Nigerian Commoners’ Gifts to Humanity:
Climate Justice and the Abuja Declaration for Energy Sovereignty
Climate change and global warming are gaining unprecedented public attention coincident with accelerating frequencies of extreme weather events and new findings about dangerous levels of emissions of carbon dioxide and other gases that trap the sun’s heat and have produced increases in the temperature of the earth’s atmosphere. The climate change deniers, paid by big oil, are in retreat. In their wake are advocates solutions to climate change that fall into two camps: more of the same but with new technology to the rescue and a drastic move to a new political economy. Both address gender but in very different ways.
The first perspective is that of neoliberal capitalism. More growth but less carbon intensivity is the mainstream mantra. Within this dominant camp there are two distinct approaches to gender. The rightist stance blames and demonizes women, especially those with high birth rates. As in Garret Hardin’s discredited ‘tragedy of the commons,’ in this construction poor people mismanage resources, overuse wood fuels, and tend towards terrorism. The solutions revolve around more neoliberal medicine: privatization or the imposition of clear property rights regimes on indigenous land. This, claims the UK government’s October 2006 Stern Review,(1) is necessary for the emergence of a market in carbon. The implications for women and the poor more broadly are more enclosures, more dispossession and more desperation.(2) Part of this intensification of corporate power is the expansion of militarism, to enforce an end to common property rights.
The other approach to gender within the neoliberal framing of climate change constructs women not as dangers but rather as victims. Since almost nothing is known about the gender specific implications of climate change, this mainstream perspective has adopted disaster management as a proxy. Women and the poor, especially in the global South, are at the bottom of the social order and are hurt most by disaster including floods, droughts, resource wars, pestilence and plague along with extreme weather events of all types. The solution to this truism is paltry and inadequate ‘gender sensitive adaptation, coping and mitigation.’ There is little questioning of the imperative of continued growth through corporate profit-taking. At best, women are constructed as resilient survivors who can reach back into stores of indigenous knowledge to activate community social capital and use ‘aid’ that is called for by international organizations, to muddle through. This approach to women and climate change is the ‘add gender and stir’ variety ubiquitous in the field of international development. While ‘women and development’ analysts proffer their consultancy services to rectify the absence of gender disaggregated studies on impacts of climate change, all deny knowledge of any existing action by women, North or South, to resist and transcend the power relations producing the problems.
A second camp addresses climate change and gender from a very different stand point. These occupy the terrain of defending their entitlements to the built and natural environments against corporate ‘growth’ and its uncosted ‘externalities’. This is the stand point of exploited and dispossessed peoples struggling against the perpetrators of climate change and a vast mix of related travesties. Those women who are prominent at the forefront of these ecological life and death struggles are so engaged precisely because they are life-givers who draw their daily subsistence from the environment that corporate profit taking is destroying.
This second camp is grounded within the defense and elaboration of subsistence social relations. From this perspective, the hierarchical and exploitative social relations of capitalism itself lie at the root of the climate change debacle. There can be no just reversal of planetary ecological decline if we remain within the capitalist market mind-set and political economy. Drastic social changes are required. These include the socialization of transport and energy production and distribution, as well as the cessation of corporate monopoly over the world’s resources. Corporate sovereignty leads to two types of environmental degradation. First it facilitates the worst practices, encourages pollution and the rapid depletion of all sorts of earthly ‘fertility,’ from soil and oil to diamonds and timber. Second, these process are exacerbated by the displacement of millions of poor people, who are forced onto ecologically fragile terrain that is inadequate to their subsistence. Here is where the poor engage in soil erosion and deforestation and increase their own vulnerability to drought, flood, attendant disease and inevitable conflicts. This insecurity also contributes to high fertility rates, as families seek to improve their chances for survival by increasing the sizes of their family labour pools. It is this gross inequality in control over resources that is driving up the temperature. Only the leveling of this inequality, by the elimination of corporate power over resources, can reduce the level of carbon emissions necessary to stabilize humans’ interaction with nature.
The social relations of subsistence are characterized by collectivity and commoning through which the life needs of all are the first priority of economic activity. Within this life-centred political economy, social harmony, reciprocity and the movement towards egalitarian social relations both require and facilitate symbiotic interactions with nature. This perspective has been well elaborated by ecofeminists including Maria Mies, Hilkka Pietila, Mary Mellor, Veronika Bennholdt-Thomsen, Ellie Perkins, Ariel Salleh and Vandana Shiva.(3)
The subsistence political economy is ‘actually existing.’ It is the very foundation of capital accumulation. When we say ‘the very foundation,’ we mean that commodification is parasitical upon the existing subsistence political economy. Capital is dependent upon and cannot survive autonomously from the life-centred work of women, peasants, indigenous peoples, students, informal sector workers, all the waged and unwaged workers, plus nature. But the converse is not true. Subsistence is autonomous from capital and must be moreso if we are to survive. People defending subsistence are those engaged in environmental defense and restoration in the face of ever more intense military, commercial and speculative financial attacks.
We offer the following case study to illustrate this dynamic. Before we go into this account of women’s direct action for climate justice, a methodological note is in order. We give great weight to what is happening, that is, to empirical and historical accounts of what actual people have done in real situations. We theorize these actions in that we try to understand them within the framework offered by the subsistence perspective noted above. We theorize gendered, ethnicized class struggle as it is pursued by social forces for and against capital accumulation and for and against subsistence commoning. Two points are important here. First, the exploited class is global and includes both waged and unwaged people. And second, most women are unwaged and are fighting both corporate agents and those men from their own class who are incorporated within the capitalist project. It is these women who, in refusing corporate enclosure, stand for nature and against those men who collaborate with capital. These unwaged women are not negotiating for a reformist deal. In fighting for the essentials of their livelihoods, they are defending an ecosystem, a political economy of subsistence and a conception of humanity that does not admit of class domination that is typically expressed through the agency of European capitalists and their local male allies. Note here that class, ethnicity and gender are not separate categories.
In theorizing the actions of insurgents against corporate rule, we problematize, in particular, the organizational forms from which they draw their power and their potential to prevail. Therefore an important element of this gendered, ethnicized class analysis (or what we call ‘revolutionary ecofeminism’) is that those who confront capital do so through a double-sided organization that is simultaneously local and global, deriving as it does from a mix of indigenous subsistence social relations on the one hand, and exogenous corporate social relations on the other.(4)
So far we have pointed to the social relations that characterize the political economies of capital and subsistence. The following case study inquires into the energy relations that characterize the perpetrator of climate change. It asks what energy relations are subsistence actors trying to protect and extend?
Nigerian Women’s ‘Gift to Humanity’
“I repeat that we all stand before history. My colleagues and I are not the only ones on trial. Shell’s day will surely come for there is no doubt in my mind that the ecological war that the Company has waged in the Delta will be called to question and the crimes of that war be duly punished.” Ken Saro-Wiwa, on being sentenced to hang, Port Harcourt, Nigeria, November 1995.
In 1999, Nigerian women led a remarkable global initiative to halt Shell’s massive, dangerous burning of natural gas. The coordinated, international action and its aftermath suggest tactics that, if adopted more generally today, promise to deliver success in the complex struggle to reverse climate change. International coordination was taken a step further in September 2006 when member groups of Friends of the Earth International from 51 countries met in Nigeria’s capital and issued the Abuja Declaration on energy sovereignty (see Appendix).
In Europe and elsewhere, Shell uses valuable natural gas for electricity, petrochemicals or pressure maintenance in oil wells. In contrast, to save money, Shell and other oil companies in Nigeria flare or burn off most gas associated with the oil that is produced. In June 2005, the Port Harcourt organization, Environmental Rights Action stated that “More gas is flared in Nigeria than anywhere else in the world. Estimates are notoriously unreliable, but roughly 2.5 billion cubic feet of gas associated with crude oil is wasted in this way everyday. This is equal to 40% of all Africa's natural gas consumption in 2001, while the annual financial loss to Nigeria is about US $2.5 billion. The flares have contributed more greenhouse gases than all of sub-Saharan Africa combined. And the flares contain a cocktail of toxins that affect the health and livelihood of local communities, exposing Niger Delta residents to an increased risk of premature deaths, child respiratory illnesses, asthma and cancer.”(5)
Environmentalists in Nigeria, notably from among the Ogoni, Ijaw and other ethnic groups in the oil-rich Niger Delta; have persistently tried to douse these ‘flames of sHELL.’ On November 10, 1995 Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other environmental activists were hanged by Nigeria’s military dictatorship in what was described by a UK Queen’s Counsel as “an act of state-sponsored murder.” Those executed were part of an indigenous movement, MOSOP (Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People). In this movement, Ogoni women were prominent. The movement’s objective was to shut down the polluting operations of Shell.
To protest Shell’s gas flaring and complicity in the murder of Saro-Wiwa, Niger Delta women and their allies staged simultaneous actions in Nigeria and the UK. These actions featured shut-downs of Shell, on an international basis, on and after Ogoni Day, 4 January 1999. Ogoni Day has been celebrated since 1993 to mark the anniversary of the day the Ogoni people launched their struggle against Shell and forced the oil company off their lands. While business-suited environmentalists occupied Shell’s London headquarters, women and men in the Niger Delta closed down gas flares.
In London on 4 January 1999 thirteen activists from three human rights and environmental groups occupied Shell headquarters. They barricaded themselves in the Managing Directors’ offices and broadcast the event to the outside world via digital cameras, lap-top computers and mobile phones. Six hours later, police cut off electricity, smashed down the wall and arrested the activists. Shell declined to press charges.
One participant stated that the London occupation aimed “to show real solidarity with people in the Niger Delta rebelling against Big Oil and its private security force (the Nigerian army). It was becoming increasingly easy for multi-national corporations to isolate struggles and resistance. The strength of linking together undermines their ability to do this. ...Oil companies, with their hideous environmental and social record, combine a series of struggles not only in the developing world but in the UK too.”(6)
Three days prior to the London occupation, on 1 January 1999 activists in the Niger Delta launched ‘Operation Climate Change,’ to shut down oil flow stations and gas flares in the Delta.(7)
Only days before, on 11 December 1998 the Kaiama Declaration was issued by the newly formed Ijaw Youth Council, acting as part of the multi-ethnic, pan-Delta Chikoko movement. In the Declaration they resolved that all land and natural resources belonged to the communities and demanded
“that all oil companies stop all exploration and exploitation activities in the Ijaw area. We are tired of gas flaring, oil spillages, blowouts and being labelled saboteurs and terrorists. We advise all oil companies staff and contractors to withdraw from Ijaw territories by the 30th December 1998 pending the resolution of the issue of resource ownership and control in the Ijaw area of the Niger Delta.”
Operation Climate Change was planned as a ten-day program of non-violent civil disobedience. In the end, it lasted for several weeks. Actions targeted five oil companies operating in the Delta. Two hundred organizations endorsed a January 1999 letter to Shell, Chevron-Texaco, Mobil, Elf, and Agip. The letter warned the companies that the "World Is Watching" and that they should suspend their operations in Nigeria immediately.(8)
The Shell-backed military administration responded with a state of emergency. Two warships and up to 15,000 troops were deployed. Many women were raped by soldiers. Several flow stations were occupied by villagers who also attempted to shut down the flares. On January 4, soldiers using a helicopter and boats owned by Chevron, attacked environmentalists who were occupying a drilling rig, killing over fifty people and destroying dozens of homes.(9)
Enraged by the rapes and murders, dozens of women’s groups from across the Delta, mobilized in a multi-ethnic umbrella organization called Niger Delta Women for Justice, took to the streets in Port Harcourt. On 11 January 1999 hundreds of women from Niger Delta Women for Justice, in conjunction with the Ijaw Youth Council, marched to deliver a protest letter to the military administrator of Rivers State, decrying the rape of women and land. The protesters dressed in black and carried placards, some of which read ‘Justice for Ijaws and her neighbours’, ‘The women are aggrieved, stop the killing’, ‘Ijaws are united in their declaration, let us dialogue’ and condemned the oil companies that have ‘Love for oil, hatred for the owners.’(10)
A witness told Reuters that demonstrators ‘were confronted by three lorryloads of policemen who fired into the air and teargassed the crowd of surging women’.(11) The protesters demanded that the government open dialogue on the Kaiama Declaration and that the police release all political prisoners. The soldiers arrested at least thirty-four of the women, one of whom stated that soldiers had ‘stripped her naked and flogged her with koboko (cow hide whip).’(12) Others sustained injuries whilst fleeing from the rampaging soldiers.
Annie Brisibe, of Niger Delta Women for Justice and Friends of the Earth Nigeria’s Climate Change project, stated in a 1999 interview that, “I’ve been involved in organizing political awareness workshops for women through the Niger Delta Women for Justice movement. ...We focus on creating awareness about what a polluted environment can do to people. We point out the activities of transnational corporations - the gas flares caused by the oil industry, the improper waste management, the carbon dioxide and sulphur emissions - and make the connections between all of this and the frequent environmental problems in the Niger Delta.”(13)
Five oil companies - Agip, Chevron, Mobil, Shell, Texaco - and their operations were seriously impacted by Operation Climate Change. Shell production of some 400,000 barrels of oil per day (bdp) - fully half of the super-major’s total Nigerian output - was interrupted by the initiative to stop gas flaring and expel the company from Nigeria. Another 40,000 bpd of oil flow was interrupted from five of Shell's flow stations in June 1999. Isoko youth occupied the flow stations located in five communities, in Otomoro, Egini, Oweh, Uzere and Oroni. Some 100,000 bpd were interrupted in November 1999 by Ijaw communities demanding compensation for other oil spills. Seven of Shell’s oil flow stations were allowed to reopen only upon agreement with the Ijaw in August 1999, ten months after community members occupied Shell’s oil facilities.(14)
Shell suffered a 95 percent drop in profits in the fourth as compared to the third quarter of 1998, or a loss of US$350 million. London’s Financial Times reported that of Nigeria’s production of two million barrels of oil per day, “up to a third of output was halted at one point last year  by piracy and sabotage by activists demanding a fairer share of revenues for the region’s impoverished inhabitants” (The Financial Times, 09/06/99). Output interruptions and financial losses were very much greater in 1999. Shell was forced to make a public concession in 1999; a promise that it would stop all gas flaring in Nigeria by 2007.
Actors in this international political drama, Operation Climate Change, publicized the explicit connections between the destruction of the Africans’ economy and the destruction of the global ecosystem by Shell’s persistent practice of burning off associated natural gas. Nigerian peasant women asked for solidarity from women and other international activists in a joint campaign to protect life by putting a stop to the depredations of Big Oil. Environmentalists in Nigeria and the UK described their Operation to shut down Shell gas flares as a “gift to humanity” because it sought to cut carbon emissions that threaten humanity as a whole.
The aftermath for those engaged in the “gift to humanity” campaign unfolded over the subsequent eight years along three axes: first, the deepening of militancy within the Niger Delta around the demand for democratic ‘resource control;’ second, the achievement of significant success in expelling oil companies from the Niger Delta; and third, the experience of violent counter-insurgency at the behest of the Nigerian state and foreign oil companies. This third dimension of the aftermath exposed the empirical power relations between women who try to interdict perpetrators of ecocide and those men who profit from expanded oil production with its escalating deadly emissions.
In 2005 the Nigerian women’s groups, including Niger Delta Women for Justice, that had contributed to a moratorium on gas flaring were labeled “terrorist” by the government which was being drawn ever more deeply into the U.S. global ‘war on terror.’ This demonization reveals the direct link between U.S. imperial ambitions via Bush’s ‘war without end’ and Big Oil’s manufacture of ‘enemies’ out of women activists fighting for an end to natural gas flaring. This corporate linkage constructs environmentalists, and especially women who reach for global consciousness and practical solidarity, as immediate targets for repression. The Nigerian women’s “gift to humanity” is, in consequence, a double gift. First, it provoked a leap in global consciousness about the dire common fate of all humanity if specific polluters amongst the world’s tiny clique of 400+ billionaires are allowed to run rampant outside democratic control.
Second, the African women’s gift of direct action to stop gas flaring provoked and accelerated an international groundswell of coordinated mobilization. This started with the 4 January 1999 occupation of Shell’s London headquarters and continued in subsequent actions including an International Day of Protest, Action and Carnival of the Oppressed in financial centres around the world on 18 June 1999 and international actions against the World Trade Organization in November and December 1999. After the victory in Seattle, there followed hundreds of actions
against corporate rule.
On 8 July 2002, 600 Nigerian women occupied Chevron-Texaco’s Escravos oil export terminal and tank farm for eleven days. This production shut-down coincided with oil consumption boycotts against the impending US attack on Iraq.(15) Anti-war mobilization culminated in an historic global peace march on 15 February 2003 involving as many as 50 million people. Citizens became increasingly aware of the links between extreme weather events, carbon emissions, Big Oil and US militarism. Between 21 and 28 September 2006, US and international activists promoted a “Declaration of Peace” in Iraq and Iran with nonviolent action and civil disobedience.
In January 2006 Nigerian courts ordered Shell to stop the flaring of natural gas. Shell has appealed the ruling. The oil giant has also been unable to return to Ogoniland since 1993. On 19 September 2006, the Nigerian newspaper, Punch, reported that the government intended to cancel Shell’s licence in the block covering Ogoniland because its operations there had lapsed for more than ten years.
In a 23 September 2006 interview, Owens Wiwa stated that “It was Ogoni women who were most instrumental in preventing Shell from operating in Ogoniland over the past decade. This is a major success because not only have we driven Shell out non-violently, but we have set a precedent for all Nigeria and indeed the whole world: without local people’s agreement, no oil company can go in. A tremendous price has been paid in loss of life. But government’s revocation of Shell’s operating licence is a tremendous victory and it is due largely to the commitment of ordinary village women, mostly organized through the Federation of Ogoni Women’s Associations.”
The shut-down of all Shell operations in Ogoniland meant less gas flaring, less carbon emissions and less global warming. The shut-down was not limited to Ogoniland. Across the Delta, some 600,000 barrels a day, or about a quarter of Nigeria’s total production, was shut-in throughout 2006.(16) This entails a massive cut in greenhouse gas emissions.
How did Nigerian women and their allies accomplish this major achievement? Can their tactics be generalized? The activists mirrored Shell’s global reach by organizing simultaneous shut-downs of Big Oil across national boundaries. The coordinated direct actions that followed Operation Climate Change showed that these tactics have been generalized in global movements against war and the depredations of Big Oil. As the urgency of the global warming crisis sinks in there is every reason to believe that peaceful direct action for popular control over petroleum will expand. And similarly, we can expect that women’s initiatives and the coordination of global direct action will continue to be key features of this agenda to reverse climate change.
References and Bibliography
Canadian Journal of Development Studies, Special Issue XXII, “Gender, Feminism and the Civil Commons,” Terisa E. Turner and Leigh S. Brownhill, Guest Editors, 2001, pp. 355.
Ekine, Sokari, Blood Sorrow and Oil: Testimonies of Violence from Women of the Niger Delta, Oxford, UK: Centre for Democracy and Development, 2001.
ERA/Friends of the Earth, Gas Flaring in Nigeria: A Human Rights, Environmental and Economic Monstrosity, A report by the Climate Justice Programme and Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth Nigeria, June 2005, http://www.climatelaw.org/gas.flaring/ report/exec.summary.htm.
Hunt, J. Timothy, The Politics of Bones: Dr. Owens Wiwa and the Struggle for Nigeria’s Oil, Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 2005.
Okonta, Ike and Oronto Douglas, Where Vultures Feast: Shell, Human Rights, and Oil, New York: Verso, 2003.
Turner, Terisa E., “‘The Land is Dead’ Women’s Rights as Human Rights: The Case of the Ogbodo Shell Petroleum Spill in Rivers State, Nigeria, June-July 2001,” Published on the website of the Niger Delta Women for Justice, August 2001. http://www.ndwj.kabissa.org/PressRelease/ News2/news2.html#LandisDead
(1) Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change, September 2006, http://www.hm-treasury.gov.uk/ independent_reviews/stern_review_economics_ climate_change/ stern_review_report.cfm
(2) Isla, Ana, “The Tragedy of the Enclosures: An Eco-feminist Perspective on the Kyoto Protocol,” Windows of Opportunities for Advancing Ecological Economics, 6th Biennial Conference of the Canadian Society for Ecological Economics, October 27-29, 2005, York University, Toronto, http://www.cansee.org/2005_ showSession_e.aspx?sessionID=31
(3) A valuable compilation of many ecofeminist analyses are presented in a special issue of Women and Environments International on Women, Ecology and Economic Change, edited by Ellie Perkins, No. 54/55, Spring 2002, www.weimag.com.
(4) Turner, Terisa E. and Leigh S. Brownhill, “We Want Our Land Back: Gendered Class Analysis, the Second Contradiction of Capital and Social Movement Theory,” Capitalism Nature Socialism, Vol. 15, Issue 4, 2004, pp. 21-40. See also Terisa E. Turner and Leigh Brownhill, “Ecofeminism as Gendered, Ethnicized Class Struggle: A Rejoinder to Stuart Rosewarne,” Capitalism Nature Socialism, Vol. 17, No. 4, 2006, pp. 88-96.
(5) ERA/Friends of the Earth, Gas Flaring in Nigeria: A Human Rights, Environmental and Economic Monstrosity, A report by the Climate Justice Programme and Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth Nigeria, June 2005, http://www.climatelaw.org/gas.flaring/
(6) “Sabbing Shell,” Do or Die, Issue 8, 1999, http://www.eco-action.org/dod/no8/shell.html, In the paper edition, this article appears on page(s) 125-129.
(7) “Office Politics,” Weekly Schnews, Issue 197, Friday 15 January 1999, Http://www.schnews.org.uk/archive/ news197.htm.
(8) “VITAL STATISTICS: A sampling of Shell's activity in Nigeria over the last four years,” Drillbits & Tailings, Volume 4, Number 18, November 9, 1999,
http://www.moles.org/ProjectUnderground/drillbits/ 4_18/vs.html, accessed 22 Sept 2006.
(9) “Big Trouble for Big Oil,” Do or Die, Issue 8, 1999, http://www.eco-action.org/dod/ no8/shell.html, In the paper edition, this article appears on page(s) 260-262.
(10) Obibi, Collins, ‘Ijaw women protest troops deployment to Bayelsa,’ The Guardian (Amsterdam), January 12, 1999.
(11) Reuters, ‘Nigerian police disperse protest by Ijaw women,’ Port Harcourt, Nigeria, January 11, 2000.
(12) ‘Protesting Ijaw Women dispersed, beaten. At least 34 Women Arrested. Victims stripped naked,’ OGELE Bulletin of the Ijaw Youth Council Special Issue, 11 January 1999 and http://lists.essential.org.
(13) Doherty, Ann, “Operation Climate Change: An Interview with Annie Brisibe of Friends of the Earth Nigeria,” Link Magazine, Issue 91, October/December 1999,
(14) “VITAL STATISTICS: A sampling of Shell's activity in Nigeria over the last four years,” Drillbits & Tailings, Volume 4, Number 18, November 9, 1999,
4_18/vs.html, accessed 22 Sept 2006.
(15) Turner, Terisa E. and Leigh S. Brownhill, The New Twenty-First Century Land and Oil Wars: African Women Confront Corporate Rule, New York: International Oil Working Group and First Woman: East and Southern African Women’s Oral History and Indigenous Knowledge Network, 2005, also available at www.iowg.org.
(16) ”African Continent to Remain a Key Spot for Investors,” African Oil and Gas, A Platts.com News Feature, 20 July 2006, http://www.platts.com/Oil/Resources/ News%20Features/africanenergy/index.xml