Petro-geographies and the dialectic of the everyday. Enforcing environmental laws in the hydrocarbon sector in post-neoliberal Ecuador

Abstract / Resumen / Resumo

Since the beginning of the 21st century, some Latin American governments that explicitly self-defined as post-neoliberal sought to contrast the previous neoliberal resource governance with a state-led, socially inclusive, ecologically progressive development model. A decade after such left turn of these government, scholars assess their success to remain limited. Scholars argued that oil extraction itself remained governed by the practices of the oil industry that were established more than four decades ago. The habits of oil rule continue to lead to environmental degradation and social conflict that new government programs do not prevent, but only address after their occurrence. In this article I argue that a narrative of all-dominant extractive forces would risk discarding the post-extractivist struggles. The article studies such struggles through an institutional ethnographic approach drawing on critical state theories and theories of structure and agency. The article focuses its attention hereby on the struggles of the enforcement of environmental laws (post-extractivism) against these habits of oil rule (extractivism). Examples of habits of oil rule are the paternalistic relationship between oil companies and communities, enforcement practices oriented towards an outdated legal framework, as well as old infrastructures at some oil sites and unrepaired environmental damages from past operations. The article shows what consequences the habits of oil rule entail for the enforcement of environmental laws, arguing that the way that these practices of the oil industry place an obstacle to environmental law enforcement creates the conditions that allow these practices to continue. The habits of oil rule continually generate incidence that call for an inspection. As inspections are highly time-consuming because of the distances that must be travelled to extraction sites and the procedure an inspection entails, the problems generated by these habits of oil rule take away time from the inspector, thus preventing the dedication of more time to inspections that would target the prevention of environmental damages. This is further complicated by the circumstance that the Ministry of Environment remains particularly unstable due to high turn-over rates in staff that are caused by a combination of political partisan appointments and short-term contracts of employment. This article suggests that scholars can contribute to the breaking of this vicious cycle and to a transition towards post-extractivism through a publicly engaged scholarship. Such scholarship would place emphasis on collaborations and practical support to affected people.