Flammable societies

Latin America is experiencing an increasing call for more domestic controls of national resources and growing claims for a redistribution of the nations’ oil wealth from civil society. With increased revenues from oil and gas and new policy regimes in Bolivia and Venezuela, programmes for social and economic development have been publicized. “Flammable Societies” is an international research project that explores the organisation and outcome of these programmes, their potentials in reducing poverty and the conflicting interests between differing ethnic groups and classes.




Cecilie Hirsch

Flammable Societies is a project based on historical and qualitative research in Latin America, Northern Europe, West Africa and the former Soviet Union. The project studies social responsibility in the international oil and gas industry, related development initiatives and the results of these policies in local communities. More specifically it analyzes the impacts of the oil and gas industry on conditions of poverty, the production of peace and development dividends in the sector and how poverty reduction and conflict resolution are affected by the policies. The project is coordinated by the Christian Michelsen Institute (CMI) in Bergen, and it is supported by the Research Council of Norway. The project started in 2008, and is now in its second and final year.

- The pre-existing literature on the oil and gas sector has been dominated by political science and economics, and been primarily focused at the governance and national politics. Whilst respectful of work in the direction of political ecology and political economy, our project highlights through the use of oral history and ethnographic research the key forgotten role and limits of civil society in negotiations and bargaining, for a fairer and more transparent sector, explains John-Andrew McNeish, the project leader at CMI.

The researchers in the project explore the limits of current approaches to the “resource curse”, raising the question of how the common example of conflict from oil can be avoided, and aim to identify the cases where this has been possible. The project cites Rosser (2006) as suggestive of an alternative approach1. He argues that analyzing the sector is not only an issue of institutions and transparency. There is also a need to examine how political and social variables mediate the relationship between natural resource wealth and development outcomes.

An ambitious project

The project is multi disciplinary with six partner institutions involved, among them the Norwegian institutions the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI), Norwegian Petroleum Museum, Stord-Haugesund University College and CMI. The research team consists of a core group of six researchers and fifteen in total in the extended team. The researchers have their background in history, sociology, anthropology and social geography. The research team bases their studies on qualitative work and collaborates closely with local researchers and local institutions.

- It is an ambitious project covering a series of cases. The aim is to look at the dynamics of oil and gas, and how societies relate to the rents and the impacts of the sector. Most of the examples we use are either good or bad. The commonly cited good ones are Norway and Canada, whilst the bad ones are Nigeria and Angola. With Bolivia and Venezuela we are doing something different. We are looking at the struggle for good resource management, at the possibilities and strengths in the sector, interesting innovations as well as their contestation.

Bolivia and Venezuela are the two Latin American countries included in the project. The case study of these two countries revises the intricate relationships of decision-making, organisation and governance that exist between government, companies and civil society, and the implications of these relationships for poverty reduction and development.


PhD student Iselin Strønen, also from CMI, is working on a case focused on Venezuela. In Venezuela the project collaborates with the Venezuelan Scientific Research Institute (IVIC). Strønen is studying the social programs in chanty areas (barrios) of Caracas in Venezuela which have been made possible through oil revenues, as well as the government structures, political conflicts and the flow of money through the different structures. Strønen's PhD ”The Role of Oil and Gas Industry in the Promotion of Poverty Reduction and Social Volatility” expands on her MA thesis in Anthropology of Development, entitled "For Us this is Utopia Coming True. Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution and Popular Movements in a Caracas Barrio”. Read more about her research here in a former NorLARNet interview.


McNeish works with research on Bolivia together with local researchers from the Centre for Postgraduate Study of Development and the Environment (CIDES) at UMSA (Universidad Mayor de San Andres) in the city of La Paz, Bolivia.

- It is a multilevel study that looks at social politics as a result of the oil rents, and how the nationalization project in Bolivia is set out in practice. We explore the debates and the contestations in society, and what drives these contestations, explains McNeish.

The nationalization of the hydrocarbon sector in Bolivia started in 2005. Part of the nationalization has consisted of the renegotiations of the contracts with companies operating in the country. These renegotiations have resulted in higher taxes. Of the tax revenues, one part goes to the producing departments, another to the municipality, and a part to the central level. With the new policy regime the state revenues are used for social programs such as a national pension fund, literacy programs and subsidies to mothers and children so that the children can go to school, and the mothers can have health checks during pregnancy.

- It has become a fairer system. There are more regulations, and the social programs are targeting the poor and the marginalized. The local communities are happy, the municipalities are happy, but the elites in the producing departments have lost both money and power with the reform. Earlier the local elites had more decision making power concerning the use of the money. Now the elites feel left on the sideline, politically and economically, says McNeish.

The project is both analyzing the national politics of hydrocarbons, as well as the specific local dynamics of oil and gas resources in the department of Tarija. Tarija is one of the country’s nine departments and lies in southeast Bolivia bordering with Argentina and Paraguay. The population is primarily mestizo, but with three indigenous groups (Guaraní, Wanayek and Tapiete) and a growing number of migrants from the highlands.

- Confrontations over access to and the benefits of hydrocarbon resources relate strongly to historical and social processes. This means that the spatial and social make up of Tarija requires further understanding of the department’s historical and economic formation. Regional conflicts over resources do not only relate to economic and material interests, but to ideas of ownership, position, ethnicity and class, says McNeish.

The study analyzes the relationship and negotiations between the local population and the departmental government, as well as between the national government and the departmental government. More specifically, the study explores the impact of the industry and new policies on the conditions of poverty in the Guaraní indigenous communities in Tarija. Although Tarija has the largest reserves of oil and gas in the country, the indigenous communities have received few benefits or opportunities to control the operation and impact of the industry in their region.

- It is a complex context. The smallest department in Bolivia is the main producer. Tarija has most of the resources, 95 percent, and is demanding a large part of the revenues. We study how the rents in the department are being distributed to the communities, and explore the debate about how the money should be divided between different actors and for different causes. Within Tarija we study how the departmental government relates to the different communities, urban, peasant or indigenous, or how they fail to do so.

The debate about the use of the revenues from the hydrocarbon sector is closely related to the demand for autonomy in the producing departments. An autonomy campaign, largely fuelled by defence of regional identity and hydrocarbon resources, was undertaken in Tarija in 2008. 78 percent voted for autonomy in a departmental referendum.

- The project can give important insights into the dynamics of resources and autonomy in a region that has been little studied. As well as suggestive of the dynamics of departmental power struggles, the study argues that the contestations in Tarija and local protests give important indications of the linkages that exist between the politics of autonomy and the politics of resources in the region, which can also be used as the basis for a larger and more profound reflection on resource politics in general, according to McNeish.

Talking about autonomy in Bolivia is a complex issue. There are now different understandings and levels of autonomy, all recognized in the new constitution from 2009; departmental, regional, municipal and indigenous autonomy. The different levels and understandings of autonomy have become important in the debate concerning the control of, access to and benefits from natural resources in the areas.

Indigenous communities

Under the new Bolivian constitution from 2009 indigenous communities have the rights to participation in decision making processes and are to recieve benefits from the exploitation of non-renewable resources like mining and oil, and can also establish autonomy in their territories. The strategies of the local Guarani communities to make their voices heard are manifold.

- The Guarani have been involved in both negotiation efforts with the departmental government and an international court case against the Spanish oil company Repsol since 2001. Although winning an out of court settlement with Repsol, the communities of Itika Guasu (Big River) in Southern Tarija claim that efforts to control the payment of these reparations are grounds for a renewed judicial effort. They have been looking for support to a new claim together with the Centre for Regional Studies of Tarija (CER-DET). As a result of failed negotiations for increased investment in their region from the departmental government, a campaign has also been started to establish their regional autonomy under the conventions established in the new national constitution of 2009. Such a process would clearly establish the Guarani's land titles as well as grant them the same legal status as the departmental government, explains McNeish.

 - Do you study the environmental impacts of the sector, and in that case, how?

- Whilst the project is not directly concerned with the environmental impacts, they are recognizable in the project through its lens of studying the social politics of the oil and gas industry. There are several contexts of this in the project, where as a result of their extractive histories Nigeria and Bolivia are most indicative. Our writing and images highlights the human cost of leaking wells and failure to carry out impact studies, as well as wider concerns with the denial of local communities' relationships, rights and reliance on nature.

Oil for development

- How is the project related to the Norwegian aid program Oil for Development?

- The project is not related to the program in any formal way, but we have a critical position towards the program. Our opinion is that the program has a far too technocratic focus. Existing literature does not take account of the diversity in the sector, of existing formal rights, or sufficiently stress the role of civil society in bargaining and negotiating the fair distribution of rents. What is really the Norwegian experience? It is not just about how to set up regulatory models. It doesn’t tell the whole story, it doesn’t tell about the negotiations between the state and the unions, which have been key to the process of negotiations in the sector in Norway. That is a story that is not being told. Civil society needs to be included, dealing with the complexities of the sector, answers McNeish.

Photographic Project

A photographic project including photos from the different research cases in the UK, Norway, Nigeria, Venezuela, Bolivia and Azerbaijan has newly been launched on web, firstly in electronic version. Owen Logan, a Scottish photographer and researcher, has produced the photo-essay which interrogates its central theme of oil and development. The photos will later this fall be presented as a physical exhibition in Oslo and Bergen, and at the National Art Gallery in Scotland. The photos are printed on large scale banners, and according to the website of the photographic project, Logan’s work illustrates “how the oil economy has increasingly become a prism in which the hopes and fears of modernity are expressed and fought over. What is at stake in this very visible contest of meaning is nothing less than the possibility of democratic deliberation about the nature of modern society.”

The Flammable Societies project is now in its last year, but McNeish hopes for a continuation of the investigation after the original timeframe is completed. A book with the results of the projects will be published by Pluto Press in late 2010 or early 2011. Read more about the research project here.

1. Andrew Rosser (2006). The Political Economy of the Resource Curse: A Literature Survey.

Tags: Bolivia
Published Mar. 15, 2010 9:14 PM - Last modified Feb. 11, 2014 11:54 AM