New Internationalist

Leave it in the ground!

Issue 419

To stop climate change we have to stop extracting and burning fossil fuels. Nnimmo Bassey reports from Nigeria, where communities came to this conclusion a long time ago, whilst Mel Evans is part of a new movement in Britain that’s taking a direct approach.

Vultures do not need an invitation before they gather wherever carcasses are found. In my land, surging crude oil prices birthed inordinate dreams: of booming production and the accumulation of crude wealth among political élites with a legendary capacity to guzzle cash faster than American SUVs guzzle gas.

Welcome to Nigeria, the nation that best illustrates the contradictions of being a producer of crude oil but an importer of petrol and diesel. As the world’s economic crisis bites, Nigerians wait to see who will be bailing out whom: the masses drowning in rising tides or the fat cats flailing fat arms in receding seas of dollars.

When commercial extraction of crude oil began in Nigeria in 1958, the nation was producing 4,000 barrels per day. This climbed over the years to the current daily 2.2 million. Apart from fuelling climate change, crude oil exploitation in Nigeria has fuelled corruption, poverty, disease and violence – to mention a few.


Daily revelations of underhand dealings in our oil business leaves little room for optimism that we can ever drill our way out of the murky terrain of over-dependence on oil. Indeed, it appears that desperate days are around the corner. With oil prices fluctuating, it is time the voices of the Nigerian masses are heard. While the falling price elicits cautious relief among net oil-importing poor nations, for oil-rent-dependent countries such as Nigeria, it is a cause for panic.

On a recent visit to Awoye, a coastal community in Ondo State, I met with a despondent population. Ten years ago the Nigerian military, working in co-operation with Chevron, attacked unarmed protesting youths here, killing two and wounding many others. Ten years later, these folk’s cries for environmental justice remain unanswered – despite a trial in San Francisco, brought against Chevron by victims of the attack. Decades of oil extraction for these people have meant living with the threat of sea-level rise, regular pollution from oil spills, coastal erosion and incursion of salt water from the sea into fresh water systems through canals opened for Chevron’s operations. With no fresh water and highly polluted swamps, oil has exposed local people to extreme pressures in their daily struggles for survival.

Plans to dig deeper into offshore and onshore fields portend nothing beyond futility. But the people of the Niger Delta have the answer. A 75-year-old veteran community organizer Comrade Che Ibegwura, who had heard much talk about carbon capture and sequestration technologies to make fossil fuels ‘cleaner’, put it plainly: ‘We are offering the world a foolproof solution that needs no technology at all. Simply leave the oil in the ground.’

In a recent meeting in Durban, South Africa, activists and community people from Nigeria and other oil-producing and emerging oil countries across Africa echoed this sentiment, resolving that enough is enough and crude oil found on the continent should be left unexploited.

The Niger Delta was portrayed as the worst-case scenario and a warning to aspiring oil nations. Those living in this savagely exploited environment are crying for the land, the waters and the air to be detoxified. This is a matter of common sense and the only route for the survival of the peoples because their livelihoods are so closely tied to the environment and its carrying capacity. With polluted streams, creeks and rivers, fisherfolk are condemned to tend nets that catch nothing but clods of crude. With polluted lands, farmers contend with wilted crops and barren barns.

Social service infrastructures such as school buildings, healthcare centres and roads mean little in this toxic environment. ‘I would rather be healthy and stay healthy, than remain sick and have a beautiful health centre to lie in,’ says Murphy Akiri, a community activist.

Ogoni activists attest that since protests drove Shell out of Ogoniland in 1993 and their oil has been left underground, their environment has enjoyed a slow process of restoration. The rest of the earth now needs such a Sabbath from the claws of oilrigs.

The future of crude oil is already history. Oil has only been ‘cheap’ because environmental costs have been left out of the accounting books. Poor communities have been saddled with subsidizing the cost of oil for a greedy, insatiable world. It is time for the world to make a decisive move to renewable energy. Indeed, if the amount of cash doled out by the industrial nations to bail out their banks were invested in renewable energy, the positive impacts would reverberate in hope across the world.

Leave the oil in the ground. Simple.

Nnimmo Bassey is a Nigerian human- and environmental-rights activist. He is Executive Director of Environmental Rights Action (ERA), a grassroots advocacy NGO that is part of Friends of the Earth International, and a member of the international steering committee of Oilwatch International, the South-South network resisting destructive activities of oil corporations.

How to tell your parents you’ve been arrested in three easy steps: Step 1 – get them sat down. Step 2 – tea in hand, leave time for the first sip. Step 3 – casually remind them their job is to love you for who you are.

In June, I was one of 29 people who stopped and occupied a coal train on its way into Drax coal-fired power station near Leeds. My parents took it well. The hardest part came when I reported to Leeds police station on my bail date, to be told I was going to be imprisoned for a week for breaching bail. I quickly rang my parents: ‘I love you, don’t worry, I’ll be fine’, repeated seven times. Then the sergeant changed his mind and I had to call them back up: ‘Panic over!’ Fortunately, there’s plenty of tea to drink in Manchester.

The police had threatened to put me in prison because I had said live on prime-time TV news that I would breach my bail conditions from the coal train action to go to Climate Camp – a week-long gathering of climate campaigners last August, dedicated to education, sustainable living and direct action against the root causes of climate change. It is part of a growing international movement that is getting in the way of dinosaur technology – and the authorities are clearly feeling threatened.

As we had identified ourselves as part of Climate Camp, the court had stipulated that we mustn’t go there. But Climate Camp is a legal, legitimate event. I had a right to take part – it’s a few thousand people putting up tents, marquees and ecological amenities to participate in workshops, discussions and action-planning. I decided with six others I was going to go to that field in Kent, overlooking power giant E.ON’s Kingsnorth coal plant, despite the risk to my liberty.

The banner we hung off the Drax-bound coal train was big, yellow, and said ‘Leave It In The Ground’ in font size 5,000, Arial Bold. The massive British campaign against coal power has sprung up because coal is the dirtiest of fossil fuels, yet the Government and energy companies are threatening to build a new generation of coal power stations across the country. Considering the country’s commitments to reducing carbon emissions this is a pretty bad idea, no?

When we were on the coal train we made joint decisions, had several days’ worth of vegan food and a sawdust toilet set up in a tent. This was a really important part of what we did – and not just for the obvious reasons! As we demand a move away from a fossil fuel, profit-driven economy, we are armed with concrete examples of ways to self-organize our energy supply, to change our infrastructure, and take steps towards a real democracy in which we share resources fairly across this planet.

Our banner didn’t explain all that though – I blame the size 5,000 font – and we were rightly criticized for seeming to dismiss the crucial importance fossil fuel industries have played for generations of people across the world, coal being a key source of British industrialization and employment through the past two centuries. Still now, our post-industrial era is largely powered by coal.

Nonetheless, the visions, plans and practical applications of radical imagination that really excite me are the ones which look at the whole picture. They draw inspiration from the new renewables industry in Germany that employs 250,000 people – more than Britain’s energy sector in total, alongside community-based wind-power and composting projects. A practical and radical social justice that’s grounded in ecology. We haven’t ruined this planet yet – history is still being made.

So at the moment, possibly for the first time in my life, I’m excited about living in Britain. I feel like something is about to change for the better here. The fact that so many people are coming together to tackle the threat to renew coal power has really inspired me. I’m not saying that everyone’s ready to give up their cars tomorrow – but then, the question isn’t just about carbon dioxide emissions, but how we organize our lives. Participation in a collective process creates space for self-empowerment, which is why ‘direct democracy’ (dealing with your life directly, rather than asking someone else to do things for you), horizontal organizing (no leaders) and consensus meetings (reaching a decision that an entire group is happy fits their shared aims) are great apathy-zappers!

It was surprisingly cosy on top of the coal train – there were 29 of us. I only wished we could have stayed later for some Friday night dancing.

Mel Evans is an artist-campaigner with and

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  1. #1 Teresa Doyle 09 Dec 15

    Here's my song for the cause

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This article was originally published in issue 419

New Internationalist Magazine issue 419
Issue 419

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