4 PhD positions on the socio-environmental impacts of oil extraction in Ecuador and Peru

Tuesday, 22 September, 2015 - 14:16
The International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University (The Netherlands) offers four positions to join an exciting and dynamic multidisciplinary group carrying on research on the socio‐environmental impacts of hydrocarbon extraction in the Ecuadorian and Peruvian Amazon. The PhD positions are for two separate, but intimately related projects: one on community‐based environmental monitoring  through high tech tools and the other on behavioral responses to information on water quality. The positions require willingness and ability to conduct long‐term participatory field research in the Amazon.
The Context of the projects
Global oil demand has stimulated a renewed growth in hydrocarbons concessions in Latin America in what can be defined as the second hydrocarbon boom. There is strong evidence of severe oil related water pollution and health impacts in indigenous and local populations living in the areas surrounding oil extraction.
Ecuador and Peru can be considered to be the frontrunners of not only this boom but also efforts to counteract its negative effects. These positions will be embedded within two related research projects that evaluate the impact of two policy interventions.
The community‐based monitoring project
Latin America epitomizes the challenge to balance expanding extraction with ecological sustainability and the well‐being of marginalized indigenous communities. The emergence of a wave of leftwing administrations in the region has created newly reinvigorated state willingness and capability to regulate extractive industries. Despite augmented state power, ability of regulators to detect and manage the impacts of hydrocarbon extraction has remained insufficient. Similarly, companies have not consistently pursued effective strategies to minimize environmental risks and to mitigate their impact when they are unavoidable. As a consequence, environmental liabilities generated by oil extraction (oil spills, disposal of highly contaminated formation waters and drilling muds, etc.) continue to create adverse environmental and public health outcomes.
The PhD students will contribute to an impact evaluation project studying an ongoing initiative in Ecuador and Peru that seeks to enhance the detection, monitoring and reporting capability of local communities in their own territories, as a strategy to strengthen their ability to produce socio‐environmental claims. Local communities inhabiting the Ecuadorian and Peruvian Amazon have profound knowledge of the socio‐ ecological state of their immediate environment (location of oil spills, drilling mud pits, production water dumping sites, etc), but are ineffective when it comes to the organization and presentation of the very same knowledge in formats that are accepted by and easily communicable to state agencies, the oil industry and the mass media.
Community‐based socio‐environmental monitoring is a strategy to overcome these information and communication challenges. However monitoring efforts are riddled by complexities that are part of the terrain: remote areas with limited access ‐‐physical, but also in terms of information and communication infrastructure and internet connection. In fact, much of the information that is currently collected by the monitors is not used for communication purposes outside the monitoring groups and remains confined to the communities themselves.
The intervention equips local communities with high‐tech but relatively inexpensive tools, e.g. mobile phones, drones, internet hotspot stations and online apps. The combination of advance technology and capacity building amongst local youth who work as monitors is likely to increase the rate of detection. The bespoke software developed by partners in this proposal will also increase the dissemination of the reports to the appropriate authorities, maximizing the possibility of their being acted on. It is expected that improved detection, monitoring and reporting will ultimately lead the state and corporate actors to mitigate socio‐environmental impacts of oil extraction.
The monitoring activities are ultimately aimed at improving oil extraction practices and implementing effective remediation activities to ameliorate impacts. In both countries, the project will be conducted in collaboration with and support of community organizations that have been directly involved in the design of this project.
The water project
Efforts to prevent and reverse these damages are continuing on several fronts. Since these initiatives are having either limited effect or delivering results in the long term, there is urgent need to find alternative ways to minimize the health effects of the environmental impacts of oil extraction. Drinking water is likely to be the main exposure route for local populations to oil pollution leading to high concentrations of heavy metals and ultimately to high incidence of pollution related diseases. There are alternative sources of water for many communities/households (underground water, rainwater harvesting systems, water treatment plants) that are affected by pollution in different ways, however information on water quality is unavailable at the community/household level. Disclosure of environmental data on drinking water quality could be a transparency mechanism having, on its own, potential to influence the choice of drinking water sources, and to empower and enhance capacity among local stakeholders to undertake mitigation and adaptation measures to reduce exposure to oil pollutants through drinking water and, ultimately, to reduce health risks.
Nevertheless, the linkage between knowledge and behavioral change is far from straightforward. In fact, behavioral change in response to environmental degradation is arguably the single most important area of research and policy experimentation in environmental studies. Whether in the context of reducing greenhouse gas emissions or preventing deforestation, the link between knowledge and action has been weak at best. This gap in understanding how and when knowledge translates into action is particularly pronounced within the context of Amazonian communities because of their historic marginalization, which adds an additional layer of barrier onto the communication ofimportant scientific information.
The project will therefore explore the hypothesis that access to clear, reliable and actionable knowledge that is communicated effectively is key to better environmental and health outcomes. Special attention will be devoted to the subgroups that are actually in charge of water collection (e.g. women, children). Given the difficulty of providing detailed chemical data in a socio‐culturally adapted and relevant manner for indigenous communities with high rates of illiteracy and huge cultural differences among them, particular attention will be given to developing an approach that balances the need to communicate basic scientific facts in a manner compatible with indigenous and communal knowledge. Overall, the project will not only explore the effectiveness of such transparency mechanisms in bringing about short term behavioral changes but also as longer term sociopolitical mobilization in Amazonian communities of Peru and Ecuador.
Requirements and application procedure
The project is looking to recruit four PhD students to join the project team – two PhD students per project. Candidates should already have a Masters degree in economics, geography, anthropology, ecology, environmental sciences or other cognate fields.
Candidates should have strong command of both English and Spanish. Previous  research experience in either Peru or Ecuador would be an advantage. While the academic home of PhD researchers will be the International Institute of Social Studies – Erasmus University (supervised by Lorenzo Pellegrini, Murat Arsel and Marti Orta Martinez), they will be required to spend extensive periods in the field in either of the two countries in the context of a non‐residential PhD programme. Fieldwork will take place in the Ecuadorian and Peruvian Amazon and will include long stays in remote areas. Willingness to engage with local communities, social organizations and a range of stakeholders is required. Candidates will work closely with the local counterparts of the project (In Peru, Pueblos Indígenas Amazónicos Unidos en Defensa de sus Territorios ‐ http://observatoriopetrolero.org/‐, in Ecuador, Frente de Defensa de la Amazonia ‐ http://texacotoxico.net/‐) and other members of the study consortium, especially University San Francisco of Quito and Digital Democracy.
The PhD students will receive a full PhD fee waiver, a monthly stipend, equipment (laptop and smartphone) and a bursary covering field expenses. Positions will be reviewed annually and, contingent upon performance and available funds, be appointed to additional years.
  • Interested candidates should in the first instance send their CV and a brief motivational statement to arsel@iss.nl and pellegrini@iss.nl.
  • After a pre‐selection round, candidates will be then asked to formally apply to the ISS PhD program in Development Studies.
  • The application deadline is 7 October 2015.
  • This project is funded by a the International Initiative for Impact Evaluation (http://www.3ieimpact.org/)
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