Jan 15, 2007

Ogoni: Model for Social Action

Environmental campaigners look to Ogoni women and their remarkable social movement to end gas flaring on their land.

One of the most inspiring recent examples of social change has been the recent victory of the Ogoni women of Nigeria against the petrol multinational Shell. The extraction of oil usually involves the extraction of natural gas as a by-product that is normally used to create electricity or petrochemicals, but in Nigeria in order to cut costs, Shell was simply flaring the gas - burning it off into the atmosphere.

In June 2005, the Port Harcourt organisation, Environmental Rights Action stated that “More gas is flared in Nigeria than anywhere else in the world. Estimates are notoriously unreliable ... The flares have contributed more greenhouse gases than all of sub-Saharan Africa combined. And the flares contain a cocktail of toxins that affect the health and livelihood of local communities, exposing Niger Delta residents to an increased risk of premature deaths, child respiratory illnesses, asthma and cancer.”

After the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other Nigerian anti-Shell activists in 1995, the women of the Ogoni villages spearheaded a remarkable campaign to stop the flaring from taking place. The Nigerian women used direct action and political pressure, and appealed for international solidarity in pursuit of their aims, and endured a violent, repressive militarisation of the area as a result, including rape and murder.

In January 2006, Nigerian courts ordered Shell to stop the flaring of natural gas. In September 2006 a Nigerian newspaper stated that the oil giant’s licence over the Ogoniland was going to be revoked. The Ogoni people, at enormous cost to themselves, their lands, their livelihoods, had won.

It isn’t possible, without reverting to the esoteric accounting procedures of the offset companies, to quantify how large the emissions reductions have been as a result of the social justice struggle of the Ogoni women in shutting down the largest source of greenhouse gases in sub-Saharan Africa. Under the absurd logic of the offsets market, it would be quite appropriate for the Ogoni women to start marketing the emissions that have been avoided as a commodity to the polluters and consumers in the North.

The hard-won victory of the Ogoni women, a huge success in terms of both social justice and climate change, depended on community empowerment, confrontational politics and international solidarity. One of the most distressing effects of the culture of offsets is the fact that it negates all three of these factors. Instead of community empowerment, climate change is presented as a matter of individualistic morality and lifestyle choices that discourages collective political action. We are being led to believe that responsible consumer choice is all that is necessary on our parts rather than engaging in a different kind of political responsibility and activity that confronts the fact that there are profound changes that need to be made in our society to effectively deal with climate change.

The notion of international solidarity is commodified by carbon offsets, transformed into a one-sided affair in which a neo-colonial relationship of economic advantage and conditional aid is established. When the Ogoni women of Nigeria appealed to the world to support their struggle, they appealed primarily for international political action rather than financial assistance. It is beyond the scope of any offsets scheme to support this sort of social change that is so necessary in the face of climate change.

Kevin Smith is a researcher with Carbon Trade Watch, a project of the Transnational Institute. He is co-author of “The Carbon Neutral Myth: Offset Indulgences for Your Climate Sins”.