Knowledge is the missing link in the Dutch aid and trade agenda

Knowledge is the missing link in the Dutch aid and trade agenda

On the eve of the national elections set to take place on 17 March in the Netherlands, developmental issues are being debated and diverging solutions proposed by political parties running ...

Hanging by a thread: what’s right – and wrong – with the new German supply chain law meant to protect human rights

Hanging by a thread: what’s right – and wrong – with the new German supply chain law meant to protect human rights

After years of civil society campaigning against the working conditions of supply chain workers in the Global South supplying German companies and consumers, the German government recently agreed to the ...

The Toxic Trail of our Oil Addiction

Forty years after the ‘clean up’ of the Amoco Cadiz oil spill, the shores of Brittany that have been forever blighted by the spill attest to our collective failure to manage the consequences of our addiction to oil. Clean-ups or compensation are not enough to address the permanent damage caused, writes Maryse Helbert—we need to find other ways to fix the zones that have been sacrificed during decades of oil exploitation.

The Amoco Cadiz spilling oil (1978) (Le Parisien)

Over recent decades, civil society actors in many countries running on oil, so to speak, have pushed oil companies to halt their activities and clean up the mess they’ve made. In Peru, Ecuador, and Nigeria, indigenous communities have engaged or sued oil companies to try to force them to either clean up oil spills or to provide compensation for the damage to their territory. Long-term lessons learned from the cleaning up the 1978 oil spill in Brittany, France can help us anticipate the challenges that lie ahead as the number of incidents increase. As this oil spill that took place over 40 years ago shows, it is next to impossible to return an environment destroyed by oil to its original state. Alternatives, then, should be found to compensate communities that have been affected by our oil addiction, and the long-term rehabilitation of the affected areas should be a top priority.

It has been estimated that, over the last five decades, approximately 9 to 13 million barrels of oil have been spilled in the Niger Delta region in Nigeria. For the northeastern Ecuadorian Amazon alone, between 2011 and 2014, the equivalent of around seven million barrels of crude oil was spilled in 464 events.  And in a report by Oxfam and Coordinadora Nacional de Derechos Humanos published last year, it was estimated that 474 oil spills had occurred between 2019 and 2020 along the Norperuano pipeline in Peru. It has also been estimated that over the course of eight years, between 1972 and 2017, around three billion barrels of toxic waste associated with oil production were leaked into the Amazon in northern Peru.

Impacted oil communities worldwide have sought compensation for the damage caused to their environment by oil extraction and transport processes and to force the cleaning up of spills. In 2012, in the Niger Delta, the Bodo community filed a lawsuit against Shell in a London high court. Following this lawsuit, in 2015 Shell agreed to a £55 million settlement to compensate the community for the harm incurred. Similarly, in 2008, three Nigerian villages sued Shell as a Dutch company in a Dutch court of law, while in 2014 the Peruvian government was forced by a Peruvian court to respond to the oil spill health crisis. And in Ecuador, early last year indigenous people living along the Ecuador’s northern Amazon pipeline launched a lawsuit against the Ecuadorian government and private and state oil companies operating in the area to provide compensation. This increase in lawsuits filed by indigenous communities against large companies that extract oil in countries in the Global South is a welcome first step. Yet compensation is too little, too late. Once the damage has been done, it is irreversible.

Walking along the northern coasts of Brittany reminds me of the impossibility of ever fully cleaning up oil spills. A story is told in my family of my uncle and aunt opening the shutters of their house at Portsall in Brittany early in the morning of the 17 March 1978 when the smell of oil hit them, immediately telling them that what they had feared for decades had finally happened. The Amoco Cadiz, on its way to Rotterdam, had run aground the previous day. In the following days, it spilled 223,000 litres of light crude oil and an additional 4,000 litres of bunker oil on a stretch of coastline of more than 300 kilometres. To this date it is the fifth-largest oil tanker accident in history. And the worst of all is that the tragedy could have been avoided: during its construction, it was known that the tanker had a leak that needed to be fixed, but the repair was postponed several times as delivering oil was prioritized and costs cut. The storm on the English Channel on the 16 March 1978 got the better of it, and environmental destruction ensued.

In the days following the spill, coastal communities themselves began the arduous process of cleaning up, scraping up the ‘chocolate mousse’ that the emulsification of oil and water was forming on the beaches. The scale of the disaster required the army to be recruited to help the local population clean up, and 300 students volunteered to collect the dead birds, which numbered in their thousands.

Fourteen years after the spill, in 1992, a US court ordered Amoco and Shell, who were responsible for the spill, to pay US$200 million in damages to the French government. The damages covered some of the economic costs of the clean-up, but the court denied claims for compensation for ecological destruction and losses. It has been estimated that these damages covered only 19% of the total environmental and economic costs of the oil spill. Half of the money simply helped pay for the trial in the US. The damage was far worse than anticipated, and the compensation helped get the oil off the tip of the iceberg, leaving the rest of it submerged.

Walking along these beaches since the spill occurred many years ago shows that the word ‘clean-up’ is a misnomer. In the first decades, it was impossible to go even a short distance on the beaches without coming across balls of oil in the sand and patches of oil slicking the rocks or a layer of oily residue thirty centimetres deep in the sand along the whole length of the beach. Nowadays, these obvious signs of the spills have only partly disappeared. The spill has had long-term consequences. It resulted in the largest loss of marine life ever recorded. Even today, sea life has still not entirely recovered from the long-term consequences of the toxicity of the oil, but also from products such as dissolvents that were used to disperse and sink the oil during the cleaning process. Sightings of oil have also not disappeared. On the more remote islands, there are still layers of oil residue under the sand and oil still slicks the rocks and pebbles on some beaches. The oil can be traced back to the Amoco Cadiz by DNA testing.

The most controversial topic though is the fate of the ‘chocolate mousse’. In the initial rush to clean up the oil slick, the oil recovered was buried in landfills, particularly in dunes along the coast. Forty years later and with erosion due to climate change, there is a fear that oil could again leak from these sites into the coastal environment. This secondary oil spill could be equally devastating.

The Amoco Cadiz spill gives us a small-scale snapshot of the titanic challenges of cleaning up oil spills. But the spill in Brittany is dwarfed by the scale of oil pollution in the Niger Delta, Ecuador, Peru and many other oil extraction sites. Every year since oil extraction began in the Niger Delta, an average of four times more oil than the Brittany oil spill has been spilled from terminals, pipes, pumping stations and oil platforms in the area. The scale of oil spills is thus only increasing, and companies are still not taking responsibility.

While clean-up initiatives are absolutely needed, they fall short in meeting the challenges of repairing the damage caused. Forty years after the ‘clean up’ of the Amoco Cadiz oil spill, the shores of Brittany attest to our collective failure to manage the consequences of our addiction to oil: they remain polluted and may be considered permanently damaged. There is arguably a lack of capacity, whether financial or technological, to fully restore polluted sites. We need to find other ways to fix the zones that have been sacrificed during decades of oil exploitation, and financial compensation is just the start.

About the author:

Maryse Helbert

Maryse Helbert is a Post-doctoral Research Fellow at the ISS. Prior to that, she was a Post-doctoral Research Fellow at the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society. She has been an advocate for women’s rights for decades, having worked for AWID (Association for Women in Development), DIPD (Danish Institute for Parties and Democracies), and she is a gender-based violence research expert to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals for the United Nations Development Programme. Taking an ecofeminist approach, her PhD looked at oil industry and its economic, social and environmental impacts on women in three countries. In her latest work, she takes on the lessons learnt from the fossil fuels industry to explore the challenges of a post-carbon society.

 

 

 

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The EU’s new pact on migration: what’s next after all the shock, sadness, and solidarity talk?

The EU’s new pact on migration: what’s next after all the shock, sadness, and solidarity talk?

Several shocking events that transpired in Greece last year have not been met by truly humane solutions, showing that the performative moments of ‘refugee crises’ are not enough to move ...

The asylum procedure as a hope-generating machine

The asylum procedure as a hope-generating machine

Over the past few years, the European Union has used deterrence as its main strategy to prevent an influx of refugees, becoming more hard-handed as the number of refugees has ...

Germany is a deeply racist country―stop pretending otherwise

While Germany has been lauded for agreeing to take in 1,700 refugees from refugee camp Moria that recently burned to the ground, the country has been cited as a role model for its rational, yet humane stance toward refugees ever since it took in more than one million people in a single year during Europe’s so-called ‘refugee crisis’. However, within the country a different type of crisis is brewing—one characterized by deep structural and societal racism. Only if Germany and international observers shake the deceptive perception of the country as ‘welcoming’, change can finally happen, writes Josephine Valeske.

Antirassismus Demo Berlin
Anti-racism demonstration in Berlin, September 2018. The banner reads 'Refugees welcome! Against racism and right-wing violence'. Credit: Uwe Hiksch on Flickr

Two weeks ago, only days after a ring of right-wing extremists was discovered in the German police force in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, the police in what can be seen as a PR campaign asked Twitter users to use the hashtag #dankepolizei (‘thank you, police’) to tweet why they are grateful to the German police. The campaign backfired spectacularly. Within hours, there were hundreds of tweets using the hashtag to recount horrific instances of police violence, racial profiling, and verbal and physical abuse, many of them with an explicit focus on racism.

These instances are likely just the tip of the iceberg. Since the Black Lives Matter movement has put racism and police brutality on the public agenda in the USA, police violence has become a hotly debated topic also in Germany and elsewhere in Europe. Left-leaning voices argue that racism in the German police force consists not, as leading police officials and politicians insist, of ‘Einzelfälle’ ―individual cases, exceptions to the rule―but that it is a structural problem. Despite mounting pressure on the ministry for interior affairs to gauge the extent and urgency of the problem, the German home minister, seen as one of the most right-leaning figures in Merkel’s cabinet, has repeatedly refused to conduct a study enabling a better understanding.

Meanwhile, the ‘Einzelfälle’ keep piling up. As far back as 2011, it became known that a right-wing group calling itself ‘NSU’ (National Socialist Underground) had murdered 10 people between 2000 and 2007, nine of them with Turkish roots. The crimes had been covered up for years by regional police forces and German secret services, partially by blaming the murders on the victims’ families while making use of racist stereotypes. The extent of the state’s involvement in the NSU and the cover up is yet unknown. Last year saw at least 1,664 attacks on refugees or refugee shelters in Germany, as visualised on this map. And on 20 February this year, a right-wing extremist gunman murdered nine people with a migration background and his mother in the town of Hanau.

This is just one form of direct violence driven by racism. Several less visible forms of racism plague Germany society. The question then arises: How come such multi-dimensional racism that has persisted throughout Germany has not been in the spotlight until now?

In White Innocence, Gloria Wekker in a fascinating dissection of racism in the Netherlands argues that the Dutch self-perception as an open, tolerant culture has led to many Dutch people ignoring racism even if it is staring them in the face. In a societal equivalent of “I have a black friend, so I cannot be racist”, instances of day-to-day racism are written off by referring to the Netherlands’ multicultural society. Although Germany’s culture and history are quite different, this observation struck a chord with me. Germany is often praised for how it remembers and deals with the crimes committed under Nazi rule, and a large share of the population likes to believe that it is anti-fascist. We all spent at least a year in high school studying and condemning the Holocaust, reading Anne Frank’s diary, and visiting former concentration camps―so we are obviously enlightened and anti-racist Germans!

This self-perception is wrong and incredibly dangerous. It takes the knowledge about a historical period and its atrocities as proof of a general ‘immunity’ to racist thought and behaviour. Because we know very well what happened in the past, we surely won’t repeat this, this logic goes. But while German education and commemorative culture emphasizes this historical period, others are completely erased. Perhaps only a few German students are aware of Germany’s colonial past and the genocide of the Herero and Nama in what was once German South West Africa (today’s Namibia), for example. This intentional forgetting has been labelled ‘colonial amnesia’. The German government has yet to answer to Namibia’s call for an official apology and reparations. The point is that Germany is selectively anti-racist and that racism in fact pervades everyday life, rooted in a ‘colonial amnesia’ and denial of structural racism and islamophobia that has persisted, albeit less visibly, after the Second World War.

When it comes to Germany’s supposedly humane refugee policy, Merkel is either lauded or hated for temporarily suspending the Dublin Agreement in 2015 and granting around one million refugees the possibility to apply for asylum in Germany. Whether her decision was indeed fuelled by humanitarian motives or simply a calculated move to combat Germany’s skilled worker shortage, we will never know. The Guardian recently called this Merkel’s “great migrant gamble”, as if the lives of a million people were no more than stakes in a game that could yield positive returns.

German government officials have time and time again emphasised they want to “fight the causes of flight”, leading to dubious development assistance deals that typically benefit the German economy more than the receiving countries – and to the death of thousands. In March 2016, Germany was the driving force behind a deal with Turkey in which the latter country gets paid to keep refugees out of Europe, after which the number of refugees entering Germany decreased considerably. Several such deals have since been made with North African countries like Libya even after full awareness that refugees are being tortured in Libyan detention camps financed with German and EU money. Germany is also a major contributor to Frontex, the European border ‘protection’ and coast guard agency that forces refugees to rely on ever-harder routes to Europe and has reportedly pushed back refugees, which makes it indirectly responsible for the deaths of thousands of people every year in the Mediterranean Sea.

Ironically, if Germany was serious about “fighting the causes of flight”, it should probably shut down its ministry of foreign affairs and its many weapons manufacturing companies first. Looking at the number of persons driven from their homes by wars in which the US and its allies, including Germany, are involved, and at the havoc Germany’s economic policies are wreaking in the Global South, the handful of refugees Germany has ‘accepted’ from Moria seem to be no more than a tool to keep up the country’s appearance as humanitarian and welcoming. Finally, it must be acknowledged that Germany is profiting from and supporting the global division of labour that is at the root cause of systemic poverty and thus causes many forms of migration in the first place.

The first step we can take as Germans is to stop pretending that we’re doing enough and that we’re doing it well, and to critically look at and address the myriad forms of racism originating in the country. We are failing spectacularly at making Germany a safe haven for those who need safety most―and we have the moral obligation to change that.

Josephine Valeske
About the author:

Josephine Valeske holds a MA degree in Development Studies from the ISS and a BA degree in Philosophy and Economics. She currently works for the Transnational Institute and is the manager of the ISS Blog Bliss. She can be found on Twitter @josephine_on_tw.

Are you looking for more content about Global Development and Social Justice? Subscribe to Bliss, the official blog of the International Institute of Social Studies, and stay updated about interesting topics our researchers are working on.