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Big oil, World Bank face big opposition to West Africa pipeline

A $3.7 billion oil pipeline from Chad to Cameroon in West Africa would impact the future of generations of Bakola people  

June 8, 2000
Web posted at: 1:00 p.m. EDT (1700 GMT)

Despite widespread objection from human rights activists and environmentalists, the World Bank is moving ahead to help finance a $3.7 billion oil pipeline from Chad to Cameroon in West Africa.

The controversial Doba development comprises about 300 oilfields in southern Chad and a 663-mile pipeline from there to offshore loading facilities on Cameroon's coast.

Led by oil giants Exxon-Mobil, Chevron and Petronas of Malaysia, the pipeline represents the largest construction project in sub-Saharan Africa.

As many as 150 families will be displaced in the oil production area but none along the pipeline route will be uprooted. Construction may also interrupt farmers' access to their land, but the oil companies have agreed to compensate them for any losses.

According to the World Bank, the pipeline development could increase annual government revenue in Chad by 45 to 50 percent in four years, a ready resource in the fight against poverty. The bank's commitment to the project is a $222 million loan package.

"We could not walk away from a project with the potential to change the future of one of the poorest countries on Earth," said Robert Calderisi, the World Bank's spokesman for Africa.

The government in Chad is celebrating the bank's decision. "The approval by the World Bank of the Doba oil project is a great victory for the people of Chad," officials said Tuesday in a statement. Crude was discovered in Chad 30 years ago, and the government has anticipated developing the resource ever since.

Opponents of the pipeline contend that it will feed corruption, disrupt the lives of local citizens and poison the environment, negating any benefits.

They point to Nigeria's oil pipeline and the environmental damage and civil strife it has caused. They blame Chevron for several environmental hazards, including a polluted water supply in the Niger Delta.

Human rights groups also claim that the late Nigerian military leader Sani Abacha misappropriated the country's oil revenue and dealt harshly with his opponents. Victims of his regime have sued Chevron in U.S. courts for conspiracy in human rights abuses by the Nigerian military against unarmed protesters.

Chad and Cameroon have a history of instability, civil war and human rights abuses. "Oil can be a devastating force in countries with such levels of corruption," said Alejandro Queral of the Sierra Club's Human Rights and Environment Program. "Chevron has set a scary precedent."

Several opposition groups predict the pipeline's revenue will not go to the poor but will again fall into the hands of wealthy government officials.

The proposed oil pipeline is indicated in green  

The pipeline will run through pristine forests at the expense of endangered forest elephants, gorillas and chimpanzees. Cameroon already suffers from one of the greatest rates of forest loss in the world.

"(The project) will open up a road for loggers and poachers," said Queral.

"Roads through previously remote rain forests create easy access for commercial hunters to find and transport endangered forest animals to city markets," explained Erick Brownstein of the Rainforest Action Network.

The pipeline is the type of project that has spurred recent protests against the World Bank throughout the world. Demonstrators have demanded that the bank stop financing oil, gas, and mining projects in developing countries, and the Doba project has been singled out as an example of destructive policies.

In a report released last week, the World Bank allowed that many of its lending policies in Africa had failed over the past 40 years. In response to April protests in Washington, D.C., the bank said it would incorporate greater environmental considerations into its development projects.

Approximately four square miles of forest would be affected by the central African pipeline, Calderisi said. To compensate for the loss of tropical forest, two national parks will be created in Cameroon and managed for better biodiversity.

"We have put a lot of body and soul into making sure the project would be beneficial to the environment," said Calderisi. "The original plan has been modified 40 times to avoid areas of high biodiversity and sensitivity to cultural heritage. It is quite deliberate that most of the pipeline will pass through existing roads and railways."

Environmentalists paint a different picture. "It is impossible to quantify by square miles the effect that (this pipeline) will have on forests because of all the secondary effects: hunting, oil spills, 17 major river crossings, etcetera, " said Brownstein.

"Despite promises, we're still seeing the 'old' World Bank," said Queral. "The International advisory group that the World Bank has appointed to monitor the project does not have the capacity to deal with social and environmental problems. There are too many questions unanswered."

Oil spills are a significant risk, he noted. "There is over a 50 percent chance of a spill occurring along the pipeline and the World Bank has not assessed the cost of a spill."

Despite a recent estimate by the Dutch Commission of the Environment that an oil spill could cost as much as $28 million, the oil corporations have only budgeted $800,000 for such a disaster.

"Local people are ill-informed about the environmental risks," explained Karina Horta, a senior economist at Environmental Defense who has worked for a decade to protect Cameroon's forests. "Many (locals) are under the impression that they can obtain oil by piercing the pipelines."

"The project threatens the fragile environment of both countries and risks further impoverishment of local people whose livelihoods depend directly on the fields, forests, rivers and coastal areas, " she added. "Oil revenues for the project (in Cameroon) are supposed to be 500 million for the next 28 years. A British University has predicted that Cameroon's natural resources generate 1.6 billion per year. The country could easily suffer a net loss from the project."

An Harvard University study in October 1999 concluded that an oil revenue management law passed by the government in Chad does not guarantee that oil receipts will be used for social purposes.

"Cameroon's current oil revenue does not enter the local economy," Horta said. "Oil revenues go abroad to the overseas accounts of the elite."

Human rights groups claim that a climate of repression and fear is escalating in Chad. "Police and security forces repeatedly used deadly force against unarmed persons ... in and around Mondou (a town less than 50 miles from the proposed oilfields)," a recent U.S. State Department report on Chad noted.

"I think the project could have a negative effect on local populations," said Delphine Djiriabi, founder of the Chad Association for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights. "The government has a bad reputation for the misuse of public funds."

Djiriabi said her organization is one of about 30 civilian action groups in Chad that have raised concerns about the pipeline.

"We are disappointed that the World Bank did not listen more closely to civilian society organizations in both countries," said Horta. "Without democratic reforms, oil revenue can only add further fuel to the fire."

Copyright 1999, Environmental News Network, All Rights Reserved

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World Bank
Petronas of Malaysia
Sierra Club
Rainforest Action Network
Environmental Defense
   •Chad Cameroon oil pipeline project
Friends of the Earth
Rain Forest Action Network

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