The Ecology of Oil

Author: 
Santiago, Myrna

Santiago, Myrna I. The Ecology of Oil: Environment, Labor, and the Mexican Revolution, 1900-1938. Cambridge [U.K.]: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Santiago blends social and environmental history to explain transformations in the Mexican oil industry leading up the Cárdenas' nationalization in 1938. The guiding concept she uses to bring these two fields together is the notion of an "ecology of oil," which addresses interwoven patterns of land tenure and use with social structures.
The major transformations she describes, then, fall along these three axes: tenure moving gradually from communal to private; use moving agricultural (subsistence and ranching) to drilling and refining; and the social landscape shifting from Huasteca to mestizo, as the industry attracted labour and the instability of the revolution—then post-revolutionary clientelism—pushed labour to the Vera Cruz.

Regarding tenure, the transformation she describes follows a common progression in which commonly held Huasteca land eventually became the property of foreign firms like Standard Oil and Royal Dutch Shell. However, unlike the situation Melville describes in the Valle del Mezquital, this progression is stunted and interrupted by the nature of the Huasteca landscape and the social transformations of the revolutionary and post-revolutionary period. Although consolidation of ownership did occur in the lead up to the revolution, land was not fully privatized by an invasion of ranching-focused hacendados, partly because the dense jungle and tar pits spotting the land were not conducive to large-scale ranching. Moreover, as foreign firms moved in to search for and exploit reserves, the instability of the revolutionary period made it more reasonable to rent from hacendados instead of purchasing land outright.

Land use patterns changes in many ways. In addition to drilling wells and building pumping stations and refineries (concentrated around Tampico), the ecology of oil meant shifts from subsistence milpas to oil camps, as locals became wage earners as guides and oil workers. Moreover, the industry was a huge source of degradation due to deforestation, and contamination from pumping stations (rivers) and gushers (forests) like the 1908 dos bocas disaster.

Santiago's focus on the social transformations that constituted the ecology of oil is what makes this an example of history from below, for she demonstrates how the unionization and action of oil workers ultimately lead to the expropriation that Cárdenas often receives so much credit for.  First she describes the forging of a workforce out of an initially indigenous, but primarily migrant labour pool. Then, in Part 3 of the book she goes into detail about the organization of industry workers and the increasing tension that placed on the federal state's relationship to foreign companies.

Ultimately, the pressure leading expropriation was two-fold: increased union activity and a discursive shift in the portrayal of the Huasteca from a nineteenth-century Eden to a narrative of wasteland that characterized the ecology of oil.