Progress and Pitfalls in Bolivia’s Natural Gas Bonanza

Interview with cultural anthropologist Bret Gustafson

Faculty Fellow Bret Gustafson, associate professor of anthropology, gives an early look at his current book project, which explores the impact of Bolivia's booming energy industry on its people and environment.

In a couple of sentences, what is the argument you’re making with “Energy and Empire: Bolivia in the Age of Gas”?
The book documents the ways in which a natural-gas boom in Bolivia is transforming its politics, culture and the economy. The word “empire” in the title of the book is a reference to the longer historical domination of the United States and of a particular form of fossil-fuel-dependent capitalist growth that underlies the global environmental crisis of global warming — and the skewed and unequal relationship between places like Bolivia and the consuming countries. In many ways, the book is an attempt to critique this relationship — between empire, fossil fuels and a particular form of development — and to imagine how countries like Bolivia are both trapped within yet seeking to move beyond this dependent relationship.

The argument I hope to make is that beyond the apparent benefits in economic growth, and the efforts made by the government to redistribute that growth in the near term, that the ecological and social impacts of gas development are, in the longer term, environmentally destructive and socially regressive. This mirrors the effects of fossil fuels globally.

What prompted you to explore this topic? Does it build on earlier work or is it a new direction for you?
I have worked for more than 20 years in and on Bolivia, mostly in the southeastern region known as the Chaco. It is home to Bolivians from all over the country but also to the Indigenous Guaraní people. My prior work focused on education and land rights. But in the 1990s, gas companies started showing up, and I began to follow the growing impacts of gas development in the region. So, it’s earlier work with a slightly new direction, looking more closely at the cultures and politics of oil and gas.

Monument to the oil field worker, Camiri, Bolivia. (Photo courtesy Bret Gustafson)What’s at stake for the people of this region? How does the energy industry impede or encourage their self-determination?
Their livelihoods are at stake. The energy industry, in many cases, makes payments to communities and organizations that are, for better and for worse, eagerly accepted. These are more and less legal attempts to secure what companies call “social license” — the ability to operate (drilling, exploring) without community protest. Yet these short-term gains are usually paralleled by other negative effects — environmental and social — and the local peoples are rarely, if ever, the recipients of most of the benefits of gas development, which flows, quite literally and figuratively, to the cities. While Bolivia touts itself as a supporter of Indigenous rights, gas development will trump self-determination every time.

You noted that you’re writing this book from the “Bolivian, albeit American-authored, perspective.” Why is that important and how is this perspective unique?
Well, at the risk of being accused of trying to “appropriate” voices, I have spent enough time in Bolivia to recognize what scholarship rooted in a place looks like, and what scholarship rooted in an imperial center like the United States looks like. I hope to do the former. The latter is usually blind and provincial, often presuming to know what Bolivia should do, or what Bolivians should do, and deploys categories to that end. For example, the idea of “energy security” frequently dominates the way that U.S. scholars talk about Bolivia, whereas that category has little direct relevance to the ways that Bolivians understand and talk about the politics of gas. So, which categories should we use? In a small way, I hope to challenge these U.S.-centric paradigms, since, in many ways, those ways of thinking are part of the problem.

What kinds of sources are you using in your research?
Well, the anthropologist traffics in a lot of conversations, whether we call them interviews or not. The kind of work we do is not so simple that we can simply try to count something and run some statistics to create a bar graph out of it. We are trying to craft a rich and complex social and cultural portrait that seeks to understand things like fossil-fuel development in multiple dimensions, simultaneously. In my case, it runs the gamut: Twitter exchanges, TV commercials, coffee-shop chitchat, taxi drivers, Indigenous leaders, political officials, gasfield workers. The chapter I’m working on now is called “Bulls and Beauty Queens” — yes, they have everything to do with natural gas — and relies on a conversation with a rich, young American who got wrapped up in the Bolivian beauty industry, and with observations on street violence waged by Bolivian thugs against poorer, more indigenous farmers. Despite the violence involved, this is one of the more revealing portraits of what resource conflicts entail.

In terms of sources, the Internet has greatly expanded and complicated our idea of ethnographic research. We used to go somewhere, take a few notebooks full of notes and come back and write it up. These days, people I might have spoken to in person also show up in my inbox, on YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and the online media. Twitter spats between political figures in Bolivia are now often quite public. The explosion of possible “data” is both useful, since you learn things you did not know, but also overwhelming, since at some point you have to make a lot more decisions about what matters, how it matters and why it matters.