Development Disruptions: Morano Santiago



Development Disruptions: the prevention of oil extraction in Morona Santiago and the transportation of environmental networks.

Oil extraction – indigenous organizations – epistemes of Nature – conservationism – inventive alliances.

I am proposing a project that would take into account the different interests involved in how oil extraction contracts are developed, particularly focusing on selected Shuar communities the Ecuadorian Amazon.  From the 1980s and 1990s, indigenous Ecuadorians have been politically organized in opposition to oil activities, and though this has been expressed in appeals to arbitration courts, physical violence, and mass protests, the categorical position for the Shuar is to advocate a moratorium on such development. This twenty-year period is seen as formative for the subsequent level of ‘civil society’ mobilization achieved by the Ecuadorian indigenous movement (M.S. Steyn, 2003). In 1996, a peace settlement was signed with Peru that concluded their border conflict, and the election of President Bucaram, both opened a window for multinational oil companies to invest in new areas of the country, particularly the south-eastern province of Morona Santiaga. In 1998, the US oil company Arco was given a Participation Contract by the Ecuadorian government for oil extraction in a 200,000 hectare area called Block 24. The Shuar population were not notified or consulted prior to the sale though a majority of the land belonged to Federación Independiente del Pueblo Shuar del Ecuador (FIPSE).

Whilst the state owned Oil Company, Petroecuador, has sought to develop the province of Morona Santiago due to loss of productivity in other areas, it became necessary to sign such association contracts with private companies (Fontaine, 2005). In 2000, the contract for Block 24 was turned over to the US oil company, Burlington Resources, who then attempted to pursue individual negotiations with communities and indigenous organizations. These direct dialogues have been resisted for numerous years by indigenous groups whilst Burlington attempted to begin exploration with the support of a militarization of the region. Burlington Resources had its contract revoked in 2002 after Shuar and Achuar federations complained to the Civil Anti-Corruption Commission, who investigated the terms of the contract and the scenario in the case. Currently, another oil company, ConocoPhillips, are the sole contracted operators within the Block but have not commenced full extraction activities.

With this recent history, I want to study the complexities of the relationships between the Shuar Federation, the Ecuadorian State, specific oil companies, and the various intermediaries constituting the political dialogue. Through interviews, participant observation and site surveys, I want to review the different interests involved in the governance strategies over this region of the Amazon by understanding how projects are managed in a co-operative manner in the planning stage, and how they might be resisted by semi-autonomous regions within a State. By understanding the multiple strategies involved, I hope to produce an account of how negotiations take place, power is distributed, and plans put into action from multiple positions. This research would contribute to an understanding about how the intersecting interests around oil extraction is produced in political, legal, social, and material terms.

The supporting literature for such a project will be drawn from previous ethnographic accounts of Shuar communities; the proposed intersection between Actor Network Theory and conflicting epistemes of Nature; and ethnographies of Development that are responsive to a multiple array of interests, be that Regional, National, private enterprise, civil society organizations, and indigenous political organizations.

Since the beginning of the century, Shuar communities have developed in response to various factors, including internal colonization, the restructuring of property relations, increasing connection with urban politics and populations, and the inclusion of a political organization (Shuar Federation) in a national indigenous movement (CONFENIAE). Given this, previous accounts of the Shuar must be put in conjunction with the expansion of connections with environment NGOs and INGOs who have taken an interest in the ecological impact of oil exploration in Ecuador. These new relations come to play in a more diffusive discussion of master-planning indigenous regions rich with oil potential. My proposed project would connect significant Shuar resistance as an interventions to state and oil company action in the region. Additionally, by attempting to analyse how claims for Shuar recognition and sovereignty are being made, the research will develop in response to academic literature that highlights the role of social science within broader consideration of efficacy and public knowledge (Buroway, 2005; Rosaldo, 1993).

Previous ethnographies of the Shuar require considerable revision so as to explain the new connections established between the Shuar and non-local ‘trading partners’ (Harner 1972). Hendricks (1988) analysed the language of Shuar politicians which displayed a new form of knowledge and power that appealed to both state modernization and Shuar unity. Rubenstein (2000) has detailed the institutional history of the Shuar Federation in connection with national politics and other contributing elements in Ecuadorian society, including Church, nongovernmental organizations, and banking investments. The perspective of writing a genealogy of such indigenous associations will have to be complemented by writing about the hybrid organizations and alliances that have specific strategic importance, such as with the Achuar Federation. An ethnography that took into account the generation of new hybrid forms would be a means to tease out the complexity of the multiple boundaries and connecting tissues allying multiple interests for and against oil extraction. Recent research in Warints has concluded that the informal mining of other resources, for instance gold and copper, has been directly connected with the deleterious consequences of social health problems, pollution and natural damage, but is also considered to be an attractive prospect for the increase of financial resources (Duchelle, 2007). It is between such losses and benefits that the political consequences will be concluded upon. It remains to be seen whether or not the Yasuni National Park model for rainforest protection can ensure the protection of the environment whilst receiving compensation from international sources to halt oil exploration.

The second strand of literature usefully connects to the method of application of Actor Network Theory to epistemological knowledge of “Nature”. Comparative approaches to the cognition of nature have demonstrated the multiple structural forms that embed an understanding of nature in language and have drawn indigenous cosmologies into academic literature (Descola; Viveiros de Castro). Following Little (2001) and Rubenstein (2004), the attempts to displace western notions of Nature by identifying distinct cultural cosmographies (for example, “Amazonian Cosmographies”, Merchant Cosmographies), would then require a reassessment of what the ethical and material substance of the specific conflict over oil resources is fought upon. Is it theoretically possible to segment concepts of nature, as if they might be depicted on abstract topological grids, without also connecting the actions that are required to perform and embody such notions? It is possible to develop further understanding of how ideas of ‘environmental justice’ (Harvey, 1996) require cultural definition, and consideration of the form of political pragmatism adopted. In order to be able to hold these multiple positions together in a piece of research, it will be important to interview widely and collect data sources from the various positions within organizations so as to understand how decisions, approaches, and knowledges are put together and reformulated (Foucault, 1998). It is in this fashion that the research will attempt to put notions of conservationism and environmentalism in contact with the communities that are identified as “under threat” through the practices of the extraction industries. Directing their actions from different points, how do international environment NGOs get involved with advocating the sovereignity of the Shuar and other indigenous Ecuadorian groups? How does this international support influence the affairs of State institutions? How do Shuar concerns get transformed from matters of concern into issues that call forth a democratic pubic? (Marres, 2005)

By taking on such questions, it is also important to inquire into the ways these notions are mediated by cultural representatives in indigenous organizations, and what is involved in the reciprocal relationship that has developed between NGOs in terms of a ‘Shuar understanding’ of conservation, biodiversity, and their role as “protectors”. The research will also reflect upon the assignment of this role for the Shuar and what kind of understanding it occludes in the paternalistic construction of the population through such characteristics (Peterson, 1998). Such an understanding can provide specificity to the notion that multiple epistemologies and metaphysical anthropologies warrant explanation, particularly when they generate conflicts over environments and resources. This research will elaborate upon the multiple interconnections between the various indigenous political organizations in Ecuador that connect to the Shuar Federation (Mijeski and Beck, 1998) It will be necessary to detail the way that co-operation is structured, organization managed, and agendas co-operatively established. As this exists on multiple scales of action, in various contexts, through geographically distant intermediaries, a methodological approach that recognizes the conjunction of various actors and networks will be required.

Additionally, using some of the framing devices outlined by Latour (1986, 2002), the study would try to ask what the unlikely forms of connections are between the national government; CONAIE; MUPP-NP; The Shuar Federation; Burlington Holdings; Petroecuador, various NGOs, as well as Shuar “gods” or spirits, a locally powerful family, etc. By inquiring into such connections, I will be able to build upon existing literatures that have detailed the transformed notions about the independence of Shuar communities. This will necessarily establish the locations of Shuar land in two theoretical ways. Firstly, by identifying Shuar centros through two-way circulations of political associations and technologies that gain some relevance for other groups of actors located elsewhere. Secondly, to construct the work by conceptually transforming each site into the provisional endpoint of other sites distributed in time and space; each site then becomes open to be understood as the result of the action at a distance of some other agency. This research will give provide an opportunity to evaluate theses on the connection between natural resources and democracy in oil-rich states (Mitchell, 2009), and the ‘Green-Washing’ that various international organizations have gone through (Goldman, in Watts, 2004). Drawing from ethnographic writing on urban economies, my research will be influenced by the approach of Elyachar (2005) writing on urban Cairo in and around the construction and modification of markets by market subjects and “experts”. This literature on the status of Experts (Callon, 2009; Mitchell, 2002) can assist an analysis of what role scientific, governmental, and administrative mediators take in the process of constructing maps and workable knowledges of economic sites. This will contribute to a growing literature at the intersection between conflict management, critical geography theory, and anthropology on indigeneity (Zalik, 2008; Watts 2005).

By utilizing some of the notions in these approaches and post-structural anthropology the research will inquire into two aspects of socio-political relevance. The first is a mapping of the matrix of different interests involved in the political struggle over oil extraction as faced by the Shuar Federation. The second is to understand how alternative networks of alliances are put into action through these political maneuverings. Is it possible, that due to the supposed threats to Shuar territory, the political organizations and its associations have been strengthened or weakened? Do these alliances generate new forms of “epistemic cultures” (Knorr-Cetina, 1999) that have to be put together in ways that articulate novel alliances across regional and state borders? What are the sites of contestation whereby the notion of “nature” is debated, deliberated, decided upon?

These questions will be researched so as to enhance an understanding of the multiple strategies employed in Shuar communities to adapt to the risks of the detrimental effects of oil extraction. These include the protestations over the claims to ownership of oil companies and the concessions awarded by the national government, and how these protestations are organized at a grassroots level. By putting this in conjunction with the alliances formed with other indigenous organizations and environmental NGOs, a description can be built of how cooperation in organized in a network which interrelates in various ways with Shuar communities. NGOs such as Amazon have a particular way of interacting with these developments, how can such interaction be written about? These questions will supply a narrative upon how a concept such as ‘civil society’ involves the assembling of different interests who have particular means to exert pressure upon other agencies whilst attempting governance of the Amazon. It is possible that the assembling of different interests in decision-making forums does not contribute to building consensus, that the structures of governance are weighed towards capital rather than communal interests. The research may demonstrate that there are much wider distributions of participation, or that separate Shuar communities do not share a particular perspective on how extraction should be resisted outright, which could contribute to the fracturing of the institutions of political representation. It will be important to understand how the Shuar Federation, in conjunction with partnering organizations, organize their contacts within various communities so as to gauge opinion. This will contribute to an understanding of how ‘opinion’ is constructed through specialized political devices, and whether such a definition of ‘opinion’ is coherent in this context.

In relation to the proposition regarding “epistemic cultures”, the research will necessarily be responsive to the ways that knowledge about Morona Santiago produced and disseminated by Shuar- and environmental-organizations borrows and translates concepts into assessments of the potential hazards of intensive oil extraction. Instead of trying to explain the ‘thought styles’ or ‘cultural distinctiveness’ of the Shuar, important insight can be gained from mapping the agents and objects that are appealed to in creating political positions. If concepts of belonging and naturalness are not given centre ground, what forms of knowledge, technical, and monetary transactions support the generation of sites of contestation and resistance? Indeed, what are the spatial implications for this act of translation as they become constitutive elements in speeches, public meetings, informal discussions, online content, and so on? To understand the processes that this requires, the research will detail the ways that various actors from state, regional, local, households have points of intersection that are not contained in specifically administered settings. It will be therefore important to speak to a wide variety of subjects to be able to put together an understanding from various positions. This will require a wide range of interviews with individuals and groups, the attendance of public meetings, accompanying informants during their schedule, archival work, to begin with. Connecting these different sites will provide a mechanism in the research to not simply isolate oil extraction from the variety of considerations that give it a specific political identity to struggle. It is expected that various considerations will come to effects the distinction between having a working relationship with foreign oil companies around Shuar communities and allowing other forms of economic co-operation, this needs to be understood. As there are around 40 Shuar centros, it will be necessary to assess the various intensities of contact with oil companies. Some key points of inquiry will be; How have household been approached to co-operate with the development? How have such approached been responded to? What are the forums for association amongst these households in a centro? What forms of hierarchy and assigned-roles distinguish authority and co-operation with a centro? What is the role of the community radio station and other communication devices in disseminating information amongst Shuar centros? What are the ways that other bodies (State, NGO, private companies) have, or have tried to, utilize or disrupt these devices?


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Just found this blog post and wondering how your proposed research came along or if it came to fruition?

Comment by Stacey

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