Photo: World Bank

Struggles for natural resources have taken place throughout the tumultuous history of Latin America. However, in recent decades a new wave of conflicts focused on questions of ownership, services, choice and sale of energy resources have marred the region's political stability and development and gained international notoriety and concern. In explaining these events media reports and foreign analysts have overwhelmingly produced thin descriptions of their connection to the colourful leading personalities of the region's new left-wing governments and given little attention to their part in fundamental processes of change in the region. These include changes to the dominant political paradigms in the region and intertwined processes that stretch from international border and energy resource ownership debacles, trade blocks and policy disputes (oil and gas vs bio-fuels) between countries to internal militant (in some cases guerrilla) mobilisation and destabilisation by political and social movements at odds with the extractive and market-led energy policies of their governments. They furthermore include the radicalisation and mobilisation of indigenous peoples' organisations and local communities in opposition of national energy policies that are seen to not only threaten or limit their economic well-being, but the destruction of the natural environment on which cultural cosmologies, beliefs and identities rely. Although other issues such as poverty and violence are notable problems in the region, it is clear from ongoing events and reports that Latin Americans themselves see energy resources as a crucial source of solutions to other limitations in national and regional development. However, whereas there is agreement on their importance to future prosperity there remains little public understanding or academic consideration of how different political positions have been formed, interact and conflict with one another.

In responding to this analytic lack, we propose to establish a project that goes beyond the normative study of energy politics and energy alternatives in the region of Latin America. Through the comparative study of the political ideas, social structures, cultural mechanisms and perspectives that form understandings of (and therefore policy on) the value and use of energy resources, the project will produce a deeper understanding of the platforms currently operating- and often at odds with each other- in the regional and national politics of Latin America. Through in-depth qualitative political and anthropological study involving a series of case studies in the region, the project will study how these platforms link to issues and histories of identity, class and other political discourses such as climate change and how they serve to mobilize and create alliances and conflicts/confrontations as well as directions and innovations for peace/development. As such, we aim here to not only study the operation of energy policy, but the formation of energy as a set of ideas and social dynamics that at once inform and are formed by the anthropology and politics of the region. Through the further combination of social science methodologies with digital photography we furthermore argue that the profile of this understanding can be given stronger portrayal and depth. As such the proposed project poses the following key research questions:

  • How is "energy" conceived and understood in Latin American politics and society?
  • How do these conceptions influence debates and conflicts over energy resources at the level of the nation and region?
  • How do these ideas and processes relate to policy mechanisms for national and regional development and integration?