By Tim McSorley
November 28, 2011
In Durban this week, you’re blinded by green. From billboards to uniforms, it’s impossible to miss that this South African city is hosting the 17th Conference of the Parties (COP17) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.
One would think you could not get any further from the northern hinterlands of the Alberta’s Athabasca watershed. But in a city filled with palm trees and tens of thousands of delegates engaging in another round of high-level climate negotiations, environmental and community organizers from across Africa, the Middle East and North America came together over northern Alberta’s tar sands and similar projects around the world.
“There’s a lot of development right now globally around tar sands, oil shale, and other extraction projects,” said Oliver Meth, a Durban environmental activist and one of the organizers of Everyone’s Downstream 5 (EDS).
Held for the past four years in Edmonton, Alberta, the annual conference was established to explicitly focus on the Alberta tar sands, both its impact on downstream communities directly affected by the project and its broader ramifications. It has gradually grown, and this year made the leap to a new location in order to build broader links with international communities, especially many African communities which are now seeing tar sands and other unconventional extraction projects beginning in their regions.
Celestine Akpobari and Sorbarikor Demual, Ogoni Solidarity Forum, speak at Everyone’s Downstream about the decades-long battle of the Ogoni people in the Niger Delta against massive oil developments that have led to the destruction of agricultural land, contaminated water and impaired health. Photo: Dru Oja Jay
Presenters from areas including Congo-Brazzaville, Madgascar, Israel, Uganda, and South Africa were all present to share the struggles they are facing against growing threats to human health and the environment, including wildlife, plant life and potable water.
While the diversity of participants pointed to the degree to which people are growing concerned, tar sands and unconventional oil extraction, and the specific issues they present, are relatively new to Africa and to environmental activists across the country. “We need to build more awareness about these projects,” Meth said. “Not everybody talks to each other.”
Clearly there are major differences from community to community, but many people echoed concerns heard in Canada for nearly a decade, as the Alberta tar sands has grown and its environmental impact has become more clear.
“If the extraction of 40 tons of conventional oil has not led us to economic development, it’s clear that tar sands, which have led to negative impacts in Canada, and which are our best and only example we can look to, won’t do so either,” said Christian Mounzeo, president of Engagement for Peace and Human Rights from Brazzaville, Republic of the Congo.
Since 2008, Italian corporation ENI has been developing a massive energy production undertaking, including palm oil plantations, natural gas and a major tar sands extraction project. Two months ago, the company announced it would be proceeding from the exploratory to extraction phase. But even though not a drop of tar sands crude has been extracted yet, there are already growing concerns, he says.
The company has not been forthright on how an environmental impact assessment will be carried out, he said, and communities haven’t been provided even the most basic information about the project itself or been involved in public consultations. “There is a problem of access to information and public participation,” he explained.
Such concerns are similar to the concerns expressed by many Indigenous communities in Canada, who have long called for the right to free and prior informed consent before such major extraction projects take place on their lands, whether they be focusing on tar sands, conventional oil, or mining.
Other activists from across Africa echoed similar concerns, as well as questions around government corruption, political instability and how to make trans-national companies—which often benefit from low tax rates, government corruption and the ability to work through a revolving door of subsidiaries—accountable for their actions.
In Uganda, environmental activists have been trying since 2000 to hold oil extraction companies accountable for environmental devastation, human rights abuses and tax evasion along the shores of Lake Albert. It is part of the water system that feeds from Lake Victoria in central Africa into the southern head of the Nile, featuring one of the most environmentally diverse ecosystems in the world.
Bwengue Rajab Yusuf of Nape-Oil Watch Uganda spoke about how a constantly changing corporate presence—from the Toronto Stock Exchange listed Heritage Oil to Tullow Oil (South Africa) to Total (France) to, most recently, Chinese oil firms—has made it nearly impossible to seek financial compensation for the destruction of agricultural land and of wildlife conservation zones. “Who do you pursue?” he asks, pointing out that it becomes even more difficult when confronted with corrupt government officials who refuse to uphold environmental assessment laws or to enforce the protection of wildlife sanctuaries.
As Mouzeno explained it, residents of the Congo and across Africa are up against the “link between oil exploration, conflict, debt, corruption and under-development.”
But if the challenges are shared, so is the willingness to build new, community-based means of resistance. In Uganda, it has taken the form of Sustainability Schools, where they are focusing on building “community resilience” by offering action training and providing research and investigative skills, said Yusuf.
Two members of the Ogoni Solidarity Forum in the Niger Delta spoke of the longstanding community mobilizations against oil development on their land, highlighting the fact that November marks the anniversary of the hanging of Ken Saro-Wiwa. Wiwa was a renowned environmental and human rights activist put to death by the Nigerian government in 1995 for his outspoken stances and non-violent campaigns, particularly against Shell.
Sorbarikor Demual told of how Ogoni women often bear the brunt of the oil development of their area, since they harvest the land that is often the most devastated by oil spills and chemical contamination. They also face extreme repercussions at the hands of military and para-military forces sent to punish protesting communities and who use sexual assault and rape as punishment for their activism.
Recently, women protested the impacts of oil development and the lack of resources for the Ogoni people by going naked. As Demual’s colleague Celestine Akpobari stated, it is actions by women such as this that show the desperation and the extent to which they must go to ensure compensation for the destruction of their land.
Taking place for two days and involving 200 delegates just before a major international conference, Meth believes that EDS is necessary as part of the counterbalance to the bureaucratic, government-focused negotiation happening at the opulent Durban International Conference Centre.
Conferences like EDS, he said, “gives us a chance to speak in peoples’ own language and terms, in a way they understand best.” The government delegates and representatives of major international non-governmental organizations on the inside at COP17 are often far removed from the realities on the ground, he said, meaning different venues are needed to make concrete, on the ground change.
“We shouldn’t be concerned or be bothered about COP17, but [we need to] challenge it for excluding communities that are being most affected,” he explained, citing the example that there are representatives of the major South African utilities company ESKOM at the table, but that indigenous communities are not officially represented.
And while some may question the impact of smaller events like EDS and others like it over the next week, many major delegations have already stated that they do not foresee any agreement to follow-up on the Kyoto Protocol until 2020. If they are so effective, then, as Meth asks, “They have met so many times; why are we not making more headway?”
Tim McSorley is an editor with the Media Co-op. He is part of a six-person media delegation covering COP17 and parallel community led conferences. You can find more of the Media Co-op’s COP17 coverage at http://mediacoop.ca/durban.