Lives Uprooted by Oil
Indigenous Peoples Rally to Resist Exploitation
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From the meandering rivers and mangroves of Africa to
the diverse tropical rainforests of the Amazon basin,
the oil industry implants seismic lines, builds pipelines
and dumps toxic waste in pristine ecosystems. Petroleum,
which is commonly referred to as the world's "black
gold," has a high demand in the global market. Consequently,
the oil industry has increasingly resorted to exploitation
of poor people in the most resource-rich regions in the
world. Both the environments and indigenous people of
Africa and South America in particular have suffered from
the cost of the world's dependence on oil.
Transnational corporations enjoy unregulated privatization
of natural resources. Led by multinational organizations
like the World Bank, the oil industry targets less developed,
politically and economically vulnerable regions like Nigeria,
West Africa, Columbia and Ecuador. The imposition of massive
industrial projects on indigenous peoples - without their
consent and often against their will - has led to a loss
of control over their own development as a people.
Indigenous communities are leading the battle to defend their rights and protect their homelands in the face of unregulated privatization. They have created cooperatives of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), forged allies in Congress, filed lawsuits, blocked oil roads, and shut down wells, rigs and drilling sites. This activism and solidarity of indigenous peoples echoes a rising call for Northern countries to wake up and take notice. This article is dedicated to those who have resisted big oil interests and continue to serve as catalysts for social change in local communities and around the world.
Nigeria and the Ogoni People
The Ogoni nation is located in the ecologically rich
Niger Delta. This region contains abundant wildlife, forests,
agricultural land and more freshwater fish species than
any other coastal system in West Africa. Since Royal Dutch
Shell began extracting oil from the delta over 60 years
ago, the company has shown little concern for the environment
or the 500,000 Ogoni people.4
Oil production activities such as flaring, oil spills, construction of infrastructure, and waste dumping have brought the Niger Delta to near collapse. Gas flares are elevated vertical stacks found in oil wells and refineries that burn 24 hours a day. The constant intense heat and gasses released from the flares destroy crops and cause acid rain in the Niger Delta. Oil spills occur because most of Shell's pipelines have not been replaced since the 1960s.5
These rusty and poorly maintained pipelines have contaminated
the Niger Delta's drinking water supplies. Pipe explosions
and leakages are common and kill thousands. The 1992 oil
blow, in the village of Botem, lasted for one week and
represents 40 percent of Shell's total worldwide spills.6
In response, the Ogoni waged nonviolent resistance
against Shell to reclaim their lands and protect what
little remains of their endangered environments. In 1990,
they launched the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni
People (MOSOP) to put a stop to the ecological terrorism.
Led by Ken Saro-Wiwa, MOSOP became an umbrella of mass
mobilization of Nigerian youth groups, women's associations,
professionals and traditional rulers.7
Together, they drafted the Ogoni Bill of Rights, which
calls for nonviolent action to promote the political,
economic and environmental control of the Ogoni people.
The document was submitted to the Nigerian government
and charged Shell with "full responsibility for the
genocide of the Ogoni." 8
In January 1993, 300,000 Ogoni peacefully
protested against Shell's destruction of the Niger Delta.
This marked the largest demonstration ever organized against
an oil company. In April, a Shell contractor began bulldozing
farmland in preparation for the Rumueke-Bomu pipeline.
Ten thousand Ogoni protested the construction. The construction
company called government troops to the site to respond
to the Ogoni demonstration. Eleven people were injured
as a result of open fire. A few months later, over 100
Ogoni were killed in the town of Kaa and 8,000 were made
In 1994, Saro-Wiwa, the MOSOP president,
was arrested with eight other Ogoni leaders on fabricated
charges, and accused of murder by the Nigerian military.
Saro-Wiwa was awarded the 1994 Right Livelihood Award,
and was declared a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International.
The next year, Saro-Wiwa and the other leaders were executed.
According to evidence found in 1995, Shell had bribed
the witnesses in the trial to testify against Saro-Wiwa.
The executions provoked international condemnation of
Shell. Nevertheless, the U.S. Senate bill that would have
embargoed Nigerian oil died for lack of Senate sponsors.10
In 1996, hundreds gathered at an Ogoni Day rally
in the town of Bori. Soldiers fired tear gas and ammunition
into the crowd killing four youths and injuring many.¹¹
Military actions spread terror and turned thousands of
Ogoni into refugees. Yet, massacres and executions have
only hardened the resolve of communities to put an end
to oil production.
In the following years after Saro-Wiwa's death, demonstrations
occurred daily all over the Niger Delta. The Ijaw community,
whose population totals 12 million, joined the Ogoni and
drafted the Kaiama Declaration, which demanded the immediate
withdrawal of oil companies and military forces. In 1998,
Ijaw groups took control of 20 oil stations, cutting Nigeria's
oil production of 2 million barrels a day by one-third.
Since 1993, Shell has spent millions of dollars on advertising
and public relations to save its reputation. ¹²
In a recent visit to UC Berkeley to express his opposition to a proposed British Petroleum/UC Berkeley collaboration (see article in this issue), Nigerian human rights activist Omoyele Sowore related that women play a prominent role in anti-oil exploitation protests. One of their frequent actions is to remove their clothes and occupy oil rigs. In the Nigerian culture, a naked woman sends a message of shame to men who, by implication of her nakedness, have done something horrible to her and her community.
Resistance in Colombia and Ecuador
In nearby Ecuador, the 310-mile Trans-Ecuadorian
Pipeline was completed in 1972 by a Texaco-led consortium.
The pipeline served as the primary conduit for oil extraction
from the Ecuadorian Amazon, also known as the Oriente.14
The Oriente consists of over 32 million acres of diverse
tropical rainforest. Oil spills from the pipeline have
poured an estimated 18.5 million gallons of crude oil
into the Amazon River, 1.5 times the amount from the Exxon
Valdez spill. Additionally, Texaco has built over 200
wells and 1,000 toxic pits in the rainforest, which have
generated more than 3.2 gallons of waste each day. Other
ecological impacts of the oil industry have included:
logging, clear cutting for roads, and shockwaves from
seismic testing that kill aquatic life and threaten animal
habitats. Hunter-gatherer communities that depend on natural
resources and live in the forest face major health problems
from bathing in contaminated rivers and inhaling vapors.
These issues attracted more media attention in 1992, when
1,500 natives from Ecuador's Amazon rainforest walked
140 miles to Quito, the country's capital. This march
served as a powerful moment and symbol of peaceful nonviolent
resistance, and created an inspiring, deeply resonating
energy within the movement. As a result, actions spread
and the government began to take notice. A greater movement
to unite all 12 indigenous groups, resulted in a massive
well-organized protest that shut down the country for
two weeks in June 1994. The mobilization proved successful
when the revised Constitution in 1998 included the protesters'
demands and acknowledged Ecuador as a "pluricultural"
and "multiethnic" state. The new Constitution
called for the recognition of and respect for the sacred
ancestral lands of indigenous groups. 15
Despite this accomplishment, oil extraction continued, and nonviolent resistance became subject to violent opposition. On the eve of the "March for Peace and Defense of the Collective Rights of all Nationalities of the Amazon" in 2003, several Sarayacu villagers and protesters were attacked and killed. An alliance of five indigenous nationalities, representing over 30,000 rainforest residents, filed a lawsuit against ChevronTexaco. In October of 2006, attorney Steve Donziger and Director of Communications for Amazon Watch, Simeon Tegel, spoke at UC Berkeley Boalt Law School about the historical trial. The lawsuit, Aguinda v. ChevronTexaco, represents the first time in history that tribal communities have forced a multinational company to clean up their mess and has the potential to benefit millions of other people who have been victims of human rights abuses by private corporations. In March of this year, the Ecuador judge ordered that the final phase of the trial, which includes a damage assessment, be completed in 120 days. The decision to the $6 billion class-action lawsuit is expected early 2008.
The resistance movements in this article share two core principles, nonviolence and solidarity. The Ogoni, Ijaw, U'wa and Sarayacu are linked by the same essential struggle against an asymmetrical system of development. Tribes that once didn't get along are now united in a single movement. When neighboring communities march together in solidarity, the anti-exploitation movement gains momentum worldwide. Hand in hand, the chorus of chanting voices grows louder and the legacy of nonviolent resistance and solidarity lives on. Although there have been tragic deaths and brutality, protests against oil industries remain nonviolent and peaceful. The aims of such protests are simple: to inspire equitable solutions to our energy needs and respect human lives.
Lani Lee is a Comparative Literature and Conservation Resource Studies major at UC Berkeley. She is an environmental activist and delegate for the National Organization of Women.
1 Pan, Esther. China, Africa, and Oil. Council
on Foreign Relations. Backgrounder. 12 January 2006.