ACLS Fellowship Awarded to Suzana M. Sawyer

By Alan Wong – Associate Professor of Anthropology Suzana M. Sawyer has been awarded a 2017 fellowship by the American Council of Learned Societies. The award will support a project entitled "Suing Chevron: Law, Science, and Contamination in Ecuador and Beyond."

While lower gas prices may sound like good news to many Americans, our continued reliance on petroleum comes with tremendous environmental and social costs in regions where ‘Big Oil’ operates.

One such region, of particular interest to Suzana M. Sawyer, is the Ecuadorian Amazon. Sawyer’s fellowship-winning project seeks to trace the events that led to a $9 billion ruling for environmental contamination, rendered in 2011 by an Ecuadorian court against the Chevron Corporation—and then, five years later, to a subsequent delegitimization of that judgment by a US federal court.

In its "Human Energy" advertising campaign, launched in late 2007, Chevron had portrayed itself as striving to solve the world's energy crises through the power of human creative forces. This narrative, however, did not go unchallenged. Sawyer's research brings attention to efforts by Ecuadorians and activists in the US to combat Chevron’s message.

Socio-ecological controversies

It is rare for complaints of environmental contamination in places as marginal as the Ecuadorian rainforest to ever reach courts of law. Sawyer's research brings attention to struggles happening in Ecuador in the hope that careful ethnographic study of this region might be relevant to similar issues affecting human and nonhuman communities around the world.

She writes: “This project pays careful attention to how we reconcile socio-ecological controversies, make sense of corporate actions, and think about transnational jurisprudence and environmental accountability across the globe.” 

Sawyer has been studying such matters for more than a decade. Her 2004 book Crude Chronicles: Indigenous Politics, Multinational Oil, and Neoliberalism in Ecuador traces the emergence in the 1990s of a highly organized indigenous movement committed to combating neoliberal policies enacted by the Ecuadorian state. Through an ethnography of indigenous marches, demonstrations, occupations, and negotiations, Sawyer relates how indigenous people used increasingly sophisticated politics to challenge existing narratives about governance, accountability, and representation. 

This earlier research laid the groundwork for the project being recognized by the ACLS, a private, nonprofit federation of 74 national scholarly organizations committed to representing and supporting American scholarship in the humanities and related social sciences.

Learn more about Suzana M. Sawyer.