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Jugarse la Vida


While conducting an interview at a home near the Esmeraldas refinery, Homero [one of my Esmeraldeño research partners] turned to look at me. He could sense my frustration. I had been asking about evidence of refinery wrongdoing and in return I received stories about hustling in the city. He leaned over and said: “[interviewee’s name]’s justice is about jugarse la vida [wagering a life].” His nudge made me wonder: What lies beyond my most internalized structures of thought? What am I looking for? (Field notes, author, 2016)

In this essay I reflect on the following questions: What is possible to imagine if stories about life with chemical toxicity started from a place of vitality, instead of harm? How would starting from such a locus of enunciation help build EJ scholarship in and from the Global South?  I privilege jugarse la vida as a fleshy and playful entry point for thinking with contemporary Esmeraldeño visions of freedom within the ubiquity of toxicity in the oil refinery city of Esmeraldas, Ecuador. Jugarse la vida fleshes out the bio(necro)political dialectic of industrial capitalism, from an embodied and expert risk-aware position. It connects a macro view of the regimes that have made toxicity a ubiquitous condition of necropolitical spaces with the rebelliousness of living, breathing individuals with complex personhoods. The micro analysis of how chemical harm articulates with Esmeraldeño personhood pushes back against a totalizing narrative of victimhood that encloses the vitality of personal freedom dreams. An unchecked narrative of harm, with its important focus on wrongdoing, does not capture the vitality through which individuals make life plans and live them through. Starting from vitality recognizes the rebellious agency of refusal.

One of the aims of this essay is to think critically (and lovingly) with the function of progressive environmental thought. In conversation with cimarronaje and with black feminisms and Indigenous scholarship in the Americas that trouble the coloniality of thought, this essay seeks to contribute to the project to decolonize environmental justice scholarship (Alvarez & Coolsaet, 2018; Pulido, 2018; Simpson and Bagelman, 2018). While environmental justice scholars rightly point to the emergence of revolutionary/oppositional consciousness as the ground zero of abolitionist orientations (Pulido and de Lara, 2018: 80), as well as denounce how colonial structures of racial and patriarchal subordination destroy bodies and ecologies (c.f. Mendez, 2013), here I proposed jugarse la vida as a Global South philosophy of vital agency and complex personhood. The struggle to make autonomous Esmeraldeño lives might not always follow what are coded as acts of decolonization, but they are acts of refusal that generate abundance of life where life is routinely undervalued. This is not an argument for an ‘anti-politics’ position on environmental justice, but a call to be vigilant of conceptual enclosures and to continue learning from the complex relations of interdependence (and liberation) formed in the folds of bio(necro)political regimes. Lastly, this essay does not deny harm; the toxicity of the oil complex is real. And so are dignity, vitality, and everyday marronage for a life worth dying for.


Gabriela Valdivia is Professor of Geography at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Her work examines the political ecology of natural resource governance: how states, firms, and civil society appropriate and transform resources to meet their interests, and how capturing and putting resources to work transforms cultural and ecological communities. She draws on critical resource geography and ethnography to examine environmental governance in Latin America, specifically Ecuador and Bolivia, where economic neoliberalization and volatile socio-political institutions have fueled intense struggles over natural resources. Her most recent project, Crude Entanglements, draws on feminist political ecology and digital storytelling to examine the Ecuadorian oil chain. The project conveys life and oil in two sites of the oil complex in Ecuador: oilfields in the Amazon and oil refining in the city of Esmeraldas.