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 percent of its oxygen. We are, in other words, talking about the despoliation-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 percent 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 percent 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 percent 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 percent of young people interviewed in a 2007 World Bank study showed a “willingness or propensity to take up arms against the state.”