Book Review

 

Indigenous people's protest movements have in recent decades become regular features of Latin America’s political landscape. In Crude Chronicles: Indigenous Politics, Multinational Oil, and Neoliberalism in Ecuador (2004), Suzana Sawyer provides a rich ethnography of such resistance in the Ecuadorian province of Pastaza during the 1990s. She focuses on the struggles of the Organization of Indigenous Peoples of Pastaza (OPIP) to defend ancestral lands and communities from the incursions of a neoliberal state in alliance with transnational oil corporations, particularly the Atlantic Richfield Company (ARCO). In addition to the state’s oil concessions that resulted in destructive outside interference in their social and natural environments, indigenous peoples had to contend with a 1994 revision to the country’s agrarian laws that endangered communal holdings and deepened monoculture production. Throughout her account, Sawyer does not stray from her main themes: first, that globalization is not “equalizing, democratizing, and homogenizing” but quite the opposite; second, that it constantly produces oppositional movements that themselves help to shape its trajectories; third, that corporate capital and the state use abstract discourses of liberalism, democracy, and equality to erase history and to neutralize and depoliticize social inequalities; and fourth, that neoliberalism does not entail a reaction against state intervention in society (as is often claimed) but rather a reconfiguration of such intervention so that the state can “relinquish many responsibilities for overseeing the welfare of its citizens” (pp. 16, 116). All these points are both provocative and, in the light of Crude Chronicles, surely true.

 

For the uninitiated reader, Sawyer places the Pastaza Indians’ struggles against oil companies and the neoliberal state in their historical context. Texaco exploited oil reserves in the northern provinces of Nabo and Sucumbia from the 1960s to the early 1990s, leaving behind a legacy of environmental destruction. Knowing that their own province would eventually be threatened by oil exploration, Pastaza Indians founded OPIP in 1978 to defend and gain legal title to their lands. This effort culminated in a 1992 march on Ecuador’s capital, Quito, which Sawyer is able to describe in detail because she participated in it. Its outcome was that the state granted the Indians communal land title to 55 percent of the territory they claimed, arbitrarily dividing it up into nineteen zones whose boundaries ultimately served to fragment indigenous authority and create new divisions among indigenous peoples. Sawyer gives a nuanced Foucauldian analysis of how this map effectively erased history and culture and fostered new power dynamics through which to “discipline” native resistance.

 

Less than two years later, in January 1994, Indians again marched to Quito, this time largely in response to recent changes to the Hydrocarbon Law that made the regulatory regime much more friendly to multinational corporations. Just a few months after this, the national government also passed the epochal, business-friendly revision to Ecuador’s agrarian laws mentioned above, which inflamed indigenas and campesinos across the country. Thousands occupied transportation routes and set up roadblocks to protest the legislation; their nation-paralyzing action ended only after the president declared a state of emergency nine days later and dispatched the military to quell the protests.

 

Sawyer, who lived among Pastaza Indians for years and was a trusted companion of OPIP’s leaders, relates all these events and many others in a decidedly “interested” way, making her book all the more engaging. Perhaps its most intriguing parts are the descriptions of meetings she attended between representatives of OPIP, ARCO, and the state; she is excellent at exposing the disingenuous tactics used by ARCO to counter OPIP’s claims on behalf of native communities. For example, ARCO, which was given an oil concession in Pastaza in 1988, bribed (with school lunches, blankets, plane rides, etc.) a hundred or so natives who lived in the vicinity of its oil-drilling operations to support it against OPIP, which wanted to forge a united front of all indigenas against the company. ARCO then denied in meetings with OPIP that it was fomenting divisions between natives, arguing on the contrary that these divisions were merely “democracy at work” (p. 6). It pretended that DICIP—the artificially created group of a few dozen indigenous ARCO-supporters—had as much legitimacy as OPIP, an organization with a long history that represented many thousands of Indians. Sawyer therefore argues that ARCO used the language of democracy and liberalism to deny realities of history and culture.

 

The state is at least as much of a villain as ARCO in Sawyer’s story. Not only does it enable the corporations that wreak havoc in Indians’ lives; it uses the very tactics of these corporations to disingenuously claim it is being fair. That is, it uses “the purportedly neutral language of liberal law such that it reinscribe[s] difference and inequality” (p. 183). These tactics are on ample display in the two-week, televised commission that was formed to address Indian grievances against the new agrarian law. On one side (figuratively speaking) is the government and the landed oligarchy, with huge teams of legal advisors; on the other are Indians with a much smaller team of advisors, because many indigenous representatives are simply denied entrance. The government and oligarchy argue that everyone must respect laws equally, exceptions or special laws cannot be made for indigenous groups who want to preserve communal control of land; the indigenas argue that particularity, created by history, does exist, that social inequality has created an “uneven playing field” that demands recognition of historical specificities if justice is to be served (p. 194). Needless to say, the outcome of the commission is merely cosmetic change to the new agrarian law.

 

One of the reasons Crude Chronicles is such an enjoyable read is that it fuses analytical history with a compelling narrative. It is a story, told from the intimate perspective of someone who knows the central actors well, of an oppressed group fighting for its rights against sprawling institutions and faceless bureaucrats. Interweaving the narrative, though, is insightful analysis and a sophisticated understanding of the implications of neoliberalism. Sawyer is unquestionably partisan, but sometimes moral imperatives are so clear that partisanship is necessary. In short, Crude Chronicles is sure to be of both intellectual and human interest to specialists and non-specialists alike.

NOTES OF AN UNDERGROUND HUMANIST

© 2014-2019 by Chris Wright