An interview with Emem Okon, Kebetkuche Women's Development and Resource Center.
Yesterday, Emem Okon arrived in San Francisco after a nearly 24 hour journey from her home in the Rivers State of the Niger Delta.
According to the recently released True Cost of Chevron alternative annual report, Nigeria is among Chevron's top five crude oil and natural gas producing countries. Chevron's operations have brought environmental destruction, oil spills, flaring, destruction of local livelihoods, and mass human rights abuses.
I had the opportunity to chat with Emem and two representatives from the organization Justice in Nigeria Now about the impacts of Chevron's oil operations in Nigeria and what communities are doing to protect their health and safety.
Tell me a bit about Chevron's history in Nigeria.
Oil and gas activities started in the late 1950s and have brought many problems to the Niger Delta (home to 20 million people). Chevron has never replaced the old oil pipelines so now they are rusted and corroded. Oil spills are almost a daily occurrence. The pipelines are close to residential areas, schools, etc. There are many people who literally step out of their front door and have to cross five pipelines. When oil spills, the community sends letters, tells the company and it takes months and even years before they "clean" it. Mostly they hire local boys who dig pits to drain the oil into. There are big, unlined open oil pits that just sit there. Or they burn it, or sprinkle dirt on it and call it clean. All the trees die in the area. The oil spills into creeks and fish ponds. Each fish tastes like oil from the river.
Have you heard about the recent oil spill here in the Gulf Coast?
Yes, and I can't believe the outcry. I first saw a reporter on CNN. He filled a bottle with oil water to show how bad it was. And it is bad, but it is nothing compared to the Niger Delta. You don't find water at all when you stick a bottle down. It is all oil. Every day we have oil spills.
The True Cost of Chevron report reveals that Chevron engages in gas flaring, the burning of associated gas that comes out of the ground when oil is extracted. Chevron is among the worst offenders in Nigeria, flaring over 64% of its gas in 2008.
Can you tell me a bit about the gas flaring?
As children we would see the flaring but we didn't understand it was from oil and gas activities. We called it the 'Big Fire.' Now, we understand that it destroys our farmlands and our rivers and our creeks. It causes skin problems and corrodes our roofs. As children we loved dancing in the rain but now it's all acid rain. The gas flaring is illegal but the companies like Chevron do it anyway and then just pay a small fine. People inhale it everyday and it makes us very sick.
What are the health impacts of the oil spills and gas flaring?
There is lots of cancer. A lot of miscarriages among the women and the men become sterile. Deformed babies, stillbirths, and chronic bronchitis.
How did you get involved in this issue?
I started out as a human rights activist. It is difficult to do human rights work in the Niger Delta with getting involved fighting oil companies. Oil and gas companies was the most basic problem for people in every village I visited. The oil activities have taken away our self-sufficiency. Also, Chevron and the other oil companies divide our communities. They give money and weapons to instigate conflict, because when people are fighting they don't pay attention as much to what the companies are doing. They also attack and suppress the people when we unite and make demands of the company.
What will you say to Chevron at the shareholder meeting next week in Houston?
I have a lot of things to say to the company but it's hard because they only give me 1-2 minutes to speak. I will project the voices of the community women who are feeling the impacts of Chevron's activities on their communities. I will tell Chevron that people have not gained anything. Their activities do not translate into benefits. We lack food and education. Rather, our moral fiber has been destroyed.
Emem Okon is one of nearly 40 people from around the globe who will be in Houston next week. This is the first in a series of 'City Brights' interviews I will conduct with people who are traveling from around the globe for Chevron's annual shareholder meeting. Tune in next week for more of their stories.