THIS WAS NO ACCIDENT: The BP Oil Spill, Nigerian Rebels, The Meaning of Sustainability...
by Ray B.
Wednesday, Jul. 07, 2010 at 8:15 PM
Like a mine explosion, an outbreak of smallpox, or a chestnut blight, BP's oil spill looked like just another disaster, a tragic mistake made by benevolent capitalists. But like those past tragedies, this oil spill is a predictable consequence of an industrial civilization where risks are not calculated by those who will face the consequences should something go wrong.
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THIS WAS NO ACCIDENT: The BP Oil Spill, Nigerian Rebels, The Meaning of Sustainability, and The Future of Louisiana’s Gulf Coast
by Ray Boudreaux,
for the forthcoming periodical The Raging Pelican
When black plumes of oil started gushing forth from the silent bottom deep in the Gulf of Mexico on April 20th, everyone in South Louisiana reverted to the crisis mode we have all lived in for periods of time since Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Our first question became "What can we do to help save our wetlands?" Thousands of willing Louisianans called & signed up to volunteer in the protection and cleanup efforts, and people began planning to carpool as far down the road as it goes to help out.
Like a mine explosion, an outbreak of smallpox, or a chestnut blight, BP's oil spill looked like just another disaster, a tragic mistake made by benevolent capitalists. But like those past tragedies, this oil spill is a predictable consequence of an industrial civilization where risks are not calculated by those who will face the consequences should something go wrong. There was no doubt a deepwater oil spill could rob people of their landbase and their ability to feed themselves, but that consequence was considered an acceptable risk: those affected could just move to the city and work for money to buy their food if something did happen. Of course, the people weighing these risks were not those who would be denied the ability to feed themselves; they were lawyers and businessmen in corporate offices, where cheese and danish plates greet their conference room meetings exactly at 12:30pm every day.
If you ask anyone who lives off the land if the risks of the conquests and further expansion of civilization are worth it, they will tell you unequivocally no. If timber companies had asked the Cherokee if logging the Appalachians was worth the risk of the Eastern Elk and Bison going extinct, of River Trout going extinct, they would have, of course, told you no. What are the benefits for the people who live on the land? To have timber to build factories and shantytowns where poor immigrants will break their backs every day, paid just enough to keep from starving? For mansions for the factory owners? For train cars to whisk more people who don't know or care about the landbase to Cherokee land, to destroy it, to pillage it without knowing or having to deal with the full consequences of their actions?
Are the benefits worth the risks? Ask the fishermen and shrimpers and bayou people who live off of the bounty of South Louisiana: is oil drilling worth the risk of destroying the ability of Louisianans to eat seafood and live on the coast? Like the Cherokee 100 years ago, they were never consulted. The decisions about the land were made by people who don't live on, or rely on, the land. These decisions were made in business offices. And, after the proper campaign contributions, they were dutifully echoed in the halls of Congress. They can still be heard to this day in those halls, far from the shattered ecosystems of South Louisiana.
Our story is not new, not unique, and probably surprises no one. In fact, there are some other people who know almost this exact story already. They live half way around the world, in a country called Nigeria.
Their story begins much the same way as it does in South Louisiana: Europeans arrived in Nigeria, having calculated risks much differently than the people who actually lived there for thousands of years without destroying the landbase. The colonizers calculated the worth of human beings' labor, and bought and sold them as slaves. These profiteers weren't bothered by the consequences of people being enslaved, abducted from their land, and murdered through work. They never gave a thought to Nigerian ways of life, and how their actions would impact the systems that had been honed to perfection from the knowledge handed down by generation after generation calling the same land home: the knowledge of how to live sustainably on the landbase.
Slavery is a peculiar institution of capitalism. It is only useful to capitalists (the slave-owners) when there is a lot of land, but few people willing to work it for the capitalists' benefit. This is often the case at capitalism's frontiers, before the landbase and the locals' ability to feed themselves has been destroyed-- in other words, while people still have a choice whether or not to work for the capitalists or not.
These were the circumstances in the Southern U.S. that heralded its economic rise, and one of the many points at which Nigerian and Louisianan genealogy intertwine. The Native Americans who called South Louisiana home refused to willingly give up their landbase to capitalist exploitation. Knowing the land as they did, they preferred to live from it and be taken care of by it rather than to work for the ignorant colonizers who wanted to pillage it beyond sustainability. The Native Americans took in runaway slaves, and the two peoples lived together off the land here.
The memory of this generosity between peoples fighting capitalist expansion is alive today in the celebrations of the Mardi Gras Indians in New Orleans, and in native communities such as the Houma Nation in South Louisiana, who continue to fight for the wetlands and against the oil companies destroying them.
Back in contemporary Nigeria, the residents of the Niger Delta, a vast river delta and marshland ecosystem similar to that of the Mississippi River, also live in relationship to a landbase that happens to be sitting on vast oil reserves. Like many Gulf Coast residents, Nigerian Delta residents are fishermen, shrimpers, and bayou dwellers. As it did here, oil exploration came to the Niger Delta area decades ago, brought by the same exact corporations we see every day here. People in the corporate boardrooms and in banks made decisions about the risks of drilling for oil in the Niger Delta, and decided, unsurprisingly, that the risks were worth it. Like us, the people of the Niger Delta did not make the decision, oil companies and paid-off politicians did.
Oil companies promised tax revenues and campaign contributions to the national government in exchange for the "right" to drill for oil in the Delta-- a right which, as in South Louisiana, the politicians had no real authority to give away, since they would not bear the consequences of the risks should something “go wrong.”
Today, after massive and repeated oil spills, the Niger Delta is one of the most polluted places in the world, worse even than our own infamous Cancer Alley. Despite their oil surplus, the people of the Niger Delta are still among the poorest Nigerians; revenues flow to the national government and are never returned to the communities who take the risks, and bear the costs, of the oil drilling. Sound familiar?
James Carville recently said of South Louisiana, "We have not seen a single penny of royalties for oil produced more than six miles off our coast. We assume all of the risk, produce seafood and oil and gas, with none of the reward. Yes, $165 billion of royalties have gone to the federal treasury that could go to help repair this pressing issue."
The situations in the Mississippi and Niger Deltas bear striking parallels. The oil companies have been able to buy themselves even greater exemption from regulation and accountability in Nigeria than here (a scary thought). The people are even poorer and their Delta is even more polluted as a result. Their situation provides a serious warning as to where Louisiana's coast is headed.
There is one major difference, however, between Southern Nigeria and Southern Louisiana: In the Niger Delta, they have the MEND.
MEND: The Movement for Emancipation of the Niger Delta
The people of the Niger Delta fought the oil companies for decades. They fought for better protections from-- and regulations to stop-- the oil spills that were despoiling their land, harming their ability to fish and farm, and harming their ability to survive with dignity on their land. They fought for more oil revenue to come to the Delta to help remediate the effects of losing their way of life. They fought dictatorships and elected politicians alike, since both had the same position regarding oil drilling and compensation in the Delta... as do our two national parties here.
The Nigerians fought peacefully for decades. They organized, they protested, and they created large united movements fighting together for justice. They began to be effective, and so their leaders were murdered and arrested by government and private oil company hit squads. In 1995, after leading a protest movement against Shell, one leader, Ken Saro-Wiwa, was famously executed at Shell's behest.
After decades of frustratingly unsuccessful peaceful struggle, a few years ago some smaller Niger Delta outlaw groups united to fight together by any means necessary, to force the oil companies to change their practices. The need for change was urgent: it was that or toxic death, or being forced to become new slum dwellers in cities, working for peanuts at jobs they hated, if they could even find jobs. This is how MEND was born.
MEND, the Movement for Emancipation of the Niger Delta, have engaged in everything from destroying oil pipelines and giving away free oil to local Niger Delta residents, to occupying oil platforms, guns mounted on their fishing boats. They’ve kidnapped foreign employees for ransom, and bombed oil company offices. Can you blame them? What threat is more fundamental, more existential than taking away a community's ability to feed itself? Native Americans fought back as their buffalo were slaughtered, Native Mapuche warriors in Chile continue to fight logging companies fouling their rivers and destroying their hunting habitat, Natives in West Papua, Indonesia continue to fight against mining by capitalists Freeport-McMoRan, who are polluting their rivers and killing the fish (I suppose it’s considered an acceptable risk by people who buy their fish at a grocery store) in their insatiable (and therefore unsustainable) quest for gold and copper. They fight, the way people who have relied on the land have done for millennia against people from elsewhere who decide someone else's land, food and way of life can be sacrificed for the greater good of civilization, profits, and investor dividends.
Our Future, Our Decision
The BP oil spill is an accident the same way that fouling the rivers with silt by clearcutting is an accident. It is an accident the same way the oil company canals destroying our wetlands are an accident. When you hear "accident" from a corporation, it can be translated as "an acceptable risk that was taken with your lives and lands."
Only the people who live on the land can weigh the risks and benefits of an action that could destroy the entire basis for the community's survival. They reliably, and intelligently, decide that those kind of risks are not risks worth taking.
For decades in Louisiana, it has been "one damned thing after another," in the words of James Carville. Caller after caller on WWL radio has said if the Gulf Coast was its own nation, we'd be as rich as Saudi Arabia with all the oil revenues we'd have. Instead, we are part of the perpetually poor Deep South. When will it stop being one damned thing after another here? When will we get to be the ones who decide what happens on our coastline? When will we be the ones to decide which risks are acceptable?
Let's hope it doesn't take a fight like the one MEND is waging in Nigeria... but if history is any guide, it just might. We have few other decisions left.
Will the future see the emergence of MELD, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Louisiana Delta? Lord knows we have all the guns we need. Now we must decide what our way of life is worth to us, to our kids, and to our grandkids. Are we willing to fight for our ability to live from the bayous and the land? Will we fight, or will we surrender to the monstrous pressures of corporations, protected by the police, military, and court system? Will we fight, or will we accept the decisions the politicians make for us, even when those decisions destroy our lives?
The only true decision we have left is the decision about which path to take: resistance, or capitulation. It's the only decision not taken out of our hands by powerful interests backed by government-caliber guns, and it's the same decision that has been faced by every people deemed expendable by the insatiable appetite for growth of "western civilization." It's a decision that has been made thousands of times throughout history, and now, thanks to the risk analysts of British Petroleum and every oil company carving up and spilling oil in our wetlands, it's a decision we must make. It's a decision that has been nagging in the back of our minds for decades as Army Corps projects deprived the wetlands of sediment, as the rest of the US was allowed to use the Mississippi as a giant sewer creating Gulf dead zones, as oil pipelines spilled and leaked into the wetlands, and as chemicals have rained from the skies and poured as poisons into the water from the refineries of Cancer Alley.
If such a decision is made, and resistance to this destruction comes to exist, the MELD will always find a welcome place in my home, and I know many people of the Gulf Coast who feel exactly the same way. Onward, to a resistance worthy of the love we feel for this place we call home.
APPENDIX: For those who choose resistance.
"I was born on the prairies where the wind blew free and there was nothing to break the light of the sun. I was born where there were no enclosures."
"Let us form one body, one heart, and defend to the last warrior our country, our homes, our liberty, and the graves of our fathers."
It is up to us: do we fight, or do we die as broken people, uprooted and exploited, without a place to call home?
- We can begin by NOT volunteering in the clean-up efforts. Make BP pay us to clean up their mess; don't do it for free!
- We can begin by blocking roads, like LA 1, which is a critical link in the offshore oil industry, until the federal government gives us a larger share of royalties, and allows our community to make decisions about what are acceptable risks for oil drilling.
- We can begin by showing the documentary Sweet Crude about MEND in every town in South Louisiana, and discussing the parallels of the two situations with our friends and neighbors.
- We can begin by occupying the offices of oil companies and related businesses (such as Dubai-based Halliburton) until they stop buying and corrupting our political system, and more fairly compensate the people harmed by decades of drilling and the current BP disaster.
- We can begin by occupying the offices of agri-businesses whose pollutants have ruined our river and whose lobbying has caused the enacting of policies upriver that harm our communities, who have never paid a dime in compensation for the risks they thought were acceptable for us.
- We can begin by blockading or occupying refineries, where cancerous flares of chemicals and toxic sludge poison our communities on a daily basis.
- We can begin by blocking shipping channels with our boats, including the Mississippi River, one of the most important locations for raw materials imports (raw materials no doubt obtained at the cost of people somewhere being able to continue living on their land). The brave people of Bayou La Batre, Alabama have already done this once.
- We can begin by organizing ourselves and protesting, as some have done already: Murdered Gulf blog and Crescent City Anti-Authoritarians
- We can fill BP trailers full of shit, we can damage their property, and we can make doing business (i.e.- risking our lives) much harder for oil companies.
- We can begin by organizing our communities into popular assemblies (see: Argentina's Financial Crisis of 2001 and The Take), where WE make the decisions about things that effect our lives, and where we take care of our community as a whole to ensure it survives to see tomorrow.