Culture and Climate

    Real Energy World
    The Dark Side of Business As Usual

    Oil is the engine of and a key resource for our economic wellbeing, and at the present time it appears to be irreplaceable as the fuel for industry. But the real price is paid by others, for example the people in Nigeria who live close to the oil fields exploited by Western companies.

    During the last one hundred years, approximately one billion barrels (one barrel is the equivalent of 159 litres) have been used. The demand rose from approximately ten million barrels per day in 1945 to 89 million in 2011, an increase that is expected to continue.

    Our mobility is important to us. Roughly half the oil extracted is used in the field of transport. According to the Federal Department of Transportation, Germany alone had 50,902,131 automobiles of all kinds in 2011, of which approximately 42.3 million are private vehicles.

    Thus, if you talk about the consumption of oil in our region, most of the time you will hear complaints about rising gasoline prices. As a rule, the conditions under which oil is extracted are of little interest, and the media, too, only focus on the disaster that oil production causes in a few of the producing countries. People prefer not to look at Africa, especially if we happen to profit from the catastrophe.

    Oil drilling has been going on for more than fifty years in the Niger Delta, and the same poorly-guarded pipelines still crisscross the land. Gas flares hiss day and night, sometimes less than three hundred metres away from settlements. Gas flaring is the cheapest method of clearing the oil of the gas associated with its extraction. The inhabitants have no choice but to live with the noise, the constantly flickering light, and the soot which settles on their skin and their mucous membranes, as well as on the fields and in the water, thus entering the food chain with severe consequences for the health of the population: cancer, miscarriages, babies born with birth defects. The average life expectancy in the Delta is now forty-one.

    The traditional food supply from agriculture and fishing is no longer feasible, made impossible by constant acid rain and the oil pouring out of the rusty or sabotaged pipelines. The fish are dying in the contaminated water. Livestock – cows, goats and sheep – have to be imported from northern Nigeria. There are no paved roads leading to the oil region; by and large the population lack access to electricity and cannot afford to buy oil. To gain access to fuel, the pipelines are tapped, resulting in far from infrequent explosions and people being wounded or killed – sometimes by the explosions themselves, but also by the military, seeking to prevent the theft. Gas stations are often closed: the oil-rich Niger Delta, as well as the rest of Nigeria, experiences frequent gasoline shortages.

    These conditions exert migratory pressures. An infertile soil and contaminated waters, the lack of (legal) paid work, an arbitrary and repressive police, the military and the oil firms’ paramilitary units are driving people, especially young men, to a Europe that lures them with its promises. Women remain behind, with the responsibility of raising their children in unreasonable conditions.

    The struggle against disaster

    Some international press photographers are working in the Delta with a strong commitment to showing the background to oil production. These images tend to reach international media when rebels kidnap foreigners. Then, for a short period, you will see post-apocalyptic landscapes carpeted with oil, blazing gas flares, pipelines running right through the middle of villages, masked rebels amongst an entirely impoverished population.

    The history of the people’s decades-long resistance has become the focus of world opinion, not least since the writer and human rights activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, who founded MOSOP (Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People), and eight of his fellow activists were executed in 1995 after a highly-publicised show trial.

    In 2002 and 2003 thousands of women occupied a vast export terminal of Chevron Texaco and several oil production facilities. They threatened to go naked: the use of the naked body represents a minatory curse in this culture, and an ultimate weapon in the struggle between life and death.

    The conflicts are becoming increasingly militant. The Niger Delta is plagued by sabotage and abductions, as well as by government reprisals. Residents of the oil region – even children – are increasingly being victimised in attacks by the security forces, especially the Joint Task Force, which was created in 2004 to protect the oil firms.

    The militant Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) became active in 2006. Its attacks on Royal Dutch Shell facilities have had a marked effect on oil production. Between 2006 and 2008 more than two hundred foreigners were abducted, most of whom were released unharmed once a ransom was paid. Because of the permanent conflict, Shell withdrew from the western part of the Niger Delta in 2006.

    Going underground

    Not only Shell but also the other companies working in the region, like Total, Agip, Mobil, Chevron or Nigeria’s Conoil, are increasingly transferring their production offshore as a result of the constant unrest. There the catastrophe becomes – at least for a short period – invisible again. ‘Clean’ oil platforms, high-tech facilities, and highly-qualified workers from the industrialised countries are the image that is now presented: and these workers live in securely-guarded compounds, cut off from the rest of the population behind barbed wire and high walls in their single family homes with swimming pools, while all around the neighbouring slums still lack clean drinking water.

    Offshore drilling occurs miles underwater. It is pitch-dark there and cold: you can only orientate virtually, and the drilling is steered from the platform, which calls for extreme precision. The oil, which is boiling hot as it is extracted, is cooled on the way up, releasing aggressive components which corrode the pipes. This creates leaks that are frequently discovered only after the fact. However, these are not the only contaminants the water has to endure: North Sea oil extraction, for example, pumps roughly a million tons of chemically contaminated ‘production water’ into the sea per day. The oil firms’ advertisements emphasise their worldwide ecological engagement; their marketing claims that they use environmentally-protective extraction processes and ‘clean’ technology. In light of the destruction being wreaked in our region, the question arises whether anything of the kind is even feasible.
    Eva Ursprung
    lives as a freelance artist and curator in Graz, Austria. Together with Hans Nevidal she has conceived the exhibition Last Rites Niger Delta. The Drama of Oil Production in Contemporary Photographs at the Staatliches Museum für Völkerkunde München [Munich State Museum of Ethnology]. The exhibition can be seen at the branch of the Museum in Residenzschloss Oettingen until September 15th 2013.

    Translated by Charlotte Collins
    Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
    June 2013

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