"Crushing Poverty Spurs Nigerian Village Women Into Oil Standoff"
By D'ARCY DORAN
Associated Press Writer
UGBOEGUNGUN, Nigeria (AP) - When hundreds of unarmed village women captured ChevronTexaco's main Nigerian oil export terminal last week, Helen Amushuka was too sick to join them.
"My whole body is weakened, but there's no doctor, no clinic, no money," Amushuka said from her rusty cot in the one-room bamboo hut she shares with her nine children and 15 chickens.
The women say the extraordinary takeover, which entered its eighth day Monday, is a bid for jobs, electricity and medical care to alleviate the crushing poverty of Amushuka and others living in the shadow of the Escravos terminal.
The siege has trapped hundreds of American, Canadian, British and Nigerian oil workers inside the terminal.
Fever, chills and sharp pains from an undiagnosed illness have kept Amushuka, 37, pinned to the crumbling piece of foam padding her cot.
Yet just 400 meters (yards) from her village, Ugboegungun, hundreds of oil workers at the Escravos terminal enjoy a modern hospital, cafeteria, game rooms and satellite television.
"It's a paradise," said Athonia Okuro, who at 28 is one of the youngest of the protesters from Ugboegungun and surrounding villages. They range in age up to 90. "It's just like being in the U.S."
Amushuka and her family can only dream of such comforts.
Nigeria's civilian leaders, elected in 1999 after years of brutal and corrupt military rule, have failed to provide a clinic or doctor for Ugboegungun's several hundred inhabitants. Like most others here, she lives without running water or electricity.
Holding close her 2-year-old son, Emmanuel, and her 7-year-old daughter, Itsrona, Amushuka points to the spot beside the bed where her husband died last month. She does not know what killed him, only that she now suffers the same symptoms.
At night, mosquitoes stream through half-inch (centimeter) wide gaps in the bamboo walls of Amushuka simple home. She has no mosquito nets to protect her children from malaria, one of Nigeria's biggest killers.
A neighbor rubs a chalky traditional medicine on the children's shoulders and around their mouths to bring down their fevers.
"They're always sick," Amushuka said weakly.
At night, her children curl up on raffia mats, while the family's chickens nestle in the same room to ward against theft. The dozen eggs laid daily are barely enough to feed the family.
The children have never been to school. The village has a primary school but no teachers.
The protesters insisted last week that ChevronTexaco negotiators come to nearby Ugborodo for talks to end the standoff so they would see the conditions in which people like Amushuka live, said Anino Olowu, head of the women's negotiating team.
"I don't know how (ChevronTexaco) can allow other human beings to live like this. Why do they treat us like animals?" she said.
ChevronTexaco agreed during often heated negotiations to help build schools, provide electricity and set up fish and poultry farms to enable the women to supply food to the terminal. But the major sticking point, the women say, is ChevronTexaco's reluctance to provide more local jobs.
The company says it has already hired many local villagers and has no more jobs to offer. Oil executives have pleaded with the protesters to be patient as they try to satisfy promises already made.
The women also accuse oil industry pollution of destroying their way of life. They say that natural gas burned in massive flares atop the export terminal and other nearby sites causes acid rain, which erodes their tin roofs and kills the fish and cassava crops they depend on.
"When fishermen go to the river now, there is not enough fish to feed themselves, let alone sell in the market," said Helen Odeworitse, another protester, pointing to Ugborodo's nearly empty marketplace.
A giant flare greets visitors as they approach Escravos, a 17th century slavery collection point that takes its name from the Portuguese word for slave.
ChevronTexaco and other oil companies say there is no evidence of negative health or environmental impact from the flaring.
Oil site takeovers are common in Nigeria, the world's sixth-largest exporter of oil. But the peaceful protest is a departure for the oil-rich Niger Delta, where armed men routinely resort to kidnapping and sabotage to press their demands with oil multinationals.
The women say their grievances are aimed equally at Nigeria's government and at ChevronTexaco.
But the capital, Abuja, is more than 250 miles (400 kilometers) away, so they have taken their protest to the facility next door.
"We wouldn't have to go to Chevron if our government was
a good government," said unemployed villager Kevin Arobi.