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Niger Delta Fund Initiative: As Oil Riches Flow, Poor Village Cries Out

By Norimitsu Onishi
New York Times
December 22, 2002

Nigeria Only a creek separates this village from the vast ChevronTexaco terminal that pumps oil deep in West Africa's great Niger Delta, but most of the village women who raided the terminal one day in July had never crossed over before.

Just after sunrise, hundreds of unarmed women commandeered a boat and infiltrated the terminal, fanning out across the docks and the airstrip, entering office buildings where Chevron managers worked and homes where they slept. For the next 10 days they occupied the terminal in a peaceful protest, the first one led by women. Chevron allowed them to stay on and entered negotiations. On their side of the creek, these women live in shacks with no phones or indoor plumbing, so to see inside Chevron amounted to an epiphany.

"The Bible describes paradise as a beautiful place where there is everything," said Roli Ododoh, 33, a mother of two. "When we got in there, it was really like paradise." All their lives they had heard of America, but now, as 66-year-old Anirejotse Esuku said, "I saw America there." For Mrs. Ododoh, much was inspiring in the new world of Chevron: the air-conditioning, the tarred roads, the countless phones, the fresh salads, the odd machine called a "microwave," the good foam in the beds.

Things unimagined. But the women were also enraged at what they saw. This wealth had been drawn, over four decades, from the land around them. Yet virtually none of it had benefited a community confined on the wrong side of the creek. The people of the delta feel abandoned by their corrupt government and are turning to Americans, whom they see both as the source of their suffering and as the solution.

Referring to Chevron, Felicia Atsepoyi, a leader known here as Mama Ayo, said: "They achieved something from this community for 40 years. Can't they help us achieve something?" That question is taken seriously by Chevron. Word of the women's raid quickly spread from this remote village to London, where Chevron executives cut short a management meeting to rush to Nigeria.

ChevronTexaco's giant terminal the size of 583 football fields is protected by barbed-wire fences and moatlike waterways. But, as the executives knew, it is also surrounded by tens of thousands of Africans who have grown poorer and angrier. Americans rarely set foot in those villages, flying in and out of the terminal aboard helicopters and planes.

But how long these two worlds can coexist in such proximity without inflaming violence is a question that increasingly preoccupies the top management of ChevronTexaco. In the years ahead, the company, which operates in 186 countries and is the top American investor in sub-Saharan Africa, will pump more of its oil in places where people live on "less than $1 a day," said its chief executive, David J. O'Reilly. "The big challenge it's an enormous challenge is to ensure that as a human race we provide an environment in which these billions of people achieve the standard of living that the majority of the people in the world have come to expect,"

Mr. O'Reilly said in an interview at the company's headquarters in San Francisco. "Does it have to be the same living? No. But should it have a standard? Yes." Commenting on a recent trip he made to the Niger Delta, he said: "There are tremendous needs. We can't fill them all. There's no question. But we have to play a role."

During the women's 10-day occupation, Chevron representatives repeatedly crossed the creek to negotiate with village leaders. Much was at stake. Executives at the Escravos Terminal dispatched regular updates to Chevron headquarters in San Francisco on the fate of the 350,000 barrels of crude that is supposed to be shipped out daily. So far, there is a truce that allows the output to continue.

The Industry

An Enterprise Rises, and a Village Sinks

Many of the women are old enough to remember the Americans' arrival here in the 1960's. They watched the terminal grow over time, the giant red-and-white communications tower rise into the sky, and the first helicopters and planes land on the terminal airstrip.

Meanwhile, on their side of the creek, life deteriorated. Ugborodo, a fishing village, is sinking into the water, a fact that villagers attribute to company actions to widen the creek and a nearby river. Oil wealth has brought few modern amenities. Outhouses made of corrugated zinc line the nearby shore; the villagers follow raised planks to them and defecate directly into the same water where they fish for crabs.

Ugborodo may sit across from Chevron's largest terminal in the delta, but the village does not have a gas station. Villagers buy their gasoline upriver and have it shipped here, paying three times what the rest of Nigeria pays. These issues impinge on American interests, too, as the demonstrations show. In the coming years, the United States will increasingly rely on oil from the mangrove swamps of the Niger Delta, already its fifth-largest source of imported oil.

Seeking new sources of oil outside the Middle East, especially since the Sept. 11 attacks, the Bush administration has been courting big African producers like Nigeria and Angola, as well as upstarts Equatorial Guinea, São Tomé and Príncipe. The United States imports 15 percent of its crude oil from Africa, but the share is expected to rise to as much as 25 percent in a decade, with most of the world's new oil reserves coming out of this continent. The output of Nigeria itself is expected to increase 50 percent, to three million barrels a day, by 2007.

These days, when Chevron signs a contract with an African government in Nigeria, 40 percent of the oil revenue goes to Chevron, 60 percent to the government it is often only the beginning of the company's negotiations. The Nigerian government has spent little of its 60 percent share to improve the lives of more than 120 million Nigerians. The generals in power for most of the country's oil-producing history funneled an extraordinarily large amount of money into an extraordinarily small number of hands.

The dictator Gen. Sani Abacha, who died in office in 1998, stole perhaps $3 billion during his half-decade in power, an amount that Mobutu Sese Seko, the former dictator of Zaire, which is now Congo, took three decades to amass. The thievery has not abated since the election of a civilian government in 1999, although the money now trickles down to a wider circle of leaders, by common agreement.

The women's occupation of the Escravos Terminal set off three other women-led protests against ChevronTexaco and one against Royal Dutch/Shell the first time women spearheaded demonstrations against the Western oil giants. In response, ChevronTexaco officials now say they will significantly increase the money the company spends to build schools, roads and hospitals, and to provide electricity, water and other essentials to their African neighbors. The women who have now seen inside Chevron wonder,