Posts Tagged ‘oil’

Latin America seems to be the region of the world most neglected by American mainstream news media and at times by American foreign policy. Without the seeming perpetual state of crisis of Africa, or the economic importance of Asia or Europe (though Latin America is catching up and increasing in its economic importance) it appears like both talking heads and policy makers have forgotten this part of the world exists at all. As if North America is the only America.

Why should we pay attention?

Generally, it’s worth paying attention to events in all parts of the world so that we can speak out intelligently when something is going wrong. If we pay attention all the time, we have a more enlightened view than if we pay attention only when a crisis is occurring.

Specifically, governments in Latin America, particularly those in the Amazon, are on the front lines in the debate between economic development and environmental conservation. Seeing how governments and societies reconcile these two interests may give us an idea of how other countries will face similar problems. Who knows, we may even get some good (or bad) ideas ourselves. Given the current domestic debate in the U.S. over the construction of the Keystone XL Tar Sands Oil Pipeline, we may even see some parallel conflicts.

Many parts of Latin America are rapidly breaking the chains of poverty. Brazil for example has seen over 40 million people move out of extreme poverty over the last 20 years.  While the rest of the world still seems to be playing economic freeze-tag, projections show that growth will continue for our southern neighbors in 2012.

This is undisputable good news.

However it has also been said that the Amazon rainforest loses an area of land equivalent to the size of New Jersey each year. Not only does this result in the loss of unique species and ecosystems, but it also threatens marginalized indigenous communities. Also, as trees take in Carbon Dioxide, the Amazon is one of the earth’s last remaining defenses against the scourge of climate change. Latin American leaders are often also the ones leading the charge against developed nations in the struggle to limit the impact of climate change. They often charge that they should not have to constrain their own economic growth because of damage done mostly by developed countries.

The cause of this destruction is in part the area’s economic growth. Increased infrastructure and the logging industry are two key variables in the negative relationship between economic growth and environmental conservation.

Bolivia is quickly becoming a key flash point in the debate between environmental conservation and economic development.  This South American country made a news splash this spring with the passage of the Law of Mother Earth, which enumerates the rights of the earth as well as the responsibilities of individuals and the government to protect it. Though the legislation is vague and appears to be more of a message than an act of governance, it is a first step towards establishing rights something people around the world claim is continuously under attack.

Bolivian leaders, aside from attempting to protect their country from climate change, also face the challenge of lifting their society out of poverty. The tension between these two national interests was apparent in a recent debate over a proposed road through the Amazon, where police violently suppressed protests. Bolivian President Evo Morales also recently announced hopes to construct a railway that would run from Puerto Suarez, on Bolivia’s border with Brazil, to the Pacific port of Ilo in Peru. While protests have yet to erupt around the rail line, this is one more habitually neglected story that we should be paying attention to.

Reconciling economic development and environmental conservation is a global dilemma, one that the Obama administration is currently dealing with on the Keystone XL issue and it would behoove us to pay attention to other countries’ similar struggles.


Nigeria was in the news this past week mostly for the Christmas Day bombings perpetrated by the radical Muslim sect Boko Haram that claimed 39 lives. Amidst this terrible carnage something else happened that captured a little less coverage.

More oil spilled into the Niger Delta.

On Wednesday, December 21, Shell Nigeria announced that 40,000 barrels of crude oil was spilled while it was being transferred from a floating oil platform to a tanker 75 miles off the coast of the Niger Delta. Satellite imagery suggests that the oil has spread over 356 square miles. This spill is considered to be one of the worst within the last ten years. Shell Nigeria spokesmen have since stated that the spill has been contained and that nothing came ashore though environmental groups in Nigeria claim that oil slicks have been spotted near the coast.

Earlier this year the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) released a report detailing the damage done by oil extraction to Ogoniland – a part of the country in the Niger Delta region – and held that “the environmental restoration of Ogoniland could prove to be the world’s most wide-ranging and long term oil clean-up exercise ever undertaken.”

The report demonstrates the scale of environmental damage done to the area after 50 years of oil operations. Drinking water in some areas poses serious public health concerns with carcinogen levels 900 times above World Health Organization guidelines (WHO). Fish habitats – which local fishermen depend upon – have been devastated and regional soil is grossly contaminated. Health complaints include burning sensations in the eyes, respiratory problems, frequent rashes, bloody stools, and constant headaches. Some have even reported multiple miscarriages.

What this means is that the most recent spill was not an isolated incident. In fact more oil is spilled in the Niger Delta region each year than was spilled in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. According to the Nigerian government, more that 7,000 spills occurred between 1970 and 2000. Many of the spills only receive attention after months of inaction.

In addition to adverse health consequences, the oil spills and acid rain sound a near death knell to the local water dependent economy. Fish are also apparently driven away due to the increase in large boat traffic. The oil industry unfortunately does not offer an alternative to the locals since most of the oil related jobs go to the country’s political and economic elites. Leaving many with no incomes, residents are forced to search for means to live elsewhere.

National Geographic writer Tom O’Neill sums up the impact of oil aptly in a piece from 2007. According to O’Neill, “Oil fouls everything in southern Nigeria. It spills from the pipelines, poisoning soil and water. It stains the hands of politicians and generals, who siphon off its profits. It taints the ambitions of the young, who will try anything to scoop up a share of the liquid riches – fire a gun, sabotage a pipeline, kidnap a foreigner.”

Nigeria began exporting oil in the early 1960’s and by the late 1970’s it was the sixth largest oil producer in the world. This sudden rush of riches into government coffers sparked a mad dash for political office bringing patronage and corruption to their current infamous levels. Furthermore, as in other countries plagued by the “resource curse,” oil generates enough revenue for the state in order to make taxation of the people unnecessary. Without the need for taxes and the need for resources from its people, the government can afford to ignore the concerns of the population. 

This attitude may be one of the key causes of the area’s insurrection which threatens to turn this region of the world into the new Middle East. According to author Petter Maass in the book Crude World, “rebellion, in such conditions, is inevitable.”

Oil is now the country’s primary export, but according to O’Neill, “its annual per capita income of $1,400 is less than that of Senegal, which exports mainly fish and nuts.” According to Maass “nine out of ten citizens live on less than $2 a day and one out of five children dies before his fifth birthday.” Oil, with its superb ability to release energy and move the modern world at an unprecedented pace, seems as if it is not getting the people of Nigeria very far at all.

Oddly enough, though Nigeria is a leading exporter of oil, it has to import the refined product back into the country in order for it to be of any use to the local population due to the sub par nature of its own refineries.        

Like oil, blame is also easy to find in the Niger Delta. NGO’s, local environmentalists, and at times the UN point the finger at Shell claiming that its pipelines are outdated and poorly maintained. Shell in turn points to the acts of terrorists, black marketeers, and saboteurs.

Unlike oil generated wealth, the blame can probably be shared. 

Progressively minded westerners are now in a search for alternatives to oil mostly because of its general impact, namely climate change. Seldom do we look at the impact that oil has on the lands that it comes from. In the Niger Delta for example, life may have been better off if oil was never found, and its continued extraction doesn’t seem to be making things any better for everyday citizens.

Nigeria presents us with one more reason to turn our backs on black gold.