Pause for Thought: A Conversation in Images with Gisa Weszkalnys

The November 2015 issue of Cultural Anthropology included the research article “Geology, Potentiality, Speculation: On the Indeterminacy of First Oil,” by Gisa Weszkalnys. Upon reading the piece, what struck contributing editor Ann Iwashita were the qualities of pause and indeterminacy embodied in Weszkalnys’s writing. In the conversation that followed, presented here in lightly edited form, the two wondered together about how the gestures of oil speculation and indeterminacy might be expressed through photographs from Weszkalnys’s fieldwork.

Gisa Weszkalnys is an assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology at the London School of Economics. Her current research deals with the speculative and material practices of oil exploration in the Gulf of Guinea. In the past, she has carried out extended research on the politics of urban planning, resulting in the monograph Berlin, Alexanderplatz: Transforming Place in a Unified Germany (Berghahn, 2010) and the edited volume Elusive Promises: Planning in the Contemporary World (Berghahn, 2013), co-edited with Simone Abram.

Osvaldo Abreu on board the Ramform Viking research vessel, surveying deep offshore Nigeria in late 2000. Photo courtesy of Osvaldo Abreu.

Ann Iwashita: Can you share more about what we are looking at here?

Gisa Weszkalnys: I am not sure who took this photograph. I first saw it on Osvaldo’s Facebook profile and asked him for permission to use it. To me, the photo’s faded, snapshot quality underlines its status as a kind of relic of that earlier phase of oil exploration off São Tomé and Príncipe (STP). At the time, people like Osvaldo were being enrolled in the incipient project of managing and developing a specialized knowledge about oil. In 2000, learning about the parameters of the industry and about what would be required to turn STP into a successful oil-producing state seemed an extraordinarily urgent project. Since then, things have been moving very fast—not necessarily in terms of commercial production, as my article shows, but certainly in terms of the explicit framing of petroleum as a resource on the part of state, corporate, and global governance institutions. For this framing, the kind of expert knowledge produced by expeditions such as that of the Ranform Viking in 2000 is vital. What I love about the photo is that it doesn’t show any of this: the research equipment necessary for the survey, even the vessel itself, are absent. We just see a very young, fresh-faced Osvaldo, keen to improve his scientific and technical skills, which he later deployed in his work in the National Oil Agency, in the private sector, and eventually as STP’s minister of natural resources. I wonder whether he was anticipating, then, where this seismic surveying trip would eventually take him!

The offices of the Agência Nacional de Petróleo (National Oil Agency), São Tomé. Photo by Gisa Weszkalnys.

AI: What strikes me about this photo is a quality of quiet that inhabits the frame, the building’s stillness amplified by the figure in the foreground. In your article you illustrate this quiet as dormancy, sustaining force, and the extension of time. How do you view this in relation to the activity that must occur in the making of resource?

GW: My article aims to capture a very particular articulation of stillness and activity. Oil exploration is often a long, drawn-out process, which expands and contracts for a number of different reasons. Occasionally, this can produce periods of apparent inactivity. There may seem to be this sense of stillness. Yet there are things going on, not all of which are visible to the casual observer. What is more, the activities that do occur may not lead to any visible or tangible outcomes: in this case, what is industry experts refer to as “first oil.” However, I would argue that neither concept—stillness or activity—captures this peculiar state of affairs fully. That is the reason I introduce the analytical notion of the gesture. I draw on Giorgio Agamben’s characterization of the gesture as where “nothing is being produced or acted, but rather something is being endured and supported.”

STP’s National Oil Agency is absolutely pivotal in this regard. It is one of the country’s most visible material embodiments of absent oil. The agency was established in 2004 with support from a World Bank infrastructure and capacity-building program, which focused on setting up legal frameworks and establishing institutions that could manage future oil. The agency has been in charge of overseeing government policy in the oil sector and of managing its technical, legal, and regulatory aspects. As such, it aims to exemplify a notion of good governance central to the World Bank’s support for natural resource extraction as an engine of development—in the face of evidence that extraction, especially hydrocarbon extraction, can have negative social, economic, and political effects. Much of the supporting labor for first oil has thus been carried out, or at least managed by, the agency with no predetermined outcome. Yet the agency has been critical in sustaining a notion of future potentiality and first oil that is yet to come.

School bus purchased with support from one of the oil corporations, Chrome Energy, operating in the Joint Development Zone. Photo by Gisa Weszkalnys.
Truck purchased with support from Chrome Energy. Photo by Gisa Weszkalnys.

AI: In these photos it appears that the kinds of actions that allow for sustained belief in “first oil” bleed out into material objects maintained in streets and public spaces. How do people in STP feel about these objects? Would you also consider these gestural, in the way they protract and substantiate a potentiality?

GW: As part of their contractual obligations, the oil companies operating in STP’s maritime territory have to pay a certain annual amount toward so-called social programs. This has included such things as scholarships, support for water and sanitation projects, a kitchen and canteen for a primary school, but also the kind of equipment trucks and school buses that you see here. In some sense, these objects give material presence to the oil companies that now participate as active actors in STP’s economy. They are constitutive of the kind of relations enabled by the making of oil as a new resource. One might describe such equipment as material indices of corporate social responsibility (CSR).

CSR has been widely discussed as an emblem of a new kind of corporate ethics, which expresses itself in a multitude of different practices. In the extractive sector, CSR has become an incredibly important supplement to the everyday operations of companies. Anthropologists, on the whole, have been very critical of CSR. For example, they point to the ways in which CSR presents a form of co-optation, drawing local people into new kinds of dependencies or covering up existing shortcomings and harmful activities. While social program projects are publicly announced in the Santomean media, I was struck by how rarely these projects stay in collective memory as the result of the country’s petroleum activities. This might show just how uneven public awareness of the petroleum industry still is in STP.

So, while you are right to suggest that, in some sense, these trucks and school buses are gestures—gestures not simply of material wealth and development but also of future reciprocity between corporations and local communities—I would hesitate to simply accept them as such. These social programs are also not gestural in quite the same way as the other practices and devices that I discuss in the article. There, I am more concerned with things that are deemed absolutely necessary for the realization of “first oil” but that, for one reason or another, have failed to turn oil into an economic asset.

Seminar on local content in the oil industry, São Tomé, April 2007. Photo by Gisa Weszkalnys.

AI: The shapes of the bodies in the seminar interest me here, as the mirrored pairs learning toward each other indicate quiet, perhaps urgent, discussion. Can you talk more about the content of the seminar?

GW: In 2007, not just one but two studies—one initiated by the International Monetary Fund, the other by the World Bank—scrutinized the potential for so-called local content in STP’s nascent oil sector. Local content policies have gained popularity in recent years as a solution to the intractable problem of how to share resource wealth equitably. In the vision of international financial institutions and donor agencies, local content brings about trickle-down effects through more broad-based national participation in the extractive sector. This is to be achieved, for example, through the employment of local staff, training opportunities, the subcontracting of local businesses, technology transfer, and the use of infrastructures set up by extractive companies for non-industry purposes (e.g., tourism, public health). So, local content reflects a certain development ethos that brings the state “back in” by relying on adequate public policy, while nonetheless being explicitly market-based. It is seen as a possible remedy to the much-criticized enclave character of mineral extraction, without recourse to an outright nationalization of the industry.

The seminar where this photo was taken presented the results of one of the local content studies for STP. Consultants from abroad revealed that, at present, the country lacked the human resources, infrastructures, and capital necessary to ensure meaningful local participation. However, they also suggested that with appropriate state policies, specialized training, and improved skills among the local business community, local content could be made a reality in the future. I imagine that the gentlemen in the photograph were debating the possibilities for this to happen. One of the two men in the foreground is Aíto Bonfim, a respected lawyer who has also provided advice to the Santomean government. Bonfim has much personal experience of the slow unfolding of oil exploration in STP. Indeed, he was among the first people charged with reviewing proposals for oil exploration following Santomean independence. I had a number of long, fascinating conversations with him about the various reasons that may have led to the continuous deferral of oil. The two men in the background are employees of the oil company Chevron, which was, at the time, operating in Block 1 of STP’s joint development zone with Nigeria. One of them is Tim Parsons, the expat representative whom I also mention in my article. Tim was extremely generous in sharing his knowledge about the oil industry with me as well as his critical understanding of what was going on. He was doubtful of the somewhat misleading claims made by the consultants in this seminar regarding STP’s local content potentials. Given STP’s insularity and the extensive availability of industry-related services and resources elsewhere in the region, he felt it was unlikely that Santomean service providers could become sufficiently competitive.

The photograph does convey the urgency that these issues had when it was taken in 2007. What has become more obvious since then is another issue that links local content to the problem of deferral I discuss in the article. This is the obvious mismatch of the temporalities of politics and markets. The timing of local content policies in emergent producer states such as STP is tricky due the price volatility of oil and other minerals, which—as the recent price collapse of oil has taught us again—makes them a precarious foundation for economic development. What is more, with the marked slow-down of exploration activities in STP, today, any conceivable preparations for oil have taken on a peculiar sense of futility. I reflect on this issue in more detail in an article that will be published next year. There, I consider local content as a form of expectation management, which has been applied in the face of an apparent excess of hopeful affect in the context of the country’s emergent oil economy. Rather than simply waiting for oil windfalls to come, local content suggests that, now, people might be made to work for their share of the revenues. I’ve been intrigued by what we might call local content’s “productionist premise” which, as James Ferguson has recently argued, appears increasingly ill-suited to the problem of redistribution now presented in African economies.

Seminar organized by the Agência Nacional de Petróleo, Príncipe, November 2007. At the desk, from left to right: Osvaldo Abreu, Luis dos Prazeres, Afonso Varela. Photo by Gisa Weszkalnys.

AI: Within the company of those who remain hopeful, what is the quality of hope that is sustained in the potentiality of oil resource? In other words, how deep is the faith in the offshore reserve by locals in STP invested in oil, and what would it entail to move the period of dormancy to recognized death?

GW: The kind of hope that Santomeans have for oil has increasingly become, as a friend put it, a doubtful hope. I would say that this is also true for those who have been charged with making first oil happen, including the technical staff of the National Oil Agency, shown here seated at a public seminar on the island of Príncipe in November 2007. The staff’s job was to present the most up-to-date information and insights about STP’s oil sector to a mixed group of stakeholders. What fascinates me about these occasions is their ambivalent nature. On the one hand, they are techniques by which local expectations are being calibrated, fine-tuned, and adjusted to the changing circumstances. Although they present time maps and schedules of contractual terms, forthcoming exploration activities, and so on, these documents also serve to remind participants of the complexity and the drawn-out nature of exploration activities. Yet, in doing so, they can hardly avoid keeping those expectations afloat, thereby sustaining the notion of prospective first oil. If you ask people to orient themselves in a specific way toward a future with oil—even if they are supposed to take an explicitly rationalistic stance—this demand still requires that they allow this future with oil to have a certain, forthcoming, reality.

Of course, at the same time, these technocrats are also the ones who travel on road shows to London or Houston to present STP’s exploration and investment potential to foreign companies and potential financiers. In these settings, they must keep up convincing high hopes, which alone underpin a notion of excellent petroleum prospects. Depending on their audience, they have to play up or play down their faith in the existence of vast offshore reserves. My research tells me that this is an ongoing process. Over the last few years, the Santomean government has increasingly shied away from portraying oil as the fail-proof solution to the country’s economic development. Yet events such as the fourteenth United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) Africa Oil, Gas and Minerals Trade and Finance conference, which was held in STP in 2010, have reinforced the country’s reputation as a prospective producer-state. Similarly, sporadic official announcements and media reports on the existence of considerable quantities of oil, plans to deploy advanced exploration technology in the JDZ, or new seismic studies have not ceased to sow optimism. In October 2015, the government signed yet another exploration agreement with a Portuguese-U.S. consortium (Galp, Kosmos Energy) for a block in STP’s exclusive economic zone.

In short, STP remains poised between the no longer of its postcolonial plantation economy and the not yet of oil. Different horizons of expectation have emerged, partly generated by the apparent failure of a range of scientific and political techniques to reliably portend the country’s oil future.