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Life in the Time of Oil: A Pipeline and Poverty in Chad

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Life in the Time of Oil examines the Chad-Cameroon Petroleum Development and Pipeline Project—a partnership between global oil companies, the World Bank, and the Chadian government that was an ambitious scheme to reduce poverty in one of the poorest countries on the African continent. Key to the project was the development of a marginal set of oilfields that had only recently attracted the interest of global oil companies who were pressed to expand operations in the context of declining reserves. Drawing on more than a decade of work in Chad, Lori Leonard shows how environmental standards, grievance mechanisms, community consultation sessions, and other model policies smoothed the way for oil production, but ultimately contributed to the unraveling of the project. Leonard offers a nuanced account of the effects of the project on everyday life and the local ecology of the oilfield region as she explores the resulting tangle of ethics, expectations, and effects of oil as development.

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1. An Experiment in Development

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The entire country has its eyes turned to the Doba region, which has become the center of national attention with the activities of CONOCO. Of course, finding oil is always a roll of the dice. But when the work of this company is crowned with success, supporting industries and complex and specialized installations will proliferate. The key to the problem of development will be found, and we will be able to make over the entirety of Chad.

—President François Ngarta Tombalbaye, Info-Tchad, December 19, 1973

On my first trip to canton Miandoum, just as the Chad-Cameroon Petroleum Development and Pipeline Project was getting underway, Firmin took me to see le premier puits—the first well.1 It stood in a clearing on an abandoned plot of land, surrounded by scrub brush and high grasses, and was bright red, the color of a fire hydrant. A small metal plaque commemorating the oil find was affixed to the well. By the time I made the pilgrimage to the well with Firmin, everyone knew that other wells—hundreds of them—would follow. Firmin wanted to be photographed next to the first well. The photographs I took of him remind me of others I took of people posing with their prized possessions—not oil wells, but radios, bicycles, mobile phones, or decorative pots and pans. Firmin was wearing a Chicago Bulls jersey. He had one of his hands on the well and was leaning into it, possessively. His other hand grasped the handle of the hoe that was perched on his shoulder. In those images he seems to embody the tensions and transformations, the hopes and dreams of a nation on the verge of something big. The photographs capture an instant of wide openness, a moment of promise when it seemed possible that Tombalbaye’s dream might finally come true.

 

2. Dead Letters

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Mbairo Justin emerged from his house with a worn copy of a letter, which he handed to me. It was dated July 3, 2001 and was written by hand in tight, careful lines on a single piece of paper. The letter was addressed to “those in charge of the office of compensation at Esso,”1 and the purpose of the letter was declared at the top of the page. “Objet: Clarification of the role of the chief of the canton in the amount of compensation paid for fruit trees.” This was followed by one long paragraph in which Mbairo explained that on the same day the consortium paid him 550,000 francs for a mango tree it had inadvertently destroyed with a backhoe, the chief of the canton “grabbed” the money and told him he would have to wait six months to receive it. Five months later, the chief called Mbairo to his house, where—over Mbairo’s objections—he divided the money among five people. The names of the recipients were listed in the letter, along with the amounts each person received. The chief gave Mbairo 100,000 francs. He took 50,000 francs for himself, and put another 30,000 francs into a fund for the village. Three other men split the balance of the payment. Mbairo closed the letter by pleading with the consortium. “Find me a solution,” he wrote, “because the chief of the canton is ready to send me to jail.”

 

3. Becoming “Eligible”

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At the end of a meeting at Esso’s corporate headquarters in N’Djamena, where I had again failed to obtain information about grievances residents had filed with the consortium, Esso’s public affairs officer presented me with a CD. At the time this felt like a consolation prize—something the public affairs officer had given me so I would not have to leave his office empty-handed. The CD contained an electronic copy of the consortium’s Environmental Management Plan (EMP) for Chad a six-volume tome with detailed plans for waste management, compensation and resettlement, workplace health and safety, the management of oil spills, regional development, revenue management, and the construction of project facilities and infrastructure.1

I had not asked the public affairs officer for a copy of the EMP. Unlike the grievance letters, which the consortium guarded closely, the plan was widely available. The consortium posted the document to its website, and the World Bank distributed the EMP through its public information centers in London, Brussels, Paris, Tokyo, Washington, and N’Djamena. In Chad the consortium distributed the EMP on CD and delivered hard copies to libraries, nongovernmental organization (NGO) offices, and government offices. The EMP was also available in reading rooms the consortium had set up in the oil field region and along the route of the pipeline, ostensibly for the purpose of making project documents available to anyone who cared to view them. The hard copy versions of the EMP that I saw in libraries, offices, and reading rooms came in the form of a series of blue binders that filled entire bookshelves.

 

4. Ties That Bind

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On a hot July day, not long after the land mapping exercises had begun as part of the Land Use Mitigation Action Plan (LUMAP), I was standing with Ngondoloum in the middle of the dirt road that bisected the village. Off to our left, a crowd had gathered around the edges of Daouda’s concession. Daouda was at the center of the crowd, and several of his neighbors were standing in three corners of his concession, pulling on ropes until they were taut. Daouda looked down the lines formed by the ropes like a field surveyor, directing the person at either end to move slightly to the right or left. When they all agreed on the position of the ropes, another man walked the length of them with a long stick, carving lines in the dirt. I asked Ngondoloum what the men were doing. “Marking the boundaries between their concessions,” he said.

“Why?” I asked. It was not as if the consortium was going to take land in the heart of the village. Ngondoloum explained that Daouda and his neighbors had seen the consortium’s field agents measure and mark their fields and had decided it would also be a good idea to establish the boundaries of their land inside the village.

 

5. In the Midst of Things

ePub

The oil field region is just over six hundred kilometers from Chad’s capital city of N’Djamena. When making the trip, especially in the early years of the project, I often got caught behind long, slow-moving convoys transporting heavy machinery, building materials, and supplies for the project. The convoys sometimes stretched for miles; they snaked along what was then a two-lane dirt road and kicked up so much dust that even in the middle of the day the driver had to turn on the headlights to see the road ahead. Most of the material for the project arrived via the port in Douala, Cameroon, and had to be transported overland to the consortium’s base camps in the south of Chad. The consortium stockpiled the steady stream of incoming cargo in massive warehouses and outdoor supply yards scattered around the oil field region. Some of the things in those convoys were expected to have short lives (Kopytoff 1986), like food and the domestic supplies consumed by workers in the camps. But the consortium expected other things to live on—in some cases indefinitely. When the project ended in 2025 or sometime thereafter, the consortium planned to leave the wells and buried pipeline in place, turn the power plant over to the government, and give buildings to local organizations or dismantle them and recycle the parts (EEPCI 1999a).

 

6. Footprints

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As an experiment in development, the pipeline project came to an end in early September 2008.1 The World Bank’s withdrawal from the project went mostly unnoticed in the oil field region; it made little difference to the activities of the consortium or in people’s day-to-day lives. After 2008 the consortium continued to take and return land, pay compensation, and produce progress reports and post them to its website. People in the region continued to write letters to the consortium, visit the local community contacts (LCCs), and search for things of value in the waste dumps. The seamless continuation of the project after 2008 underscores Andrew Barry’s claim that the “ethicalization” of business is not driven primarily by international institutions like the World Bank but is a project of business itself (2004, 196).

Following the World Bank’s withdrawal from the project, the Independent Evaluation Group (IEG), an arm of the World Bank charged with providing an “objective assessment” of World Bank investments and drawing lessons for future projects, reviewed the project and gave it an overall rating of “unsatisfactory” (Independent Evaluation Group 2009). The rating reflected what the IEG called a “lack of government commitment and follow-through,” especially in terms of investing oil revenues according to the World Bank’s formula (2009, 38). But the IEG gave much higher marks to other components of the project. The group described the pipeline project as a “physical, technical, and financial success” (2009, xv). Despite Chad’s “challenged crude,” annual revenues to the government exceeded initial projections due to higher-than-expected oil prices.2 The IEG also praised the project’s use of specific governance mechanisms, including the Environmental Management Plan (EMP) and the social and environmental risk mitigation policies; the use of two project monitoring bodies, the International Advisory Group (IAG) and the External Compliance Monitoring Group (ECMG); and the Collège de Contrôle et de Surveillance des Revenus Pétroliers, the revenue monitoring body that, according to the IEG, allowed the project to attain a level of revenue transparency “nearly unique in Africa and nearing best international practice” (2009, 25).

 

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