"Heated Talks try to End Women's Takeover of Nigeria Oil Terminal"
By D'ARCY DORAN
Associated Press Writer
ESCRAVOS, Nigeria (AP) - Oil company executives thumped the table and even offered concessions, but the women who took over a giant oil terminal and trapped hundreds of workers inside did not budge Saturday in their demands for jobs for their sons and electricity for their homes.
Tempers flared during the talks held in a sweltering village of rusty tin shacks only 100 yards from the looming concrete terminal, where 700 employees - including Americans, Britons, Canadians and Nigerians - have been trapped for six days.
"I've put everything on the table that I am prepared to give," ChevronTexaco representative Dick Filgate declared at one point. "I want Escravos back. I want the ladies off the site."
At another point, the American oil executive pounded his fist on the table when he was interrupted by a young man. Then a representive of the village chief intervened by warning, "In our culture, only the chief pounds the table."
As many as 600 women from villages around the terminal took over the multinational Escravos plant on Monday, saying they want the company to hire their sons and use some of the region's oil riches to develop their remote, rundown communities.
Nigeria is the world's sixth-largest oil exporter - and the fifth-biggest supplier of U.S. oil imports - in major part because of the vast reserves of the Niger Delta here. Yet the people in the Niger Delta are among the country's poorest.
Unarmed but unbudging, the women have blocked access to the helipad, airstrip and docks that provide the only exits for the facility, which is surrounded by rivers and swamps.
ChevronTexaco officials said Saturday some of the women's 23 demands would take time to fulfill, while others - such as a demand to build 80,000 houses - were unrealistic. But they said they were prepared to keep negotiating.
The talks took place in a community center in Ugborodo village. Amid frustrated outbursts, women and oil company executives often spoke cordially.
"I can't give you everything on the list but I am prepared to continue the dialogue," Filgate, general manager of asset management for ChevronTexaco's Nigeria subsidiary, told the women, some in bright flowered dresses.
The peaceful protest by unarmed women is a departure for Nigeria, where such disputes often are settled with machetes and guns. In the oil-rich Niger Delta, armed young men routinely resort to kidnapping and sabotage to pressure oil multinationals into giving them jobs, protection money or compensation for alleged environmental damage.
Hostages generally are released unharmed.
The women, from the Ugborodo and Arutan communities, want ChevronTexaco to provide water, electricity, schools and clinics for their villages. They complained that previous company promises to transform the villages into modern towns had not been realized.
Ugborodo is without electricity, except for a community-owned gasoline generator supplying sporadic power to a few.
Late Saturday, Anunu Uwawah, a protest leader, said the talks had made progress, including a pledge by ChevronTexaco to help the women establish fish and poultry farms to supply food to the terminal.
But the women were disappointed the company had not firmly agreed to hire village men.
"If they signed an agreement today, we would leave the yard tomorrow," Uwawah said. "But it is not happening."
In the terminal airfield, two dozen women danced in the rain alongside four helicopters and a plane, chanting: "This is our land."
Talks were expected to continue Sunday.
Filgate said it took time to develop the swampy region, where Nigeria's government has provided little infrastructure.
"Right now I can say we can hook you up to electricity. We have done it in other villages ... but it's difficult, it takes a long time to figure out how to do it," he said.
"Recognize that we can only do so much. You've given me a list of 22 items. As for water supply, we will help you with water supply, and we are also very much in favor of education."
The oil giant also would look into demands that ChevronTexaco help reverse the erosion of riverbanks surrounding the villages, Filgate said. The women said the erosion had worsened in recent years after the company began dredging nearby rivers for soil to build a gas plant.
"But this can't be done in three months' time," Filgate said.
Delta state police commissioner John Ahmadu said Saturday he hoped the standoff would soon end in a peaceful and orderly way. "I don't foresee a problem," he said.
On Wednesday, about 100 police and soldiers armed with assault rifles were sent to the terminal to protect the facility, but they had orders not to harm the women.
A ChevronTexaco spokesman said Wednesday the protest would not affect the facility's July production quota.
The struggle between international oil firms and local communities drew international attention in the mid-1990s, when violent protests by the tiny Ogoni tribe forced Shell to abandon its wells on their land.
The late dictator Gen. Sani Abacha responded in 1995 by hanging nine Ogoni leaders, including writer Ken Saro Wiwa - triggering international outrage and Nigeria's expulsion from the Commonwealth, an organization of Britain and its former colonies.