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The Devil’s Curve: A Journey into Power and Profit at the Amazon’s Edge

by Arno Kopecky

Over the past two decades, the so-called “resource curse” has become one of the central problems of development economics. Academics, politicians, and policymakers have all struggled to understand the paradox of resource-rich countries around the world that nevertheless remain poor and underdeveloped. Despite an emerging consensus that the curse is real, few can agree on what to do about it. Meanwhile, mining corporations lobby to dig, state leaders race to sign free-trade agreements, and local communities continue to live in thrall to forces they can do little to control.

It is this ground-level reality that Arno Kopecky seeks to explore in his first book. The author heads to Peru, Colombia, and, briefly, Bolivia to document the violence, instability, and political agitation that has marked the lives of the underprivileged in these surging Latin American economies. In simplest terms, this is the story of two groups: those who fight for their land and those who have been forced to leave it.

The Devil’s Curve takes its title from a bend in a northern Peruvian highway that was the site of a bloody clash between police forces and mostly indigenous activists protesting then-president Alan García’s economic policies. The confrontation brought much-needed international attention to Peru’s version of the resource curse, including the destabilizing role of Canadian mining interests in the region, which led to a government crackdown on opposition groups.

Kopecky’s narrative starts here, in the region of the Peruvian Amazon closest to the social and environmental consequences of extractive industries. Falling in with local activists and politicians, the author travels to remote villages that cling to a precarious existence, caught as much between indigenous traditions and the exigencies of a modern economy as between ecological stewardship and the desire for development. Kopecky lets the current of local life sweep him along, interacting with those living in and advocating for these communities. What emerges is a panoply of stories – heartfelt, frequently funny, and often conflicting – about the quotidian experience of a resource boom.

As a counterpoint, Kopecky travels to Medellín, Colombia, to spend time among that city’s ever-growing legion of slum-dwelling desplazados. Here there is an additional resource at play: cocaine. Forced off their land by revolutionaries, paramilitaries, resource prospectors, or the army, these internally displaced multitudes must fight to be recognized as citizens by their own government. Ironically, their violence-riddled and gang-run shantytowns surround the city that – as the home of infamous drug warlord Pablo Escobar, free-trading former president Alvaro Uribe, and numerous multinationals – contributed directly to their plight.

Medellín, too, is filled with stories, but unlike Peru, where a way of life is constantly under threat, here it is life itself that hangs in the balance. The daily proximity to violence is driven home when Kopecky finds himself at a party with one of the country’s most notorious drug dealers and, soon thereafter, is caught up in a gangland shootout.

The Devil’s Curve is often in danger of falling too far into the realm of travelogue. Not that there is anything inherently wrong with this. Indeed, Kopecky offers frequent flashes of humour and wonderfully understated insight into topics unrelated to his broader project. (“Few experiences,” he writes, “illustrate the limitations of the English language like an ayahuasca trip.”)

However, by writing himself into the narrative and otherwise fixating on the people immediately around him, he tends to neglect more expansive political and economic stories. Interviews with mining executives and policymakers seem almost an afterthought, and he does not visit any actual mines or petroleum operations.

Kopecky gives us the victims and the bystanders, but not the culprits. A more holistic approach, tracing the primary-resource value chain, would have provided Kopecky with a stronger claim to big-picture understanding. This, in turn, would have strengthened his important indictment of Canada’s complicity – resulting from both federal free-trade agreements and Canadian companies’ questionable activities on the ground – in perpetuating illiberal, destructive policies.

That being said, the daily life of people in these regions is the story least often told. Kopecky’s intention is not simply to put a human face on the problem, but to present a complex picture of processes, people, and struggles. He does this without romanticizing his subjects or reducing complex social issues to matters of simple top-down political repression, or resorting to either condemnation of or justification for political violence. The story Kopecky tells is the incarnation of the academic, political, and economic debates that too often avoid close engagement with the world they are supposed to be focused on.