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Nigerian women win concessions from Chevron through occupation, 2002
In 1956, Shell British Petroleum (now Royal Dutch Shell) discovered oil in what was then the British colony of Nigeria, and by 1958 commercial production had begun. Today, Nigeria has the tenth largest proven oil reserves in the world, is the tenth largest oil producer, and is the eighth largest oil exporter; yet nearly two-thirds of Nigerians live on less than $1.25 a day, 70% live below the national poverty line, and 83% live on less than $2 a day (each of those measurements place Nigeria in the bottom ten out of countries for which data is available). In fact, since 1982, Nigeria has collected oil export revenues in excess of $700 billion (as of 2010, in constant 2000 U.S. dollars), but because most of that wealth has been concentrated with the top 1%, the country has gone from the 33rd richest in the 1970s to the 26th poorest by 2002. And, by all accounts, it is the residents of the most oil-rich region, the Niger Delta, who have suffered the most precipitous decline in standard of living over that time.
The Niger Delta, considered one of the ten most important wetland and coastal marine ecosystems on the planet, is home to more than 30 million people, 70% of whom live on less than $1 a day. Most relied on fisheries, subsistence agriculture, and associated processing industries for their livelihood, but decades of widespread oil spills, waste dumping, and gas flaring have severely damaged the soil, air, and water quality. According to international experts, the delta region has been one of the most severely petroleum-impacted ecosystems in the world; for example, conservative estimates report that almost 7,000 spills resulting in a loss of approximately 3 million barrels of oil occurred within the 25-year span between 1976 and 2001. With more than 60% of the population relying on the natural environment for their livelihood, the devastation has turned life for many into what they called “a nightmare.” On those occasions when protesters (even peaceful ones) demand greater accountability and better living conditions, the frequent response is a violent crackdown by government or private security forces.
Despite the danger, in July 2002, 600 Nigerian women between the ages of 20 and 90 decided to nonviolently seize control of the largest oil producing facility in the country. On 8 July, 200 women, carrying only food and cooking pots, reappropriated a boat used to transport workers to and from the Chevron’s Escravos oil terminal and stormed the plant. Demanding employment for their husbands and children and infrastructure development for their communities, they then set up barricades at strategic installations in the tank farm to prevent anyone from leaving or entering. They also threatened to strip nude if a satisfactory agreement could not be reached with the company. According to local custom, “displays of nudity by wives, mothers and grandmothers (are) a damning protest and an act that shames all those it is aimed at.” The occupation quickly put a halt to the production of approximately 500,000 barrels of oil a day.
After the first few days of negotiations, as a show of good faith, the women agreed to allow the departure of 400 workers who were scheduled for time off. Within a few days afterwards, an agreement was reached, whereby Chevron agreed to hire more than two dozen villagers, build a town hall in the village of Ugborodo (the home to many of the protestors), and build schools and electrical and water systems. By 18 July, the women agreed to end their occupation of the main Escravos terminal, but their protest inspired hundreds of women from the Gbaramatu community to seize control of four pipeline flow stations. Twelve days after the start of this second protest, Chevron agreed to create jobs for 10 people, upgrade 20 workers to full-time positions, and create 30 new contract positions. According to the protestors, the company also agreed to build water and electricity systems, schools, and hospitals for local communities and set up a micro-credit scheme that would help village women start their own businesses.