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|Wishing Ogoni Yasuni|
Flowing from the Eastern slopes of the Andes, the Napo River in North Eastern Ecuador offers travellers a swift downstream ride. The broad river with occasional sand bars was so replete with driftwood that as the Oilwatch team sailed on it a week ago, we had to hold our breath when it seemed the pilot would run smack into some. Happily the over four-hour ride from Coca, the capital city of Orellana Province, to Neuva Rocafuerte, close to the Ecuadorian border with Peru, was devoid of incident.
Views of lush forests and the occasional human settlements on the banks of the river were broken at two points by gas flares that peeped through the foliage. Before heading here I had heard a presentation where it was stated that gas flaring had been snuffed out in Ecuador. Here we were, confronted with blatant evidence to the contrary. These flares cannot be hidden.
We were headed for Yasuni, the nature reserve and indigenous territory famous for being declared by the government as out of bounds to crude oil activities. Yasuni holds 846 million barrels of crude oil or 20 percent of the country's oil reserves. Valued at $7.2 billion, the Ecuadorian government launched a programme in August 2010 where it stated that the country would leave the oil underground and forgo 50 percent of its value in the process.
Interesting. But where would the balance 50 percent come from if the oil is not extracted and sold? The proposal requires that the international community contribute the balance $3.6 billion over a period of 13 years. A steep idea, if you ask me. However, since then there have been responses, although the trickle is yet to become a deluge.
Perhaps you are wondering why anyone would sit on oil reserves and refuse to drill it. The reasons given by the Ecuadorian government include that the area in question is a national park, protected by law against mining and other destructive activities. Yasuni, in the Amazon, is a biodiversity hotspot. It is so lush, captivating and awe-inspiring you would not blink if someone suggests that Yasuni means ‘sacred land'.
Secondly, there are some indigenous peoples living in voluntary isolation in this territory. They ask nothing of government, want nothing from anyone, except that they should be left alone, to stay with no contact with anyone.
Thirdly, leaving the oil underground avoids release of tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere.
Expectedly, corporate interests seriously contest the government's intention. But the people are all for leaving the oil in the soil here. Campaigners include school kids who have formed themselves into Guardians of Yasuni groups.
While the battle is on to leave the oil firmly underground in the Yasuni, this has already been the reality of Ogoni, Nigeria, since 1993 when Shell was expelled from their territory. Shell's expulsion has effectively locked the oil underground here, and attempts to return to the lucrative Ogoni oil fields could not materialise as the people are not ready to forget the damage done by decades of exploitation of crude in their land. They are not ready to wash away the memories of the several lives lost when the Nigerian state unleashed a reign of terror on the people - an orgy that climaxed in the murder of Ogoni chiefs and the state murder of Ken Saro-Wiwa and other Ogoni leaders. Moreover, thousands of Ogonis are yet to return from exile into which they were forced by the state of insecurity that reigned in the land.
Many Ogoni people are happy that oil extraction has been halted in their land and creeks. However, with major oil pipelines crossing through Ogoni territory, they have experienced massive oil spills even though oil activities do not go on there.
Interestingly, many observers claim that there has been a deliberate arm-twisting rule by government not to allow benefits accruing to other oil producing areas into Ogoni. They insist that there are no NNDC projects in their area simply because they have rejected the re-entry of oil companies. The question they ask, and we agree, is why nothing is remembered of the decades of oil extraction here and the pollutions that led to the peaceful resistance and expulsion of Shell. Why is no one taking note that new oil spills have sacked the entire Goi community, for example, and thoroughly damaged the rivers/creeks at Bodo City?
As the Ogoni pollution study by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) is being released, it is hoped that the next steps of remediation of Ogoni land will be undertaken with the polluter picking the bill. We can hazard that the UNEP report will state that Ogoni is far severely polluted. If that is so, the question for the Nigerian government will be why they seek to reopen the oil wells in Ogoni? Would it be to inflict more harm on the land, and on the people? The people testify that life is better for them without the sharp claws of the oil industry.
For leaving the oil underground, Ogoni should be rewarded and not punished. They are saving their environment and saving the planet too. As the pollution report is released the best that we can do is to wish Ogoni Yasuni and to see it happen.
By Nnimmo Bassey