Everywhere there is violence against the land: Everyone’s Downstream 2011

By Karen Rooney

Tar Sands. Extreme extraction.

Think Alberta? Think again.

How about Israel, Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Madagascar and the Niger Delta?
I had the opportunity to attend Everyone’s Downstream this past weekend, a community driven discussion of tar sands and other extractions around the world aiming to debunk some of the false truths of the oil industry and put a human face on the impacts. I was able to hear stories about oil extraction from around the world – and hear about how they all bear a frightening resemblance to one another. Christian Mounzeo of the DRC and president of Engagement for Peace and Human Rights spoke to us about his time in prison for merely questioning his government’s spending of the country’s oil revenues on lavish parties and travel while citizens continue to suffer the effects of extreme poverty. As he shared this with us, he said something that resonated deeply with me: “Countries like mine rely on processes like COP17 to give a voice to our people when our own government does not.”

This was a stark reminder to me, as a member of the Canadian Youth Delegation, that while summits such as the Conference of Parties (COP) are often merely an exercise in platitudes and false reassurances for countries such as mine, for many others these processes may be one of a small few links to a democratic voice for their people. I heard about the dangers and consequences of oil exploration in Uganda’s Albertine Rift. Uganda is one of the richest areas in the world when it comes to biodiversity. Housing over 49% of mammal species in Africa, 51% of bird species, 19% of amphibians, 60% of Ugandan water and 70% of Ugandan protected areas, oil extraction in the Albertine Rift has extreme consequences on natural habitat for these species and the resources that support all life in the area. Bwengy Rajabu Yusufu of Oil Watch Uganda spoke about documented cases of animal migration patterns being disrupted by extraction activity (trucks, roadways, gas flares, humans etc…). This disruption in normal animal behavior also has human consequences – it has led to trampled gardens, loss of livelihoods and, in some cases, death. Issues of disrupted migration are not limited to Africa only. An infamous case in 2008 occurred when over 1,600 migrating birds died after landing in a Syncrude tailings pond in Alberta. The company faced charges under the Migratory Birds Convention Act and the Alberta Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act. And wildlife death due to tar sands development in Canada is not merely limited to birds – Greenpeace has also documented the death of bears, deer, foxes and coyotes. From there I learned about planned oil shale development in Israel, where the people affected have almost no idea that a huge oil extraction project is about to take place in their backyard. Meanwhile, the potential of “Israeli oil” is already being marketed to financiers in the United States and Europe – both of whom are keen to reduce their reliance on “unstable” Middle Eastern Oil. Faint tolls of the Keystone XL and Ethical Oil campaigns rang through my head while I listened to this presentation.

And the list continues…

Celestine AkpoBari and Sorbarikor Demual of the Ogoni Solidarity Forum discussed the community problems that have arisen in Ogoniland since oil was discovered there by Shell in 1958. Pictures showed us children walking to school across exposed oil pipeline and aboveground pipelines running through rivers, farms and backyards. They spoke to us about the 96 oil wells where gas was flared for 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for 35 years. They told us how oil fires can burn for over 2 months before someone from the United States can be imported to deal with the problem. And most importantly they shared with us the legacy of Ken Saro Wiwa, the Nigerian activist who led a non-violent campaign against environmental damages, petroleum waste dumping and the degradation of Ogoni land and waters by the petroleum industry – and Shell in particular. At the peak of his campaigning he was arrested, tried by military government and hanged on November 10th, 1995. The Ogoni Solidarity Forum seeks to carry forth his non-violent campaign and continues to educate citizens of Nigeria around the issues of oil extraction in their country. Effective community resistance has continued to occur – marches garnering 2,000- 3,000 people against the petroleum industry, women protesting the poisoning of their agricultural fields and water due to oil spills have protested naked at gas stations throughout the country, resulting in a huge loss of business for those companies. It is heartening to see non- violent protest being effective employed throughout the world, be they in Nigeria, in front of the White House or on Parliament Hill.

Everyone’s Downstream was extremely powerful. Bringing together people from many walks of life and experience levels it helped to expose the corruption of both industry and government, and how they have colluded together to concentrate wealth in the hands of a select few while their fellow citizens do not see the economic benefits promised to them. Pictures of destroyed habitats and first hand accounts of damage to humans and wildlife alike speak loud and clear. As one presenter summed it up so nicely I will finish with his quote: “The environment knows no boundaries. We are all downstream.”

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