From the air, it must look as if a patch of skin has been removed from the face of the forest.
Activists with human rights groups are pressuring Shell to learn from past mistakes and treat this high-profile project, which affects 90 villages, as a chance to work better with communities. Michael Watts is advising NGOs on how to educate the local people about their rights. "For Shell to conduct business as usual would be a public relations disaster,"
A cautionary tale unfolds at Oloibiri, where a wellhead, or "Christmas tree," stands in an overgrown plot. Nothing has flowed from it for years. A weathered sign states the facts: "Oloibiri Well No. 1. Drilled June, 1956. Depth: 12,000 feet (3,700 meters)." Nearby, a plaque dating from 2001 commemorates a presidential visit and the laying of a foundation stone for the Oloibiri Oil and Gas Research Institute, a projected government-funded museum and library. The stone is still there, but nothing else. A few local youths guard the site, not so much to protect it as to demand money from anyone who wants to snap a picture.
In the town of
The chief looked prosperous. He was wearing an ornate black-and-purple robe, a chunky coral necklace, and a black derby, his outfit for a neighboring chief's coronation downriver in Nembe later that day. Like most chiefs, Inengite has a business—dredging sand from the river for roadbuilding. He always keeps an eye out for visitors to
Where does all the oil money go? That question is asked in every village, town, and city in the Niger Delta. The blame spreads, moving from the oil companies to a bigger, more elusive, target: the Nigerian government. Ever since it nationalized the oil industry in 1971, the government has controlled the energy purse. In a joint venture arrangement, the state, in the name of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, owns 55 to 60 percent of multinational oil operations onshore. The windfall in revenues from this arrangement has grown in real dollars from 250 million a year to more than 60 billion in 2005. During that time, even though the government has evolved from a military dictatorship to a democracy (the latest attempt at civil governance began in 1999), what has not changed is what an International Crisis Group report calls a "cancer of corruption." A Western diplomat quoted in the report was even more direct, referring to "the institutionalized looting of national wealth." The money involved is staggering. The head of
On paper, a mechanism does exist for distributing oil revenues somewhat fairly. The federal government retains roughly half and gives out the rest each month, on a sliding scale, to the 36 state governments. The core oil producers—Rivers, Delta, Bayelsa, and Akwa Ibom—receive the most. During the month I was in the delta, those four states divided up more than 650 million dollars.
But there is no discernible trickle down.
Newspaper articles and court cases document spectacular misuses of the money by military men and public office holders—such as the now imprisoned former Bayelsa governor Diepreye Alamieyeseigha—who stash hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign bank accounts to buy mansions in the U.S. and send their children to private schools in London. For the delta's 30 million people—most of whom struggle on less than a dollar a day—seeing this kind of money coming into their states with essentially none of it reaching them has created conditions for insurrection.
Isaac Osuoka remembers the first time he saw frozen fish. It was the late 1970s, and he was five. A peddler caused a stir as he entered Osuoka's delta town of
Frozen fish was a harbinger of the changes that would traumatize Osuoka's community. "As a boy, I could stroll to the rivers or back swamps with a rod and a net and come back with enough fish to feed my family," he recalled. "There was usually enough left over to sell, providing income for us to go to school." This bounty would not survive the coming of oil. Leaks from pipelines and wells, and the building of roads and canals, have disrupted the wetlands. "The degree and rate of degradation," the UN report warns, "are pushing the delta towards ecological disaster."
In 1996, Osuoka joined Environmental Rights Action, an advocacy group that helps communities defend their resources and learn their legal rights so they can avoid Oeliabi's fate. "We're seeing that environmental damages often happen silently, with their effects not coming out until years later," Osuoka said. "Today, there is not a single person in my community you could describe as a fisherman. We depend almost totally on frozen fish." At market stalls, a piece of frozen croaker or mackerel, most of it imported, goes for almost a dollar, unaffordable for most villagers.
The best environmental studies of the delta were done at least 30 years ago, according to Jimmy Adegoke, a Nigerian-born research scientist at the
[to be continued...]