And the oil runneth over...
The photographs appearing on this page are part of an exhibition compiled by Oilwatch — a network opposing oil company activities (such as those pictured) in tropical countries. The pictures were taken in Colombia, Ecuador and Nigeria. For more information, visit
Nigeria was the fifth-largest supplier of crude oil to the US in 2002, and a major supplier to Western Europe. From 1976 to 1996, 2.5 million barrels of oil spilled over the land and waterways of the Niger Delta – nearly 10 times more than was spilled in the Exxon Valdez disaster.1 A primary offender has been the aged and rusted network of oil pipelines, which have regularly exploded and ruptured, causing tumours and cancers in addition to breathing, skin and gastrointestinal problems for those living around them. The spills have degraded the Delta’s mangrove forests – the third largest in the world – and caused a drastic decline in the fish catch and agricultural yields that are central to the livelihoods of local communities. In addition, 75 per cent of the gas – a by-product of oil extraction – is burnt off, polluting the air with foul-smelling methane and carbon dioxide. Deaths have resulted from explosions caused by illegal fuel siphoning; one in October 1998 claimed over 1,000 lives.2
Oil companies ChevronTexaco, ExxonMobil, TotalFinaElf and ENI/Agip all operate in the country. Shell runs the largest joint venture – responsible for almost half of Nigeria’s crude-oil production. In March this year the Nigerian House of Representatives directed Shell Nigeria Ltd to pay $1.5 billion to the Ijaw Aborigines in Bayelsa State. Oil spillages here have plagued communities since 1956; an unprecedented number during 1993-94 led to an outbreak of contagious diseases, killing over 1,400 people.
One of Latin America’s largest oil exporters, Ecuador’s oil reserves are located mostly in the eastern Amazon region. The country has lost more than 2,000 square kilometres of primary forest from 30 years of oil exploitation. One Amazonian indigenous nationality (the Tetete) has already disappeared and four more are threatened (the Siona, the Secoya, Cofán and Huaorani). Seventeen million gallons of oil have leaked into Ecuador’s Amazon environment through nearly 30 breaks in the Trans-Ecuadorian pipeline (SOTE).3 A second main pipeline is almost completed. The 503-kilometre OCP pipeline, which aims to double crude production and transport capacity by carrying heavy-grade crude from existing and new sites in the Amazon over the Andes to a Pacific port, is being constructed and maintained by a consortium led by Canada’s EnCana, including Occidental (US), Repsol-YPF (Spain) and AGIP (Italy). From its inception environmentalists have fought the project, citing its threat to 11 protected ecological reserves including the Mindo-Nambillo Cloud Forest Reserve – home to 450 bird species and 3,000 orchid species. In September 2002 a report by a former head of the World Bank’s Environment Department found the OCP pipeline was in ‘substantial non-compliance with… World Bank Group Social and Environment Safeguard Policies.’4 Oil is expected to be flowing through it by the end of this year.
Further information: Juan Pablo Barragan Amazon oil pipelines – pollution, corruption and poverty (March 2003): a video obtainable from the Rainforest Information Centre in a variety of languages –
In January this year Russia overtook Saudi Arabia as the country extracting the largest amount of oil in the world. In new oil developments 45 kilometres north of energy-poor Japan, Russia’s Sakhalin Island is expected to hold oil and gas reserves to rival those of the North Sea. With 90 per cent of the oil from these developments slated for export to Asia, ExxonMobil (one of the two main project leaders) says pipelines to Japan and China are the most cost-effective way to get it there.5 Such a pipeline will test technology by traversing freezing waters. At risk are some of the world’s most diverse and pristine ecosystems, including fisheries that supply over 60 per cent of Russia’s annual catch and employ 50,000 of the island’s 700,000 residents, and the summer ground for two of the world’s most critically endangered whales – the western grey and right whales. Environmental pollution from on-shore drilling and pipelines has already reduced the fish, bird and animal populations on the island that the Nirkhi (one of three indigenous groups) rely upon for subsistence.6
Russia / China
To date, all major oil pipelines in Russia have belonged to the state and been run by Transneft, the full voting shares of which are held by the Russian Property Ministry. More than a third of its 45,000 kilometres of pipeline are wearing out. As a consequence, nearly seven per cent of the oil extracted was lost in 1998 during transportation. In Western Siberia, oil pipelines leak up to 35,000 times a year leaving between three and ten million tons of oil spilled on surrounding land.7 With this attitude to maintenance, concern is growing about the 2,400 kilometre pipeline that Russia and China have announced they will build from the east Siberian city of Angarsk to Daqing in northern China – the site of that country’s largest oil fields. The $2.5-billion project – with an expected completion date of 2005 – will transport at least 20 million tons of crude oil annually.8 The planned route runs through national parks – supposedly illegal in Russia. In addition, the pipeline would curve around the southern end of Lake Baikal, cutting across 59 of its tributaries. Lake Baikal – in southeast Siberia – is the world’s oldest and deepest freshwater lake. It contains 20 per cent of the world’s unfrozen freshwater and has been listed as a World Heritage site. An impact assessment acknowledges that there is a ‘quite real’ possibility of the pipeline rupturing and oil reaching the lake. No contingency plans for oil spills have been made.9
With the completion of a major pipeline in July 1999, Sudanese crude-oil production and exports have risen rapidly over the last three years. Christian Aid reported in 2001 that, in order to clear the way for development, oil companies were complicit in the killing or displacement of tens of thousands of civilians living in communities in the south – the area of Sudan where the Government’s strongest opponents, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, are based. So important was that pipeline to the Government that hundreds of thousands of villagers were terrorized into leaving their homes in the Upper Nile during its construction.10 To protect continuing oil exploitation, the Government waged a ‘scorched earth’ war against local communities by forcibly evicting them and razing their villages. Food crops were destroyed and humanitarian assistance was refused – to allow hunger to complete the work that land clearing started.
The Government has not assessed oil leakages from the pipeline, even though most of the southern Sudanese people and their livestock depend on the untreated water of the Nile.11
- World Watch Magazine, May/June 2003, citing a CIA study; Reuters, 15 August 2001.
- Energy Information Administration (US), Nigeria Country Analysis Brief, March 2003.
- Video by Ecuadorian activist filmmaker Juan Pablo Barragan, Amazon oil pipelines – pollution, corruption and poverty, (March 2003).
- Energy Information Administration (US), Ecuador Country Analysis Brief, January 2003.
- International Herald Tribune, 14 July 2003.
- E Rosenthal ‘Conflicts over transnational oil and gas development off Sakhalin Island in the Russian far east: a David and Goliath tale’ in L Zarsky ed, Human rights and the environment: conflicts and norms in a globalizing world, Earthscan, 2002.
- ‘The Russian Arctic: on the threshold of catastrophe’, Johnson’s Russia List, 4 April 2002.
- The Moscow Times, 30 April 2003.
- ‘Green tears over black gold’, The Economist, 17 July 2003.
- Christian Aid, The scorched earth: oil and war in Sudan, 2001.
- J Switzer, Oil and violence in Sudan, International Institute for Sustainable Development, April 2002.