Social upheaval, gender divide, violence and environmental collapse can be the downsides of oil extraction, and women bear the brunt. Maryse Helbert examined opportunities for change.
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‘The places we extract oil on this planet are places rife with negativity and turmoil — Nigeria, Venezuela, Chad and Cameroon, the list is exhaustive.
The high levels of petroleum sold on the international market by these countries generates, or is meant to generate, wealth. But the high poverty rates, and low political and environmental indicators in these countries, do not correlate. Is this wealth a myth?
The cost of our over-dependence on oil directly affects areas linked to extraction, production and pipelines. I have named them ‘zones of sacrifice’.
My PhD is a comparative study of these zones and, more specifically, an investigation into the oppression and exploitation of the women within — and the nature around — them.
I wanted to question the current model of inquiry into the consequences of extraction, as inquiries so far have disguised ecological impact and ignored the roles of women.
Surveys conducted by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund say the presence of oil is a fantastic asset.
‘Dig, drill, sell’ is the adopted maxim, and oil is flaunted as a path to long economic growth. ‘Oil is gold’ is an attitude I find both persistent and distressing.
Oil tells a frightening story of mass expulsion, social upheaval, gender divide, violence and environmental collapse.
To emphasise the gross aggression towards the environment and the neglect of local populations on account of expansive oil projects, I examined three cases: Venezuela, Nigeria and the Chad-Cameroon oil pipeline.
What I could prove using these examples was the predictability of oil extraction outcomes.
Nigeria as an exemplar model of oil privatisation dictating policy and is nearing environmental and socio-cultural collapse. It is a model that does not work, but neither does Venezuela’s; nationalising its oil industry in 1976 has not minimised environmental degradation or helped local populations.
Venezuela’s policy of collective ownership should theoretically distribute equal wealth but, in practice, oppresses women and exhausts natural resources the same way private enterprise does.
I suggested that neither the neo-liberal or the Marxist framework of these national oil industries are effective and both are detrimental to environmental, sociocultural and economic longevity. But what then is the answer?
My PhD argued that because of the petroleum industry’s over-reliance on a male-dominant working class and a high military presence, oil production in populated areas engenders an atmosphere of brutality, misogyny and rape.
A 2006 Amnesty International report showed that rape in Nigeria is endemic and committed by Nigerian police and security forces. Rape is called the ‘silent weapon’ and is used as an instrument of intimidation.
Projects like the $4.3 billion Chad-Cameroon pipeline rely on the displacement and browbeating of people, and the desecration of the environment, to be profitable.
Eviction, misinformation, unemployment of women and sexist constitutions are inevitable products of finding and capitalising on natural resources.
The disconnect between oil occasioning opulence internationally and oil perpetuating patriarchy locally is absolute.
So we must minimise our dependence on oil. This is the obvious and unrealistic answer. What I identified as a solution cannot be done without revolution.
To rectify our resource reliance, we would have to break down all structures of oppression at once. Environmental exploitation, gender specific subjection and racial discrimination would need to end.
This reasoning I drew from adopting an ecofeminist approach when outlining my contention.
Ecofeminism is a theoretical framework that allowed me to recognise similarities between the abuse of environment and the persecution of women because of patriarchal institutions.
When I began research for my PhD, I read greatly into ecofeminist frameworks and was optimistic I could determine clear avenues for change.
But emancipation for women in oil zones being reliant on dramatic social, economic, environmental and political reform means avenues are uncertain and change is far off.
To arrive at this conclusion early in the 10 years it took me to complete my paper, and the overwhelming amount of information I had to analyse, left me doubting whether I would see a final product.
But I am fortunate that my PhD is now recognised as the first large-scale study done on the unequal distribution of oil benefits.
Incredibly, 92 million barrels of oil are used per day worldwide. This number is baffling to me and pinpointing solutions became a priority.
Despite the immeasurable change that needs to take place to dismantle oppressive structures, I found accounts of local resistance both plenty and poignant.
Nigerian women air grievances and insult men by undressing at extraction sights, indigenous Ecuadorian women defend their land through mass demonstration and, internationally, the World Bank has made amendments to its policies on petroleum production and is addressing the threat of climate change.
These instances prove to me that the dichotomy between what people pay the price for and what others overuse is undergoing slow but radical change.’
► Maryse Helbert completed her PhD in 2015. Her thesis is titled: ‘Women in the oil zones: a feminist analysis of oil depletion, conflict and environmental degradation.’
* My PhD is an irregular series in which The Citizen speaks with recent Melbourne University PhD graduates.