Speakers discuss tie between oil and poverty

Melissa Weigel

In an effort to raise awareness of the often unjust circumstances in which American oil companies partner with African governments, the Center for Peace and Justice along with Catholic Relief Services (CRS), sponsored a lecture on Wednesday evening, “African Oil and Poverty.” Austin Onuoha from Nigeria and Fr. Antoine Berilengar, SJS, from Chad, both of whom are actively involved with their respective governments on this issue, were the featured speakers. Because of the large percentage of oil that African countries provide for American use (by 2015, Africa is projected to supply about 25 percent), the speakers attempted to illustrate how important it is for American citizens to be aware of the consequences of oil companies within African nations.”When oil companies come into a community, there is physical, psychological and spiritual dislocation,” Onuoha said. “It dehumanizes the local people.”The speakers highlighted the difference in how oil is viewed in America and how it is regarded in Africa by local communities. These different attitudes complicate the relationship between oil companies and the African people. “When we think of oil, we think of it as money, as a resource to be extracted,” Onuoha said. “When we think of land, it is something to be owned and sold. This is not how it is for Africans. Land is special; it is passed on through generations. It cannot be ‘owned,’ and thus it is not the Africans’ to sell.”According to CRS, for many countries in Africa mineral wealth has been more of a curse than a blessing, contributing to conflict, corruption and continued poverty and environmental degradation. In Angola alone, which supplies over eight percent of U.S. oil needs, diamond and oil wealth supported a 27-year civil war that ended in 2002 after causing 1.5 million deaths and the displacement of four million people. American oil companies, however, continued to operate in the midst of the war. In most African oil producing countries, basic information about revenues paid to the government, contracts with foreign oil companies and other key data remains hidden from public scrutiny, which is why CRS, along with other advocacy groups, are calling for greater transparency in public transactions with these companies.The major thrust of the talk was what students can do to help the situation. The first step, the speakers agreed, is to make people aware of the problem. “I hope that I created an awareness in students that the oil they are using has a story; it is coming from somewhere,” Berilengar said. “They [students] have to care if it’s a fair trade. The people who are affected are human beings also. I want students’ minds opened; no one has a right to live ignorantly in this country in this day and age.”CRS has called for all concerned citizens to contact their Congressional representatives about this issue.”Oil is no longer a local resource,” Onouha said. “It is a strategic resource – it can be used to deal with issues as complex as human rights.”In order to help students take action, the organizers of the presentation brought literature about CRS along with writing supplies. They encouraged students to write letters to major oil companies explaining their concerns; students could drop the letters off in the Peace and Justice Center to be mailed. “My hope is that students begin to see there is some way they can contribute to bringing greater justice,” Dr. Suzanne Toton of the Center for Peace and Justice said. “It involves more than just giving money or volunteering. The poor just want a fair chance to live. The wealth from oil needs to find its way back into the hands of people, and we can be a part of this.” According to junior Cristina Stella, “The most important thing [the speakers] said is the oil and natural resources need to be used for peace building and to give the countries a power other than economic.” Mr. Austin Onuoha is a staff member of the Center for Social and Corporate Responsibility in the oil-producing region of Nigeria. He has been involved in dialogue with Chevron-Texaco on human rights issues, and he is currently working on a doctorate in Conflict Analysis and Resolution. He conducts trainings about human rights and conflict mediation with a number of groups throughout Nigeria. Fr. Antoine Berilengar, S.J., is a religious representative on the Petroleum Revenue Oversight and Control Committee in Chad and is the Social Apostolate coordinator for the Jesuits in Africa. In addition, he serves as a staff member of CEFOD (Development Studies and Training Center). Fr. Antoine has been very involved in Exxon’s Chad-Cameroon oil project. Last May, Villanova University, along with Cabrini College, Santa Clara University and Seattle University entered into a formal partnership with CRS. According to Toton, “The purpose [of this partnership] is to work collaboratively with one another to deepen the respective missions of each institution and to strengthen our mutual commitment to promote global justice through education, research, advocacy and service.” In addition to this lecture, CRS has sponsored an advocacy training workshop for area college students. It has also provided an opportunity for four University theater graduate students to perform a play in the Mexico-Texas border region.