An “Ecological Path” in Ecuador’s Yasuní National Park: On the Reflexivity of Oil Infrastructure

By Peter Taber, University of Arizona §

Satellite imagery of a small section of the Block 31 road entering the Apaika platform area, taken in 2013. Imagery courtesy of Matt Finer (Amazon Conservation Association), Massimo De Marchi (DICEA, University of Padova), Francesco Ferrarese (DiSSGea, University of Padova) and Salvatore Eugenio Pappalardo (DAFNAE, University of Padova).

Yasuní National Park is Ecuador’s largest Amazonian protected area, one of the most biodiverse places in the world, and the site of multiple waves of oil development since the late 1980s. Since August 2013, contentious plans for drilling in the eastern-most portion of the park have moved forward. Much of the controversy centers on oil infrastructures: both their anticipated environmental effects and the lack of transparency surrounding their construction. Oil infrastructure’s geographically distributed character and technical complexity mean that an enormous amount of work is involved for environmental advocates seeking to determine if specific physical structures are compliant with Ecuador’s environmental regulations. The technical challenges for environmental advocates assessing the oil field are compounded by the fact that they confront a state that remains heavily reliant on oil revenue, and in which regulators work closely with the state’s own oil developers. In lieu of state cooperation, activists are forced to improvise to gather evidence and make claims.

The size and complexity of oil infrastructures are not just problems for activists alone, but for oil managers and regulators, as well. As with any large-scale, modern bureaucratic or capitalist endeavor, no aspect of oil production or governance can function without diverse forms of knowledge. From describing the location and quality of oil reserves to identifying viable pipeline routes; from defining acceptable areas of deforestation in advance of construction to verifying that the noise at well sites is beneath an acceptable decibel threshold – the networks of companies and public agencies working in the oil field can only function by producing knowledge which is then used to guide their own or others’ actions. Such knowledge is most effective when it is produced in commensurate terms and accessible in routine ways by state administrators, oil field foremen, environmental contractors or other actors. After a half-century of development, a number of “information infrastructures” (e.g. report archives, labs and databases) produce and store such knowledge for the oil field, shaping oil production and governance over the long-term (Star and Ruhleder 1996; Bowker 1994).

Ad hoc evidence-gathering by activists on one hand, and the information infrastructures of oil governance on the other, are two different ways of making knowledge about the oil field to shape the oil field. They are forms of collective reflexivity, processes of producing knowledge about distributed social and technical processes in order to act on them (Jasanoff 2012; Barry 2013). Technical controversies like that surrounding Yasuní are centrally concerned with such reflexive processes: when empirical claims about oil development diverge, the norms regarding knowledge of the oil field – what knowledge is relevant, how it is produced and used – are also susceptible to contestation. A dispute over a road in Petroleum Block 31 in the eastern portion of Yasuní demonstrates how these forms of reflexivity have interacted to politicize development while producing a new regulatory category: the “ecological path.” The Block 31 controversy highlights the centrality of reflexive processes to the politics of infrastructure development.


The Ecological Path

In 2013, a National Geographic Society photographer took pictures of a large byway inside Yasuní’s boundaries where the environmental license for oil development specified that there should only have been an “ecological path” (sendero ecológico). The original path permitted by the Block 31 environmental license was a single-lane road intended to allow a crew to lay fiber optic cable. Instead, the photograph suggested that the state oil company Petroamazonas had built a wide thoroughfare. Ecuador’s Ministry of the Environment denied the existence of the road at that time.

Seeking to establish the road’s existence and evaluate it in terms commensurate with Ecuador’s environmental regulations, foreign specialists conducted a study in 2014 with satellite imagery (Finer et al 2014). They found that the average width for the road in question was 11 meters over the maximum allowed by the Block’s license, a finding that would normally trigger an environmental audit. The report was published amidst growing unease in Ecuador regarding the development process in Yasuní. The Ministry of the Environment insisted that the road identified by the authors met the requirements of the environmental license and that the study had not been competently executed.

A colloquium responding to the technical study was held at Quito’s Universidad Andina in June 2014, and was reported in a number of Ecuadorian papers (e.g. Hoy 2014). The panelists drew attention to Yasuní’s troubled history, concerns about environmental damage and the rights of local people. The geographer Manuel Bayón summed up one central demand made by the presenters when he called “to detain intervention in [Yasuní], so that we can open a path to a true technical, scientific and democratic debate” and allow a national referendum on oil development (ibid.).

For environmental advocates confronting a recalcitrant oil state, there is no unproblematic way to prove the existence of a road in a territorial unit governed by a particular environmental license, to compare its physical features with the specifications laid out in that license, or to communicate the findings to a geographically dispersed public. Ecuadorian and foreign activists connected a series of political claims about the oil field with the functioning of the Ecuadorian petro-state on the basis of development’s mundane technical details (Ong and Collier 2005). In the process, their advocacy linked the state’s technical criteria, normative notions about the costs of development, and questions about democratic participation (including how, and by whom development’s costs should be measured; Callon et al 2011). In doing so, they used the infrastructural details of the “ecological path” to pry open a larger conversation about state transparency and environmental justice.


Oil’s Archive

Since the 1990s, such details have been negotiated in Ecuador through environmental impact assessments. These technical studies describe project sites, anticipate future damage, and specify “terms of reference” under which development can be carried out. In the process, they produce vast quantities of documentation. As Geoffrey Bowker (2010) has written, such an archive is a “bowdlerized, legally aware” record. But its protocols and standards also embody the norms governing the oil field by defining, e.g. acceptable forms of damage and remediation, and who counts as a legitimate “stakeholder” for a given project. The archive of environmental impact assessment is thus an infrastructure that anyone who wishes to make claims about development must engage with.

Many places in Yasuní have been well documented over the last 20 years of oil operations, including Block 31. The region was initially to be developed by the Brazilian company Petrobras in 2006. Petrobras’ management plan reflected intense scrutiny by environmentalists, severely limiting the roads that could be built. Petrobras eventually found the regulatory burden too onerous, and abandoned Block 31 to Petroamazonas in 2009. Rather than redoing the permitting process, Petroamazonas renewed the license that had been granted to Petrobras. In effect, the 2014 road controversy ensnared Petroamazonas and the Ministry of Environment in stringent terms of reference originally intended for a foreign oil developer. This occurred because environmentalists connected one knowledge-making process (a felicitous aerial photo, a remote sensing analysis, a university colloquium) with another (environmental impact assessment, and Block 31’s management plan and license).

We can distinguish between the advocacy around Block 31 in 2014 and environmental impact assessment in terms of their degrees of institutionalization. The Block 31 study exemplifies the technical improvisation that often characterizes environmental advocacy. On the other hand, the archive of environmental impact assessment is more like an information infrastructure: a large-scale system for describing and remembering the oil field in its various social, environmental and legal aspects, in standardized ways, over the long-term (Bowker 2005). Pipes, wells and platforms in the lower Amazon cannot function without the reflexive processes that build, maintain, use and govern them. They are part of a large, institutionalized field of economic development that requires comparably large-scale, institutionalized mechanisms for producing knowledge and coordinating social action. Oil’s information infrastructure is arguably an intrinsically conservative force, though the Block 31 anecdote shows that it can be mobilized in unintuitive ways – how it indeed served as a form of infrastructural support for advocates indicting Petroamazonas and the Ministry of the Environment.



Incensed by the Ministry’s continued denial of the 2014 report’s findings, activists attempted to see the Block 31 road firsthand in July of that year, but were denied access by Petroamazonas’ security. The episode put a fine point on the Yasuní controversy and the challenge posed by oil development for Ecuadorian democracy. The Ministry of the Environment presently insists that the roads in Block 31 have been kept to 10 meters in width (MAE ndi). It has also been forced to spell out what it means by the term “ecological path” in response to its critics (MAE ndii), formalizing a new category in terms of which the oil field will now be governed. Yasuní’s development thus promises to bear out one of the canonical points about political modernity: that the knowledge-making required by modern societies never merely represents social reality, but actively participates in producing new objects, problems and domains of government (Foucault 2007; Hacking 1990).

Whether as a focus of contentious politics or business-as-usual resource extraction, the size and complexity of the oil field’s infrastructures mean that they can only be acted on through diverse reflexive processes. To understand the Block 31 road controversy, we have to be mindful of not just the physical features of the oil field, but interactions between headline-grabbing technopolitical advocacy and the institutions of oil governance; between ad hoc, piecemeal knowledge of the oil field, and more enduring ways of formulating and responding to the oil field’s problems as these are progressively built into its information infrastructures. Keeping infrastructure’s various forms of reflexivity in view might be helpful for anthropologists studying the negotiation of “ecological paths” beyond Yasuní, as well.

Works Cited

Barry, Andrew. 2013. Material Politics: Disputes Along the Pipeline. Malden: Blackwell.
Bowker, Geoffrey. 1994. Science on the Run: Information Management and Industrial Geophysics at Schlumberger, 1920-1940. Cambridge: MIT.
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–2010. The archive. Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies 7(2): 212-14.
Callon, Michel, Pierre Lascoumes and Yannick Barthe. 2011. Acting in an Uncertain World: An Essay on Technical Democracy. Cambridge: MIT.
Finer, Matt, Salvatore Eugenio Pappalardo, Francesco Cerrarese and Massimo de Marchi. 2014. High resolution satellite imagery reveals Petroamazonas violated environmental impact study by building road into Yasuní National Park. Technical report. Washington D.C.: Geoyasuní.org.
Foucault, Michel. 2007. Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the College de France, 1977-1978. New York: Palgrave-Macmillan.
Hacking, Ian. 1990. The Taming of Chance. New York: Cambridge.
Hoy (unattributed). 2014. Yasuní: Cuatro miradas diseccionan el proceso. Hoy 6 June 2014.
Jasanoff, Sheila. 2013. Science and Public Reason. New York: Routledge.
Ministerio de Ambiete del Ecuador. No Date i. Bloque 31.
Ministerio de Ambiete del Ecuador. No Date ii. Ficción y realidad.
Ong, Aihwa and Stephen J. Collier. 2005. Global Assemblages: Technology, Politics and Ethics as Anthropological Problems. Malden: Blackwell.
Star, Susan Leigh and Karen Ruhleder. 1996. Steps toward an ecology of infrastructure: Borderlands of design and access for large information spaces. Information Systems Research 7(1), 111–134.

Peter Taber is a PhD candidate in Sociocultural Anthropology at the University of Arizona. With fieldwork supported by the Wenner Gren Foundation, his dissertation focuses on the information infrastructures that enable the governance of Ecuador’s biodiversity.

This post is part of our thematic series: The Nature of Infrastructure