Liquid Gold, Poisoned Potion

Liquid Gold, Poisoned Potion

Jonathan Cook on Suzana Sawyer’s Crude Chronicles

Crude Chronicles: Indigenous Politics, Multinational Oil, and Neoliberalism in Ecuador
by Suzana Sawyer
Duke University Press, 2004, 294 pp., $21.95

On August 21, 2003, the president of Ecuador, Lucio Gutiérrez, drove with his retinue to a small windswept hilltop in the Andes, not far from the capital city of Quito. He was there to inaugurate the new $1.5 billion Heavy Crude Pipeline, or OCP (Oleoducto de Crudos Pesados), which would be the second oil pipeline to stretch from east to west across this small, poverty-plagued country. Built in the face of great domestic and international controversy, the OCP represented the latest chapter in the almost forty-year history of Ecuador’s tethering its economy to petroleum.

And now, though the first oil would not gurgle its way westward for several months, the politicians, oil barons, and other VIPs were ready to celebrate. Outfitted for the occasion in an engineer’s hardhat, Gutiérrez strode forward to turn a large crank that would symbolically open the floodgates to a new wave of Ecuadoran oil wealth. But with flashbulbs popping and OCP officials looking on, the president could not make the wheel turn. Members of the press fingered their notebooks and played with their cameras. After several embarrassing minutes, the wheel turned, the flashbulbs flashed—the next era of Ecuadoran oil development was dawning.

Since the first wells were drilled in the 1960s, Ecuador has been a microcosm of what dependency theorists once termed “core-periphery relations.” Petroleum flows out of the country’s east, leaving a great deal of misery in its wake; the wealth from its sale accretes in Quito and along the southern coast, near Guayaquil. Most of the wells in the Oriente (as the Ecuadoran Amazon is known) were built by foreign oil companies, who received preferential deals ensuring them the lion’s share of royalties and a myriad of tax breaks, incentives, and write-offs. Thus, a dependent relationship also emerged between the Ecuadoran state and global capital.

Suzana Sawyer, an anthropologist at the University of California-Davis, has worked for many years among the indigenous communities of Pastaza, a province in the southern Oriente. Led by the dynamic Organization of Indigenous Peoples of Pastaza (OPIP), many of these communities have been organizing for decades to stop the advance of the petroleum frontier from its traditional base in the northeastern Oriente, near Colombia. Tracing OPIP’s ongoing struggle to prevent the national government from leasing thousands of acres of rain forest to foreign oil companies, Sawyer sees a larger parable about development and democracy.

Like many Latin American countries, Ecuador emerged into modernity as a democracy in word more than deed. The state enshrined juridical notions of equality before the law, but did l...