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Centre for International Environmental Studies

AnthropoSouth: Latin American Oil Revolutions in the Development Century

Funding Organisation: Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF)
Timeline: 2021-2026
Budget: 1'839'881 CHF


Through the example of Latin American oil, the aim of the present project is to highlight the mechanisms that led post-colonial (ie. formerly colonized and/or imperially dominated) worlds to adopt fossil fuelled economic models. Recent historiography, based on European and North American examples, has discussed how the global rise of fossil fuels resulted from locally motivated politics that unintentionally participated in making modern economies a climate change driver. As a consequence, a debate about the involvement of the Global South in the energy transitions that fed the Anthropocene in the 20th century is currently emerging. Latin American countries possibly played a pioneering role in this process by tying the transition of their economies towards fossil fuels with projects of national development and emancipation. The key in this history was petroleum, which Latin Americans used as a lever to strengthen their political sovereignty as well as their position in the global economy.

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? The project team will address these issues by using several scales of analysis to compare and connect the history of different national projects of petroleum development. It will also reconstruct the transnational circulation of ideas, practices and people involved in petroleum technology and politics throughout Latin America, and draw 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.

The major innovation of the project is to develop the first research team that will seek to build a place for Latin America as a continent in the Anthropocene narrative. By shedding light on chains of political intentionality that pursued alternatives to the Western capitalist energy model, this new geographic perspective will make a substantial contribution to pluralizing and denaturalizing the history of human-induced geological and climatic change.