Saturday, July 5, 2008

The Land Beneath

There's an AP article in the Times today -- talking about how the first oil well ever drilled in Nigeria -- though closed -- may reopen.

OIL WELL NO. 1, Nigeria (AP) -- Three decades after pumping its last drop, the first oil well in Nigeria is marked by a decrepit signboard bearing what would seem an uncontroversial statement:

Oloibiri Well No. 1, drilled June 1956, 12,008 feet.

But this well, furred with rust, is at the center of an increasingly vitriolic feud between two villages over who owns the land beneath it. The conflict is fed by hopes that soaring prices will tempt big business to squeeze more oil from the well and give a pittance to the village that owns the land.

The tussle between Oloibiri and Otabagi brings into stark relief how villages that sit on the prodigious oil reserves in Nigeria, Africa's biggest producer of crude, have barely profited from the booming industry. Corrupt officials have hoarded the government's cut of profits, and energy firms have compensated locals with paltry payments worth a fraction of the hundreds of billions generated by drilling.

In both villages, children wander unclothed past heaps of burning trash. Oil spills have sullied the farmlands and spoiled the water. Fields once crammed with ears of corn, and nets full of flapping fish, have become distant memories.

''After destroying the area without anything to give in return, we have stepped maybe 50 times backwards. Pollution, both air and water,'' said Sunday Ikpesu, a sprightly 74-year-old Oloibiri chieftain. ''We didn't know crude oil was such a bad thing.''

Who could know that a time could yield such devastation?

Who could know that people would behave so badly? Or that the earth could break...

And what else is there to do -- once there is nothing left and no hope for change...

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