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Professor awarded Guggenheim fellowship

– Michael Watts, a University of California, Berkeley, professor who is researching the relationship between oil, politics and violence in West Africa, has been named a 2003 Guggenheim fellow.

 Michael Watts
Michael Watts (Jane Scherr photo)

Watts, 53, is Class of 1963 Professor of Geography and director of the Institute of International Studies at UC Berkeley.

The John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation announced the fellowship winners on April 10. The winners, 184 artists, scientists and scholars, were given a total of $6.7 million. They were selected from more than 3,200 applicants and chosen based on distinguished achievement and exceptional promise for future accomplishments.

Watts said he is delighted with the award, which will allow him to complete his research on oil and politics - a project he has been working on since he became director of the institute nine years ago. He plans to use the fellowship to complete a book on oil and contemporary Nigeria and to return to Nigeria for more analysis.

"At this moment in history, in which oil and war appear daily on the front pages of every newspaper around the world, it is critically important to fully understand the long and bloody history of oil and its fundamental relation to imperialism and the making of the modern world," Watts said.

Watts received the Guggenheim fellowship to continue his work on the topic of petroleum and economies of violence in Nigeria. His project is part of a larger attempt on his part to understand the conflicts engendered by the exploitation of strategic resources like oil, diamonds, uranium and increasingly genetic materials. His current project provides a political and environmental history of the Niger Delta, the geographical heart of Nigeria's oil production. The delta remains the poorest and most marginal in that country, according to Watts, despite $300 billion in oil revenues it has generated for the Nigerian government since petroleum was discovered there in 1958.

Resource control and self-determination have become the rallying cry in such communities, Watts said, but tensions and conflict among and between these ethnic communities and between minorities and the government and the oil companies have rendered the Niger Delta almost ungovernable.

Watts' interest in rural, community politics and resources and the livelihood of those who live there stretches back to his childhood. He was born and raised in a hamlet in the west of England and, subsequently, in Oxfordshire.

"I was fortunate to be raised in a small community on the edge of a commons that impressed upon me both the wonders of working on the land, but also of what one might call a 'commoner economy,'" Watts said. "This experience left an indelible mark, though it was not until grammar school and university that I came to appreciate, largely by reading the work of Edward Thompson, Raymond Williams and others, the historical significance of the commons, of enclosures and their relation to the making of contemporary life".

Watts received his bachelor's degree in geography and economics from London's University College in 1972 and his PhD in 1978 from the University of Michigan. He came to UC Berkeley in 1979 and joined the faculty of the geography department. Director since 1994 of the Institute of International Studies, a program that promotes cross-disciplinary global and transnational research and training, Watts has also served as chair of the campus's Berkeley-Stanford African Studies Center.

Watts has received prestigious teaching awards from UC Berkeley and received fellowships and grants from the MacArthur Foundation, the Social Science Research Council and the Ford Foundation.

He lives in San Francisco with his wife, Mary Beth Pudup, who is a UC Santa Cruz faculty member, and their two children.