If you live on the Gulf Coast, welcome to the real world of oil—and just know that you’re not alone. In the Niger Delta and the Ecuadorian Amazon, among other places, your emerging hell has been the living hell of local populations for decades.
Even as I was visiting those distant and exotic spill locales via book, article, and YouTube, you were going through your very public nightmare. Three federal appeals court judges with financial and other ties to big oil were rejecting the Obama administration’s proposed drilling moratorium in the Gulf of Mexico. Pollution from the BP spill there was seeping into Lake Pontchartrain, north of New Orleans. Clean-up crews were discovering that a once-over of beaches isn’t nearly enough: somehow, the oil just keeps reappearing. Endangered sea turtles and other creatures were being burnt alive in swaths of ocean (“burn fields”) ignited by BP to “contain” its catastrophe. The lives and livelihoods of fishermen and oyster-shuckers were being destroyed. Disease warnings were being issued to Gulf residents and alarming toxin levels were beginning to be found in clean-up workers.
None of this would surprise inhabitants of either the Niger Delta or the Amazon rain forest. Despite the Santa Barbara oil spill of 1969 and the Exxon Valdez in 1989, Americans are only now starting to wake up to the fate that, for half a century, has befallen the Delta and the Amazon, both ecosystems at least as rich and varied as the Gulf of Mexico.
The Niger Delta region, which faces the Atlantic in southern Nigeria, is the world’s third largest wetland. As with shrimp and oysters in the Gulf, so its mangrove forests, described as “rain forests by the sea,” shelter all sorts of crustaceans. The Amazon rain forest, the Earth’s greatest nurturer of biodiversity, covers more than two billion square miles and provides this planet with about 20% of its oxygen. We are, in other words, talking about the despolation-by-oil not of bleak backlands, but of some of this planet’s greatest natural treasures.
Consider Goi, a village in the Niger Delta. It is located on the banks of a river whose tides used to bring in daily offerings of lobsters and fish. Goi’s fishermen would cast their nets into the water and simply let them swell with the harvest. Unfortunately, the village was located close to one of the Delta’s many pipelines. Six years ago, there was a major spill into the river; the oil caught fire and spread.
Nnimo Bassey, Nigerian head of Friends of the Earth, International, visited soon after. “What I saw” he reported in a recent radio interview, “was just a sea of crude, burnt out mangroves, and burnt out fishponds beside the river… All the houses close to the river were burnt… It was like a place that had been set on fire in a situation of battle, of war. The people were completely devastated.”
Nigeria’s biggest oil producer, Royal Dutch Shell, insisted that it cleaned up the village, but Bassey just laughs. “One thing about oil incidents: you cannot hide them. The evidence is there for anybody to see. This was in 2004; I’ve been there two times this year. The devastation is still virtually as fresh as it was then. You can still see the oil sheen on the river. You can see the mangroves that were burnt, they’ve not recovered. You can see the fish ponds that were destroyed. You can see the fishing nets and boats that were burnt. They’re all there. There’s no signs of any clean-up.”
Though the local inhabitants are still there, struggling for survival, notes Bassey, they can’t depend on fishing anymore. “The last time I went there, there was a little boy who came with a plastic container… [He and his father had gone] to look for shrimps all night. And what they came back with was a paltry quantity of crayfish that could barely cover the bottom of the plastic container…The container was covered with crude and the crayfish itself was covered in crude oil. So I was wondering what they were going to do with it, and he said they were going to wash the crayfish, and then they would feed on it.”
Now people in Goi have to buy fish from traders. The fish are not very fresh, and often smoked. More important, buying fish is a luxury, given that 70% of Nigerians subsist on less than a dollar a day.
Fifty years ago, Shell sank its first 17 wells in the Delta. The rest is history written as nightmare: unparalleled government corruption, ecocide, impoverishment. One estimate puts spills in the Delta over the past half century at 546 million gallons—nearly 11 million gallons a year. If it’s hard to wrap your mind around those figures, maybe this is easier to grasp: more oil is spilled from the Delta’s pipeline maze each year than has been lost so far in the Gulf of Mexico.
Through photographs, you can glimpse life in the Delta under the shadow of big oil. Derelict shacks slouch on river banks amid an extravagance of garbage and waste. Children bathe in lifeless ponds. People live and work in the heat and amid toxins released by flames roaring from flare stacks. Flaring is universally agreed to be wasteful, but is also a way of maximizing oil production on the cheap. Much of the gas burned could be used productively, but in places like the Niger Delta big oil just doesn’t want to spend the money necessary to reclaim it. The flames belch toxins and methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. The U.S. prohibits such flaring. Officially, Nigeria does, too, and scheduled its first “flare-out” for 1984. To date, however, its governments still keep eternally postponing the deadline for stopping the practice.
The sheen, sludge, and slime of crude oil that Americans living on the Gulf coast are just beginning to get used to have been omnipresent facts in the Delta for so long that most people know little else. Average life expectancy in the rural Delta, says Bassey, “has never been lower than it is now”—48 years for women, 47 for men, and 41 if you escape subsistence farming and petty trading by becoming an oil worker. In other words, years shaved off lives are the personal sacrifice those in the region make to big oil.
In the 1960s and early 1970s, Nigeria nationalized its oil, but Shell still ruled production. The state organized large public works projects and long-term plans for development, only to abandon them under powerful international financial pressures—the “free market” doing what it does best when truly unchecked. Nigeria’s leaders have raked in $700 billion in national oil revenues since 1960. One percent of Nigeria’s population, in other words, has pocketed over 75% of its energy wealth. In part thanks to the unwanted sacrifices of the Nigerian majority, America’s gas tanks remain well-filled at relatively reasonable prices, since 40% of U.S. crude oil imports come from the Delta.
Indigenous inhabitants of the Delta like the Ogoni people have suffered disaster without even the oil-money equivalent of trickle-down economics touching their lives. “In recovering the money that has been stolen from us I do not want any blood spilt, not of any Ogoni man, not of any strangers amongst us,” Ken Saro-Wiwa, Nigeria’s legendary nonviolent activist, told an audience of his people in 1990. “We are going to demand our rights peacefully, nonviolently, and we shall win.” The movement he launched adopted the tactics of South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement, promoting divestment from Shell and staging peaceful demonstrations.
Shell soon took notice. So did Nigeria’s military government, which also felt threatened by a movement in the Delta region dedicated to regaining some share of pillaged local wealth. In 1995, that government hanged Saro-Wiwa and eight other nonviolent leaders. A case brought by the Center for Constitutional Rights on behalf of Saro-Wiwa’s son and other plaintiffs resulted in a $15.5 million out-of-court settlement by Shell, a veritable drop in the bucket for the giant company.
Since Saro-Wiwa’s execution, a rebellious spirit has spread widely in the region, but his pacifist approach has long since been rejected. The rebel Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) has become remarkably disruptive and powerful through sabotaging pipelines, kidnapping foreign oil workers, and even piracy. It has, in fact, come close to bringing the oil industry to a standstill there. Shell has shut down its major operations in the Delta, where 36% of young people interviewed in a 2007 World Bank study showed a “willingness or propensity to take up arms against the state.”
Oil corporations have penetrated vast parts of the Amazon rain forest in Ecuador, Peru, and Brazil. Consider just one part of that Amazonian immensity, the Oriente region of Ecuador in the Amazon basin. Humberto Piaguaje of the Secoya people still remembers how life there used to be. With a staggering abundance of birds, plants, animals, and foliage, with streams and tributaries winding through a humid lushness to the Amazon River, the region seemed like a blessing rather than something that could be owned by anyone.
“Own” wasn’t even a notion: the endless stretches of rain forest were literally common wealth. The oil beneath the ground, says Piaguaje, was “the blood of our grandparents—our ancestors.” The rain forest was a university that conferred its knowledge on those who lived there and their shamans. Its medicinal plants made it the people’s hospital; its vegetables and animals made it their marketplace.
For Texaco, however, the jungle invited domination. Emergildo Criollo of the Cofan people remembers how it all began. In 1967, when he was eight years old, a helicopter suddenly appeared in the sky. He’d never seen anything like it and thought at first it was some strange bird. Later, even stranger sounds came from within the jungle itself as Texaco set up shop. Within six months, the first oil spill appeared in a stream near where his family lived. After he grew up, Criollo lost two children: an infant stopped developing after he was six months old, and an older child who bathed one day in the oil-polluted river, swallowed some of the water, and later began vomiting blood. He died the next day. Criollo sums up his sorrow in 13 stark words: “They came and spilled oil, they contaminated the river, and my children died.”
In its first 25 years, Texaco pumped 1.5 billion barrels of oil out of the Oriente region. According to one estimate, the company discharged 345 million gallons of pure crude oil into Ecuador’s rainforest and waterways. In 2009, Amazon Rights Watch reported that the company, by its own estimates, had dumped 18 billion gallons of toxic wastewater directly into the environment. Next to its hundreds of wells, Texaco dug into the forest floor at least twice as many unlined waste pits. That it intended the filth from the pits to flow into forest streams is clear, because it installed drainage pipes that allowed for just such run-off. “Pits,” by the way, is a euphemism for oil-sewage swamps, as is evident both in this photograph and this video.
Forty years of oil exploration and production have translated into the slow poisoning of Oriente’s land, its people, its animals, and its crops. With no other water source, local tribes are forced, as in the Delta region in Nigeria, to use contaminated water for drinking, bathing, and cooking. A Harvard medical team and Ecuadorian health authorities have described eight kinds of cancer that result from this sort of contamination. Birth defects are legion in the region, as are skin diseases, which torment even newborns.
In 1993, 30,000 indigenous Ecuadorians brought a class-action lawsuit against Texaco (which merged with Chevron in 2001 to become Chevron-Texaco, the world’s fourth-largest investor-owned oil company). “60 Minutes” called it “the largest environmental lawsuit in history.” The plaintiffs are seeking $27 billion in compensation for their suffering and for the restoration of their world. The lawsuit is still pending.
Last month, some Ecuadorian indigenous leaders visited the Gulf Coast to show solidarity with another indigenous people, the Houma of Louisiana. A joint group then took a boat tour through bayous where the Houma have fished for generations. Mariana Jimenez, from Ecuador’s Amazon, reached over the side of the boat into gray water, grasping a handful of once-verdant marsh grass. It drooped lifelessly in her hand, leaving dark brown blotches of crude oil on her palm. “I see it,” she said. “It’s just like Ecuador. They talk about all the technology they have, but when there’s a situation like this, where’s the technology?”
“I think all of this is a terrible contamination for the Houma people,” commented Humberto Piaguaje. “It’s a cultural contamination. Their fishing and shrimping that was their livelihood is ending now. They need to be asking BP for compensation for the next generation.”
Big Oil Blowback
Here’s the simple, even crude, lesson these ambassadors offer: whether Americans like it or not, we are all connected in new ways—and not ways the advocates of “globalization” once promised—now that we’ve entered what resource expert Michael Klare calls the age of extreme energy. Think of it as a new kind of blowback.
Our addiction to oil is now blowing back on the civilization that can’t do without its gushers and can’t quite bring itself to imagine a real transition to alternative energies. Humberto Piaguaje might say that the wound BP gashed in the floor of the Gulf of Mexico has unleashed the wrath of the Earth’s millions-of-years dead.
Put another way, corporations presume that it’s their right to control this planet and its ecosystems, while obeying one command: to maximize profits. Everything else is an “externality,” including life on Earth. “What we conclude from the Gulf of Mexico pollution incident,” says Nnimo Bassey, “is that the oil companies are out of control. In Nigeria, they have been living above the law. They are now clearly a danger to the planet.”
Think of oil civilization in its late stages as a form of global terrorism.
Ellen Cantarow is a journalist whose work on Israel/Palestine has been published widely for 30 years including at TomDispatch. She is now working on climate change and big oil, which have much to do with the Middle East, Israel, and Palestine, as well as the rest of the planet. Recent phone conversations with her stepdaughter Kim—she and her husband have a scuba-diving business in the Florida Keys—led indirectly to this story. To catch Cantarow discussing what led her to this piece, listen to Timothy MacBain’s latest TomCast audio interview by clicking here, or to download it to your iPod, here.
[Note on sources: Douglas Yates of the American University of Paris let me read part of the manuscript of his book, The Scramble for African Oil (forthcoming next year from Pluto Press), an invaluable overview of the political economy of big oil in the Niger Delta. An essential primer on the Delta is the remarkable photo-essay anthology, Curse of the Black Gold: 50 Years of Oil in the Niger Delta, by Michael Watts and photographer Ed Kashi. Joe Berlinger’s award-winning documentary Crude is a must-watch with its focus on the Ecuadorian lawsuit against Texaco, as well on the lives of the plaintiffs. Ermegildo Criollo’s story comes from that film.]