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Tanya Kerssen explores how the ‘global pursuit of fossil fuels’ is impacting on communities across oil-rich regions in Africa, and the prospects for food and fuel sovereignty in a world without cheap oil. ‘Ironically, those with the smallest ecological footprint on earth have born the highest cost,’ writes Kerssen, but these ‘beleaguered people – the small farmers, herders, fishers and artisans of the world – could hold the key to a more energy-efficient future.’

The high cost of cheap oil was brought abruptly to light last April when Transocean’s Deepwater Horizon drilling rig (contracted by BP) exploded 40 miles southeast of the Louisiana coast, causing one of the worst environmental disasters in US history. Lost amidst the speechifying and PR, however, have been the voices of those directly affected: The thousands of families who inhabit some of the world’s richest fishing grounds. Louisiana is the largest supplier of domestic seafood in the continental United States, providing shrimp, blue crab, oysters, crawfish and a variety of marine finfish[1]. For the primarily African-American fishing towns South of New Orleans – struggling for decades to compete against large fishing operations and hit hard by Katrina – the BP spill portends the loss of a traditional, and sustainable, way of life on the water: ‘Take a look out there,’ offered 71-year-old retired oysterman Roger Moliere to the New York Times, ‘See what they’re doing? Sitting, talking, nobody working…Was a time if a man lost his job he could always come down to the bayou and feed his family. But this here, what you got happening now, this here might finish us off.’[2]

Ironically, those with the smallest ecological footprint on earth have born the highest cost of our global pursuit of fossil fuels. These beleaguered people – the small farmers, herders, fishers and artisans of the world – could hold the key to a more energy-efficient future.


The Gulf disaster has also drawn attention to threatened ecosystems worldwide, such as Nigeria’s Niger River Delta – a region devastated by oil spills, waste dumping and toxic natural gas flaring for decades – not to mention the violent repression of affected peoples. Home to 30 million people, the Niger Delta is the world’s third largest wetland; its mangroves provide breeding grounds for 60 per cent of West Africa’s fish stock. Despite tremendous oil wealth, the region is deeply impoverished. Oil facilities have displaced people from the land both directly, by appropriating land and waterways for oil prospecting, and indirectly by despoiling the environment.[3] In 2006, a group of independent experts put the amount of oil spilled in the Niger Delta over the past 50 years at nine to thirteen million barrels of oil.[4] Last year alone, the country reported 2,000 active spills.[5]Except in rare cases, compensation to individuals and communities has been grossly inadequate or nonexistent. The result of this ongoing disaster has been a massive wave of rural to urban migration – swelling the ranks of the urban poor – as well as intensifiying poverty and violence in the countryside.

Without diminishing the severity of the Gulf spill, several observers have pointed out the asymmetrical political reactions to oil disasters in the US and in other parts of the world.[6] Nnimo Bassey, Nigerian head of Friends of the Earth International, explains the sense of frustration: ‘We see frantic efforts being made to stop the spill in the US, but in Nigeria, oil companies largely ignore their spills, cover them up and destroy people's livelihood and environments…This has gone on for 50 years in Nigeria. People depend completely on the environment for their drinking water and farming and fishing. They are amazed that the president of the US can be making speeches daily, because in Nigeria people there would not hear a whimper.’[7] Nigeria is the fifth largest supplier of US oil imports.

Many opponents of the Obama administration’s deepwater drilling moratorium, and of increased regulation of the industry in general, have indicated that rig owners will not risk their revenue stream by remaining in the Gulf in such an uncertain political climate. Rather, they will move their operations, and their jobs, to more ‘business friendly’ waters.[8] With US unemployment teetering into double-digits, this is a sensitive issue indeed. The spill’s damage to fisheries, restaurants and tourism begs a thorny question: Which jobs should be privileged, and which sacrificed? In fact, the number of offshore rigs operating in the Gulf of Mexico has fallen by 71 per cent, from 56 to 16, since the spill began.[9] Notably, Diamond Offshore Drilling, Inc., the largest US deepwater driller, has begun moving its rig, the Ocean Confidence, to the Republic of Congo. Another of Diamond’s deepwater rigs, the Ocean Endeavor, is being readied for relocation to Egypt.[10]

Presumably, companies are not only put off by the prospect of increased red tape in the US, but also attracted – as they have been for decades – by the limited capacity of African States to regulate extractive activities. To attract foreign investment, most countries in sub-Saharan Africa also enter into generous production-sharing agreements that allow foreign oil companies to turn a relatively small upfront investment in exploration into billions in downstream profits.[11]

Of course, there was already growing interest in African energy resources before the Gulf spill, particularly in the deepwater and ‘ultradeep’ oil deposits off the coast of Angola and, just to the north, in the Gulf of Guinea, passing through the territorial waters of a dozen countries. Oil exploration and production activities are also being ramped up in Sudan, Chad, Uganda, the Republic of Congo-Brazzaville, among others. As reserves elsewhere are depleted, Africa’s oil is increasingly sought-after. Angola has already become the biggest supplier of crude oil to China, the world’s second largest oil consumer after the US.[12] Sub-Saharan Africa is expected to provide 25 per cent of North America’s oil by 2015.[13]


Michael Klare, author of ‘Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet: The New Geopolitics of Energy’, argues that the fossil fuels that gave rise to the Industrial Revolution are likely to be exhausted by the end of this century – and sooner in the case of petroleum. With all of the ‘easily accessible’ oil nearly used up, new oil resources will be increasingly costly and difficult to extract, buried deeper underground, and located farther offshore and in more hazardous environments.[14] Of the earth’s deepwater reserves 75 per cent are thought to be located in three regions known in the industry as the ‘Golden Triangle’: The Gulf of Mexico, the coastal waters of Brazil, and 5,000-miles of West African coastline stretching from Senegal to Namibia.[15] Opening up and securing these high-risk reserves offers opportunities for enormous profits. A leaked document published by ProPublica, for instance, shows that BP has been eagerly seeking to expand its deepwater operations and position itself as the ‘leading deepwater company.’[16] Even after the Deepwater Horizon explosion, the company has moved full-steam ahead with plans to sell off US$30 billion in onshore and shallow-water production assets in order to aggressively pursue deepwater drilling in West Africa, Angola, Egypt and, yes, Louisiana.[17]

One particularly attractive piece of deepwater real estate, Ghana’s Jubilee Oil Field located 40 miles from mainland, has drawn dozens of corporate suitors since its discovery in 2007. With an estimated 600 million to 1.8 billion barrels of oil, the Jubilee Field has been called the largest discovery in West Africa in the last ten years.[18] Two companies are leading in exploration and production: Britain’s Tullow Oil and US-based Kosmos Energy. With this first foray into hydrocarbons, many in Ghana are looking at neighbouring Nigeria, the quintessential African Oil State, and fearing the worst. Critics also point to Ghana’s long history of extractive activities and primary commodity exports: Ghana produces gold, bauxite, manganese, diamonds, timber and cocoa, none of which have generated appreciable benefits for the majority of Ghanaians. Even the World Bank, which has heavily promoted foreign investment in mining, has acknowledged that benefits mainly accrue to mine operators, producing little foreign exchange for the country’s development.[19] In addition, Ghana’s human rights ombudsman has documented numerous violations in mining areas including polluting communities’ water sources, deprivation and loss of livelihoods, and violence perpetrated by security agencies contracted by mining companies.[20]

The Jubilee Oil Field, slated to begin commercial production in November 2010, already has government officials and civil society organisations voicing serious concerns, including reported spills. Kosmos Energy is under government investigation for negligence in the spillage of 598 barrels of oil-based mud around its rigs between December 2009 and March 2010.[21] Once production is operational, there are heightened concerns about spills, leakages, atmospheric emissions and waste discharge that may threaten human health, marine life and the fishing-based livelihoods of local people.

There are also onshore concerns. Since exploration began, the area has come under ‘economic siege’, particularly by companies and businessmen seeking land for housing construction and other commercial activities. High rates of in-migration and rapid urbanisation raise issues of sanitation, crime and rising prices.[12]

Despite these many concerns, the development of Ghana’s deepwater oil is advancing rapidly. This fast-track is especially problematic since the country lacks the legal and regulatory framework to deal adequately with its nascent oil and gas sector. Ghana has chosen to accept so-called ‘stabilisation clauses’ in its contracts with companies that lock in current laws and regulations. If the country should decide to strengthen its regulatory framework, companies with existing contracts could claim that the new laws do not apply to them, or require the government to provide financial compensation for the cost of compliance.[13] As foreign companies reap handsome rewards, and Ghana gains uncertain benefits (much of the content of these contracts remains secret), coastal communities are sure to pay the highest cost. At a recent Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) workshop held in the coastal town of Takoradi, representatives of six districts located closest to the oil find responded angrily to refusals to commit part of the petroleum royalties to an environmental mitigation or compensation fund, as is legally required in the mining sector.[24] No such provision has thus far been established for the oil and gas industry.


When it comes to oil, corporate interests are often recast as national security concerns. It was President Jimmy Carter who cemented the connection in his 1980 State of the Union address by stating that any foreign attempt to gain control of Middle Eastern oil would be regarded as ‘an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America.’ The policy, now known as the Carter Doctrine, set a dangerous precedent of using military might to secure ‘strategically important’ resources throughout the world.[25] Combined with the post-9/11 escalation of global counter-terrorism activities, the Carter Doctrine has provided rationale for an increased US military presence in Africa. After a five-year counter-terrorism initiative in West Africa (Operation Enduring Freedom Trans-Sahara) that began in 2002, the Bush Administration announced the creation of a new unified combatant command – US Africa Command or AFRICOM – to ‘promote US national security objectives in Africa and its surrounding waters.’ [26] AFRICOM became an official command on 1 October 2008.

Despite expectations to the contrary, the Obama Administration has opted to continue, and indeed to expand, the unilateral militarisation of Africa through AFRICOM. Budget requests for the 2010 fiscal year submitted to Congress in May 2009 – which include funding for all US arms sales, military training and other security assistance programmes – showed a 300 per cent increase in military financing to sub-Saharan African countries, from US$8.2 million to over US$25.5 million.[27] In view of the tragic history of military repression on the continent, this strategy is cause for concern. In particular, civil society protests in resource-rich areas such as the Niger Delta have been violently repressed by their militaries, often with tacit approval from foreign companies.

The 1995 hanging of Nigerian author and playwright Ken Saro-Wiwa along with eight fellow anti-oil activists – collectively known as the Ogoni Nine – drew international attention to corporate involvement in human rights abuses. [28"> Last year, Royal Dutch Shell paid US$15.5 million to settle a lawsuit accusing Shell of complicity in the executions.[29"> The settlement was seen as an important, if small, victory for oil-affected peoples. Tragically, however, the persistent quashing of non-violent movements in the Delta has led to the radicalisation of rural youth, the emergence of armed militias and the increased belligerence of the Nigerian State towards affected communities. In another case, the European Commission on Oil in Sudan (ECOS) has accused oil companies of complicity in crimes against humanity in a Southern oil field known as Block 5A. ECOS charges companies with pressuring armed groups to ‘clear the ground’, leading to a wave of repression in which 12,000 people were killed and another 20,000 displaced. Reverend James Koung Ninrew, general secretary of the Nuer Peace Council in Southern Sudan, stated: ‘As soon as the troops secured the area, they moved to the next, systematically, and the companies followed, until the whole area of Block 5A was brought under control. The companies could see the villages still burning.’[30">


For decades, industrialised countries such as the US, Japan and Europe (and now China and India) have used development assistance as an inducement for poor, oil-producing countries to grant resource access to Western oil companies. When the rise of petro-nationalism in the 1970s threatened the ability of Western powers to fuel their economies with cheap oil, contemporary ‘oil aid’ emerged to help pry open national markets and reverse the trend towards State-owned oil companies.[31"> To be sure, military pressure was also used to gain access to coveted oil deposits. But ideological warfare, waged by the influential Washington-based aid agencies, played a paramount role. As part of their conditional lending practices, the World Bank and IMF stepped in to restructure the oil sectors of Third World countries, encouraging them to de-nationalise production and instead focus on attracting and facilitating foreign investors. In the name of economic growth (and debt repayment), South countries were enjoined into the fast and furious exploitation of their natural resources.

Aid to the industry has also taken a more direct form: Subsidies to oil companies bankrolled by taxpayer dollars. A database compiled by Oilwatch International determined that at least US$61.3 billion in public funds were spent globally between 2000 and 2007 to subsidise the oil and gas industry.[32"> The US contributed the greatest amount to that pot, with some US$15.6 billion distributed by the US Export-Import Bank, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, the US Trade and Development Agency, USAID and the US Maritime Association.[33"> (This is in addition to billions in domestic tax breaks for oil and gas companies.[34">) The single largest multilateral source of oil aid remains the World Bank, which provides financing primarily for large infrastructure and private sector-driven export projects. In Africa’s politically and (environmentally sensitive areas), many projects could not move forward without World Bank support, the mere presence of which acts as risk insurance and helps attract other funding.[35"> Despite high-profile fiascos such as the controversial Chad-Cameroon pipeline[36">, the Bank continues to lend vigorously for oil development. In 2008, for instance, World Bank lending for fossil fuels increased by 102 per cent – compared to 11 per cent for renewable energy.[37"> What's more, by promoting energy-intensive export agriculture, the Bank – in collusion with bilateral agencies including USAID and mega-philanthropies including the Gates Foundation – further entrench oil dependence in the Third world.


From the Gulf of Mexico to the Gulf of Guinea, oil production has been marked by corporate impunity, lack of transparency and undemocratic decision-making, ecological crisis and human tragedy. The root cause of these problems is the massive consumption of oil and oil-based products in the industrialised world for use in manufacturing, transportation and food production. Insomuch as they rely on the burning of fossil fuels, these activities are responsible for the majority of greenhouse gas emissions contributing to global climate change. Farming accounts for as much as 32 per cent of total emissions, a significant portion of which are created by industrial agriculture through the use of petroleum-based fertilisers, pesticides and forest clearing.[38"> The issue of ‘food miles’ – the distance our food travels from farm to table[39"> – has been well documented, while new data shows that the production phase accounts for as much as 83 per cent of the average US household’s carbon footprint for food.[40"> Changing the way we produce food, therefore, constitutes a necessary step towards reducing oil dependence, its enormous carbon footprint and its human toll.

Food sovereignty, the political project put forward by the international peasant movement Via Campesina, offers a promising road map. Food sovereignty emerged in the 1990s as a critique to the neoliberal vision of ‘food security’ promoted by the World Bank and others, who view agriculture primarily as a source of export earnings – as opposed to local nutrition, livelihood, biodiversity, culture and community well being. This model – which farmer-activist José Bové has called ‘food from nowhere’ – cares little about the displacement of small-scale food producers from their land by oil companies or industrial farms, since cheap food imports are expected to feed the masses. Food sovereignty, by contrast, privileges sustainable, local food production for local consumption, arguing that international trade must come second. And while some will argue that organic production can’t feed the world, numerous studies prove otherwise. [41"> [42"> [43">

Industrial agriculture may be more ‘efficient’ in terms of labour (output per worker), but its productivity is achieved through massive applications of fossil fuel-based inputs such as tractor fuel and agrochemicals. Small organic farms, however, are generally more efficient in terms of land (output per acre), since they grow a variety of plants and animals, taking full advantage of each ecological niche. Organic farms are more energy efficient, since they rely primarily upon ‘closed-loop’ nutrient cycles – for example, crop nutrients consumed on site by animals may be returned the soil as crop residues or manure to restore fertility. Finally, small organic farms produce far fewer greenhouse gas emissions and could even reverse the trend of global climate change through carbon sequestration in trees and soil.[44">

By producing more food with less energy, promoting small-scale organic agriculture may be our best bet for kicking the cheap oil habit, providing livelihoods for millions of smallholders around the world, and cooling the planet for all. This undertaking will require immense political will and a monumental global shift from oil-dependent, export-driven development to a focus on environmental stewardship and food sovereignty. Meanwhile, the small farmers, fishers and herders of the world – those with the smallest ecological footprint – are fighting a multi-front battle for their right to sustainably produce food on the land and waterways.


* This article was first published by Food First.
* Tanya Kerssen is a Food First fellow.
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.

[1] Louisiana State University AgCenter:
[2] “Delta’s Black Oystermen Seeking Cleanup Work and Clinging to Hope” by Trymaine Lee, New York Times, July 28, 2010:
See also “Black Gulf Fishers Face a Murky Future” by Brentin Mock, The Root, May 25, 2010:
[3] Niger Delta Human Development Report, UNDP Nigeria 2006. Available from:
[4] Niger Delta Natural Resources Damage Assessment and Restoration Project, Phase I Scoping Report,
May 2006. Cited in “Nigeria: Petroleum, Pollution and Poverty in the Niger Delta” Amnesty International Report 2009. Avail. From:
[5] “Niger Delta: Towards Containing Spills, Remedying Impacted Sites” the Daily Independent (Lagos) Aug. 1, 2010. Available from:
[6] “The Niger Delta: some perspective on the BP oil spill” The New Statesman, June 14, 2010:
[7] “Nigeria's agony dwarfs the Gulf oil spill. The US and Europe ignore it” by John Vidal, The Guardian, May 30, 2010:
[8] “Offshore drilling moratorium: good for the Gulf, bad for the economy?” Christian Science Monitor, July 27, 2010.
[9] “Diamond Offshore Is Moving Rig to Egypt on Restrictions in Gulf of Mexico” Bloomberg, July 9, 2010:
[10] “Idled Gulf Rigs Head For Africa” Investors’ Business Daily, July 13, 2010:
[11] Untapped: The Scramble for Africa’s Oil by John Ghazvinian, Harcourt Books 2007.
[12] “Angola becomes China's largest crude oil source” China Knowledge, July 23, 2010:
[13] Untapped…p.8
[14] “The Relentless Pursuit of Extreme Energy” by Michael Klare, TomDispatch. May 18, 2010:
[15] Untapped…p.85
[16] “BP Document: Big Plans for Deepwater Drilling” by Marian Wang, ProPublica Blog, June 28, 2010:
[17] “BP’s Dudley Targets Riskiest Drilling After $32 Billion Blowout” Bloomberg Businessweek, July 29, 2010:
[18] “Ghana’s Big Test: Oil’s challenge to democratic development” Oxfam Research Report. Feb. 2009. Available from:
[19] “Ghana’s Big Test…” p.20
[20] “Ghana’s Big Test…” p.9
[21] “U. S. oil company may pay a huge fine for oil spillage off Ghana coast” July 30, 2010.
[22] “Is Ghana Prepared to Manage the Potential Environmental Challenges of an Oil and Gas Industry?” by Samuel Marful-Sau, Center for Energy, Petroleum and Mineral Law and Policy (CEPMLP), University of Dundee. April 21, 2010. Avail. from:
[23] “Ghana’s Big Test…” p.31
[24] “Ghana: Storm brews over oil cash” Public Agenda (Accra), Jun 25, 2010. Avail. from:
[25] “Repudiate the Carter Doctrine” by Micheal Klare, Foreign Policy in Focus (FPIF), Jan 22, 2009.
[26] “Africa Command: U.S. Strategic Interests and the Role of the U.S. Military in Africa” by Laura Ploch, CRS Report for Congress, April 3, 2010.
[27] “Obama moves ahead with AFRICOM” by Daniel Volman, Pambazuka News, Issue 461, Dec 10, 2009:
[28"> The Case Against Shell:
[29"> “Shell pays out $15.5m over Saro-Wiwa killing” by Ed Pilkington, The Guardian, June 9, 2009.
[30"> “Oil Consortium Behind War Crimes” by Frank Mulder, IPS News Agency, June 9, 2010.
[31"> “Aiding Oil, Harming the Climate: A database of public funds for fossil fuels” Oil Change International, Dec. 2007. Avail. from:
[32"> “Aiding Oil, Harming the Climate…”
[33"> “Aiding Oil, Harming the Climate…”
[34"> “As Oil Industry Fights a Tax, It Reaps Subsidies” by David Kocieniewski, New York Times, July 3, 2010:
[35"> “The World Bank’s Decade for Africa: A new dawn for development aid?” by Korinna Horta, Yale Journal of International Affairs, May 2005.
[36"> “Chad's Oil: Miracle or Mirage? Following the Money in Africa's Newest Petro-State” by The Bank Information Center and Catholic Relief Services, February 2005. Avail. from:
[37"> “World Bank Energy Sector Lending: Encouraging the world’s addiction to fossil fuels” by Heike Mainhardt-Gibbs, Bank Information Center, Feb. 2009. Avail. from:
[38"> ActionAid, Sustainable Agriculture and Climate Change, May 2009:
[39"> See, for example, “Food, Fuel, and Freeways: An Iowa perspective on how far food travels, fuel usage, and greenhouse gas emissions” Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, June 2001.
[40"> “Food Miles and the Relative Climate Impacts of Food Choices in the United States” by Christopher L. Weber and Scott Mathews. Environmental Science and Technology, Vol. 42, no. 10 (2008).
[41"> Pimentel et al. 2005. “Environmental, energetic, and economic comparisons of organic and conventional farming systems” Bioscience, Vol. 55.
[42"> Pretty et al. 2003. “Reducing food poverty by increasing agricultural sustainability in developing countries” Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment, Volume 95, Issue 1.
[43"> Rosset, Peter. 2000. “The Multiple Functions and Benefits of Small Farm Agriculture in the Context of Global Trade Negotiations” Development, Volume 43, Number 2.
[44"> Vandermeer et al. 2009. “Effects of Industrial Agriculture on Global Warming and the Potential of Small-Scale Agroeclogical Techniques to Reverse those Effects” A report to Via Campesina by the New World Agriculture and Ecology Group.