Oil crisis: uprisings from Nigeria to Peru

By Michelle Chen Jun 11, 2009

In the past few days, the wars over the world’s natural resources have been rekindled from the Amazon to the Niger Delta. This week, a landmark legal settlement brought a decisive, though partial, end to a bloody chapter in the history of Nigeria’s Ogoni people. Shell agreed to a $15.5 million settlement in a lawsuit, brought in US federal court, accusing the company of massive human rights abuses. The case stemmed from the government executions of activists, including groundbreaking environmentalist Ken Saro-Wiwa, who resisted the company’s decades-long plunder of Nigeria’s natural resources. Although Shell did not officially acknowledge its complicity, the Center for Constitutional Rights, which helped litigate the suit, called the settlement a victory in the broader movement to hold corporations accountable on human rights. Oil and gas development in the Niger Delta has devastated the region’s fragile ecosystem and left indigenous peoples in deep poverty. About one third of the settlement award will go toward a development fund for the Ogoni people. But some, reports the Daily Independent of Lagos, were dismayed that the legal maneuver seems to have spared the company—with its deep history of imperialism and exploitation—from being fully brought to justice. One Ogoni activist expressed worry that the payout will not be primarily used to restore and provide closure to the Ogoni as a whole: “We are still waiting to see how events unfold. It is not only the Ogoni Nine that died in the struggle, and it will be a disaster if anybody thinks otherwise.” There are already opportunities to test whether Wiwa v. Shell marks a real turning point in environmental and human rights struggles. In Peru’s Bagua Province, a popular uprising has led to bloodshed and political chaos. Indigenous groups have protested against investment laws that threaten to carve up more of the Amazon rainforest for drilling and logging operations. After thousands tried to blockade an oil pipeline and highway last week, a deadly clash with riot police led to the deaths of 30 protesters and 24 police officers, according to the BBC. Some activists say police have stolen and dumped bodies in the Marañón river in a cover-up attempt, reports IPS News. The government, meanwhile, continues its military clampdown, and publicly blames the violence on the Peruvian Rainforest Inter-Ethnic Development Association (AIDESEP), a broad federation of indigenous groups. AIDISEP leader Alberto Pizango has sought refuge with the Nicaraguan embassy in Lima. The protesters were reportedly armed with spears, against the guns of the police. Edwin Montenegro, an activist representing the Amazon district of Condorcanqui, told IPS:

"After we draw up a list of our brothers and sisters who were killed, we will continue our protes… The government thinks that we have chickened out, but that will never happen. The blood of their brothers and sisters is an incentive to the Awajun people. The state has provoked us.”

With domestic politics taking center stage in Washington, the strife in Bagua may seem distant. But the investment policies, some of which have been suspended in the wake of the protests, are part of Peru’s effort to facilitate a lucrative business deal with the United States, the Peru Free Trade Agreement. Will the future of indigenous struggles be channeled into legal battlegrounds, as with the Shell lawsuit—or will the failure of government to provide real redress inspire more direct action in defense of basic rights? A federal courtroom rendered one kind of victory for some of the most disenfranchised people in the Niger Delta. Would Congress go a step further in opening a space for human rights in the Amazon? Image: Amazon Watch