A New Start in the Oil Zone

People living in the oil region in southern Chad have two options: either to make a fresh start, or to leave sooner or later to find work as day labourers. SWISSAID’s initiative is to help farmers and their families find a future near their home – and to deal with the adversities of environmental destruction, corrupt village chiefs or greedy corporate groups.

Here, the oil companies have access to their own airport, roads, electricity and bright floodlights. There, just a stone’s throw from the oil production plants, farmers and their families live in straw-covered huts, children wear rags, schools assemble under the mango tree and the natural landscape is withered. Drinking water is available from the village well at best, and electricity is nothing but hearsay. But hope is alive that the families will be awarded compensation for their fields seized by compulsory possession, so they can risk making a new start.

A success story amid the misery

In Bemangra village, for instance, you sense this hope if you meet 27-year-old Nathan Dogolmbayé. His house is illuminated pastel-green in the evening sunshine; two children peer inquisitively from behind the papaya tree and solitary hens cluck in the tidy yard. Five years ago Griffith Energy (now Glencore) “secured” two hectares of his best arable land to pump oil to the surface. With the support of a SWISSAID partner organisation, Nathan applied for compensation. One year later, he was already awarded almost 1,700 Swiss francs, which he used – thanks to the organisation’s advice – to purchase a hectare of arable land as well as tools, sheep, goats and peanuts. He later sold them for a profit. He also gave part of the money to his wife who started a flourishing business selling doughnuts at the local market. “Today, I farm four hectares and we have enough to eat all year round.”

However, not all compulsory land possessions end so well. The oil zone near Moundou in southern Chad is vast. Esso, Glencore and the Chinese National Petroleum Company have been extracting black gold here since 2003. This has mainly brought prosperity to the greedy elite of this woefully impoverished country as well as for the oil groups. The population went empty‑handed, and this is still the case. Even unbiased observers would have to be blind, if they were to stay oblivious to the environmental destruction, poverty and hunger in the villages.

Practical help on the spot promoting support

In 26 villages the partner organisation, EPOZOP, helped the farmers to initiate compensation proceedings with the arbitration institution of the World Bank (see testimony below). The cases should soon be closed. “It’s looking good”, asserts Urbain Moyombayé, Director of EPOZOP, who is on hand to help farmers with advice and action, and maintains a wide network of contacts as well as having earned the respect of the opposing side.

This is undoubtedly an advantage. The state has spun a thick web of secrecy and cronyism around the issue of oil. Seven out of ten Swiss francs from the national budget are earned directly from the oil business. Those who seek to shed light on the darkness or to campaign for human rights are living dangerously. Urbain Moyombayé has already survived two murder attempts. “But there’s no question of giving up.”

The parallel existence of agriculture and oil production is challenging. The damage to the ecosystem is immense: filthy pools emerge in the crater landscapes left behind by excavation for the pumps and platforms – nothing grows here any longer. And the local farmers complain that the fields “are barely fertile any more”, although they have been reinstated, according to self‑information of the oil companies. Furthermore, the companies often enough adopt the view that they owe no compensation because the fields were supposedly lying fallow.

Demoralising coexistence

The coexistence is not merely challenging; it’s also demoralising. In recent years, the region’s local oil action movement organised by civil society groups has grown weaker. Only in 2015 was there a noticeable revival of a more optimistic spirit in the villages. Young people met those who are affected; they took seriously the concerns of women and men and sought discussion.

In this situation, SWISSAID decided to support the organisations’ campaign to bring the benefits of the rich resources under the ground to the local population as well. Farmers and their families, like those of Nathan Dogolmbayé and Isaac Madjiledé, should have a future in their home villages.

Testimony from Isaac Madjiledé: “I demand fair and reasonable compensation”

“My name is Isaac Madjiledé and I’m 74 years old. About ten years ago, Esso arrived and took away my fields; we live very close to the oil wells. I resisted and with a few other farmers I didn’t want to back down. The regional chief said he wanted to support my case. But nothing happened. At that time, I owned 1.5 hectares of fertile arable land for which Esso finally paid me compensation for half a hectare. Esso claims that the rest of the land was unused. But that’s not true.

Five years ago the organisation EPOZOP then collected the complaints of farmers in the region and submitted a lawsuit to the arbitration institution of the World Bank. I demand fair and reasonable compensation for my hectares of arable land and the two fruit trees that grew there.

I am married; five of my grandchildren live with us. I also have four oxen, three goats and five hens. We plant as much as we can in the garden and around the house to provide our food. Sometimes I produce charcoal that I can sell or help out on other fields for which I earn a small wage. It isn’t enough to make ends meet.

The compensation is expected soon. EPOZOP says that my chances are good. More than a million Central African CFA francs or about 2,000 Swiss francs are at stake. I will not pay any of this to the village chief. If I receive anything, then I will rent some land, so we can cultivate enough again and no longer go hungry. I will buy food, and perhaps also another ox for one of my children. Otherwise, I have no plans yet.”