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Netherlands: Oil Companies Wreak Destruction from Arctic Circle to Nigeria

by Mark
November 19th, 2000

It might seem a little odd that people in a settlement 100 miles north of the Arctic Circle should complain about the world getting warmer. But the indigenous Gwich'in residents of Arctic Village in Alaska have good reason to be worried. Strange plants are moving in, lakes are disappearing into cracks in the thawing underground permafrost, and the migration patterns of the all-important caribou herds have changed almost beyond recognition.

Don't blame the caribou - they probably don't know what time of year it is. "We depend entirely on the four seasons," says Sarah James, a Gwich'in representative who is in The Hague to talk to an 'alternative' climate summit taking place in parallel with the official UN talks. "We can't even predict what is coming next."

As delegates caught up on their sleep during the official day of rest yesterday, speakers were lining up at the 'Climate Justice Summit' to tell their stories of devastation wrought by oil companies. One of the main themes of the conference was an emphasis on the leading role being taken by local communities trying to stop the climate change problem at source by confronting oil and mining companies.

Prominent among the casualties is Ken Saro-Wiwa, who was hanged in 1995 with eight other Ogoni activists by the Nigerian government for his campaign to drive Shell out of the Niger Delta. Saro-Wiwa's brother Dr. Owens Wiwa spoke of his Ogoni homeland as an 'epicentre' of climate change:

"Rising sea levels are going to lead to the disappearance of the Niger Delta, whose people and environment have already been under assault by the oil industry for more than 40 years," Dr Wiwa said. "It is crucial for the drilling to stop, so as to save both the Delta and the world's climate."

Evidence is now streaming in from around the world that recent extreme weather events are directly related to the speed of global warming. The UK suffered its worst floods for 50 years in November, bringing the climate change issue onto the front pages for the first time. At almost the same time in Bangladesh, over four million people were being affected by flooding - with one million driven out of their homes as environmental refugees.

At least two islets have already disappeared in the Pacific island nation of Kiribati because of rising sea levels. In the longer term small island states - who are together responsible for only one per cent of global carbon dioxide emissions - face total submergence. "What is at stake is basic human survival," Tinidad and Tobago's Kishan Kumarsingh told a thinly-attended press conference two days ago. "Why should we move out of our birthland? Our people have lived there for thousands of years."

A note of desperation is creeping into the voices of environmental groups and small island states representatives here at The Hague. Almost every day the US delegation comes up with new proposals for loopholes in the already-limited Kyoto Protocol. Most absurdly, the US wants to be able to claim 300 million tonnes of carbon credits as a result of not destroying existing standing forests. Added together, these 'flexibilities' could allow the world's most profligate consumer of fossil fuels to wriggle out of a full 80 per cent of its carbon emission reduction targets.

In spite of this grim outlook, Conference Chairman Jan Pronk threw a party last night at the Ministry of Environment, to which all delegates, staff and accredited media were invited to unwind and enjoy a sumptuous buffet, including six different types of raw fish. For some observers - including a group of demonstrators, kept out of the building by riot police - the event had a special significance.

"I think it's offensive. They're supposed to be saving the planet, not having a celebration," said one observer. But as the different delegations - with their diverging interests temporarily forgotten - got down and did their 'funky stuff' to derivative Dutch saxophonist Candy Dulfer, the weight of destiny seemed to have lifted itself from their shoulders. The current likelihood is that by the end of this week they will have even less reason to celebrate.

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