Emem Okon on the uprising of women in the Niger Delta and the impact of oil giants on traditional communities
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore.
In San Ramon California, where the headquarters of Chevron is, there was an action/protest outside and inside the annual shareholders meeting. Many people were involved, including people from communities around the world affected by Chevron activities.
One of those people, and joining us now from San Francisco, is Emem Okon. She’s the founder and executive director of the Kebetkache Women Development & Resource Center in Niger. Emem was a supporter of the powerful women’s protests of Chevron Corporation against Chevron for its environmental and human rights abuses in Nigeria, and which garnered a lot of international media attention when a group of women took over an oil installation and threatened to take off their clothes if the company did not negotiate with them. As I said, now joining us is Emem. Thank you very much for joining us.
EMEM OKON, FOUNDER AND EXEC. DIRECTOR, KEBETKACHE WOMEN DEVELOPMENT & RESOURCE CENTRE: Thank you.
JAY: So what happened when the women threatened to take off their clothes if there were not negotiations? Were there then negotiations?
OKON: There were negotiations. But the reason the women took over the oil tank farm was that Chevron and other oil companies is fond of negotiating with only the men, because the community leadership comprises of only the men and the male youths. So because Chevron was not listening to the women and not paying attention to the concerns and interests of the women, the women decided to mobilize and organize, and took over the oil tank farm, because they wanted to get the attention of Chevron. They stopped production on the oil tank farm for 11 days, and they insisted that Chevron management staff should come down to Burutu community to discuss with them.
But by the time Chevron decided to come and discuss and negotiate with the women, the process was taken over by the men. The state government sent representatives, the traditional rulers sent representatives, and it was only two women that was part of the negotiation.
However, a memorandum of understanding came out from that process, where Chevron agreed to carry out a series of community development project and also yield to some demands of the women. But this memorandum of understanding was never implemented.
JAY: So I guess that’s my question. What thenâ€”the rubric of the protest or the action at the shareholders meeting was the true cost of Chevron. So what is the true cost of Chevron in Nigeria?
OKON: The True Cost of Chevron is a network of community representatives, civil society organizations that come together. The coordination of the network is actually based here in San Francisco, and we have traveled far from various countries. I live in Port Harcourt of the Niger Delta region of Nigeria, and I came as a representative of community women that I work with, community women whose voices have not been heard, community women who have not had the opportunity and the privilege of traveling out here to come and speak to Chevron about the devastating impact of the activities in their communities.
JAY: You went into the shareholders meeting, if I understand it correctly. I don’t know ifâ€”.
OKON: Yes, I did. I did.
JAY: I don’t know how much time they gave you to speak. But what did you wantâ€”.
OKON: Just two minutes.
JAY: What did you want to say to them?
OKON: What I said to them: in their corporate responsibility report I noticed that Chevron claimed that they have impacted on the lives of 850,000 persons from the Niger Delta region, and as part of that report, there were photographs of women who are selling dry fish along the roadside. And I pointed it out to the shareholders and Chevron directors that the photographs in that report does not in any way show the way Chevron has impacted positively on the lives of women in the Niger Delta. It does not in any way show that Chevron is contributing to development and improvement in the quality of life of women in the Niger Delta region. Apart from that, I also asked Chevron what they are planning to do to alleviate the negative impact of the gas explosion that took place in Bayelsa State in January 2012.
JAY: And tell us what happened there. And give us a picture: what is the effect of Chevron’s activities in Nigeria? I mean, what inspired you and others to be opposing what Chevron does?
OKON: The impact of Chevron activities and other oil companies are in various dimensions. In the first place, the environment has been devastated, in the sense that the traditional means of livelihood of the community women are farming and fishing, and incidents of oil spillage occurs almost on a daily basis, and oil has spilled into farmlands, oil has spilled into rivers, into streams, into creeks.
And rivers and streams and creeks are the main source of water in the coastline communities and in many communities in the Niger Delta region. There are no other source of drinking water for the people. And when oil is spilled into this river, into the stream, the river becomes polluted. And because there’s no option, the people still go back to that polluted water and they drink from that, from there, and this has health implications.
Also, issues of gas flaring causes health implications. A lot of women are having miscarriages, a lot of women are having stillbirth, a lot of women are having cases of cancer, cases of respiratory problems and other reproductive health issues. And there are also no health facilities in these communities.
So you can imagine the kind of life that people live. They’re breathing polluted air, they drink polluted water, their farmlands are destroyed, their means of livelihood are destroyed, and they have nothing to fall back to.
JAY: Now, I assume that one of Chevron’s arguments might be that they’re operating within the law of Nigeria, and that many of the problems you’re describing are problems that should be solved by the Nigerian government and that there’s lots of revenues from oil and the Nigerian government should use those revenues to solve the problem. How would you respond to that argument?
OKON: How would those revenues clean up the spillage in farmlands? How will those revenues clean up the environment? Is it those revenues that will stop gas flaring? I think it is Chevron’s responsibility to stop gas flaring that is causing all these health implications in the Niger Delta. That is also contributing to global warming and climate change issues in the Niger Delta region.
JAY: But what about the issue of royalties and that? I assume Chevron pays royalties. Are they being in any way shared with the people from the region?
OKON: They are in no way impacting on the community people. Royalties weâ€”there is 13Â percent derivation that is being paid to state government. But royalties are not paidâ€”the people are not benefiting in any way from royalties that are paid to government. The community people are not benefiting. The community women are not benefiting in any way. If they are benefiting, they will not be complaining.
JAY: And what is it you want Chevron to do, then?
OKON: Chevron have to change the ways that they operate in the Niger Delta region. They should clean up the spills. If spills occur, they should clean up the spills, knowing that they spilledâ€”this oil is spilled into people’s farmland, and when it is not cleaned up, the women cannot go back to that land and farm anymore, and that means the women become displaced from their means of livelihood, and that increases the burden of poverty on the women, and that when oil is spilled into the water, the women have no source of drinking water.
So it is their responsibility. When oil is spilled into the environment, they should clean up the environment. It is also their responsibility to stop gas flaring in the Niger Delta region.
JAY: Alright. Well, thanks very much for joining us. And as I’ve mentioned in the other segments of this series of interviews, we will be asking Chevron to respond. We’ll see if they do. And thanks very much for joining us.
OKON: Thank you.
JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.