Student Report: Laura Ogden on Energy and Indigenous Environmental Studies

On March 5, 2020, Professor Laura Ogden spoke at the last DEC lunch of winter term. As a professor in the Anthropology Department at Dartmouth, Ogden spoke about the energy and society questions she explored under an Irving Institute funded research project in Chile. Ogden and her research team studied energy and energy infrastructure and its impact on the indigenous tribes in Chile.

As an environmental anthropologist, she inquired about how climate change, algae blooms, energy oil exploration, and other factors shaped the lives and livelihoods of indigenous people in South America. At the beginning of her talk, Ogden referenced the research work of Sarah Kelly, a postdoctoral student and cultural geographer. 

Kelly was studying the environmental and political issues caused by the development of small hydropower on indigenous Mapuche territories in Southern Chile. Small hydro is more environmentally benign compared to traditional hydropower. However, the smallness of each dam allows these projects to be built under the radar and illegally on land belonging to Mapuche people. Collectively, many small dams in a rivershed damage and destroy Mapuche sacred lands, watersheds, and riversheds. To combat these illegal and destructive projects, Kelly has utilized counter-mapping, a type of mapmaking that subverts dominant power structures and could provide legal recognition of Mapuche territories. 

For the rest of her talk, Ogden referenced the knowledge and discoveries of indigenous geologists, geographists, and anthropologists to talk about energy infrastructure and its impact on indigenous communities. Ogden explained that extractive forms of energy like small hydropower on tribal lands represent new forms of colonialism and dispossession. Given the centrality of water in Mapuche and other indigenous communities, small hydropower projects pose as another form of dispossession because they pollute sacred waterways and necessary resources. These energy infrastructures affect both the natural world and the spiritual relationship Indigenous people have with the natural world. 

Ogden further described the history of dispossession associated with small hydropower endeavors. After World War II, Chile gave lands belonging to indigenous people to settlers. Counter-mapping revealed that many hydropower projects are presently on Mapuche land given to settlers at that time. Similarly, in the US, many sites fossil fuel companies own and set up their energy infrastructure are located on land lost during the allotment process where many indigenous people lost their land and were forced to move. In other words, land allotment laid the groundwork for contemporary land dispossession of indigenous people for energy infrastructure development. 

Ogden also described how small hydropower discourse can be a lens for theorizing sovereignty and recognizing limitations of tribal sovereignty. The construction of small hydropower dams breaks treaties between indigenous tribes and the Chilean government and de-legitimizes the authority Mapuche people have over their own lands. For example, when wind turbines were being constructed on Osage Nation lands without their consent, the tribe had to file a lawsuit and ask the US to interfere with the project because of the inherent limitations of their sovereignty and power to stop the projects' construction themselves. 

Energy and society are directly linked, as shown by Ogden's findings relating colonialism and indigenous dispossession to energy infrastructure development in Chile and the US. 

Jenn Chen '23 is an Irving Institute communications intern.