In 2013, Dr. Gabriela Valdivia (University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill) and Dr. Flora Lu (UC Santa Cruz) started a National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded project investigating the political economy of the oil complex in Ecuador. The research takes place in Waorani communities in the Amazon region of Ecuador, a major site of seismic exploration and oil extraction, as well as in the coastal city of Esmeraldas, adjacent to the nation’s main oil refinery.

The project uses a combination of archival, ethnographic, household economic, and survey approaches to characterize the new regulatory framework; examines who lives in oil communities and how their daily routines and activities intersect with this extractive industry; and explores the lived, visceral experience and perceptions of oil, with attention to gendered and generational dynamics. In collaboration with Ecuadorian scholars, we have undertaken focus groups, key informant interviews, archival research, participant observation, time allocation studies, household economic diaries, surveys (on topics including dietary intake, perceived health and well-being), and participatory mapping and photography in six study communities.

Ecuador, like other countries in South America, has recently sought strategies to reduce its dependency on foreign direct investment and imported energy. The project contributes significantly to anthropological and broader social scientific analyses of environmental and energy policy, and analyses of regulation and public policy. The project integrates the material from this research into coursework at both the graduate and undergraduate level in both the U.S. and Latin America. There are also well developed plans for the international exchange of experiences, ideas, and solutions among scientists focused on energy and environmental policy.

To get a sense of the ethnographic work involved in this project, see our contribution in Anthropology News, volume 55 issue 8 (2014): Crude Entanglements.