Durham University
Programme and Module Handbook

Undergraduate Programme and Module Handbook 2023-2024

Module SPAN3361: Ecological Imaginaries in Latin American Narrative and Documentary

Department: Modern Languages and Cultures (Spanish)

SPAN3361: Ecological Imaginaries in Latin American Narrative and Documentary

Type Open Level 3 Credits 20 Availability Not available in 2023/24 Module Cap 30 Location Durham


  • Spanish Language 2A (SPAN2011) OR Spanish Language 2B (SPAN2111) OR an equivalent qualification to the satisfaction of the Chairman/Chairwoman of the Board of Studies in MLAC or his/her representative


  • Modern European Languages, Combined Honours and all Joint and 'with' programmes: Spanish Language 4 (SPAN3011). Other: see Chairman/Chairwoman of the Board of Studies in MLAC or his/her representative.

Excluded Combination of Modules

  • None.


  • This module seeks to introduce students to the diverse modes of imagining continental biomes in Latin America since the nineteenth century. Students will have the opportunity to be exposed to how writers and documentary filmmakers have imagined/framed the plains in Latin America—environmental imaginaries that continue to engage with issues such as extractivism and monoculture in the Global South.
  • The module aims to have students:
  • Develop a critical understanding of ecological issues present in Latin America, addressing topics such as extractivism, monoculture, extinction, drought, and waste disposal.
  • Discuss and analyze the political ecologies in Latin America. Special attention will be paid to the following contributions: Rob Nixon’s “Introduction” in Slow Violence and Environmentalism of the Poor (2011) and Anthony Bebbington and Jeffrey Bury’s “Political Ecologies of the Subsoil” in Subterranean Struggles (2013).
  • Identify the narrative tropes deployed by canonical writers to portray the following continental plains in South America: (1) the Pampas, (2) the Brazilian Sertão, (3) the Chaco, and (4) the Orinoco Llanos. Through the emphasis on these biomes, the module will build a transnational understanding of Latin America that reveals the ecological mesh that links different sites across the globe.
  • Compare and contrast the different modes of depicting the environment in narrative and documentary film. They will gain a critical understanding of the deictic power of representation, especially in documentary film.
  • Be exposed to an interdisciplinary and material understanding of how cultural products are connected to environmental politics in the Latin American context.


  • The module is partitioned into the four continental biomes that will serve as the basis for the analysis of the environmental imaginaries situated in each of these regions. Each biome will address an ecological issue linked to a specific cultural product, whether a narrative and/or documentary film.
  • Introduction — Political Ecologies in Latin America
  • The Pampas — The Land as a Desert I: This section will address the traditional civilization versus barbarism dichotomy from an environmental perspective as it is deployed to describe the Pampas, a biome shared by Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil. The binary establishes a series of tropes for portraying continental plains as barren deserts in need of civilization as a catalyst of progress. The section will explore the different images of Pampas as a desert, challenging the motivations behind those who define what a desert is.
  • The Brazilian Sertão — The Land as a Desert II: This section establishes a transnational link with the previous section through the similar portrayal of the Brazilian Northeast as a desert in contrast with the littoral regions. By analyzing the shifting images of this continental biome, the issue of climate change and human-produced alterations in the Caatinga ecosystem will be discussed.
  • The Chaco — Monoculture and Mineral Extraction: This section explores the narratives and documentaries that portray the monoculture ecologies and extractivist capitalism in the Chaco region. Seen as an inhospitable region, the dominant environmental imaginaries of the biome have promoted aggressive extraction of minerals and fossil fuels, as well as the monoculture of soy and yerba mate at the cost of displacing and impoverishing indigenous communities in Argentina, Paraguay, and Bolivia.
  • The Orinoco Llanos — Extinction and Cattle Ranching: This section will focus on the extinction of flora and fauna in the Orinoco basin due to the growing presence of cattle ranches in the region as it appears in narratives and documentaries. The role of species extinction as a global ecological issue is one of the overarching themes, as are the waste disposal sites that are also part of the issue throughout Latin America.

Learning Outcomes

Subject-specific Knowledge:
  • By the end of this module, students are expected to:
  • Identify some of the central issues and approaches to the environmental humanities, especially considering the specificities of Latin America.
  • Compare and contrast the different environmental representations of the Latin American plains in narrative and documentary films, challenging the role of “representation” in constructing a given set of beliefs about a particular biome.
  • Distinguish the ecological politics of monoculture and extractivism as they are manifested in Latin America.
  • Describe some of the continental biomes that have shaped the politics, economy, and culture of Latin America.
Subject-specific Skills:
  • By the end of this module, students are expected to:
  • Develop a critical understanding of the transnational aspect of ecological issues in Latin America and how these are reflected in cultural products.
  • Interpret cultural products from an environmental perspective that is also keenly aware of the intimate link between colonialism and environmental imperialism in its many forms.
  • Critically consider the “deictic power of images” in documentary films in seemingly creating a “transparent” view of the environment.
  • Identify and discuss the environmental tropes deployed to portray continental plains in Latin America through narrative and films.
Key Skills:
  • By the end of this module, students are expected to:
  • Demonstrate a research-oriented focus while critically engaging with source materials.
  • Communicate effectively with persuasive and coherent arguments that deploy the appropriate supporting evidence and case studies.
  • Critically consider the differences between visual and narrative images in depicting the environment.

Modes of Teaching, Learning and Assessment and how these contribute to the learning outcomes of the module

  • The module will be taught intensively either in Term I or in Term II on a 'short-fat' basis.
  • Weekly one-hour seminars will deliver relevant information about the module and will include guided discussions and student presentations (subject to instructor’s decision and group size).
  • Students will be assessed on a 1,000 essay analyzing a source material from an environmental humanities perspective, an oral presentation from pre-established topics, and 2,500 word research paper on the political ecologies of monoculture or extractivism in Latin America.

Teaching Methods and Learning Hours

Activity Number Frequency Duration Total/Hours
Lectures 10 Weekly 2 Hour 20
Seminars 10 Weekly 1 Hour 10
Preparation and Reading 170
Total 200

Summative Assessment

Component: Summative Essay 1 Component Weighting: 25%
Element Length / duration Element Weighting Resit Opportunity
Source Material Analysis Essay 1,000 words 100% No
Component: Summative Essay 2 Component Weighting: 50%
Element Length / duration Element Weighting Resit Opportunity
Research Paper on Monoculture/Extractivism 2,500 words 100% No
Component: Oral Presentation Component Weighting: 25%
Element Length / duration Element Weighting Resit Opportunity
Oral Presentation 5 minutes 100% No

Formative Assessment:

Individual student presentations. Student-led group discussions requiring independent reading, research and study. On-going feedback and feedforward.

Attendance at all activities marked with this symbol will be monitored. Students who fail to attend these activities, or to complete the summative or formative assessment specified above, will be subject to the procedures defined in the University's General Regulation V, and may be required to leave the University