Photographer Craig Ritchie’s latest book explores the effects of oil and gas extraction in the Peruvian Amazon on the area’s ecology and indigenous peoples – and takes artist Ed Ruscha’s seminal Twentysix Gas Stations as its starting point…
Twentysix Hydrocarbon Blocks is Ritchie’s take on the US artist’s 1963 book which contained photographs of 26 gasoline stations taken along Route 66 between Los Angeles and Oklahoma. Ritchie’s version contains a serious ecological message which stems directly from Ruscha’s original subject matter.
“The work has generated much discussion around its significance within conceptual art and the meaning (or otherwise) of its content,” writes Ritchie, who in addition to working as a photographer is also an environmental anthropologist at the University of Kent. “This includes religious sub-texts, nods towards the American road movie genre, and Duchampian allegories to the ‘ready-made’. Absent from the discourse, though, has been any serious discussion around gasoline or oil, which is surprising in view of its historical and ongoing importance to the United States both culturally, economically, and geopolitically.”
Ritchie’s new book, available from Blurb here, explores the issue of oil and gas extraction within the Peruvian Amazon, alluding to the consequential human and environmental effects it is and will increasingly have upon the region. His research for the project meant the work has taken a year to assemble. “There were also plenty of design challenges, not least hand-building the 1960s variant of Stymie!,” says Ritchie of the font used in Ruscha’s book.
Each spread (examples shown, below) contains a visual representation of species concentration and indigenous presence within twenty-six active or soon-to-be active hydrocarbon blocks located throughout the Peruvian Amazon.
The book incorporates “spectral species density imagery” from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and NatureServe; hydrocarbon block and protected area Geographical Information System (GIS) shapefile data produced by hydrocarbon promotion agency, Perupetro; and indigenous territorial mapping data produced by the Peruvian civil society group, Instituto del Bien Común (IBC).
San Martin region: 8,709 square km. Operating company: Talisman Energy (Canada). Known ethnic groups: Chayahuita, Quechua-Lamas (Kichwa)
“Over the past thirty years, successive Peruvian governments have pursued a path of national development focused on hydrocarbon extraction, which in large part occurs within areas of high biological and cultural diversity,” Ritchie explains on his blog. “Western Amazonia, which includes a significant portion of Peruvian territory, is the most species rich part of the Amazon basin and is home to high concentrations of indigenous ethnic groups, including some of the world’s last uncontacted peoples living in isolation from mainstream society.”
Loreto region: 9,404 square km. Operating company: ConocoPhillips & Gran Tierra (US/Canada). Known ethnic groups: Quechua-Napo (Kichwa), Achuar, Iquito
“Unlike Brazilian Eastern Amazonia, it is still a largely intact ecosystem, but one where the underlying substrata contains huge reserves of oil and gas, many yet untapped. The growing global demand is leading to unprecedented exploration and development of the region threatening biological and cultural integrity (often within protected areas) driving forest clearance, causing interethnic and civil conflict, and the colonisation of hitherto sparsely populated areas.”
Loreto region: 10,204 square km. Operating company: Pacific Stratus (Canada). Known ethnic groups: Capanahua
“The data has been combined, arranged, and passed through seven separate cartographic and creative software packages and manifests itself in the double-page spreads,” says Ritchie.
“During numerous interviews, Ruscha has described Twentysix Gasoline Stations as ‘simply a collection of facts’,” he adds. “In a 1982 interview with Art News he declared it a ‘training manual for people who want to know about things like that’. This succinctly summarises my own intentions with this book.”
The book also features an essay by anthropologist, Miguel Alexiades, a leading expert on biocultural diversity and the political ecology of Western Amazonia. Twentysix Hydrocarbon Blocks is self-published and available to buy via Blurb. A full preview is here. More of Craig Ritchie’s work is at craigritchie.co.uk.
Ucayali region: 4,142 square km. Operating company: Pacific Stratus (Canada). Known ethnic groups: Ashéninka, Shipbo-Conibo, Isconahua