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Latin American Studies

Alumni Focus: An Interview with Amelia Fiske ‘06

Story posted July 15, 2013

with Krista Van Vleet

Tell us where you're from, and what you're up to now.

I'm from Appleton, Maine, about an hour and a half north of Brunswick. I graduated from Bowdoin in 2006, and I am now a Ph.D. candidate in the Anthropology program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I'm currently living in Ecuador, conducting dissertation research on the impacts of oil development on human health and the environment.

You were an ES/LAS major at Bowdoin. How have your majors shaped your life after Bowdoin? What have you been doing since you graduated?

Bowdoin provided me with a number of exceptional opportunities, most important of which was to work closely with faculty members during my time there. After returning from a study abroad program in Mexico in 2004, I applied for a grant through Bowdoin to work with the Maine Migrant Health Program, which provides health services to migrant farmworkers in Maine. The majority are disenfranchised workers from Mexico, who travel from harvest to harvest and have minimal access to basic social services or health care. While with MMHP that summer, I conducted outreach to camps of blueberry rakers throughout the Mid-Coast area, translated in on-site health clinics, and conducted pesticide safety trainings. This experience convinced me that I wanted to work at the intersection of health disparities and immigration issues. I returned to Bowdoin renewed enthusiasm that fall and worked with my advisor, Krista Van Vleet, on an independent study about health disparities among Latinos in the US. This opportunity later led me to pursue a graduate program in Medical Anthropology at UNC Chapel Hill. Working with Bowdoin faculty allowed me to explore topics I was curious about and gain a first hand glimpse into what anthropology might be like in practice.

Tell us about your dissertation research. Where specifically are you working? How do you see yourself making a contribution to the scholarship on Latin America? How has the research been funded?

Oil production in the northeastern corner of the Ecuadorian Amazon began in the 1960s through a consortium between the Texaco Corporation and the Ecuadorian government in large section of previously undeveloped jungle. Life with oil has since become a way of life for many people in this area, with oil pipelines, gas flares, and production stations branching throughout the region. It has also resulted in widespread harm to human health and the environment. In response, state, non-governmental, and scientific entities are invested in documenting the consequences of oil production. One of the most prominent examples of this is the Aguinda v. Texaco class action lawsuit, in which a group of Ecuadorian plaintiffs sued Chevron for damages to human health and the environment that occurred in the first two decades of oil production in Ecuador.

My research deals with how we make evidence of harm from oil, both harm from past oil activities as well as present, or ongoing forms of harm. There are many forms of harm that result from oil operations – untreated pits of oil waste, oil spills, health problems, deforestation, or changing cultural practices – to name a few. I am investigating how residents, activists, scientists, and educators go about mapping, measuring, photographing, and documenting these examples of harm, and how they turn them into the images, facts, and reports that are used to make sense of what oil does to people and places.

A possible contribution of this research is not only a rethinking of what counts as harm, but also an investigation of the tools we use to document the effects of extractive industries. Extractive industries such as oil and mining are reshaping the lives, landscapes, economies, and politics of many Latin American countries. While this study looks specifically at the consequences of oil development, my hope is that it can speak to concerns of extraction and harm across the region. I have been very fortunate to have been funded and supported by a variety of institutions in this research, including the Social Science Research Council, Wenner-Gren Foundation, National Science Foundation, the UNC Institute for Latin American Studies, and the UNC Graduate School.

Can you give us a sense of what you do on a day-to-day basis?

My work is different every day! Since November of 2011, I have been living in Lago Agrio, a city in the north-eastern Amazon of Ecuador that was founded with the advent of oil exploration in the 1960s. It is a fascinating area to work in, ripe with history of multinational and state oil companies, state-sponsored colonization and subsequent deforestation of rainforest, missionary groups trying to win over the souls of indigenous groups, two contentious borders with Colombia and Peru, all in one of the most bio-diverse places on the planet. My project is multi-sited, so this means that I might spend two weeks following a photographer as she documents old oil pits throughout the region, while another day I'll be out on a “toxic-tour” observing how plaintiffs in the Aguinda trial show an oil spill to journalists, or the next day knee-deep in water catching insects with scientists assessing the quality of oil-affected rivers. This project design means that I get to meet a variety of people – farmers, oil workers, activists, state workers, scientists, lawyers – that live and work in the north-eastern Amazon, but it also means that it won't tell a singular ethnographic story of one community and their relationship to oil. It has been a wonderful challenge to imagine this project while a graduate student at UNC, and then to move to the Amazon to try answer the questions I proposed about harm, evidence, and daily life with oil. Ethnography is full of surprises.

Is there anything you know from your experiences in Ecuador that you wish more people knew about?

Oil activities often only make the news when there is a major disaster, such as the Exxon Valdez crash, the BP explosion in the Gulf of Mexico, or the more recent Keystone pipeline ruptures in the US. But the reality of oil production is very different, and the consequences are much greater than these isolated moments of crisis. What I hope to convey through my research are some of the day-to-day effects of oil: the dynamics of communities formed around a single industry, what it is like to live next to a gas flare and suffer from chronic respiratory problems, or how one deals with ongoing small spills from the pipeline that runs through your farmland. While oil might be characterized in the media by moments of disaster, I'm asking what happens when that disaster becomes a way of life. I think anthropology is well suited to bringing these everyday consequences of oil into dialogue with the politics of energy choices or corporate accountability.

What comes next for you?

I'll be in Ecuador through December of this year, and then I head back to UNC to begin writing my dissertation research. My hope is to turn this research into a book on oil in the Amazon, and to find work – hopefully as an Anthropology professor at a school like Bowdoin! I'd love to continue working on issues of the environment, energy, and extractive industries in Latin America.

Amelia Fiske is a Ph.D. candidate in Anthropology  at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  She is currently living in Ecuador, conducting research on the impacts of oil development on human health and the environment.