End of the pipeline

New book by environmental studies professor examines the intersections of oil extraction, indigenous people, rainforests, and the state in Ecuador


The Waorani use logs and other materials to make the oil road impassable when they are upset about something and/or need to demand something and are not feeling heard. (Photo by Matt Goff, Kresge '13, sociology) 


Waorani women at a community meeting with oil representatives and the military. (Photo by Matt Goff, Kresge '13, sociology) 

What is the indigenous people’s lived experience like in a region where the history of petroleum extraction has left behind devastation that has been called an “Amazonian Chernobyl”?

This question is the subject of environmental studies professor Flora Lu’s new book Oil, Revolution, and Indigenous Citizenship in Ecuadorian Amazonia (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017). Co-authors are UC Santa Cruz alumnus Néstor L. Silva (Merrill ’13, Latin American and Latino studies), now a doctoral candidate in anthropology at Stanford University, and Gabriela Valdivia, an associate professor in geography at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

For more than 20 years, Lu has travelled deep into the Ecuadorian Amazon to study the Waorani, an indigenous population living in a region renowned for its ecological diversity. Waorani territory is also the last frontier of the Ecuadorian oil industry.

The intersections of oil and the complex politics of contemporary indigenous people are important issues in Latin America and in today’s U.S.

Until the late 1950s, the Waorani subsisted from the Amazonian rain forest and experienced limited, often hostile, encounters with outsiders. As Lu shows, their lives changed dramatically when the oil industry expanded into their territory.

Social and economic transformations

The Waorani have been mythicized, criminalized, and as Lu argues, marginalized.

The history of their sustained interaction with the remainder of Ecuadorian society, including the state, is characterized by a complex give and take between institutions and the Waorani people.

Beginning in the late 1960s, oil companies began funding infrastructure projects in Waorani villages, including roads, residential complexes, schools, and health clinics. These efforts pushed some indigenous groups deeper into the rainforest and others into contact with the remainder of Ecuadorian society as ecological and economic changes made forest-based subsistence less viable. Today, current president Rafael Correa has sought to use oil wealth to implement a new type of nationalism that promotes his agenda of “21st Century Socialism.”

But with traditional subsistence practices altered, Waorani are left with little choice but to engage with the market economy.

“Since the mid 1990s, my collaborators and I have been tracing the trajectory of ‘crude entanglements’ between the Waorani, the state, and oil companies, both multinational and state owned,” says Lu of the complicated transformations she’s witnessed in the region. “By framing these changes as entanglements, we try to cultivate an understanding of the politics of oil and indigeneity that moves beyond the dualism of domination and resistance.”

Urbanization and economic growth have catalyzed widespread change in Waorani society. They now cope not only with environmental problems such as polluted air and loud noise, but social problems as well. Waorani women often face sexual harassment from oil workers and Waorani communities as a whole deal with alcoholism, domestic violence, and suicide—issues that had never been present before in their culture.

At odds with the state

The Waorani are known for being fiercely protective of their homeland.

When they need attention from oil companies, some Waorani build roadblocks they guard with six-foot spears. President Correa has gone as far as to brand the Waorani as “terrorists” for their politics and actions. The Waorani who are particularly precarious are those who refuse to assimilate into the dominant society, called people in voluntary isolation (PVI). Violence has ensued between PVI, settled Waorani, and members of extractive industries.

Lu points out that such violence is entangled with the oil industry. “The bloodshed reflects a long chain of omissions, injustices, and ineptitudes that have resulted in a glaring lack of recognition and defense of people in voluntary isolation,” she writes.

The state has dismissed and sometimes ignored these fatal encounters.

“The killings of indigenous people in isolation have gone largely unaddressed and unmitigated by the Ecuadorian state, exposing the failures of protecting arguably its most vulnerable population—one for whom the concept of citizenship is highly complicated—when said protection could mean foregoing exploitation in areas rich in natural resources.”

In addition, Lu argues that “the fact that oil development has and continues to impinge on [their] territories suggests that in reality so-called PVIs in Ecuador do not live in isolated life.”

PVI are reduced to smaller and smaller patches of forest, rendering their efforts to live as their ancestors did increasingly difficult. Meanwhile, the settled Waorani who live in residential compounds located close to oil infrastructure often have limited access to potable water or toilets, electricity, and health care.

More broadly, the book explores new state/society relations, new forms of citizenship, and the continuing contradictions in contemporary Ecuador between the discourse and realities of President Correa’s so-called “Citizen’s Revolution.”