- Life in Oil: Cofán Survival in the Petroleum Fields of Amazonia by Michael L. Cepek
Life in Oil: Cofán Survival in the Petroleum Fields of Amazonia
Austin: University of Texas Press, 2018. 304 pp. Photographs, maps, references, index. $27.95 paper (ISBN: 978–1–4773–1508–8).
The ecuadorian cofán are in a sense legendary in the popular imaginary of Indigenous Amazonia” (Davidov, 2014, p. 197). The cover of Life in Oil supports that legend: feathers in ears, noses, and crowns; mounded strands of beads and more feathers and scores of peccary tusks made into long necklaces. The legend of Indigenous Amazonia includes a culture inextricable from rainforest and rivers full of sustenance and danger, includes shamans drinking yaje (or ayahuasca) that they might learn to become jaguars or anacondas. It encompasses waves of proselytizing settlers seeking fortune in this world and/or the next. By the late-twentieth century, the Cofán legend incorporated hydrocarbon production and its vast consequences in Amazonia, and a Cofán-identifying-Caucasian son of missionaries occasionally called a “gringo chief.” The legend includes a decades-long, nineteen-billion-dollar, lawsuit against behemoth Chevron, and multiple armed occupations of hydrocarbon industry sites by hundreds of Cofán people. A number of Bear Guerra’s black-and-white photographs accompany Cepek’s words in a telling of this legend with a focus on Cofán experience.
Sometimes, stories of legendary Native survival and images of authentically adorned and stoic Natives under environmental attack—both suggested by this book’s cover—can be problematic (e.g. Kane, 1995). Sometimes, such texts function—as they have for centuries across the Americas—to (un)intentionally reify Native peoples’ racialized socioecological marginalization, especially when a power disparity exists between the Native people being portrayed and those whose gazes shape portraits, often North Americans or Westerners. I write “sometimes” because we all know the old adage about judging a book’s cover. Cepek’s relationship with many of his Cofán collaborators spans more than two decades. He speaks fluent A’ingae, the Cofán language. The people on the book’s cover—Alejandro, Lucia, and Roberto—host Cepek during his fieldwork stays in the Cofán community of Dureno and consider him family, a feeling he reciprocates according to the shared kindnesses described throughout Life in Oil. Those relationships are what make this book more than simply another example of a popular research genre that Cepek himself criticizes: something on the horrors of oil in Amazonian Ecuador written by a North American simply to improve their own lot in life with little concern for any Ecuadorian, Indigenous or otherwise (p. 190).
Using the staple anthropological practices of applied linguistic proficiency and long-term ethnographic fieldwork, Cepek conducted interviews, conversations, and observations that provide most of the subject matter of Life in Oil. After relating the experience of a riverine oil spill in 2014, chapter one succinctly states the book’s approach: “life in [End Page 270] oil is a form of slow, confusing, and ultimately unknowable violence” (p. 10). Cofán people are described as confident, suffering, and fearful “victims of history who [recognize that they] deserve material compensation for oil’s assault on their lives” (p. 11). A nod to Nixon’s (2011) appraisal of long-lasting social and environmental justice issues as “slow violence,” Cepek’s theoretical framing of the hydrocarbon industry and its socioecological effects consistently employs what Appel et al. (2015) refer to as the “metonymic register” of “oil.” In this common social science approach, the term “oil” variably refers to: the substance itself, sometimes considered an actant in the Latourian sense; the infrastructures, practices, and consequences of its commodification; and/or complex themes of hydrocarbon governance and politics such as modernity, money, power, and violence. That metonym is “performative” (Appel et al., 2015, p. 17), a compelling and expedient mode of framing the complex socioecological problems that constitute “oil.”
Chapter two begins with background on Cepek’s relationship to Alejandro and his family, followed by an overview of Cofán spatial history focused on Dureno before...