Living with Oil: Promises, Peaks, and Declines on Mexico’s Gulf Coast

A growing number of international relations scholars recognise the shortcomings in the traditional assumptions about the Westphalian political system; assumptions which only privilege territorial integrity and state ownership over resources (state sovereignty). These scholars often highlight the ways in which changes in international law have afforded a growing number of non-state collectivities rights and ownership to land and resources once solely controlled by states.

Yet, Lisa Breglia’s book reminds readers that the state still matters. While, Breglia situates her book around the Cantrelle oil platform sitting offshore of the Bay of Campeche (the largest offshore oilfield in Mexico and one of the world’s largest oilfield) within larger discussions of peak oil and global geopolitics Cantrelle, is nevertheless owned by Pemex, the Mexican state run company which controls the country’s oil and gas resources.  As an anthropologist, Breglia’s stated focus is the ‘front line’ (p. 3) communities who live around the Bay of Campeche. She argues these localized sites are not just interesting momentarily during peak oil production or if a major crisis takes place (such as the Ixtoc I blowout). (p. 9)  Rather, ‘front line communities’ have a long history defined partially by their proximity to the region’s resources. At the same time, however, front line communities have always been part of ‘wider, denser, transnational networks’ (p. 9). In the case of the Bay of Campeche, its history of local resource developments cannot be separated from the history of the Westphalian political system.

Breglia’s account can be divided into two: The story written here and the story yet to be written. Beginning with the story at hand, Breglia’s book offers a rich narrative about the historical and present day relationships between the Mexican state, its resources, and the ill-fated policies that the state has employed historically to secure and develop those resources. Breglia reminds readers that in many places around the world including Mexico, the state remains a powerful, if not the most powerful player, determining peoples’ livelihoods and security.

In the present context, Breglia narrates how the Mexican government fails to collect oil taxes effectively or to reallocate those tax contributions so that they benefit the vast majority of present day Mexican citizens (particularly those in Campeche, deeply affected by Mexico’s resource extraction). Likewise, Breglia argues that the Mexican state uses oil taxes to run its government rather than to invest in the state’s future (Chapter 4).

Breglia also situates Cantrell’s front line communities in a broader historical context. She begins with the years of Spanish rule and the role that Campeche has played historically in the context of global geopolitics. Chapter 2 offers an intriguing history of exporting the region’s palo de tinte trees, which were a source of dye for the European textile industry. Breagalia goes on to discuss the chicozapote tree, which was exported to Canada and the US for its chicle; the sap used to make chewing gum. This was followed by the more recent turn to global shrimping (Chapter 3) which soon enough collides with the discovery of Mexico’s largest offshore oil well, Cantrelle, in the Bay of Campeche.(3).

Through the history of resource exploitation in the region, Breglia’s book demonstrates the ongoing interdependent relationship between the state and global economics  – there has never been a moment of true sovereignty (nor resource sovereignty). Contrary to state leaders’ endless rhetoric of resource sovereignty, Mexico’s resource sovereignty has always been dependent on global commodity prices and global trends whether it was yesterday’s tinte dye for European clothes, chewing gum for US soldiers, or Gulf Shrimping. Examining the global production of oil and gas makes this dependence glaring. According to Breglia, national oil companies now dominate the global oil and gas industry (194); globally 90 percent of oil is nationally owned (232). While the majority of oil and gas companies are state owned, the global economy’s fluctuating needs determines their success.

Breglia goes further than pointing out the ongoing interdependencies of the state and global geopolitics.  As the latter chapters demonstrate, resource reserves are often transboundary. This is certainly the case for the Gulf of Mexico. The US and Mexico have delineated their own EEZ maritime boundaries. However, in the case of transboundary reserves certain Mexican officials and Pemex directors (p. 250) fear that the US, now drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, will siphon those resources from the Mexican side.

In addition, hydrocarbon development is never merely local when it comes to environmental degradation, especially when offshore oil and gas development goes wrong. Breglia first reminds readers of this when discussing the Ixtoc I blowout (p. 11) and again when analyzing the Mecando oil spill (ch. 6).

This brings me to the story yet to be written. With more ethnography, Living with Oil could have been a story based compellingly upon frontlines communities’ own narratives and experiences.  Instead, it is more a story about frontline communities.  Breglia’s first discussion of local populations does not appear until page 69. Her analysis (chapter 3) of shrimping in the Bay of Campeche includes paraphrases by local citizens’ and describes particular local events. Yet, this chapter and especially the rest of the book deserves greater ethnographic attention. In the context of global politics, the stories of quotidian life on the front lines are understudied and undervalued. Here Breglia’s research has the potential to be important. For example, Breglia states that environmentalists in Laguna de Terminos are critical of aquaculture projects (p. 144). Yet, there is no follow up ethnography relating to this. Chapter four is largely a discussion about the way tax money and Pemex contributions are allocated. There is one discussion (p. 188) of fishers’ frustrations but no quotes or narrative from the field to buttress this statement.

It also seems that Campeche’s population has waxed and waned through the course of history. Readers learned that the area has been largely made up of migrant labour at different points in history. What does this mean for today’s Campeche’s residents? Do they feel a strong sense of patriotism and history to this region? Do they consider themselves front line communities? Do the ‘front line communities’ feel as patriotic over their oil sovereignty as the rhetoric of the Mexican state implies? Why, for instance, did so few of Campeche citizens come out to vote in the national debate over privatizing Pemex, the state-owned oil company (p. 211); a vote which Breglia argues was one of the most important elections regarding Mexico’s future oil and gas industry? Breglia alludes to possible reason for this but greater ethnography of quotidian life in Campeche would help make vivid politics as practiced by those that live there so readers can make better sense of the local/global connections of oil and gas politics. Pemex, for instance, was often the assumed evil pitted against the local communities in Breglia’s account yet support from Campeche’s citizens is lacking in her ethnography.

A well documented ethnography would allow scholars to make comparisons with communities in other parts of the world. In the northern Norwegian town of Hammerfest, for instance, fishers have managed to co-exist with hydrocarbon development – specifically with Norway’s first Arctic offshore field of Snøhvit. In Norway, much like Mexico, the state owns majority shares in Statoil and uses taxes to reinvest back into the local community as well as add to its sovereign debt fund (the largest sovereign debt fund in the world). Ethnographic comparisons of communities throughout the world which are facing similar challenges can bring much needed nuance to the broader discussions of global geopolitics.  Living with Oil is a worthy read. A further ethnography of those living with the oil would go a long way in illuminating the linkages and interdependencies between local politics, the state, and present day changes in global politics.

Jessica M. Shadian, University of Toronto

Bill Graham Centre for Contemporary International History,  Trinity College and the Munk School of Global Affairs

Breglia, Lisa. Living with Oil: Promises, Peaks, and Declines on Mexico’s Gulf Coast.  University of Texas Press, 2013. Read more at University of Texas Press



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