Climate Justice From the Niger Delta to Cancer Alley

A CorpWatch Interview with Oronto Douglas

Photo of Oronto DouglasHuman Rights attorney and environmental activist, Oronto Douglas, is on the road with CorpWatch's Climate Justice Tour of seven U.S. cities. Douglas, co-founder of Environmental Rights Action in Nigeria, was a member of the legal team that defended environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa who was hanged along with eight others, by the Nigerian military regime in 1995.

More recently, Douglas has been involved with peaceful civil disobedience by youth protesting drilling by that foreign oil companies in the Niger Delta. These protests have brought reprisals against some of the Delta communities by the Nigerian military that have resulted in several deaths. For example, during May 1998 occupation of one of its oil platforms, Chevron called in the infamous Mobile Police and two protestors were shot dead and 30 wounded.

Douglas is a tireless fighter against oil companies such as Chevron and Shell and a staunch advocate of environmental justice and human rights. He spoke with CorpWatch shortly before the Climate Justice Tour about the connections between human rights, environmental justice and climate change.

CW: Why in a human rights struggle, a struggle for land rights and democracy are you also thinking about global climate change?

OD: The first thing that local people have come to understand is that whatever happens in the U.S., and whatever happens in Europe, will have an impact on them. When the taste for a particular thing becomes popular here, our people bear the brunt of the negative impact. You can go into history during the slave trade, when the impact of depopulation, dislocation and death were borne by the people of Africa. When colonization becomes an issue those that were colonized were our people but the beneficiaries were from the West.

For us, it is absolutely essential to begin to take steps to prevent such negative impacts because of other people's lifestyles. The issue of climate change is so glaring that no individual, no man, no woman would want to ignore that. But we have a situation where people are shutting their eyes to destruction, to death, to slavery and to new colonization. Oil which drives the Western economy, oil which has made billionaires out of a few people, oil which is now seen as the dictator of the economy of the world, that oil which is taken out of my land, that oil which is taken out of the land of our people, it is that oil which is now creating problems for us.

Right now people are being killed because of oil, communities are being wiped out because of oil. We have a responsibility for tomorrow, we have a responsibility for the present, we are crying out yet the world seems not to understand. We are dying every day, we have been impacted, every minute by the fact that oil has to come to the U.S., oil has to come to Europe. We are impacted because people who have invested in Chevron, those who call themselves shareholders, want profit, they want returns. The returns on this investment, the returns of this profit, are returns of death. They are returns of the negative impact of what oil and gas can do and we feel that we have a responsibility to stop it and we can only stop it if we tell the world this.

CW: On the CorpWatch tour you're going to go to Cancer Alley in Louisiana, a primarily African-American area where the oil refineries have been poisoning the community. You're also going to go to Atlanta, San Antonio, to a variety of communities including the Bay Area. What do these local struggles have in common, those of people who are in what are called "fence line communities" near oil refineries and other toxic sites in the United States, and people in the Niger Delta?

For us, it is absolutely essential to take steps to prevent negative impacts because of other people's lifestyles.

OD: I think there is no difference. You are talking about the powerless and the powerful. You are talking about the privileged and the underprivileged, those who see the world from one side, who don't look beyond the present. That is the situation we are faced with today. Those who suffer in Nigeria and those who suffer in the U.S. are the same human beings. They have the same voice, they are clamoring for the same thing.

So you find a situation where the peoples of Nigeria, the peoples of the Niger Delta, and the peoples of the U.S., those who live in the areas where the polluting industries are sited, where it is impossible to live without having cancer or other diseases, who live with polluted rivers and polluted air -- these people from these two parts of the world have identified and now understand that there is one common agenda directed against them. That agenda is to make profit off of us, that agenda is to continue to make us less human, that agenda is to make us poor, and have hunger slapped on our faces. We recognize that and we are struggling to shake off this negative anti-human activities from in and around us.

CW: How can people in places as far apart as the U.S. and the Niger Delta begin to work together on these issues?

OD: The first thing to do is to recognize our problems. And that is to understand that we live in a world of injustice. And to understand very clearly that injustice is not good for the South or the North, for the East or the West. We must then begin to convince those who have decided to make injustice their foreign and domestic policy. And that connection can be borne by everybody, we can wear it, we can advocate it, we can ensure that these policies are policies that will not occur again.

The second thing we need to do is to connect. We must not live in our cocoon in one part of the world and think that our problems are localized. Most of these problems are globalized. A businessman or a corporation will want to make profit even if it means killing you. And it doesn't matter your color, your geography or location, it does not matter the language you speak, it does not really matter. What matters for the businessman or woman is to get this profit. They destroy whatever obstacle is in their way. Once we understand it and connect then we should be able to formulate a common strategy.

The third thing that should be done, and very urgently too, is to identify people of conscience in other parts of the world, especially from where the injustice is flowing from, and connect with those peoples of conscience. Because if we don't connect with those of conscience they too will suffer.

The peoples of Nigeria and the peoples of the U.S. now understand that there is one common agenda directed against them. That agenda is to make profit off of us.

What Chevron is doing in communities here and communities in the Niger Delta will affect you if you don't take action. If you sit on the fence you will be consumed by the negativities that flow from such inaction. We have to identify good people of conscience, we've got to mobilize them and mobilize ourselves because we will be jointly and collectively affected.

CW: In Nigeria government policies causing a rise in the price of fuel have caused outrage and street demonstrations. Can you explain the crisis?

OD: You need to come to Nigeria and see the paralyzing fuel shortages, the total standstill that the absence of petrol causes in our cities in our towns and villages. The impact that has on ordinary commuters -- people who cannot travel from one village to the other. The cost we have had to bear on this and of course the overall economic impact it is having on us. Who is benefiting? They will say there is no fuel in Nigeria and so they import fuel from America and elsewhere - refined product and you pay in dollars.

CW: So in an oil producing country you are importing gasoline.

OD: That is what we are seeing. It does not matter whether it is a military dictatorship or a civilian dictatorship as we are seeing now. What matters is that there is no fuel for the ordinary people. And that we the ordinary people have had to bear these negative impacts.

I think the lessons we are beginning to learn from our association with the issues of climate justice and survival questions is that injustice is a global phenomenon. And we feel that we have a responsibility to reach out to the ordinary people, to appeal to the powers that be in this your great country. We are dying because of climate changes. We are dying because of oil and because of gas. Our people are being shot in the street, communities are being wiped out, people have been arrested, jailed, tried in kangaroo courts methods and hanged, and we have a responsibility to ask for justice and we are doing so now.

AMP Section Name:Climate Justice Initiative
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  • 116 Human Rights

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