A moral economy of oil: corruption narratives and oil elites in Ecuador

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In oil-dependent nations, the governance of national oil reserves and the redistribution of oil rents are often widely-perceived as moral endeavours, necessary for achieving a minimum just distribution of resources. Struggles over oil policies and rents among powerful oil industry actors in private and public companies, public institutions, banks and unions are embedded in this moral economy. Thus, in moments of political-economic crisis, oil elites often attempt to persuade the public to perceive them as principled oil managers and their elite competitors as morally corrupt in order to legitimate new or renewed claims on oil. In Ecuador, I explore such a moral economy of oil. First, I detail the corruption narratives that oil elites have used in distinct historical conjunctures to shape moral perceptions of the actors who manage oil reserves and rents. Second, I detail a conjuncture in the early years of the Rafael Correa regime, when indigenous groups in the northern Amazon tried to leverage ancestral claims to oil-rich territories to form an indigenous-owned oil company called Alian Petrol. Traditional oil elites publicly denounced Alian Petrol as immoral. I build on classical theories of moral economy by signalling how elites exploited stereotypes of ethnic difference, contrasting the particularity of indigeneity with the universality of technocratic, mestizo authority, to cultivate moral expectations about continued elite control of oil resources and rents. This case allows us to consider how and when elites foster ethnic difference to actively shape moral economies of oil in postcolonial contexts.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)380-399
Number of pages20
JournalCulture, Theory and Critique
Issue number4
StatePublished - 2 Oct 2018
Externally publishedYes


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