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18 July 2002 Edition

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Women take on oil giant in Nigeria

For over a week, hundreds of Nigerian women have been occupying the Chevron-Texaco facilities in Nigeria demanding negotiations with company managers working in the African country. They are demanding that the multinational pumping out the oil from their lands should give them the roads, water service and electricity that the government has not provided.

Disruptions of oil operations are common in the Niger Delta oil region, where impoverished local people accuse oil companies and their government partners of neglect, despite the huge oil wealth pumped from their land. But this is the first such action that has been taken exclusively by women.

And the truth is that the people in the Niger Delta are impoverished, despite living on land that yields $20 billion in oil exports annually. Nigeria is the world's sixth largest oil exporter and the fifth biggest supplier of American oil imports.

Anunu Uwawah, a spokesperson for the protesters, said the women were tired of living in poverty in the shadow of the oil terminal. She said everyone in the area lives without electricity except for those in one village, where Chevron-Texaco's Nigerian unit has an office.

Chevron Nigeria is a subsidiary of US oil giant Chevron-Texaco and Nigeria's third largest oil producer. It runs Escravos jointly with the state-owned Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation. The firm's production is estimated at around 500,000 barrels per day, with 450,000 normally passing through the besieged terminal.

"We will no longer take this nonsense and this is the beginning of the trouble they have been looking for," warned Uwawah.

Increasing numbers of women have been joining the dramatic protest, which began on Monday 8 July, bringing the total involved to about 2,000. The protest appeared to be spreading into other parts of the oil-rich but impoverished region.

"Chevron has long been neglecting the Ugborodo community in all areas of life. They have not shown concern at all to involve our people in employment and provision of social amenities," said Uwawah.

The women, who are also demanding jobs for their sons, arrived at the terminal, which is on an island in a swamp 190 miles east of Lagos, early on Monday 8 July after seizing a boat used to ferry in casual workers. Chevron-Texaco's Nigeria spokesman, Wole Agunbiade said the workers, who live at the terminal for weeks at a time, were not in any danger. However, the women had "barricaded installations and restricted free movement," Agunbiade said. "People cannot do their normal jobs. This is not a hostage situation, this is an occupation."

Ten of the women have been flown to the nearby town of Warri for negotiations with the oil company and police. The women want direct talks with Chevron Nigeria's managing director, Jay Pryor. Company officials have said he is not in Nigeria at the moment.

More than 700 foreigners - including Americans, Canadians and British - and Nigerian employees are stuck at the Escravos export terminal. Aircraft have been unable to land and boats cannot dock.

Company officials have continued negotiations with the protesters and leaders of their nearby Arutan and Ugborodo communities, a ramshackle collection of mud-and-brick huts with rusty tin roofs The women have been holding talks with company officials in a village hall, surrounded by armed police and soldiers wearing orange lifejackets emblazoned with the company logo. But the talks have so far failed to yield results and have become increasingly heated, with Chevron-Texaco representative Dick Filgate at one point pounding his fist on the negotiating table. "I want Escravos back. I want the ladies off the site," he said.

Military and police boats patrol the shores off the export terminal, but the situation inside the plant remains unchanged. Blockades of the terminal's air strip, helicopter pad and dock are continuing.

"I was the leader of the air strip team," Uwawah said, during a break from a meeting on Friday 12 July with Chevron-Texaco officials. "If any plane came, I would drive my people there and we circled it. We wouldn't let anyone come in or anyone go out," she said.

After her success on the airfield, she chased administrative staff out of the offices, Uwawah said. Other teams of women shut down the docks and the helicopter pads,

Officials said the security forces were under strict orders not to attack the unarmed women to avoid complicating what already appears a very delicate situation. "These are daughters and wives; you would not treat them the same way you treat males," Wole Agunbiade, spokesperson for the company said, without elaborating on the way that they would treat the protesters if they had been men.

Uwawah said the women weren't intimidated by security forces. "If we die, Chevron will die with us," she said, as armed soldiers and police with their "Chevron" emblazoned life jackets milled about behind her.

The struggle between multinational oil firms and local communities drew international attention in the mid-1990s, when protests by the Ogoni tribe forced Shell to abandon its wells on their land.

The late dictator General Sani Abacha responded in 1995 by hanging nine Ogoni leaders, including the writer Ken Saro Wiwa - triggering international outrage and leading to Nigeria's expulsion from the Commonwealth for a very short period of time.

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Progress for Bolivia's excluded indigenous

Pro-US forces in Bolivia are becoming increasingly concerned at the growth in popularity of indigenous leader Evo Morales.

The congressman and son of a peasant Aymara Indian, Morales sent shock waves through his Andean nation's political establishment with a second-place showing in recent run-offs for the country's presidential elections.

Morales' campaign rhetoric includes calls to kick out the "Yankees", to default on debt and to nationalise industry.

Morales attained 20.94% of the vote on a platform of condemning free trade and coca eradication, slightly behind the 22.46% showing of Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, a 72-year-old centre-right millionaire and former president. Since no candidates received 50% of the vote, Congress will pick one of the two front-runners by early next month to be president for the next five years. Lozada is the likely choice, but Morales' strong showing has broken Bolivia's centuries old de facto apartheid political system, giving the excluded indigenous population a voice it has never had.

Morales became a congressman in 1997, although he was expelled in January for inciting violent protests. Clashes between his followers and state forces have left 39 people dead over the last few years.

His success in the presidential election is indicative of the level of dissatisfaction among the 70% of Bolivian inhabitants who are of indigenous descent and have been dominated by Bolivians of European extraction. At least 60% of Bolivia's 8.3 million population live in poverty. In rural areas, the figure is 90%.

The coca eradication programme - which has wiped out some 50,000 hectares in the Chapare region, once one of the world's largest coca-growing areas - has caused deep resentment, since many farmers feel it has impoverished them further.

Morales argues that most coca grown in Bolivia is used for traditional purposes "to chew as a stimulant and to quell hunger" rather than sold to traffickers as the ingredient for cocaine. He claims the US-funded plan is a violation of national sovereignty.

Voters also elected 36 Indians to the Lower House out of 130 seats and 10 Indians out of 27 Senate seats. They came from two indigenous parties, Morales' Movement Toward Socialism and the Indigenous Pachacuti Movement, led by another Aymara, Felipe Quispe, a former guerilla fighter and union leader. As a result, the indigenous population has increased its representation in the National Congress from 10% to 30%.

Expected to take the presidency, Sanchez de Lozada, who owns the country's largest mining company, is part of the European-descended elite. He is sometimes teased for the American accent he picked up while spending much of his youth in the US.

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