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Veni grant for anthropologist Eva van Roekel

13 April 2022
Anthropologist Eva van Roekel of VU Amsterdam receives a Veni grant of up to 280,000 euros from the Dutch Research Council (NWO). She is awarded this grant for her research: ‘Emergency Ethics: Crisis, Nature, and Wealth in Venezuela’.

Due to the prolonged humanitarian crisis, many Venezuelans are currently making a living from resource extraction, smuggling, money transfers and trading in cryptocurrencies. What ethical dilemmas do Venezuelans face and how do they justify their actions? Through ethnographic research in Venezuela, Van Roekel will provide new insights into ethical conduct during crisis and how prolonged crisis affects the moral relationship between social and ecological justice.

"I am very interested in how Venezuelans think about the ethical side of their actions," says Van Roekel. “Ethics, in a nutshell, is about what is considered right and wrong. This is not a universal fact. Far-reaching crises and violence often force people to find creative solutions to their daily problems. What actions do they consider justifiable? And what not? During crises, such ethical reflections often intensify, partly because existing legal frameworks become inadequate.” In existing research, much attention is paid to ecological degradation due to gold mining on the one hand, and to research on smuggling, dark and digital finance on the other. “How do people end up in the situation that they decide to smuggle or mine, for example? A lot of research on ecological degratification, smuggling and dark finance are separated, but in reality, they are intertwined. My anthropological approach to emergency ethics makes room to study these contemporary problems together."

Due to the economic crisis, poor leadership and the economic sanctions, extreme poverty, crime and deforestation are increasing in Venezuela. "As a result, we hear talk of a 'mafia state' and 'ecocide', but such terms are highly politicised and leave little room for looking at what Venezuelans themselves think and do in a moral sense."

Fieldwork is therefore central to this research. Van Roekel: "Through participatory research and informal discussions, among other things, I want to look at ethics in practice. How do people make choices and how do they reflect on them? For example, they talk normally about smuggling when it comes to things that are scarce. So it's not about drugs, but about sugar, rice and pasta. I don't want to downplay what is happening, but I want to look at how people see it themselves. And when is an action no longer tolerated? Some smuggle something and sell it at home for twice as much money, others make it ten times more expensive. And there is anger about that. Not so much that smuggling is illegal, but that some people try to make excessive profits. This is not very different in crises elsewhere in the world."

Besides being an anthropologist, Van Roekel is also a filmmaker and writes short stories inspired by her fieldwork. During her Veni project, she therefore wants to make 'emergency ethics' palpable for the public through film and fiction. "Latin America is often criminalised from the outside, or forced into victimhood. I want to present my research in an accessible way and thus reach a wider audience."

Eva van Roekel received her Bachelor's degree in Language and Culture Studies with Latin America Studies as the main subject at Utrecht University. She has lived in Venezuela since she was sixteen. The choice to study Latin America therefore seemed inevitable. After that, she obtained her Master's degree in Latin American and Caribbean Studies in Utrecht. She then worked as a filmmaker in Venezuela and worked for an NGO in the Netherlands. Still, the academic world lured her back: she did a PhD in Utrecht on state violence in Argentina. "That led to a beautiful book and my job at the VU. This is where I really found my place in Anthropology."

Eva van Roekel is delighted with the Veni funding. She also feels a responsibility: “To my family, but also to the people in Venezuela, to tell their story as well as possible. In addition, she emphasises the major role played by her colleagues. "You really can’t do this alone. I had a lot of help from colleagues in the Anthropology Department and the faculty. They helped me think about my proposal and asked critical questions. Now it seems like this is only about me. But this is really the work of many people."

Veni, along with Vidi and Vici, is part of the NWO Talent Programme. Veni is aimed at researchers who have recently obtained their doctorates. Within the Talent Programme, researchers are free to submit their own subject for funding. In this way, NWO encourages curiosity-driven and innovative research.