Amelia M. Fiske on the Toxic Relations of Oil in Amazonia

Q&A with Amelia Fiske on the Toxic Relations of Oil Extraction in Amazonia

Reckoning with Harm is a striking ethnographic analysis of the harm resulting from oil extraction. Covering fifty years of settler colonization and industrial transformation of the Ecuadorian Amazon, Amelia Fiske interrogates the relations of harm. She moves between forest-courtrooms and oily waste pits, farms and toxic tours, to explore both the ways in which harm from oil is entangled with daily life and the tensions surrounding efforts to verify and redress it in practice.

Dr. Fiske theorizes that harm is both a relationship and an animating feature of relationships in this place, a contingent understanding that is needed to contemplate what comes next when living in a toxic world.

Reckoning with Harm is available now wherever you buy books! Check out more titles in anthropology in Latin American from UT Press here and more books on oil extraction here.

What inspired you to study the aftermath of oil extraction in the Ecuadorian Amazon?

I first travelled to Ecuador in 2010 as part of a graduate program to study Kichwa. I had been reading about the ongoing Aguinda v. Texaco lawsuit, and this was the first time I had ever seen oil pipelines cutting through the jungle, or the massive machinery that was opening new wells that summer along the Napo River. I was struck by the obviousness of the extent of contamination which was visible as I travelled throughout Sucumbíos and Orellana, and at the same time how contested the lawsuit appeared to be. This tension inspired me to begin the research for this book.

What kinds of evidence of harm were the most revealing during your research process? What surprised you?

One of the things that has always fascinated me about working in this region is the extent of transformation to the Amazon in such a relatively short period of time. In less than half a century the ancestral territory of Indigenous nationalities was transformed into a center of industry and urbanity. I spent a lot of my time conducting life history interviews with the early settlers to the region to understand the relations between the industry and people arriving to make a new life farming in the Amazon. One of the things that was so striking about these accounts was how similar their encounters were with the oil industry. Time and again people told me about spills on their land, washing their clothes or bathing their children in rivers that became gray with chemical froth, or of laundry stained black from the nearby gas flares. Their accounts were tapestries of overlapping, continual assaults on life that echoed one another, and are also corroborated by industry records of spills, photographic evidence, and scientific testing of contaminated sites. For me, these personal histories with the industry need to be central to understanding what has happened in this region and how extractive industries transform life more broadly.

Can you elaborate on the tensions surrounding efforts to verify and redress harm resulting from oil extraction in Ecuador?

Over the past several decades, there have been numerous scientific investigations that have shown the effects of oil on the environment and human health in this region. Without going into detail, these have included higher risk of cancer for those living within close proximity to contamination sources, as well as elevated morbidity and mortality rates, and an increased risk of miscarriage for women living closer to oil activity. Others have also explored the psychosocial health of young people living in the region and the complicated relationships between extraction and violence, precarity, poverty, racism, and environmental degradation.  

Despite this body of work demonstrating the overall toxic effects of oil contamination in a place with such extensive industrial presence, certifying the precise effects of toxic exposures on human health—such as in the Aguinda lawsuit—remains highly contentious. This is in part because of entrenched corporate and state investments in a political economy that privileges extraction over human and environmental health, a pattern that is seen across the world. In addition, industry-sponsored studies have sought to undermine assessments of harm. These disputes are part of a broader narrative in which scientific expertise on the effects of extractive industries is increasingly suspect, and industry actors mobilize disagreements over specific findings to create the perception that no consensus exists.

In the book, I show how the measures used to understand and verify harm are too narrow to meaningfully capture the depth and breadth of the many changes to life that extractive industries bring. These changes to life are clearly captured, for example, in the life histories of people who lived in the region, or in the Toxic Tours run by Donald Moncayo. These accounts led me to focus on the relationality of harm. I think we need other ways of understanding harm that do not hinge principally on boundaries, whether in the form of contractual limits of accountability for environmental injustice, proof of causality for toxic substances in extractive environments, or contrived expectations of objectivity. Relationality is central to reframing harm to confront the pervasive effects of contamination in the past and to rethink the possibilities for life alongside this contamination in the future.

In chapter 5, you delve into tours of areas affected by the oil industry. Can you provide examples of how Toxic Tours and Chevron media tours frame the questions of accountability in relation to the oil industry?

One of the most powerful aspects of the Toxic Tours is the personal nature of the encounter with oil contamination. So often we read or witness the effects of the oil industry largely from afar. But on the tours, this distance is collapsed, as you probe the extent and meanings of toxicity with your own senses. I had never imagined that someone could go on a tour and remain unconvinced about contamination’s effects throughout the region. Yet, when I went on a media tour with Chevron, I saw how someone could stand on these sites and narrate these pits, spills, and histories through an entirely different lens. Instead of thinking through the connections between contamination and the surrounding communities, or between individual stories of loss and broader effects of the industry, each detail of the sites we were on was assiduously scrutinized. It was fascinating to me that both Toxic Tours led by Donald and media tours led by Chevron representatives leveraged the same old pits, the same rusted pipes, the same toxic waste, but not to the same end. For Donald, accountability emerged through the relations of the waste pit with the stream that ran below, with the neighbors whom he knew personally. For Chevron, accountability was operationalized in technical terms, such that the Toxic Tours were opportunities for dissection of any corporate accountability rather than connection.

You are also are interested in merging graphic art and ethnography. Can you tell us about how that relates to this book?

Much of the experience with toxic contamination evades the written word. For the past several years, I’ve been working with a friend and graphic artist, Jonas Fischer, to explore how the experience of a Toxic Tour can be rendered graphically. This has included travelling to the Amazon with Jonas so that he could go on a Toxic Tour himself, and sharing our work with people in Quito and Lago Agrio to get feedback and new inspiration. We then wrote a graphic novel together, Toxic: A Tour of the Ecuadorian Amazon, which will come out early next year. The book is inspired by the creative ways that Donald, a local environmental activist whom I worked closely with during my research, invites participants to smell crude oil or to step out onto logs suspended over waste pits. It is based on my ethnographic research but also takes creative liberties to experiment with toxicity visually – whether zooming in on the origins of hydrocarbons stuck on one’s glove or through the disorienting dreams of the characters as they process the tour and relate it to their own experiences. It has been a lot of fun for me to work on the two projects together and think about how the relationships between graphic art, the written word, and ethnography can inform one another.

Amelia M. Fiske is a senior research associate at the Institute for History and Ethics in Medicine at the Technical University of Munich in Germany.