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Gabriela Valdivia, associate professor of geography, examines the political ecology of natural resource governance: how states, firms and civil society appropriate and transform resources to meet their interests, and how capturing and putting resources to work transforms cultural and ecological communities.

Her most recent project draws on feminist political ecology and digital storytelling to examine the Ecuadorian oil chain. The project currently conveys life and oil in two sites of the oil complex in Ecuador: oilfields in the Amazon and oil refining in the city of Esmeraldas.

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Below is a transcript of the video: Conversations at Hickerson House: Gabriela Valdivia on the Political Ecology of Natural Resource Governance in Ecuador

Hi, my name is Gabriela Valdivia. I am an associate professor in the department of geography and I am also an affiliate faculty in the environmental, ecology and energy program at UNC.

Tell us about your research on the Ecuadorian oil chain and the city of Esmeraldas.

My most recent work has been a comparative study between a refinery city in Ecuador called Esmeraldas and the oil fields in the Amazon region. We have been looking at how life unfolds in relation to the oil chain in Ecuador.

What has been most surprising about what you’ve found in your research?

The most surprising things that we have found is the shift in framework that we had to use in order to understand the effects of oil flow. We entered this project with my collaborator Flora Lu at the University of California Santa Cruz. We entered the project with an environmental justice lens and we were looking for the ways in which people were resisting the oil economy in Esmeraldas. This is a framework that has been used very commonly in different parts of the world, and in the Amazon in Ecuador where we had been working for a long time. What we found in Esmeraldas is that resistance to oil and mobilization against oil is not as explicit, or as defined, as it is in other parts of the world. So we had to shift the questions and we had to shift the way in which we approached our study to understand how people lived with oil. That required us taking a more holistic view of their experience – looking at how livelihoods, looking at how perceptions of well-being and risk were framed in relation to an oil economy in ways that were indirect to oil. They were more related to the kind of landscapes that oil creates rather than the oil flow itself.

What do you hope to learn in the next stages of your research?

Some of the things that we’re trying to follow up on is how to think about what an intervention is in a site like Esmeraldas. A lot of our goal – our primary goal – when we started our research was how to channel the information so they could be used for promoting a change in policy or a change in environmental protection regulations. What we are trying to rethink with our collaborators in Ecuador and in Esmeraldas in particular, is how to think more holistically about what evidence means and what effect can mean. So, not approaching change only through a formal approach of policy but approaching change through empowerment through the recognition of environmental knowledges that are not taken into account. Through the deep histories that people have to deal with in order to make a living in Esmeraldas. There’s a saying in the city that is called “juegan la vida” and it means to wager life, and that becomes very symbolic of how everyday life is lived in Esmeraldas. We were very fortunate to have a team of ethnographers working in Esmeraldas for six months. It is from the rich data collection that we were able to obtain with this local team that we came to understand how important it is to take into account a more holistic take on life – that looks at health, that looks at access to services, that looks at people’s self perception of their life chances in a space like Esmeraldas. And how we can have a much longer-term impact when we take into account this holistic view of life rather than trying to channel it through specific policies that are directed at state representatives and government and not necessarily at the individual level.

What are the next steps in this research?

Our next steps are to continue with our dissemination effort. We collected a significant amount of information on life in Esmeraldas and we have been collaborating with grassroots groups in Esmeraldas. There’s one in particular that we’ve been working with called Women Supporting Women in Esmeraldas. It is about the generation of knowledge about livelihood opportunities, about how to use research to promote their own interests in terms of providing access to health care or providing access to childcare while women are seeking other livelihoods. So our next steps really involve integrating our partners into our work and using the information we collected during our NSF project to help empower the possibilities to change life.

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