Oil in the Andes
- Stephen CoteStephen CoteDepartment of History, Western Washington University
All of the Andean nations possess oil. Each has a unique historical relationship with petroleum, but there are also similarities between the histories of oil production in Bolivia, Ecuador, and Peru. First, oil was discovered in the countries at roughly the same time in the late 19th century when oil was gaining in global importance. Second, foreign companies came to control oil reserves in these three countries, with similar outcomes. One such outcome was the development of state oil companies so that the countries could capture more revenues from the oil deposits than they received from foreign companies. Third, many saw oil as a panacea for the region’s many social ills. Failures by oil producers, including the state oil companies, to use the oil to cure those ills has led to persistent social and political conflict. And fourth, but not finally, oil extraction in these countries has caused major struggles between indigenous people and the state since the onset of neoliberal economic schemes in the 1980s and 1990s.
There are many differences as well. The creation of state oil companies in Bolivia, Ecuador, and Peru occurred in different decades, and therefore, within different global and regional historical contexts. Only one of the countries, Ecuador, is a member of OPEC (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries). Bolivia has a stronger presence in regional energy distribution through its large deposits of natural gas. Peru has not turned away from the neoliberal model in the same ways that Bolivia and Ecuador have. Finally, indigenous people have had different levels of success in protecting their lands and cultures from the onslaught of oil production in the Andes. There is no question, however, that oil remains central to the development plans of each country.