Plunder of the Rainforest:

Don't Blame the Starving Masses, Blame the Oil Companies

      The environmentalists say that the oil companies destroy the rainforest in their quest for black gold. That is not entirely true. Or at least that belief needs to be qualified. Over a period of 17 years I watched the oil companies open up the Niger River Delta, and I monitored the results. By themselves the major oil companies including Shell and Chevron did very little harm. They planned their projects to have minimal impact and cleaned up where they messed up. And if there were no other forces at play the environment would have been left intact. But, the forces of man are many and I have come to the conclusion that in order to control any development in a wilderness area the local government and the local people have the most important role in safekeeping their national treasures.

       I could write a 30 page study on how to minimize the impact of oil development in a nature reserve or wilderness area, but to attempt to sum up in a couple of paragraphs would not do the subject justice. I can say, however, that although the responsible oil companies like Chevron, Shell, Exxon and the like do minimize their impact on the environment it is not what they do that causes the problems. The problem is two fold. 
     First of all, it is the necessity to use the local contractors and the lack of controls on the contractors that cause the most amount of initial damage. And secondly, it is the infrastructure that the oil companies build to get to the oil fields that does the most amount of long-term harm because it allow access for the local people to get to otherwise remote areas.
      It is not the oil companies that plunder the wildlife and forests, but rather the local inhabitants, who naturally increase in number as their territory increases. The politicians of course do nothing to stop the destruction, as they are "enfranchising the landless" or because they own the logging companies, or just because it is much easier to just blame the oil companies for bad management or local corruption. And life goes on as the rainforest dies an unnatural hurried death.
      For example, an oil service company owned riverboat is clean and the engine is maintained to run clean and efficiently. The local contractor boat is dirty, noisy, leaks oil and billows black smoke. If the oil company riverboat operation gets an increase in their budget the money will go toward putting in radar to make the operation more efficient. If the oil company pays the local contractor more, the money will go into the pockets of the contractor and the engine will continue to leak oil and blow black smoke. The local government would then tax the oil company for having a radar system on their boat, but would not regulate the pollution output of any local boat or fine the local contactor for polluting the environment. If the oil company puts in requirement for contractors to follow anti-pollution standards and they hire ex-pat companies that meet the requirements, the contractors will claim discrimination and the government will pass regulations to force the oil companies to hire local contractors and forbid requirements that they say are “only tailored to favor expatriate contractors and discriminate against local contractors.” Thus the pollution continues, and the oil companies get blamed.

     The infrastructure concept is even simpler. An oil company finds a large reserve in a remote flooded rainforest location. They dredge a narrow canal into the area off a larger river. The dredging creates mud banks along the canal and the canal offers access to the middle of a once impregnable rainforest. The oil company moves in a floating swamp drill rig and caps the oil well. A second crew comes in with houseboats and riverboats and builds a pumping station and platform. A third crew comes in and builds a pipeline to get the oil to the next larger pumping station. Once the pipeline is finished a maintenance crew comes in daily by helicopter and lands on the platform to do their work and then leave again.
      So far they have only impacted directly on the immediate canal area. The wildlife might be scared off, but will not go far. There is definitely some loss of habitant, but the area is minimized. Once the work is complete the area would grow back and the wildlife would return.
      What happens incidental to the oil related work is where the long-term damage occurs. Even while the dredging crew is dredging the canal local inhabitants are following the progress and come from the larger river to claim the newly formed land along the canal banks. The mud is now a dry firm area to build grass houses and plant crops. The settlers grow in number and start to hunt and gather from the now accessible rainforest. Soon there are no longer any monkeys or antelope or crocodiles left near the settlement.
      The settlers will also begin to cut the immediate trees for fuel and eventually have to go further and further to find good firewood. Once the drilling crew and oil pipeline support boats have moved on the new village begins to attract loggers. The loggers can cut the larger trees right beside the canal and can now accessible creeks and float the logs to the larger rivers and onward to the city markets. The more canal the oil companies dredge the more the rainforest is plundered. It is as simple as that. But, the question remains. Who is to blame?

Article and Images by John S Goulet

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Last modified on March 05, 2006 .
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