When most of us start our cars, turn on the lights in our house, or cook food, we don’t think about the impact thousands of miles away.

That’s what UNC Assistant Professor of Geography Gabriela Valdivia was thinking when she began her project: “Living with Oil in Ecuador.” She visited coastal oil town Esmeraldas to learn about how oil can impact the daily life of everyone there.

She said at first the town didn’t look different from an American industrial city or town.

“It is a very modern world,” she said. “People drive cars, and they have dreams about their homes and improvements and wanting the best things for their kids, but all of that is colored by this very heavy-laid industrial space.”

Valdivia spoke with WCHL’s Aaron Keck.


And although you can’t necessarily see the effects from the Esmeraldas oil refinery in the air, Valdivia said you can feel them and see them on your skin.

“You sense the refinery when your skin starts feeling itchy,” she said. “Or you have trouble breathing, when your children come home with skin rashes or things you cannot identify. When you have chronic respiratory diseases, and you have chronic inflammation as well.”

Valdivia also said although Esmeraldas provides oil to other places, many of the people who live there experience frequent power outages, lack nighttime illumination, and lack the gas cylinders that most use to power their homes. And those who do have them use them infrequently because the deliveries aren’t on set schedules.

She said while these seem like minor inconveniences, they become major for residents of Esmeraldas when many can no longer bathe, eat or take care of themselves.

“It’s how intractable it becomes but how it is present in all the everyday experiences,” she said. “From, like you said, watching your garbage not being collected, and wondering when that is going to happen, and who is going to do it and how that can happen in a space where you produce so much wealth for the country.”

Valdivia said the most important thing to take away from “Living With Oil in Ecuador” is that people really don’t think about where their energy comes from.

“We tend to forget how connected we are and how much is used around us,” she said. “Just to make those very simple mundane things happen for us.”

Valdivia is still working on the online project, and is studying demographic information from a team of researchers in Esmeraldas. Her findings can be found here. She will also be speaking at the Fall Symposium on Climate Ethics in the Graham Student Union at UNC on October 28.