Christiane Badgley, for the Pulitzer Center
What happens when a major American oil company comes through two poor African countries with a project to drill for oil in one and transport it across the other?
Dreams. Fantasies. Unrealistic expectations. False hopes. As Samuel Nguiffo, founder of the Center for the Environment and Development in Yaounde told me, "People hear oil, America, dollars, jobs. They hear it's a 25-year project. From there it becomes money and jobs for everyone for 25 years."
I spent the day outside of Yaounde, visiting villages crossed by the pipeline. The pipeline passes about 15 kilometers away from Yaounde, but it's hard to imagine that the nation's capital is so close. Once you leave the paved Yaounde -- Douala artery, the secondary roads are unpaved and in poor shape. There's no piped water and many villages lack functioning wells. Electrical coverage is minimal.
People around here are angry, still. Everyone cites different numbers, but I can say that well over 500 complaints have been filed with COTCO, the Cameroonian Oil Transportation Company (owned mainly by ExxonMobil, COTCO handles the Cameroon side of the project). More than one hundred complaints are unresolved. Beyond the specific grievances, though, there's a general, widespread feeling among people I've met that they were duped.
I met people who told me all sorts of things: The company people said there would be jobs. They said they would fix the road when they finished building the pipeline They told us they would build schools and hospitals. They said they would pay us every year for our damaged crops. They said we would all have excellent TV reception. They told us they would bring in water.
Did the company people really say all that? Probably not, but it appears that there were many misunderstandings and little was done to clarify. Consider the TV reception: ExxonMobil laid fiber optic cable underground next to the pipeline. This was probably one of the best things that came out of this project for the local populations. And it was definitely great PR for the company. But from a fiber optic cable to TV reception, there's a quite a stretch. Did anyone spend time in the villages explaining what a fiber optic cable would do for people with no phones, internet service or nearby cyber cafes? Was it that surprising that someone could end up confusing television reception with a fiber optic cable? Government officials also came through villages promoting the pipeline project; they were not always well informed adding to the misunderstandings in the villages.
When I look at the pipeline easement outside of Yaounde -- a completely banal stretch of land -- I understand the disappointment. People expected something big, something that would change their lives. And, instead, all they got was an underground pipeline. Of course, once constructed, a pipeline, isn't going to create many jobs. It's not going to attract new business. It's not really going to do anything above ground -- but it seems that this information didn't get across.
Certainly it was in the interest of ExxonMobil and the governments of Chad and Cameroon that local populations support the project. Does this mean that there was an intentional effort to deceive people about the risks and the benefits of the project? No, but when working with cultural differences, language differences and people who, for the most part, have little education or experience with industrial projects, misunderstandings are inevitable. Clearly the information campaign that preceded the pipeline's arrival was insufficient.