Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The earth cried over plans for oil

As if casting an omen on the plans being discussed beneath, the sky spilled relentlessly upon the oil meeting organized by the Government. 

Buses had brought villagers from across the district to the Mayan community of Corazon. There they sheltered beneath thinly thatched roofs as the rain fell, scattering mud with every thud as it hit the ground. Defiant, the Deputy Prime Minister and other Government officials stoically continued, raising their voices above the hissing weather. In front of the stage stood a solitary woman, her umbrella bright against its dreary backdrop. 

Woman listens to Government panel
The Mayan and Garifuna people had gathered to listen to the Government put forward an argument for why they should willingly surrender their land to oil extraction. It was here that these Toledo residents would decide whether to put faith in the nation’s leaders when they say “there are impacts but we can manage them and minimize them.”

In organizing the outdoor event, the Government had not taken the risk of bad weather into account. Juxtaposed against their claims that they would take all necessary precautions to prepare for and minimize the risks of oil exploration, their words did little to appease the concerns many bystanders. As Dr Colin Young said himself “Oil spills that can happen, especially when you don’t have the right procedures in place”. 

The consequences of the possible oil spillage disaster were also discussed. A member of the audience asked whether stories that he had been told of people dying and of fish being killed as a result of oil exploration were true. Such examples had been given at an event held by SATIIM the week before. The Honorable Gaspar Vega cut straight to the point, accusing the NGOs that talk of such case studies as “liars”. 

Sea breaking more than 90 miles from the BP oil spill
Given that in February a court in Ecuador found ChevronTexaco guilty of crude oil pollution causing serious and ongoing environmental and health problems, Vega’s accusation seems unfounded. The judge obviously did not conclude that the residents of the Amazon, who are experiencing increased rates of cancer as a result of crude oil pollution, were liars at all.  In fact, the judge awarded them over US$8billion in damages.

The residents of coastal towns on the Gulf of Mexico, where oil pollution from a BP off-shore rig has destroyed their fishing and tourist trade, would also beg to differ with the Deputy PM’s assertion that their tale is untrue. As families of fisherman unable to work in their polluted oceans struggle with growing debt and oil smeared beaches lie desolate of their usual sun seekers, the effects of oil exploration are excruciatingly evident.

Dr Young stepped in, “when there is an oil spill, perhaps there are some species of fish and marine organisms that will be affected. So we are not saying that the figure is an absolute lie.” He contradicted. “What we are saying is that some of the NGOs like to use the extreme, the worst case scenario, to scare people into not choosing development for themselves.” 

In response, Gregory Ch’oc of SATIIM later stated “We are working with a number of organizations to ensure that the people who will be most affected by oil pollution are aware of all the possible consequences. The rights of communities are violated when anyone comes and makes claims that there are no consequences associated with oil exploitation or that the communities are going to benefit economically. We are inviting the people to make their own decision, based upon all the facts and experiences from around the world.”

Honorable Gaspar Vega, Deputy Prime Minister
In the afternoon the speaker panel moved to a second event in Punta Gorda, at the same venue that had been used by SATIIM for an event just days before. The room was crammed, chairs spread from wall to wall, each one filled. People even sat in aisles or leaned against the walls. Each face was young, their attire identical. The room was filled with school children. As Young explained to the children “listen and pay attention, as you will need to go home and tell people what you know”.

What continued was an argument in support of oil that purported its advantages. The people, and children particularly, have a right to hear all the information surrounding the consequences of oil extraction. The Government view it as a low risk and high profit initiative, whilst non-profit organizations highlight issues they find concerning: environmental damage, human rights violations, disregard for law and low profit economic structure. At the end of the presentation, two school children took to the stage at the end of the presentation to state that “we know there are advantages to oil development, but we know there are disadvantages too”.

It was then explained that as the event had overrun, there would be no time for questions. Gasps shot from around the room and people immediately protested, demanding that it was the people’s turn to be heard. The panel soon realized this could not be avoided and before numbers could be minimized, a line of people with queries had formed. The questions that followed each demonstrated that the interrogator was firmly opposed to oil exploration. As they spoke, they were treated to whoops of encouragement from the audience.  

A gentleman finally queried on the Government’s opinion of the People’s Position Paper, written collaboratively by leaders and members of communities across the district the week before. It outlined their concerns and appealed for the Government to work alongside them on oil development plans. 

Vega responded to say that he would look and respond to it in due time. The paper in question had been read aloud in front of all the major news outlets, shown on national television, discussed in newspaper reportage. Not to mention having been sent to his office, the Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment. Yet no attention or response had yet been given to the collaborative voice of the people whose lives are built upon the land where oil drilling to commence. 

That morning, men, women and children had gathered in their droves despite the pouring rain to listen to what Vega had to say. The Government themselves asked “listen and pay attention”. The people did, but when will the Government listen to the people?

Mayan villagers in Corazon

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