Oil kills in more way than one

Issue 

@intro2 = During April, Friends of the Earth (FOE) is running the Climate Justice Tour, in which leaders of Nigeria, Samoa and Tuvulu are visiting Australian cities to provide insight into the impact of Canberra's energy policies on our Pacific neighbours. FOE's KIM STEWART spoke to NNIMMO BASSEY, a Nigerian activist campaigning against the destructive practices of oil companies.

Daily, the mainstream news reports on one of the effects of the West's dependence on oil — war. However, even when outright war has not broken out, life in communities where oil is being extracted is often violent, unhealthy and exploitative.

Nnimmo Bassey works with OilWatch and Environmental Rights Action to uncover the destructive activities of the many oil companies operating in Niger Delta, including Shell, ExxonMobil (Esso) and ChevronTexaco. He works to expose human rights abuses, which are often government sanctioned.

Bassey is trying to raise awareness about how the initial stages of the climate change cycle — the extraction of fossil fuels to meet the excessive demand of energy consumptive states in the North — cause chaos and human rights violations in his homeland.

In Australia, we are highly dependant on coal for our electricity production. Yet we still consume the equivalent of 872,000 barrels of oil per day, and rate ninth in the world for per capita consumption. We are also the biggest greenhouse gas emitters in the world. These facts highlight the extent to which we need to take responsibility for the human rights and environmental effects of our energy consumption.

Bassey describes the Niger Delta landscape as "criss-crossed" with petroleum pipes that leak and spill oil into the streets and on agricultural land and are "never adequately handled".

There is constant gas flaring and explosions, accompanied by "unbridled repression of the local people by occupation forces". These forces include Nigeria's own military, which continues to act at the behest of a corrupt government in league with transnational oil corporations.

The industry has such a pervasive grip on Nigeria that Bassey says "oil-related activities have led to the destruction of whole communities, the killing (including extra-judicial murders) of thousands as well as [the production of] thousands of external and internal refugees" with hardly a murmur from the international community.

The extraction of oil is synonymous with pollution. Indeed, Bassey maintains, "it can be said without fear of any contradiction that no oil spill has been adequately cleaned up in the Niger Delta". The environment has been severely degraded in many places. Bassey believes the oil industry is intrinsically hostile to the environment and the people who live on it.

Waste products from oil extraction include gas, drilling mud and drilling cuts. The constant gas flaring, where gas is burnt off as an unprofitable byproduct of oil extraction causes "continual noise, acid rain and retarded crop yield, corroded roofs and lung diseases". Bassey says that gas flaring has resulted in the Niger Delta being described as "the biggest single industrial complex in the world contributing to global warming today".

Human health has suffered so much so that the Niger Delta is now a place "where life is short and unpredictable; where so much wealth is extracted and where so much wretchedness is evident".

In addition to the lung diseases related to gas flaring, the pumping of mud waste into marine environments may be responsible for food-borne poisoning and illnesses. Explosives have been used in many places to the extent that aftershocks "have been known to impact on the auditory systems of sea birds and mammals finally affecting their ability to community and procreate. Other side effects are noted in diminished food supplies, increased cases of hypertension and endocrine imbalance. The ultimate impact is on the fish supply on which the economy of the local people hangs."

Bassey links oil extraction to climate change in the area: "Climate change was once a remote possibility. Today it is a reality and an immediate threat to the very existence of island and coastal communities."

Attempts to clean up oil spills have been either poorly attempted or non-existent. Legislation has been enacted to absolve transnational oil corporations of responsibility if they allege sabotage. Bassey claims, "[corporations] often set whole forests on fire in a bid to wipe out the evidence of the spills."

Many human deaths have resulted from explosions or toxic cleaning chemicals in oil spills. Pipelines can also explode, a recent incident caused the deaths of 1000 people at the Jesse petrol pipeline in the Niger Delta. As in other occasions with other corporations, the state-run oil company NNCP attempted to place responsibility on the victims, accusing them of being saboteurs and vandals.

In 1999, the government blamed anti-Shell "rebels" for the deaths of four police officers, and razed an entire town, Odi, in retaliation. According to Human Rights Watch workers who visited the town two weeks after the attack, the stench of decomposing bodies was noticeable a kilometre from the town, and there were only three buildings left standing.

Ultimately, the promises made by government and industry of higher standards of living, new roads, school and hospitals do not materialise or fail to remain once the companies have made their profits. In addition, oil companies make no pretence to public consultation in Nigeria, unlike in Western countries. These double standards amount to environmental racism.

Bassey says: "The oil industry believes that the people have no right to know what is happening in their environment. Dialogue, they believe, ends in social tokens such as classroom blocks and ill-equipped health centres."

The connections between oil extraction, climate change and human rights could not be more obvious than they are in Nigeria. For the predominantly poor rural Nigerians, the effects of climate change heap injury upon injury: deforestation (which Bassey describes as "a truly vicious circle", because as climate change increases, so does deforestation through tree death, which further increases climate change), heat waves, tropical diseases, salinisation of crop lands, rising sea level and the dislocation of potentially millions of people.

Bassey's trip to Australia is one of hope. The solidarity of the Australian people is essential for the reformation of his country, indeed the unjust system that makes the Niger Delta as it is today.

In Bassey's words: "It is time for all of us to realise that environmental actions have environmental costs. Laws must be enacted to ensure that the environment is protected against both public and private actions that fail to take account of costs and harms inflicted on the eco-system. Our environment, indeed, is our life."

[For more information, or to get involved, visit <http://www.foe.org.au/climate>. Bassey will be speaking at the Brisbane Social Forum in May, for more information, visit <http://www.brisbanesocialforum.org>.]

From Green Left Weekly, April 29, 2004.
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