Doctoral Dissertation Research: African Oil Palm Plantation Expansion and Geographies of Hope in Ecuadorian Choco Region

Grants and Contracts Details


"La ultima cosa que se muere es ki esperanza" (The last thing that dies is hope)- Woman from La Chiquita, San Lorenzo canton, Chocó Region, Ecuador, summer 2007. In the last decade, Northern countries concerned with the relationship between carbon emissions and climate change have committed to increased use of biofuels and carbon trading. Policy frameworks such as the Kyoto Protocol's Clean Development Mechanisms motivate investment in African oil palm plantation expansion in the global South to `store' carbon in these `forests' and to produce palm oil-based biodiesel to substitute for `fossil' fuels. The proposed research examines the causes and consequences of greatly intensified African oil palm cultivation in the Choco region of coastal Ecuador. There, in the canton of San Lorenzo, Afro-Ecuadorian and Indigenous peoples confront the effects of extensive landscape change, as rainforest is replaced by monoculture oil palm plantations. This research engages with political ecology literature and connects to scholarship on geographies of hope and ethnodevelopment. It is also framed by the broad climate change and alternative fuel policy literature. Through archival research, policy analysis, and in depth qualitative research in two communities, this project investigates intersections of the following: 1) global climate change policies; 2) Ecuadorian state development plans to increase African oil palm cultivation; 3) the environmental, social and economic effects of African oil palm plantation expansion for local people; and 4), the strategies that the region's residents are mobilizing to secure their livelihoods in the face of expanded cultivation of oil palms. This dissertation research inquires into cultural and spatial practices through which ChocO peoples are able to carve geographies of hope from fallen forests, poisoned rivers, and palm monoculture. The intellectual merit of the proposed research project lies in its innovative combination of theoretical, conceptual, and methodological approaches from political ecology and development studies, as it extends political ecology through an engagement with ethnodevelopment and the idea of geographies of hope. The research will also enable contributions on multiple levels on key questions, animating much social science concerned with the complex impacts of climate change. By analyzing the proactive place-based views and actions that constitute geographies of hope in Chocó communities and showing that Indigenous and Afro-Ecuadorian people are not simply passive victims of global trends, this study speaks against the often fatalistic discourses on global capital and climate change policy. In addition, it will show how decisions made in reference to climate change, carbon trading, and alternative fuels are penetrating the farthest reaches of human settlement. Scholars are only now recognizing the very recent and very rapid spread of African oil palm plantations in response to bioftiel demand and carbon trading. This research will be the first to examine these dynamics within Ecuador. The broader impacts of the proposed investigation lie in its connection to on-going debates- spanning science, social science, and policy~-over the effects of climate change and of the efforts to address it. Specifically, by taking seriously the experiences and perspectives of historically marginalized people whose lives are being intensely impacted by the expansion of oil palm cultivation, the research will enable a rich, empirically solid contribution to deliberations over the costs and benefits of such strategies to enhance biofuel production globally. Papers reporting this research will be submitted to peer-reviewed geography journals such as the Annals of the Association of American Geographers, Progress in Human Geography, Environment and Planning A, and Antipode, as well as to FLACSO-Ecuador's and the Latin American Studies Association's scholarly journals. Results will also be shared with San Lorenzo communities and Ecuadorian NGOs. Examining the intersections between global processes and local people's responses, and making these findings available to local people and scholars in the Northern and Southern hemispheres is critical to creating more environmentally, economically, and socially just policies and to highlighting how institutions could assist local peoples in organizing and improving their quality of life.
Effective start/end date8/15/087/31/10


  • National Science Foundation: $7,800.00


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