My doctoral thesis, Ecology of capture: Conservation, infrastructure, and fog in coastal Peru, draws on twelve months of ethnographic fieldwork on material engagements with fog at the margins of the Peruvian city of Lima and coastal areas further south. My aim is to use this focus to explore the politics of contemporary urban and environmental relations in these places of extreme aridity, where glacial retreat and rapid urban expansion are increasingly raising concerns about water scarcity and the gradual disappearance of urban fog oasis ecosystems. In this context, a steady inflow of coastal fog has recently been re-apprehended as a potential water source. By installing large fog catchers in the hills around Lima and other coastal areas, NGOs, scientists, conservationists, and residents on the urban periphery have set out to transform fog into water for use in small-scale water supply systems and infrastructures of reforestation.
Based on fieldwork undertaken with a Peruvian NGO and a network of fog oasis conservationists in Lima, this study shows how these collectives became enmeshed with Peru’s long-standing history of informal urbanisation. Of particular concern is how their different modes of engaging fog were directly at odds with one another. The NGO was trying to tap into ground-touching clouds as a water source for the urban poor, meaning that their activities aimed to render Lima’s hilly surrounds habitable for squatters. In contrast, conservationists intended to capture fog for the purpose of making the very same areas uninhabitable for human dwelling. Along the way, this airborne extension of the ocean took multifarious forms and informed life at the urban periphery in a number of ways: it rendered visible otherwise backgrounded urban and ecological (dis)connections; helped position residents favourably vis-à-vis the state; offered ways to address infrastructural inequality; and provided opportunities for squatters to make claims on land, infrastructural connectivity, and the city.
The thesis further demonstrates how, in setting out to capture fog so as to attain their own respective goals, actors became ensnared in one another’s activities, demands, and expectations. Inspired by the language of capture and entrapment variously invoked by the collectives in question, these relations will be described as being constitutive of an ecology of capture: an emergent web of relationships held together by conflicting aims and expectations, the possibilities and limits of fog capture, and the material qualities of fog itself. In highlighting the challenges and concomitant exclusions occasioned by efforts to bring about new environmental relations, this research contributes to emerging studies of the other-than-human with a reminder of the pertinence of more classic issues around all-too-human asymmetries. In times when environmental devastation calls for new ways of relating to nonhuman agencies, emergent attunements to fog in coastal Peru foreground the urban inequalities that any enactment of alternative, more-than-human futures must inevitably come to terms with.