Among the first papers on President Biden’s desk was the cancellation of permits for the Keystone XL pipeline. Parallel to Keystone XL and completed in 2017, the Dakota Access Pipeline is best known for its opposition from native Americans, which gained nation-wide traction and saw protests crossing from forefronts of the reservations to Washington D.C. It was not merely about crossing into sacred sites — it was the case of a skewed parity between private, social and environmental interests.

Is there an intrinsic dichotomy between engineering and indigenous rights? What value does it yield to the local community? What warrants this piece of engineering being built on such land? Now, what if instead of fossil fuel extraction, it is irrigation infrastructure or a solar farm? The ethical questions become yet more ambiguous.

To understand this, we must first establish the role of extractivism as a post-imperialist mindset that defines much of the engineering industry. It states not only that surplus value must originate from extractable land resources, but that the population and communities around the resources must also be incorporated into the supply chain to yield surplus value.

Da Beers found diamonds. The French built a canal from the Red Sea to the Mediterrean. Cobalt, used in lithium-ion batteries, is mined out of DR Congo’s crust at a rate three times that of last decade despite concerns over unethical conditions, including forced and child labour. How does a geographical blessing turn into a socio-economic and environmental curse?

“The damage done to communities in proximity to grand engineering projects is no coincidence”

A common early symptom of extractivism is the erosion of community capitals — natural, financial, human and social capitals. Studies on Canadian oil sands show an array of effects on surrounding First Nations. Communities are unable to utilise natural capital due to external ownership — land leases to fossil fuel firms have caused physical barriers to indigenous agricultural practices, such as hunting, fishing, and plant harvesting. Simultaneously, the community and indigenous governance structures are crowded-out by fossil fuel firms. In the words of an indigenous climate action leader, “When a community wanted to build off-grid solar for electricity no one else stepped up to help except the industry. The same was true for a health center.”

Particularly acute in the Global South, social disintegration has been amplified by the Covid-19 pandemic, as companies have expanded mining operations despite the risks to workers’ health. Already scarce public services have struggled. Vale, for example, suspended their indigenous health program among the Pataxó peoples, right after the toxic tailings dam failure in Brumadinho, Minas Gerais in 2019. Public health, physical and mental, is again a valuable social capital put under strain by extractivism.

We must take extra care with the word “capital.” Contrary to capitalistic beliefs, natural capital does not merely exist in extractable forms to be profited off — a boreal forest capable of absorbing carbon is capital; a clean lake that is simply nice to look at is also capital; a sacred location for an indigenous population even more so.

“The long-neglected stakeholder — people native to development locations — must now be internalised in the engineering process”

Extractivism also exists in civil engineering with the construction of infrastructure on foreign land. When the British colony ran railways across the Indian subcontinent, the microeconomic market of capital and labour required to run railways was skewed towards Britain, maintaining the self-profitability of imperial investment. From 1850 to 1910, 94% of Indian broad gauge locomotives were built in Britain and only 2.5% in India. Similarly, skilled management and engineering staff remained in the hands of the British expatriate. Ultimately, Britain did not aim for the infrastructural advancement of its colony — it aimed solely for profitable logistical convenience.

This is no archaic example. Falling under China’s Belt and Road Initiative, the Addis Ababa–Djibouti Railway cost Ethiopia, a country with a GDP of US$ 74.3 billion per annum, $4.5 billion in construction. This is not to mention that this pinguid piece of infrastructure remained unused from its inauguration in 2016 until services commenced in 2018. Even then, passenger terminals remained almost empty. The inefficiency of the crude imperialist imposition of infrastructure appears to have been inherited from the old empires.

Even more problematically, the same extractivist tactics were implemented to build the railway. Land grabs abuse the unequal political powers between the project developers and local communities, allowing project developers to compensate at unfairly low prices when removing harvestable land from the hands of local communities. “Some locals perceive the railway as an Addis-based elite project. A symbol of the regime.” While it is difficult to doubt the benefits, especially environmentally, of an electrified railway, something is fundamentally wrong on a systematic level.

“There is a misalignment between where technological advancement occurs and where it has a meaningful impact on social wellbeing”

The damage done to communities in proximity to grand engineering projects is no coincidence. These projects effectively create geographic enclaves where technological and subsequently financial capital are concentrated. Inside these enclaves, the ecology and population are either exploitable or expendable, and profits reaped are immediately exported. Outside these enclaves, the multiplier effect in employment, research and development is trivialised by the deliberate containment of technological capital.

Huge investments and grand projects may boost a country’s GDP, but the growth of output does not equal economic development, which requires equitable human development across regions. There is a misalignment between where technological advancement occurs and where it has a meaningful impact on social wellbeing.

If these grand engineering projects only reinforce an imperial notion of technological development at great social and environmental cost, what is the alternative? How should engineering redefine technological development so as to support social development?

Localism is not necessarily an antonym to globalism. Nor is it an antonym to global collaboration in advancing towards higher efficiency and quality of life. It is, however, a necessary response to a rusty imperialist notion of “technological development” that is based on foreign investors’ philanthropy.


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Localism implies removing strict dualisms propped up by capitalistic (and extensively imperialist) economic relations: developer versus user, engineer versus client, owners of technological capital versus workers in production. The long-neglected stakeholder — people native to development locations — must now be internalised in the engineering process, through “co-creation and participatory research”, as is now common in medical research.

One successful instance of this is the involvement of local women in the engineering of water infrastructure in various African countries. This involvement is important because women spend four times as much time carrying water as men, and they carry sophisticated and authentic knowledge about soil conditions and well productivity. Integrating indigenous knowledge allows a greater understanding of the ecological implications of engineering, preserving natural capital. Simultaneously, the reduction of manual labour allows higher school attendance for young girls, which in turn enhances human capital.

From the study of the imperial heritage of engineering, it appears that the challenge of sustainability is not merely about the efficient and environmentally non-detrimental allocation of quantifiable resources. The other side of sustainability is human development: on the one hand, preserving the valuable social capital of local communities, and on the other hand, incorporating local participation directly into the engineering process. Only then can engineering truly adapt to the varied environmental and socio-economic challenges it faces.