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Few benefit from oil wealth, bishops say

Central Africa is rich in oil and other natural resources but its people are among the world’s poorest, say Roman Catholic bishops who have appealed to petroleum companies, governments, international bodies and churches in western countries to help end the inequities linked to the oil industry in the region. The call came in a joint pastoral letter on the impact of oil in the region, issued at the end of a plenary assembly of the Association des Conferences Episcopales de la Region d'Afrique Centrale (ACERAC), held from 7 to 14 July in Malabo, capital of Equatorial Guinea. Strategic oil region Just about every country in the region is an established, new or prospective oil producer. Cameroon, Gabon and the Republic of Congo have been exporters for about three decades. Chad and Equatorial Guinea are newcomers, and exploratory activities in the northeast of Central African Republic have been promising, the bishops noted. The Gulf of Guinea - which includes Cameroon, Congo, Equatorial Guinea and Gabon, along with Nigeria - is becoming an important strategic zone in the global oil industry, they said. "It offers an interesting alternative to the Middle East," added the document, titled "L'eglise et la pauvrete en Afrique centrale: le cas du petrole" (The Church and Poverty in Central Africa: the case of oil) "Twenty-five percent of American oil will soon be imported from sub-Saharan Africa, with an important share coming from our countries". However, the vast majority of Central Africans have not benefited from their oil for a number of reasons, says ACERAC (in English, Association of Episcopal Conferences of the Region of Central Africa). Whereas member states of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) nationalised their oil sector, Central Africa’s oil is in the hands of private foreign companies, so most of its income comes in the form of taxes. OPEC countries use production cutbacks to keep their prices afloat. Central African ones have no such leverage. The bishops also denounced what they saw as "complicity" between oil companies and politicians in the region, where oil incomes are used to keep regimes in power and "contracts are drawn up in absolute secrecy". "The contracts our states sign with the [oil] companies are surely to the advantage of the latter and reinforce our economic dependence," they said. The few dividends derived from such contracts have not contributed to poverty alleviation and “high illiteracy, mortality and malnutrition rates still characterise the region” while roads, health care and education “leave much to be desired”. The region’s people pay a heavy price For the bishops, the negligeable benefits that have accrued to the region’s people are dwarfed by the price they have had to pay. While offshore production usually has little direct incidence on people's lives, it affects the marine population and occasional spills mar the ecological balance. "A study is under way in Congo, where changes have been observed along the shoreline in oil-producing areas," ACERAC said. The effects of onshore production are easier to see: "biodiversity is endangered, and the population is subjected directly to inflation and endemic diseases". "The example of the Chad-Cameroon pipeline clearly illustrates this," the bishops say, referring to a project involving the construction of a pipeline through which oil from new fields in southern Chad will be pumped to the port of Kribi in southwestern Cameroon. "Despite the assurances given by the different partners involved in this project, adverse effects have been observed in various localities," ACERAC noted. These included skyrocketing prices of basic commodities, increased prostitution and AIDS, the erosion of morals and the destruction of the environment, the bishops said. Moreover, there is an "imbalance between the harm suffered as a result of expropriations, on one hand, and compensatory measures, on the other. "Oil companies violate commitments made with regard to environmental protection, the provision of jobs and markets," according to the clergymen, who said local administrations sometimes pressured populations into submitting to unjust decisions by oil companies. Oil has also fuelled conflict in the region, they pointed out, noting that within states, there was a certain animosity between oil-mining regions and others. "The territorial location of oil wells and the unequal distribution of oil incomes have become arguments in favour of a new splintering of our countries," said the bishops. They added that seccessionist, regionalist and ethnic-based trends that jeopardise the cohesion of states were being justified by factors such as injustice in the exploitation of natural resources in given areas. Moreover, many power struggles were centred on controlling oil money, which has also been used to finance arms purchases and the maintenance of private militias in some countries of the region "sometimes with the complicity of oil companies" which "based on their interests, have given financial and logistical support to belligerents in the region". The ensuing conflicts have contributed largely to the proliferation of arms, which has become one of the main causes of insecurity "on the borders of as well as within our countries," the bishops added. They were also worried that regional countries might go to war over violations of oil zones along their borders. What governments, transnationals need to do The bishops praised the work of people who strove to eradicate injustice, corruption, human rights violations and environmental degradation in Central Africa, but said they were still very few. They called on others to shrug off fear and selfishness and join the struggle for respect for human dignity, the preservation of people's rights and social justice. They welcomed regulatory and corrective steps some states had taken or planned in areas such as the management of oil revenues, environmental protection and social measures, expressing the hope that other states would follow suit and, especially, that the measures would be enforced. ACERAC called on governments to: work towards fair distribution of the fruits of oil mining by investing the income generated in social sectors, offering services at reduced costs for all citizens; manage natural resources with foresight by creating funds for future generations and investing in economic diversification; encourage transparency by involving civil society in the decision-making process, disseminating information on the mining of oil and other resources, and consulting organised groups when drawing up contracts. Governments were also asked to "ensure that commitments made by the oil companies and any other enterprises engaged in oil mining are respected" and to "avert conflict by investing not in arms but in peace-building activities". The drawing up of codes of conduct by some oil companies, with a view to correcting past mistakes and improving their image, also came in for favourable mention. However, the bishops urged the transnationals to fully respect "the lives of our people, our environment and our individual and social rights". The companies were also asked to draw up plans for providing fair compensation for material and moral harm their activities cause to the communities and nations, and to consider local populations as partners by offering them the possibility to define their needs with regard to compensation and social infrastructure for their communities. They were also told to stay out of the region's conflicts and contribute to transparency and the fight against corruption by making the revenue they give to states public. How can the World Bank and western churches help? International financial institutions earned appreciation for their involvement in oil mining, and the World Bank came in for mention for the emphasis it has been placing on the use of oil income to alleviate poverty. "May this noble wish become a reality through the bank’s refusing to sanction any activity that deviates from this guideline," the bishops said. "May it set up participatory mechanisms for monitoring petroleum projects in our region, evaluate the effectiveness of its operational directives, and establish means and criteria for making them more concrete." The bishops expressed gratitude to churches in other countries and continents that have shown solidarity with those of Central Africa. "The oil companies operating in our region are headquartered in your countries," they said. "We hope you will echo our voices in your respective countries. "May the people of good will in your countries who take action in favour of the humanisation of oil mining in our region receive real support from you."

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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