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Let them eat carbon! The corporate plan to cook Africa in its own fossil fuels


By Nnimmo Bassey & Sheila Berry

Source: The Ecologist

If you have ever wondered about what is blocking action against climate change, consider this.

There’s an estimated £19 trillion GBP ($28 trillion) worth of fossil fuel reserves in the world. Only 20% of these can be extracted and burned if the world is to stay below a 2°C temperature rise from pre-industrial levels and avoid catastrophic climate change.

The sensible solution to tackling global warming is thus clear and simple: keep these fossil fuels underground. This means that £15 trillion ($22 trillion) worth of carbon must remain untouched. To burn it would be tantamount to committing global suicide!

So, why is no real action being taken to tackle global warming? Because it’s all about capital: profit, not people and planet. It’s about the insatiable appetite for financial accumulation by fossil fuel companies, their shareholders and their agents.

To avoid a catastrophic temperature rise, industrial economies must urgently decarbonise the way they travel, power and move things. Even a 2°C rise in global temperature would have huge impacts. In Africa, this ‘safe’ 2° will in effect translate to a 3°C increase. The current ‘business as usual’ fossil fuel path we are on is set to burn up and fossilise the African continent.

And yet, though the stakes could not be higher, rather than halting the exploration and extraction of fossil fuels, corporations are digging deeper and using ever more extreme means of extraction. In this effort they are aided by their unprecedented political connections.

Papering over Africa’s scars

Chatham House’s Extractive Industries in Africa conference, which concludes today, has brought together miners and politicians to discuss strategies for exploiting Africa’s mineral resources. It is a clear indicator that the quest for profit does not consider the great harm inflicted on the continent and our shared climate.

Indeed, the damage done by the extractives sector goes beyond climate impacts and includes a wholesale disregard for human rights, the displacement of communities and unthinkable levels of pollution of land, water and the air.

The scars of mining in Africa are visible in the coal mines of South Africa, the gold mines of Ghana and Mali, as well as in the devastation caused by oil companies in the once verdant ecosystems of the Niger Delta. It is also well known that mining causes many of the persistent violent conflicts in Africa.

Sadly, however, ecological destruction for the purpose of appropriating ounces of minerals is often not seen as outright violence as it lays waste to the life support system that is our environment.

Designed to exclude civil society? That’s how it looks

By hosting this conference in London, not Africa, and charging exorbitant fees – £580 is the cheapest fee for non-member NGOs – Chatham House has effectively prevented the participation of African civil society and community members.

In doing so, the think tank has, intentionally or unintentionally, attempted to silence the people best able to describe the true costs of the extractive industries and to contest Chatham House’s conservative development narrative of ‘resource extraction = growth’.

Fearing that this may well be another Berlin Conference (1880) aimed at carving up and appropriating the African continent’s resources, we delivered an open letter from African Civil Society to conference organisers and participants on the afternoon of Monday 16th March.

In it we raise the voices of African communities and civil society and call upon Chatham House to show genuine leadership of thought. They must recognise that now is the time to think of the future of people and planet, not the health of the extractive industries.

Not a land grab – a continent grab!

Mining companies have learned new strategies for pulling the wool over the eyes of unsuspecting members of the public who invest in their stocks and thus back up the atrocious actions of these companies.

Through public-private partnerships with mining and fossil fuel companies, governments and other public bodies are sucked into unequal partnerships.

For the companies these partnerships offer legitimacy, a better image and a social license to operate as supposed agents of development. For public bodies and governments the equality of these relationships is merely illusory. A few will benefit, most will not.

Chatham House’s conference directly promotes such joint initiatives to give the extractive industries further access to Africa’s wealth. Yet it is clear that tactics such as public-private partnerships, so-called corporate social responsibility, good governance and transparency are too often mere green washing initiatives.

Despite these token efforts, Africa is experiencing new levels of ecosystem destruction and the intensification of poverty in impacted communities as part of what the No REDD Africa Network have described as a "continent grab".

The time has come to challenge out-dated gatherings like that at Chatham House that exclude the voices of the people. We must move into the present by envisioning a fossil free future, reimagining our systems of design, consumption and use.

This cannot happen whilst we continue to sugar-coat destructive, unsustainable mining. The level of destruction already inflicted on Africa is nothing short of ecocide.

Rather than finding underhand ways to exploit new mineral and fossil fuel reserves in Africa, extractive companies should be challenged to invest in clean-up and environmental restoration activities.

These companies must not be allowed to position themselves as saviours when they have been the abusers of the African continent. They must be held accountable.

Read the letter to Chatham House from African Civil Society groups and their supporters here.

Nnimmo Bassey is a published poet, head of Home of Mother Earth Foundation, Nigeria and former Chair of Friends of the Earth International. He also runs Oilwatch International. Bassey’s poetry collections include ‘We Thought It Was Oil But It Was Blood’ (2002) and ‘I will Not Dance to Your Beat’ (Kraft Books, 2011). His latest book, ‘To Cook a Continent’ (Pambazuka Press, 2012) deals with destructive fossil fuel industries and the climate crisis in Africa. He was listed as one of Time magazine’s Heroes of the Environment in 2009 and won the 2010-Right Livelihood Award also known as the ‘Alternative Noble Prize.’

Sheila Berry is a psychologist and long time environmental justice activist from South Africa. She is currently fighting alongside South African communities in KwaZulu Natal to protect the iMfolozi Wilderness Area from Ibutho Coal’s plans to build Fuleni open-cast coal mine just 40m from the park’s edge.

Both Nnimmo and Sheila are members of Yes to life, No to Mining, a global solidarity movement of and for communities who wish to say no to mining out of a shared commitment to protect Earth for future generations.

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