Centre for International Environmental Studies
19 November 2021

New SNSF grant for "Anthroposouth" project

Eccelenza Professorial Fellow Antoine Acker and his team receive a SNSF grant 

Interview with SNSF Eccelenza Professorial Fellow Antoine Acker at CIES

Antoine Acker

Your new project Anthroposouth: Latin American Oil Revolutions in the Development Century is kicking off this year. Can you tell us about your research focus and aims for the ensuing years?

Through the example of Latin American oil, the core aim of “Anthroposouth” is to highlight the mechanisms that led post-colonial (i.e. formerly colonized and/or imperially dominated) worlds to adopt fossil fuelled economic models. The key questions at the heart of the project are:

How did patterns of fossil dependence emerge and develop in a peripheral world region such as Latin America and how does this qualify Latin American connections to a global historical trend of energy development, exhaustion of mineral resources, and ultimately climate change?

How can historians study and learn from the agency, expectations and hopes of actors of the Global South regarding energy questions, without making them responsible for processes of pollution in which their historically cumulated share is statistically small?

Why is your focus specifically on Latin America?

Until recently almost all global histories of energy have focused on the global diffusion and replicability of models from the North-Atlantic, emphasizing principally the role of the steam-engine coal-fueled industrial revolution in Britain, and the oil-based growth model of 20th century US America. Experiences from and regional drivers in the Global South have been widely ignored. Latin American countries possibly played a pioneering role by tying the transition of their economies towards fossil fuels with projects of national development and emancipation:

In 1922 Argentina established the world’s first state petroleum company outside the Soviet Union. The first expropriation of a US American oil venture abroad happened in 1937 with the nationalization of Standard Oil of Bolivia, while in the following year Mexico was the first country in the world to nationalize the totality of its oil and gas fields. In the wake of World War II, Venezuela also made a pathbreaking move by imposing on multinational oil companies a 50-50 royalty deal that would soon become a global standard. Then, in 1953, the creation of Petrobrás made Brazil the first nation to ever start to exploit petroleum with a state monopoly. The foundation of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) by Venezuela in 1960 is a historical marker that connects these Latin American precedents to the rise in power of energy producing countries in the Middle East and North Africa. To some extent, one could say that Latin America delivered a recipe for oil-fueled development in the third-world based on resource patriotism and anti-imperialist ideas. 

What structure will the project have? What type of methodology are you planning to use going forward?

The project team will use several scales of analysis to compare and connect the history of different national projects of petroleum development: we have different case studies, which address the issue at the local, national, transnational and regional levels. It will also reconstruct the transnational circulation of ideas, practices and people involved in petroleum technology and politics throughout Latin America, and start to draw a blueprint for a general, statistically informed panorama of Latin American oil transitions. This way, the research will expose the historical construction of a regional model which, in spite of national exceptions, uneven chronologies and local oppositions, generally came down to strengthening resource sovereignty and bind oil exploitation to national industrialization. The project’s timeframe is a short “Latin American development century”, which covers processes of oil-fueled national development from the first nationalization debates in the 1920s to the global oil shock in the mid-1970s.