Current Institutional Affiliation
Doctoral Candidate, Anthropology, Princeton University

Award Information

International Dissertation Research Fellowship 2018
Institutional Affiliation (at time of award):
Anthropology, Princeton University
Oil Contamination in Ecuador's Amazon: An Ethnographic Inquiry of Intention and Intervention

Environmental contamination is one of the most pressing problems our world faces today. Its pervasiveness fuels toxic exposure-related illness, habitat loss, and resource dispossession, and significantly contributes to climate change. In order to assist responses to these various crises, my dissertation research examines competing cultural understandings of what causes contamination disasters in the first place. Specifically, I will study two communities differently confronting the oil industry in Ecuador's Amazon rainforest to inquire: Why is contamination so pervasive and whose perspective counts in implementing measures against it? The question of what causes contamination is part of a heated popular debate in Ecuador today. While populist state discourse blames oil contamination in its northern Amazon region on transnational corporations' disregard for Ecuadorians' wellbeing, it simultaneously promotes new oil projects under a banner of state 'caring' and 'environmental friendliness' fostering good living (buen vivir). My yearlong ethnographic fieldwork will be based for six months among indigenous and farmer communities fighting a class-action lawsuit in Ecuador's polluted northern Amazon, and for six months farther south among Sápara indigenous people, where oil projects sponsored by the state are just beginning. This first-ever comparative study will shed light on the under-theorized role that discourses about intention play in framing the contamination problem—in regards to both why contamination occurs and how it can best be prevented. As such, my project will contribute to social science's theories of the contamination problem, generally, as influenced by processes of dispossession, environmental violence, and shifting governance regimes around oil industry conduct.