Crude Chronicles

Sawyer, Suzana. Crude Chronicles: Indigenous Politics, Multinational Oil, and Neoliberalism in Ecuador. Durham: Duke University Press, 2004.

Discussions I’ve had about this book tend to orbit around how bad it is. I don't think it is that bad, but I do see some shortcomings. So rather than simply summarize it, as I would usually do in a post like this, I want to examine a few of its strengths and weaknesses.

I think that as a study of environmental justice its merit lies in the idea that Sawyer develops of the mosaic of alternative nationalisms that are at play in the OPIP struggle against Texaco and an Ecuadorian state that increasingly abandoned its representative role and took on the role of fiscal manager. I think that her analysis of Oswaldo Guayasamin’s mosaic in the presidential palace becomes her metaphor for the idea of plurinational space that was espoused by the indigenous movement in Ecuador (and I would say uncritically embraced by Sawyer). Yet unsurprisingly, Sawyer’s personal commitment to the indigenous struggle poses a problem for her critical engagement with important concepts at play. I think is is very difficult—and commendable—to tread that thin line between political commitment and scholarly distance, but it will almost inevitably raise critical concerns.

For instance, Sawyer fails to problematize race. Sundberg has struggled to point out how Latin American environmental justice literature has failed to look critically at race and I think Crude Chronicles is a case in point. While Sawyer does take race as something that is constituted and masked through official spatial discourses, what she centers on is the negation of identity (50-51).

Moreover, the emphasis Hooker places on distinguishing between multicultural embraces of ethnic identity and anti-racist mobilization, forces us to problematize what otherwise would be considered clear victories in the face of neoliberal assaults on indigenous territories. That is to say that reforming the agrarian law is no doubt a great feat. Yet because of interventions like those of Hooker and Sundberg, we have to ask what is lost in the fact that that feat was achieved by way of an identity politics rooted in indigeneity and not an out right challenge to racial discrimination.

As a work of history this book leaves a lot to be desired. As Bronfman does with multiculturalism, so too could Sawyer have done with plurinationalism. Crude Chronicles reads as Measures of Equality would if there had been no discussion of Fernando Ortiz’ role in developing the paradigm adopted by the Partido Independiente de Color and if there were no discussion of how multiculturalism fell out of favor over time. That is, Crude Chronicles portrays plurinationalism as a fixed vision articulated by Ecuadorian indigenous activists, without touching upon how that vision may have been fed by / developed as counterpoint to neoliberal doctrine, or how that vision may have transformed as events transpired.

For text online click HERE (login to UBC Library required)