The University of Arizona

Lesotho's white gold: the political ecology of temporality and the economy of anticipation in resource extraction and large dam infrastructural projects

Yvonne Braun


The construction phases of large dam and infrastructural projects often extend over long periods of time, creating social, environmental, cultural, political, and economic consequences in the proximate communities and landscapes. The temporality of the phases of the project – from planning to construction to post-construction – reveal more layered and wide-ranging consequences from the social and environmental changes that result, sharpened by greater attention to how these changes unfold across multiple timescales and sites of the project. Using the case study of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP), I draw on a political ecology approach that uses longitudinal data, including interviews, document analysis, and ethnographic fieldwork conducted in Lesotho since 1997, to illustrate how active project narratives draw from and promulgate an affective economy of anticipation in ways that aim to both sustain the hope of people affected by the project and contain their criticism of the project amidst a continued investment by the state in the expansion of the LHWP. As people directly affected experience disjunctures between the promises and the realities of the project over time, subsequent phases of the project are simultaneously renewed and recast through a logic of improvement that emphasizes changes in the implementation of the project while continuing to invest in the future imaginary of development that requires going forward with project plans. A logic of continuity and improvement structures this continued commitment to the capital intensive LHWP through the strategic mobilization of phases that scaffold both the material and physical dimensions of the project, but also the affective and anticipatory hopes of prosperity that the project represents. In this case, it also reveals how project authorities weave these dimensions – the material and the aspirational – into specific planned changes and improvements to address previous and ongoing concerns as projects progress over time. This longitudinal approach demonstrates the importance of temporal and affective dimensions to our understanding of the complex, multi-faceted consequences of resource extractive mega-dam projects such as the LHWP, particularly as they further rationalize the resource extractive approach to economic development in the region.

Keywords: development, dams, infrastructure, political ecology, temporality, affect, resource extraction, economy of anticipation, displacement, construction, Lesotho, Southern Africa

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