Affiliation: College of Arts and Sciences, Department of Anthropology
The Ecuadorian Amazon has been the site of intensive oil operations for the past 40 years, resulting in widespread contamination of the environment and health problems for the local population. Concerns about harm from oil have gathered a multiplicity of actors in this region invested in documenting oil’s effects. Scientists and other researchers have sought to establish the relationship between oil contamination, chronic and acute disease, and environmental damage in this area. Despite decades of investigations, however, what counts as evidence of harm remains disputed and consensus has not been reached on the consequences of oil operations for those living in their vicinity. This dissertation demonstrates that what we call ‘harm’ from oil emerges and is given form in a highly contested terrain, and tracks how the experiences of those closest to pollution are written out of legal evidence and scientific studies. Drawing on 24 months of ethnographic field research in the Sucumbíos and Orellana provinces of Ecuador, I examine the ways that a lawsuit and scientific studies – in conjunction with regulatory practices, artistic representations, environmental activism, political campaigns, industry archives, and my own ethnographic research and writing – constitute moments of intervention in which different actors work to establish, account for, or discount harm (daño) from oil. I show how harm is made to matter through such interventions, and demonstrate how these practices are embedded in histories of inequality and hierarchies of knowledge production. Defining what counts as harm in light of contemporary oil extraction involves high stakes for all concerned; my dissertation argues for prevention and remediation in despite uncertain knowledge.