Fisherwomen versus Chevron : After years of pollution, accountability demanded for a hopeless loss of Nigerian fishery.

When the tide rose under the rickety wooden house on stilts occupied by Onitsha Joseph, a fisherwoman who lives above the twisting rivers of Niger Delta in southern Nigeria, it brought a slick of crude oil.

Before long, she saw dead fish floating on oil inches thick, and fishing - her livelihood - became impossible. The fumes were so strong that at one point Ms. Joseph fainted. She was rushed to the hospital on a speedboat.

At first, she had no idea where it was coming from. Then, out with some other fisherwomen one day in February, she said they spotted something bubbling up to the river's surface. Ms. Joseph steered her oil-blackened canoe closer 

Far below her snaked a pipe. The American oil giant Chevron had laid that pipe 46 years before, according to many neighbors of Ms. Joseph who were there at the time, and now, they said it was leaking.

So began a battle between Chevron and hundreds of fisherwomen in the Niger Delta. Chevron denies that oil was spilling from its pipes. But the women insisted that this was just another instance of oil companies' refusing to take responsibility and decided to take the fight to the oil company's doors.

''You want to kill us with your oil,'' Ms. Joseph said, growing emotional. '' We'll come to you so you can kill us yourselves. In person.

Oil companies like Chevron, Shell and Eni have made billions in profits in the vast Niger Delta region in past decades. But now some are pulling out - and they are leaving utter ruin in their wake, according to government monitors and environmental and human rights organizations.

The delicate ecosystems of the Niger Delta, once teeming with plant and animal life, is today one of the most polluted places on the planet.

It is the women, who do most of the fishing in the creeks and marshes in this part of the Niger Delta, who are trying to call the oil companies to account.

When they found the ominous bubbling, the fisherwomen alerted the local leaders, who informed Chevron's Nigerian subsidiary. At first, Chevron ignored them, the local leader said, and oil continued to flow through the line. Soon, black oil stained the roots of the mangroves - saltwater loving trees that act as nurseries for the fish and shell-fish.

The fisherwomen decided it was time to occupy Chevron.

Hundreds of women from 18 communities, including Ms. Joseph, arrived at three Chevron facilities on March 26. There were new mothers with babies on their backs, and great-grandmothers in their 80s. In this riverine world, some zoomed in on speedboats. Others paddled to fortresslike flow stations on hand-carved canoes.

''They climbed up Chevron's ladders. They scaled Chevron's wire fences, dropping down on the other side. They shook palm fronds and banged plastic bottles, singing protest songs. Then they settled in to wait.

They vowed to occupy the facilities until Chevron did a proper investigation into the spill's cause.

Years of living with oil pollution had made them resolute. Nigerian government agencies have counted tens of thousands of oil spills from many sources in the Niger Delta in the past 15 years -though data on spills varies widely. 

Tens of millions of barrels have been spilled since production started in the 1950s, a 2011 study said -quadruple the volume spilled in the 2010 Gulf of Mexico disaster.

For years, the women had felt cheated by Chevron, the dominant oil company in their immediate area. Their villages were poor. Houses of Zinc and wood barely kept out the elements. Bathrooms were flimsy shacks over the river.

By contrast Chevron facilities they were occupying were like small cities. They even produced electricity, though they didn't share it.

''From here to Chevron, it's less than two miles. If they weren't wicked, they'd have brought electricity here ,'' said Akasaera Mila, an 82-year-old community elder in Kokodiagbene, a village near the spill site. ''Chevron is a very rich company, but they're very wicked to us.''

Once, Mrs Mila visited Chevron's office in Warri, a city several hours away by boat. It is a low, unremarkable office block - but to Mrs. Mila, it seemed the height of luxury.

''It's a very fantastic building, with air-conditioning, light 24-hours a day,'' she said. ''Water comes out of the faucet. You don't have to go to buy food, they have it right there. And they're getting the money for that from this place.''

This tormenting publishing continues to Part 2 in the future. The World Students Society thanks author Ruth Maclean.


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