization of land use or the rights of indigenous peoples, are also acting as deal-makers and breakers around Chinese investment projects in South America. As Saggioro Garcia and Curty Pereira reveal, “One example is the Landless Rural Workers Movement (MST), which worked in partnership with local peasant and Indigenous communities to prevent iron mining and the construction of a pipeline by Sul-Americana Metais (controlled by the Chinese company Honbridge Holding) in Grão Mogol in Brazil” (226). These struggles around Chinese foreign investment transnationalize regional nonstate political mobilizations. In their study of these processes, Thomaz et al. show that Brazilian institutions have been the scene of disputes between local groups and megaproject entrepreneurs. The Brazilian state, in this analysis, becomes the subject of conflicts.

Diana Aguiar’s activist work and research reveal the interconnections of “statism,” or the state coordination of Chinese investment strategies, that channels public goods to the private sector for corporate profit making in Brazil. Statism creates a landscape of territorial control and hyperconnectivity designed by the state and materializing as a geography of hydroelectric power. “The spatial reorganization of capitalism’s metabolism around China implies the redesign or reconfiguration of practices that commodify goods to generate value. It is a phenomenon of global proportions” (Aguiar, 234). It is also a global phenomenon with high costs that are overlooked in the face of the gleaming promises of megaprojects.

Building dams and hydroelectric plants reflects the core dilemmas of Chinese investment in Latin America, obfuscating processes of South-South finance and investment, particularly as these impact the Amazon region. On the one hand, these megaprojects are presented as “clean construction,” since they produce energy without consuming fossil fuels. They also provide hundreds of thousands of jobs (at least temporarily). On the other hand, this narrative of “clean construction” hides the necessary social engineering that must be deployed for these constructions to be realized. This includes the removal of Indigenous and traditional communities and the devastation of landscapes and biomes. The resulting dichotomy highlights the relevance of the environmental and development issues discussed by regional political groups in this volume, which spill over into the grand imaginaries of China’s “stepping out” into a “South-South marriage” that incubates national development.

Anthropologists Fernández-Salvador and Viteri focus on the substantial expectations that great hydroelectric projects create in local populations, framing their analysis in terms of the political imaginaries that romanticize mega-infrastructure projects and the discourses that favor extractive-based development models. “The construction period between 2009 and 2016 saw the impact area thrive, both in terms of people’s affluence and in terms of construction-spurred economic activity. As trucks and heavy equipment became part of the everyday landscape, the construction sites and the magnificent and powerful infrastructure work started to take shape, greatly altering the landscape. Similarly, expectations of economic development, land speculation, and a variety of commercial investments also increased among the local population, who truly believed the project to be a source of hope and opportunity” (309). While the government symbolically asserted its presence in the regulation of such projects and promised development and well-being for the local population, social and economic dynamics were greatly altered during the construction years. The authors document the rise and fall of expectations, as well as of economic activity and human mobility. In this context, they also pose essential questions about the future of marginal Amazonian societies in the wake of the oil spill in the CCS area and the coronavirus pandemic.

Ultimately, the central imperative of appropriating territories feeds the wheel of capital accumulation, devouring space by converting it into future-deferred progress, as Aguiar argues (this volume, 329–30). This process takes the form of subordinating regions marked by other logics. The Tapajós Basin is thus transformed into a “New Soy Road,” an Amazonian mirror of the “New Silk Road.” Along the soy corridor “new agribusiness sees the potential to fulfill its self-proclaimed ‘logistical imperative’: namely, to transport soy more efficiently from central Brazil to its new priority destination, China.” This works by creating “corridors” as a new formation of “global territory.” Aguiar generates the novel concept of “corridor-territory” in order to better describe the unique set of management techniques and logistical flows that compose each link in the supply chain (324–25).

“Global corridor-territories” such as the New Soy Road have been shaped over years of multiscale political disputes and negotiations, generating new cargo-only railways, highways, and container port facilities. These are the infrastructural fruit of agreements and megaprojects launched by previous governments, both Left and Right, which give continuity to the “logistical logics” that confer legitimacy in public debates. Many of these projects have not been completed after several years (or even a decade) of breaking ground. In some cases, they have not even broken ground. This delay in implementation is characteristic of the nature of investments in infrastructure megaprojects due to their size and the long term of return on investment. These aspects have been aggravated, however, by the political crises of recent years. In this context, our researchers demonstrate the subtlety of “speculative projection” that underlies investment announcements. This must be understood with caution, as part of the speculative “imagination-projection” character intrinsic to what is called “the War of the Routes.”

An example of this process is the CCS, the largest project in the new Ecuadoran energy grid. This became an intensely politicized domain in which the Ecuadorian state asserts power to boost its legitimacy. The authors underline the heteronormative and homophobic discourses in Correa’s authoritarian and populist administration, which instrumentalized Ecuador’s strategic sectors and nonrenewable resources as bait to attract the PRC. The sexist analogy offered by President Rafael Correa in a 2014 interview is one among many examples: “Banks, the holders of financial power, are like a slightly vain girl, in the sense that if someone shows too much interest, they start playing ‘hard to get.’ But if he pretends like he’s not interested, maybe the girl is the one that will call the boy. That’s what financial markets are like” (Correa 2014). In interviews with Ecuadorian workers, author Rui Jie Peng shares how she heard many call the CCS “the president’s project.” They remarked upon presidential visits to project sites and some recalled moments when they personally shook hands with President Correa and Vice President Glas (418). As Pedro Gutiérrez Guevara, Sofía Carpio, and Mayra Flores discuss in Part 1, asymmetries of power reside in the symbolically male figures of the president and vice president, as exemplified on a plaque at the entrance of the CCS hydroelectric plant that reads, “To Rafael Correa Delgado,7 Jorge Glas Espinel,8 for being the true forgers and visionaries of this monumental work.”

The analytical narratives and conceptual innovations presented in this volume flow from one text to the next. As our dialogue builds, we highlight the everyday neoextractivism and developmental imaginaries that reshape (and are shaped by) local Black, Indigenous, and worker communities. Our volume’s collaborative, grassroots methodology has demonstrated its relevance even as Amazonian populations’ precarity was exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and Asian communities have been targeted.

By giving space for these voices, analyses, empirical findings, and conceptual innovations, we hope to illuminate the processes by which disparate and asymmetrical agendas collide in the transnational spaces of Brazil and Ecuador. We demonstrate how local and global flows of desire, people, and capital reconfigure inequalities along with gendered and racialized imaginaries and social relations. (Fernández-Salvador and Viteri, this volume, 310). Marginalized communities have been interacting with extractivism, rethinking their position and relationships with regard to it. During this struggle, they are engaging in forms of resistance and/or negotiation. In this book, we present examples of this—such as the Shuar in the Amazon Region and the Río Blanco in the highlands—and the coalitions that local peoples and groups have formed with external allies.9

International relations scholar, feminist, and journalist Manuela Picq (2018) illustrates how Chimborazo Kichwa women’s advocacy led to the adoption of gender clauses in Indigenous rights protections in Ecuador’s 2008 Constitution. These explicitly require “women’s participation in decision-making processes” in the development of all collective rights and the administration of justice and territory. “Deserted by lawyers, dismissed by the national women’s movement, and opposed by Pachakutik legislators, the women of Chimborazo themselves assembled legal strategies and improvised alliances along the way” (128).

As these many authors describe at length, in implementing its international development strategy of Stepping Out, the PRC imposes its geostrategic-economic interests under the cover of the principle that “everyone wins” without considering the unequal power relations that are unfolding. PRC projects and coordinated investment strategies have allowed governments like those of Correa, Moreno, and Bolsonaro to impinge on the human and constitutional rights of Indigenous and peasant communities. Just as nineteenth-century “free trade” advocates saw a “harmony of interests” between the British Empire and global colonial economies (Carr 1964), our studies reveal that PRC leaders and corporate managers cannot imagine themselves as doing anything but good.

As Rui Jie Peng argues in her chapter, in order to encourage Chinese government agencies to act “responsibly,” it is not enough to pressure the China Development Bank and their sponsored projects. More synergistic measures are needed to identify political allies in destination countries and leverage domestic legal and regulatory change that can aid in efforts to achieve equity and protection for workers, communities, and the environment (423).


Race and class nuance are absent in the majority of scholarly accounts of investment in South America, which typically view the region’s political actors as pawns in a geoeconomic chess game. At best, local actors are seen as involved in a struggle between the environment and big business, in which “environmental racism” plays a constitutive role. But even in that frame, such local activists are portrayed as victims rather than as theorists, researchers, and agents on their own terms.

In the lead-up to the Olympic Games in 2016, community leaders of Black women’s groups in the working-class neighborhoods of Rio de Janeiro organized against displacement and pollution caused by the megaprojects implemented by Global South partnerships with Chinese contractors, along with Chinese, Brazilian, European, and other investors. Of particular interest here were the projects of the Ternium Company. Black community leader Ana Luisa Queiroz and participatory community researcher Marina Praça, along with movement organizer Yasmin Bitencourt, argue in this volume that “Chinese performance in Brazil and Latin America is structurally inserted in a capitalist, racist, and patriarchal model. The relationship between Ternium Brasil and China is structural. It involves production in the sector that receives the greatest Chinese investments in Brazil, with the company directing part of its export to Asia” (350). Chinese megaprojects are understood by women—especially Black women—in the Global South as a result of practices based on patriarchal societies, with the distinction of added symbolic elements of Global South solidarity, which mask oppression (Quieroz, et al, this volume, 350). In the impoverished state of Maranhão in Brazil, Governor Flávio Dino of the Communist Party of Brazil actively partners with China to bring social aid to his state’s residents. Paradoxically, he also makes grand capitalist deals with Beijing. From the view of grassroots community activists Sabrina Felipe and Lucilene Raimunda Costa, “Between these two opposing worldviews that have the same horizon of capitalist development stand the original and traditional peoples of the lands of Maranhão” (278).

As seen in previous sections, resource extraction goes hand in hand with race and class. In Ecuador, the impoverished mestizo and Indigenous populations have been the most affected by extractive projects. Interestingly enough, the Shuar organization in the area where the Mirador Project is located has employed discourses of class and race, arguing that they have been neglected by a racist state and society, This, in turn, has served to justify Shuar attempts to negotiate with mining companies (Fernández-Salvador 2017). This volume’s Indigenous authors make it clear that government policies favoring extractivism are part of an unjust socioeconomic structure. In this structure, inequality is revealed and has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. As a group of Indigenous student authors write, inequality calls for resistance and protest: “The October protests, the COVID-19 pandemic, and even the Coca Codo Sinclair Hydroelectric Project’s disasters brought to light our society’s inequalities and shown us once again that it is the most vulnerable groups who most suffer the impacts from these events while continuing to be made invisible: Indigenous peoples, rural mestizos, and Afro-Ecuadorians. For this reason, we recognize that it is imperative to legitimize the protest spaces where Indigenous peoples and others have succeeded in calling the non-Indigenous public’s attention to ask them to ‘acknowledge our reality’” (Correa and Chumapi, et al, 153–54).

This volume appreciates the agency of Chinese workers in South America, intersecting in spaces of labor, sociability, and struggle with Indigenous and other local workers. As described here by Cleiton Ferreira Maciel Brito, Chinese workers share spaces and sociability with Brazilians, however Brazilians often see their colleagues as agents of oppression and loss of rights (401–3). The interaction between Chinese and Brazilian workers in the Brazilian Amazon provides a space for generating new analytical and interpretive lenses regarding Chinese development in Latin America, shedding new light on debates regarding Sinophobia and racial violence against Asians in non-US contexts.

In his chapter, Brito draws upon ethnography among Brazilian workers at a factory in Manaus who reinforces the view that Beijing factories are not seen as private enterprises, but as a geopolitical strategic tools. Factory workers complain of the lack of accountability that this long-distance reporting fosters. They describe systematic physical aggressions, nonpayment of wages, and noncompliance with Brazilian laws. In the contributions assembled below, we can see the fine grain of the relationship between Chinese investments in the Global South and workers’ perspectives and imaginations. The arrival of investments coordinated by Beijing delivers a plethora of new jobs but profoundly alters the grievance and alliance mechanisms that structure labor relations. In this context, certain workers have created a grammar of complaint that has nationalistic and racist tones, including the metaphor of an “invasion by the Chinese state.”

The production of camaraderie among employees is lost insofar as Asian workers are represented by companies and communities, as if they were an organic part of the Chinese corporate ensemble rather than as autonomous subjects with their own economic interests. “The Chinese company does not have many benefits and the workers themselves do not complain. They say they don’t have these things because they are not going to buy the worker. They say that the person has to be motivated for the good of the company and do things willingly,” one Brazilian worker claims (Brito, 403).

This is how global capital, national hierarchies, and development priorities shape the structure of labor control and workplace inequalities, according to Latin Americanist scholar Rui Jie Peng, who conducted ethnographic field research on the Ecuadorian hydroelectric project (CCS). Peng addresses two different sets of labor rights and laws applied to Chinese and Ecuadorian workers. She studied how workers from different racial and national backgrounds interpreted and managed workplace inequalities, with the goal of understanding how transnational workplace inequality and national-racial boundaries interrelate. Her research suggests that workers’ race, gender, nationality, citizenship, and legal status stratify their labor tasks and statuses (414). Since most Chinese state-owned enterprises were “concerned about the political stability and safety in their host countries,” they developed a “tough hydro-worker” persona who “would work overtime without pay and remain compliant,” all in the hope of “securing permanent employment and future higher-paying opportunities abroad with the company.” In turn, when Ecuadorian workers observed Chinese workers’ long work hours and lack of negotiation with management, “they stereotyped their Chinese counterparts as ‘workaholics’ and ‘model workers,’ portraying them as submissive and unconcerned about better labor conditions. Such stereotyped interpretations, however, ignored the underlying constraints Chinese workers experienced” (417). As a result, Ecuadorian workers (but not their Chinese colleagues) could leverage governmental oversight and appeal to labor laws to make demands on management. This is how they were able to maintain eight-hour work days and uphold higher safety standards compared to their Chinese counterparts (416).

The rich empirical, ecological, and social data provided by the chapters assembled here can inform and guide this process of legal, regulatory, and political transformation. The metaphors of “courtship” and “marriage” have pushed aside older “brotherhood” frameworks and have made more visceral the destructive paternalism of megaprojects that attempt to render Chinese, Ecuadorian, and Brazilian workers into mass publics of authoritarian populism. The words of the organizers and analysts presented here negate this massification without minimizing the scale of environmental degradation and social conflict. Our contributions—the words of economists, environmentalist, scholars, and activists, and Indigenous, Black, and queer leaders—have drawn a series of new maps that multiply the nuances of race, class, and gender/sexuality, so commonly rendered invisible by authors unfamiliar with the on-the-ground experiences of the region. Maroon and Indigenous communities challenge the PRC-Brazilian assertion that their joint projects are “anti-imperialist” because they embody South-South “solidarity,” ignoring how this representation ignores and erases internal populations and sovereignties. Counterdevelopmentalist manifestos emerge in this volume, not only in the face of megaprojects—railroads, highways, and so on—but also in the context of state neglect and failure to respond adequately to a paralyzing pandemic. Fragmented political leadership threatens unity from above while grassroots organizing does what is familiar to it: locating coordinates in a shared effort to claim autonomy and prevent catastrophe. The neoextractivists logic of states cannot hide their patriarchal features when these are analyzed, here by Black women’s groups in Rio during the months before the 2016 Olympics.

The movement leaders and organizers in this volume are not organized according to a typology. They are ordered and sequenced to reflect an evolving conversation among authors, activists, and theorists. Case studies and perspectives build and intersect as the volume’s chapters unfold. The contributions engage each and reinforce each other’s interventions. Readers are thus advised to peruse the chapters sequentially.

Reading groups outside the classroom will find that the discussions in the present volume can be understood as the preservation of oral histories recounted during an exceptional rise in militarism and authoritarianism during a pandemic. This moment also provoked unprecedented collaborations against these dehumanizing projects. These accounts of urban and local confrontations between state actors and workers, organizers, and indigenous populations demystify our stereotypes of how states and the global political economy work. The novel concepts introduced by this volume may be used to reorient policies, sensibilities, and solidarities. At their best, these contributions will inspire readers to locate the matrices of emerging and collapsing desires, currencies, regimes, and actors in their own worlds, and to imagine a more just and sustainable future.


In order to highlight the unique perspectives our book brings together, we have grouped our contributions into parts:

Global Asia, New Imaginaries, and Media Visibilities

Indigenous Epistemologies and Maroon Modernities

Grassroots Perspectives on the Fragmentation of BRICS

Logistics Regimes and Mining

Hydroelectrics and Railroads

Race, Class, and Urban Geographies

Hybridity of Transnational Labor

Each chapter focuses on the future, examining in particular the patterns and struggles opened up in the first two decades of the twenty-first century. Each contribution analyzes dimensions of China-Brazil or China-Andes/Amazon relations, taking into account grassroots perspectives, neglected diplomatic or media aspects, or transnational civil-society relations. Our chapters answer questions including the following:

• Which new perspectives are emerging after the crisis of state-driven projects of extractivist developmentalism in the era of the “Beijing Consensus” in South America, and forged in the struggles with new articulations of authoritarian populisms?

• How do the controversies over the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and China’s assertive humanitarian, diplomatic, and financial response impact these issues on the ground?

• What is new or changing about the social profile and media-cultural impact of Chinese investors, laborers and migrants, humanitarian interventions, and diplomatic initiatives?

Our contributors highlight dimensions of social, cultural, and community communication, impact, and representation, as these interact with class and regional differences, gender, sexuality, indigeneity, and rurality. Specifically, these chapters provide case studies concentrating on one or two actors, including “bottom-up” perspectives, decolonial and deimperial lenses (Amar 2021), and identifying new lines of controversy, solidarity, or intervention. They point to trends that are otherwise ignored, tracking changing regimes or modes of articulation between and among discourses, policies, strategies, and actors.


1. The expression “stepping out” may be better translated from Mandarin Chinese (走向世界) to English as “marching into the world.” And we are very attentive to debates around translation. However, we have found that Stepping Out (a phrase without the military implications of marching or the Long March) is how the term is utilized by business leaders and in social media, for example in Eisenman and Heginbotham 2018.

2. “Modern Silk Road” referenced on page 14 and “tropical forests” referenced on page 8 of Rosenthal, Moskovits, and Reid 2019.

3. Buen Vivir or Sumak Kawsay, a Kichwa concept that can be translated as “life in fullness.”


5. Constitución de la República del Ecuador, Article 257.

6. Constitución de la República del Ecuador, Article 71.

7. Correa is currently living under political asylum in Belgium in the wake of an eight-year prison sentence issued by an Ecuadorian court for the crime of bribery in the Sobornos 2012–2016 case.

8. Jorge Glas is currently serving a six-year sentence, having been convicted as an accessory to bribes received by the Brazilian construction conglomerate Odebrecht, as well as an eight-year sentence for a separate bribery conviction in the Sobornos 2012–2016 case.

9. Indigenous activism did not begin with China’s increased investments. This is also the case of the Kichwa Sarayaku who, in 2003, took their demands for the protection of their territory from the Argentinian oil company CGC to the Interamerican Commission of Human Rights.


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