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The world's craving for oil
often hurts
society's poorest

Penny Jamieson


 The public responses to the release recently of the Waitangi Tribunal report into the status of Taranaki oil and gas reserves were unedifying.

Maori said "They're ours";  the Government said "They're ours".   There clearly is a monetary value to be attached to these reserves,  otherwise no-one would be interested in what was under the ground in Taranaki.   But the presence of oil does not have a very good record of translating into tangible wealth for those who live on top of it.

Indeed,  many of the poorest people of the world live on top of the world's richest oil reserves,  and this potential wealth has caused them much grief.

Just before the invasion of Iraq began in March,  President George W. Bush said:  "All Iraqi military and civilian personnel should listen carefully to this warning.   In any conflict,  your fate will depend on your action.   Do not destroy oil wells,  a source of wealth that belongs to the Iraqi people."

There is still a long way to go before we will be able to determine,  with any finality,  for whose benefit this latest war in Iraq was fought,  but some images remain.   The most staged and seemingly triumphant image was undoubtedly that of the toppling of Saddam Hussein's six-metre statue in Paradise Square,  on the day American marines arrived in Baghdad.

But there are others that linger from this conflict,  and they have equally eloquent things to say about Iraq's future.   One is of British troops standing guard over the oil fields near Basra in the early hours of the war,  while wells were burning.   The other is of those same troops,  days later,  trying to keep order as they distributed meagre supplies of bottled water and other aid to a desperate population.

These images point sharply to the inverse relationship between the world's most sought-after natural resource and the people on whom the presence of this resource most directly impacts.   Quite simply,  when oil is involved the needs of ordinary people  -  such as the need for a secure supply of clean water  -  usually come a very distant second.

Indeed,  all available evidence indicates that the presence of oil in a developing country makes life worse,  not better,  for the people who live there,  particularly the poorest people. Extensive evidence for this is the subject of a recent report,  "Fuelling Poverty - oil, war and corruption",  issued by the United Kingdom aid agency Christian Aid.

The report points out that,  in global terms,  it can be argued that oil and the oil economy are all but irrelevant to the world's poorest people as they struggle to live their lives.   They do not own cars,  they often have no access to electricity and their fuel comes from animal dung or dwindling supplies of wood.   Their greatest need is likely to be water.

Furthermore,  the global economy's addiction to oil  -  its drug of choice  -  has done more than anything else to skew the world's priorities.   The craving just to get us through our daily lives is such that we will go to almost any lengths to get hold of the stuff.   Moreover,  like an addict in need of a fix,  we don't care who gets hurt along the way.

Global climate change,  for example,  already wreaks its most serious damage on developing countries and seems certain to intensify in the years ahead.

And it has contributed to many a war.   Dick Cheney,  the American vice-president,  is recorded as saying,  "You've got to go where the oil is.   I don't think about political volatility very much."

In brief,  the research reported in  "Fuelling Poverty"  indicates that for many developing countries, oil reserves are more likely to prove a curse than a blessing. Poor countries dependent on oil revenues have a higher incidence of four great and interconnected ills. Oil, in these conditions, becomes the key ingredient, in what the report calls a "lethal cocktail" of:

*   Greater poverty for the vast majority of the population.
*   Increased corruption,
*   A greater likelihood of war or civil strife, and
*   Dictatorial or unrepresentative government.

And we have no reason to believe that Iraq will not suffer the same fate.

There,  vast oil reserves are seen as the panacea to all that blighted country's ills.   Analysts have estimated that the Iraqi oil industry could raise an average £100 million per day for Iraq's much talked-about reconstruction.

This is not Afghanistan,  the argument goes.   When the oil industry is back on its feet,  there will be sufficient revenue to breathe new economic life into a nation devastated by three major wars,  United Nations sanctions and decades of dictatorial rule.   Even before the Kuwait war in 1990,  when the oil had been flowing unhindered for years,  poverty and social distance were endemic.   This report shows merely pumping more oil will by no means guarantee that the situation will improve.   The inevitable tendency,  well documented,  is for the rulers and the oil companies to take the wealth while the people of the land scratch for clean water to drink.

Turning back to the relatively minor struggles over oil that are going on in our own country,  it is important that we see that oil is not the answer to all our woes,  whether we are Maori or Pakeha.   The chances are high that whoever "owns" the oil will be pushed aside by the oil companies,  who will privatise the investment needed to extract it.   That has been the story in Scotland,  which is probably more comparable to this country than is Iraq.

So I believe that,  if we want the oil reserves in Taranaki to bring real happiness to either Maori or Pakeha or both,  we should be very careful about how we handle these reserves.    Long talks,  many hui,  lots of prayer for all concerned lie ahead.   But a clear commitment to work together to this end would be a good start to achieving the good of all.

Penny Jamieson is the Anglican Bishop of Dunedin.
This article was printed in the Otago Daily Times of June 3,  2003


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