Political science professor works to improve living conditions for indigenous peoples

An ongoing battle that is rarely discussed among the student body at Geneseo is that of the efforts of indigenous populations throughout Ecuador to block oil drilling on their land.Assistant professor of political science Karleen West is particularly involved with this topic. West has travelled to Latin America on multiple occasions, most recently to Ecuador on a trip funded by the National Science Foundation with American University professor of government Todd Eisenstadt. This trip was established to develop an answer to one overarching question: “What makes some indigenous groups so successful in their efforts to prevent drilling in their land?” West and Eisenstadt set out to examine how minority groups are able to make themselves heard in situations where the government and other organizations tend to overlook them. The research trip lasted for one month and spanned six cities within Ecuador: Cotacachi, Latacunga, Tena, Coca, Puyo and Nueva Loja. While there, West and Eisenstadt observed conditions in the areas of study, interviewed indigenous people and conducted surveys among portions of the population. A survey conducted by the researchers and Centro de Estudios y Datos, Ecuador’s premier survey company, revealed that those most concerned about the future of the environment were those who were most vulnerable to environmental change––those with little access to running/clean water or electricity. West individually interviewed approximately 70 subjects in an effort to learn more about their struggle and saw some of the impact firsthand. In one area, West was brought to see an oil pit in disrepair in a body of water, which she was able to stand in. “At one point, I spoke with women who had lumps and welts on their legs which were cancerous, because they are bathing in and drinking this water,” West said. “It was one of the most moving experiences––to see the horrible damage and impact on the people.” West presented her findings in Washington, D.C. at the 110th American Political Science Association Annual Meeting. At this conference, West and Eisenstadt explained their findings and shared their experiences in a presentation entitled “Lawsuits for the Pachamama in Ecuador: Explaining the Determinants of New Indigenous Movements to Mitigate Environmental Impacts.” West is looking forward to using this experience in an effort to improve the Latin American studies portion of the political science department. As a new team of Latin American cultural historians has been brought into the Geneseo community across different departments, they will be working together to improve the program. West is looking forward to instituting a new study abroad program in Mexico or Ecuador, and teaching a senior seminar on environmental politics on a global scale. West hopes to turn her research into a book, which is “such a rewarding outcome for research.” She hopes that with both her research and her colleagues’, situations for those living in oppression can be improved and voices can be heard.