30 June 2010

Environmental Racism & Oil

The BP Oil deep water Rupture/Spill in the Gulf of Mexico has dominated the news media for the past two months - rightfully so... this is an environmental catastrophe that will affect us all for years to come. It's almost too much... thinking about the thousands of barrels of oil gushing out of the ocean... and the ridiculous mess BP has made of their supposed clean-up efforts. It is bewildering to see how much power multi-national oil companies have... to see how difficult it is to hold them accountable.

Democracy Now has done an amazing job as usual to get at the heart of the issue - highlighting the communities who are most affected by this oil spill and spreading awareness about the class and race dynamics at work. The June 7th show on how the oil spill is affecting indigenous communities in Louisiana broke down the similarities between this oil spill and the Exxon-Valdez spill in Alaska over 22 years ago. The interviewees critiqued the corporate control of resources/land and the poor management and disastrous attempts at clean up. 

A more recent show - June 16th - engaged a roundtable of guests - (Monique Harden, New Orleans attorney and co-director of Advocates for Environmental Human RightsAmory Lovins, co-founder, chairman and chief scientist of Rocky Mountain Institute in Colorado; Michael Brune, executive director of The Sierra Club) - in order to discuss the BP Oil Spill and the future of green energy in the United States. Monique Harden raised important concerns about how often environmental injustice occurs in poor communities of color, with a focus on how African American communities in New Orleans & other communities in the gulf are affected by the oil spill, offshore drilling generally, and toxic production. The major discussion of the roundtable included ways we can work towards a future of green energy.

Meanwhile - across the Atlantic - in the Niger Delta - communities there have been dealing with oil spills, exploitation by multinational oil giants Shell & Chevron, human rights violations, and so much more... for decades.... Democracy Now has also covered these atrocities over the past ten years - check out their page of stories: "The True Cost of Oil" - and just last year, Shell paid out $15.5 million dollars in settlement rather than go to trial for human rights violations in the Niger Delta (The case was brought on behalf of ten plaintiffs who accused Shell of complicity in the 1995 executions of Nigerian writer and environmentalist Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight others.)

Here is the entire show covering the settlement - June 9, 2009:

Also, for more info about the trial - and the documentary "Drilling and Killing: Chevron & Nigeria's Oil Dictatorship" - here is a link to the October 28, 2008 show.

The stories and environmental disasters in the Global South never get the attention they deserve - we know this and we know why. A recent article in The Observer - Guardian UK points out this very disturbing fact and discusses the Niger Delta's many environmental catastrophes - "Nigeria's agony dwarfs the Gulf oil spill. The US & Europe ignore it" - by John Vidal - published 30 May 2010.

The most recent news from the Niger Delta as reported in this article:
On 1 May this year a ruptured ExxonMobil pipeline in the state of Akwa Ibom spilled more than a million gallons into the delta over seven days before the leak was stopped. Local people demonstrated against the company but say they were attacked by security guards. Community leaders are now demanding $1bn in compensation for the illness and loss of livelihood they suffered. Few expect they will succeed. In the meantime, thick balls of tar are being washed up along the coast. ...
With 606 oilfields, the Niger delta supplies 40% of all the crude the United States imports and is the world capital of oil pollution. Life expectancy in its rural communities, half of which have no access to clean water, has fallen to little more than 40 years over the past two generations. Locals blame the oil that pollutes their land and can scarcely believe the contrast with the steps taken by BP and the US government to try to stop the Gulf oil leak and to protect the Louisiana shoreline from pollution. "If this Gulf accident had happened in Nigeria, neither the government nor the company would have paid much attention," said the writer Ben Ikari, a member of the Ogoni people. "This kind of spill happens all the time in the delta."
This latest spill in the delta happened only two months ago - and it got little to no media attention... sadly this is the state of affairs - everyday for the communities living in the Niger Delta. And since this article, other news reports are surfacing -- as some journalists report on other oil exploitations happening around the world. (Check out the recent article about oil exploration - also published in The Observer, "Anger grows across the world at the real price of 'frontier' oil" on 20 June 2010.)

On May 28th 2010, Democracy Now covered the Chevron Annual Shareholders meeting - where five activists were arrested and barred entry from the meeting. They interviewed Emem Okon, an activist from Nigeria and the founder and executive director of Kebetkache Women Development and Resource Center in the Niger Delta, who explained why she came to the meeting in protest:
I came to tell Chevron that they have oppressed in the Niger Delta region with impunity for the past fifty years, poisoning our waters, devastating our environment, killing the fish we eat, burning poison gas through gas flares in the Niger Delta that has caused cancer, asthma, corroding our roofs. And they have not done anything to alleviate the sufferings of the people as a result of their activities. And what they did on Wednesday was a demonstration of the fact that they are not ready to change their mode of oppression in the Niger Delta region, and they are not ready to recognize and respect the human rights of the people, and they are not ready to change the inhumane way they treat the communities in which they oppress. I am surprised at the attention that the BP oil spill has attracted in the United States, and I expect that the condition in the Niger Delta should attract the same coverage and that the international community should impress it on Chevron and every other oil community to stop their inhuman activity and abuse of human rights in the Niger Delta region. 
Emem Okon's description of the environmental injustice long happening in the Niger Delta resonates so clearly within the silences of neocolonial exploitation - still so prevalent in the Global South - all in the name of "progress" and capitalism. We must unearth these silences. 

And so as we raise awareness about what is happening in the Gulf of Mexico... as we think about how to create green energy for the future... as we keep ourselves in the know about cleanup efforts... as we agitate & organize to create change and hold BP accountable... LET US ALSO think about the Niger Delta and all the other communities in the Global South affected by environmental catastrophes and exploitation by multinational corporations who care more about money than people. Let us spread our knowledge and find out about what communities and grassroots organizations are doing to create change (ex. check out the Chevron Campaign led by Global Exchange). Let us all think seriously about a green future and ensure that people of color and communities most affected by climate change and environmental racism and injustice are leading this future.

17 June 2010

Meditations on Tourism, Sexuality & Violence

The months are flying by... summer is here :)  May brought me many blessings and travels - which is why I haven't written on my blog... sadly... BUT I'm working this month on getting it together... and so I now report on my goings on - May was hectic with preparing for the Caribbean Studies Association conference - held last week of May in Barbados. The conference was intense, productive, and at times really hard. The theme was on the everyday occurrence of violence in the Caribbean - and given the violence in Jamaica that began at the same time - the panels and discussions had an even more urgent tone. The conversations were heated and important... yet nothing could stop the pain so many of us felt - the helplessness...  all some could do was share news, dispel un-truths/mis-perceptions, and offer another perspective to what was/is happening in Tivoli Gardens.

I appreciated those who spoke up about dispossession and feelings of alienation that many in Tivoli feel - specifically the class dynamics that many want to ignore. This all made me think deeply about class violence and the violence of poverty - and how a community can be so easily excised from citizenship and political representation. And even within the conversations about the Tivoli community - what was/is left out - the silences about everyday class-based racial violence, the violence enacted through language and discourse, and issues of gender and sexuality that are silenced in the name of other fights and causes. I believe even more now in what Franz Fanon told us so many years ago - that the process of decolonization will necessarily be a violent one - because slavery and colonialism were so very violent. We are still in this struggle.

All these conversations about violence made me think about the space on which the conference was hosted - at an all inclusive resort - Almond Beach - which is on the site of a former sugar plantation. This fact is described in the hotel advertisements as something positive. And as we Caribbean academics, writers, scholars, teachers, artists, and activists all descended upon this site, I couldn't help but wonder over and over again throughout the week as the conference progressed - what did this "site" do to us spiritually...  My friend and colleague who I roomed with at the hotel expressed his discomfort and anxiety with the space repeatedly - especially as we walked by the old sugar mill - where (straight) people get married... it was disturbing and yet it was strangely familiar to me because so many hotels across the region are located on such sites or at the very least use colonial images and rhetoric. It was surreal though - the site, the "village" theme of the hotel, and the stoic looks of hotel workers. I am so familiar with such sites, themes, and looks - being from and raised in The Bahamas - and a former worker in the tourist industry - I know all these far too well. Therefore, it was both comfortable and disturbing for me even as I enjoyed my time, the work, and the beach. I was constantly reminded of the history, our history, the price we pay, and our lack of choices within the double bind of tourism. I've been doing scholarly research and writing on tourism for a while and even with all of my critiques and personal experience, it remains very difficult to challenge tourism - because tourism itself is a form of violence. We live, work, eat, smell, and breathe tourism, which is sustained through the violence of slavery and colonialism. And yet and still... it is our livelihood... It is our bread and butter... It is how we live and don't live. It is how we can move and not move... travel and not travel...

I took this picture of the eerie sugar mill - haunted still by the blood and sweat of our ancestors - to remind me of how I felt walking by this sugar mill every morning and evening on the Almond Beach / sugar plantation / hotel resort. Inside there is a wedding arch... the tragic irony of it all... This picture tells a different story though... The moon grew full while I was there - and a huge gray'ish purple circle around the moon emerged on the night of the full moon, a kind of halo... Perhaps the moon spoke through this circle... I was obsessed with the moon and took many pictures with my digital camera - trying to capture my melancholy about the space even as I took in the moon's magic and the ocean's energizing spirit.

The conference was also challenging on another level - within the panels and discussions about sexuality - and the participation by openly LGBTQ / sexual minority Caribbeans. We represented in personal, political, and academic terms. We challenged the hetero-normative and hetero-sexist dynamics of the conference space... but of course there is more work to be done. I co-facilitated a Caribbean IRN workshop on Caribbean Sexualities and strategies to confront homophobia (& we continued our IRN work from the last CSA conference and the first Caribbean Sexualities Gathering in Kingston last June). This year, I presented on some ways to address and theorize about "homophobia(s)" in the region. I also talked about how we need to build coalitions and new languages and praxis. My co-facilitators presented on specific forms of activism and politics inside and outside the region, anti-violence work, current campaigns, and networking. We had excellent conversations and exchange about ideas and future work. We deliberated on the need for language that includes trans-phobia and addresses gender performance. We discussed the work of a Sexualities Working Group within CSA (which is now officially established)- and how to sustain Caribbean Sexuality Studies. We connected and networked about activism in the region. We forged new alliances and possibilities for collaborations. But we were too ambitious with the time we had... so we didn't get to everything... nevertheless it was a good workshop - productive and energetic. And I feel renewed to do the work and keep our projects going. But more on that later.

My meditations on tourism and violence during the conference have pushed me to make stronger and more explicit connections in my work about sexual and cultural identities. I am thinking more and more about my idea of "resisting paradise" and how this resonates deeply with anti-violence work broadly and within sexual minority activism inside & outside the region. I return to Audre Lorde over and over again - and her argument that we can not fight one form of violence without addressing all forms of violence.