Where oil flows, future holds promise, threat

Chad: A pipeline to the Cameroon coast will change the lives of the hunters, farmers, fishermen who dwell nearby - for good or ill, they do not know.

September 03, 2000|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BERO, Chad - Sitting in the shade of a giant mango tree, the chief of this tiny Central African village of mud brick homes considers for a moment what to make of the untapped oil reserves beneath him. Are they piles of gold or the seeds of his village's destruction?

Stroking his chin thoughtfully, Daingar Ndingambaye, the slender 45-year-old leader, concludes, "We don't know what to expect in the future, but we hope that good things can happen."

He's speaking of a pipeline that will carry up to 250,000 barrels of oil a day from deposits near his home across the tropical scrubland of southern Chad, over the mountains of eastern Cameroon, and through the rainforest homes of isolated Pygmy tribes before it reaches gas tanks in the West.

It's a $3.7 billion project - one of the largest investments in sub-Saharan Africa. With enabling loans approved by the World Bank in June over a storm of protest by human rights and environmental groups, the pipeline is considered war-torn Chad's one shot to pull itself out of dismal poverty and a test of the bank's much criticized development policies in Africa. But critics fear the mammoth venture will follow the experience of other African oil-producing nations, fueling corruption and environmental destruction instead of bringing wealth to ordinary citizens.

Nearly 600 miles to the west of Bero in Cameroon, a village of Pygmies, known as the Bagyeli people, is asking the same questions as Ndingambaye.

Hidden deep in the forest, the villagers of Ndamayo live in huts fashioned from bamboo and palm leaves. They hunt rats, porcupine and monkey with homemade spears. Most have no formal education and little knowledge of a pipeline that will cut within 100 yards of their homes.

Ask Chief Gaston Mintouong what he thinks the pipeline will carry and he looks puzzled. "It will be empty," he says. Tell him the pipeline will carry oil, and he replies sheepishly, "I don't know what that is."

Hoping for compensation

But Mintouong does know he will be forced away from his home and hunting grounds once construction gets under way. And although he has yet to speak with anyone from the oil companies, he hopes to receive compensation from them.

"I want the oil companies to build me a new house with ceilings," says the 45-year-old chief, who sits in an unfinished home with half a palm leaf roof.

Farther down the line, in the coastal port of Kribi, where the pipeline will pass on its way to a floating distribution platform five miles out at sea, local fishermen are dreaming of high-paying jobs working on the pipeline, which is due to be completed in about four years. But they also worry about the danger of spills and disruption to traditional fishing practices that have endured through generations.

"That is my life. We don't have any other work here," says fisherman Charles Evehe, 31. But, he adds, "We cannot continue to fight the pipeline. It has been decided."

Now, he says, the fishermen must learn the best way to live with it.

The village of Bero is in the tropical scrubland of southern Chad. The flat landscape of shrubs, grasses and fields of millet the color of putting greens stretches as far as the eye can see, interrupted only by the serpentine paths of the Pende and Logone rivers.

Oil was discovered beneath the soil here more than 30 years ago. But the difficulty of removing it from a landlocked country with few paved roads and three decades of civil war kept oil companies away.

Now ExxonMobil and its partners, Chevron and Petronas of Malaysia, plan to take the risk to tap reserves believed to contain 1 billion barrels of oil. At today's prices, the oil companies could reap revenue of up to $30 billion over the next 25 years.

Like everyone else who lives along the path of the pipeline, Chief Ndingambaye is anxious to have that money trickle down to his village. And from Bero to Ndamayo to Kribi, villagers dream of riches that exceed reality.

No miracle ahead

So far, many villagers who have received financial compensation for their land have squandered windfalls on beer, parties and extra wives. Other villagers have stopped farming altogether, believing that oil companies will take care of them. And in a country with few opportunities, thousands of migrants may inundate the region, hoping to get rich off the oil boom.

In reality, critics of this and similar projects say, the amount of new wealth will be minimal, and villagers should expect water wells or latrines - not mansions and automobiles.

"We have to tell them, `Cool it. This is not going to be a miracle,'" says Djimte G. Salomon, a spokesman for World Vision, a Christian nonprofit organization that has offered humanitarian aid in Chad for 15 years.

Other nonprofits complain that the oil companies' efforts to assist the villagers, while well-intentioned, sometimes backfire in absurd ways.

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