The Oil Companies May Be the End of Us







“We survived the Ottomans; then we survived the British; then we survived Saddam Hussein. After all that we’re still here, but the oil companies may be the end of us.”

This quote was from a villager that the CPT team in Iraqi Kurdistan has worked with for several years now, but it could be from any one of several communities we have visited in the past week. In a small community outside of Erbil/Hawler called Haji Ahmed, we met with someone who showed us land that used to be full of vineyards and a running stream. Now, the streambed is dry, the land is mostly dust, and the people aren’t sure what will happen to them.

In 2014, Exxon Mobile came and said they were going to start drilling on the land. Security forces from the Kurdish Regional Government served as protection for Exxon Mobile, and the people of Haji Ahmed had no choice in whether or not to allow their land to be used in this way. The government has the legal right to take the land and use it (in this case give it to the oil company for their use). The government is supposed to compensate the owners using the money from the contract with the oil company--about $1000 per year for every ¾ acre that is used. We have yet to hear of a case where the government pays the full compensation to a person or community.

In Haji Ahmed, some people were compensated for their land, but most were not. This is a tactic used by the oil companies in concert with the government to create infighting in the communities and deter them from organizing to resist the oil company.

However, the people of Haji Ahmed did fight back. They protested, they talked to their parliamentary representative (who said he could do nothing), and they organized themselves to protect their land and livelihood.

Exxon Mobile did eventually leave, but the community fears they will return. Exxon left the oil well they had dug and sealed it off and put a fence around it. The person who showed us the land pointed out other places the community believes that they will drill when they return.

Whenever an oil well is dug, the well releases toxic gases into the air that kill plants and animals and even people. The companies are supposed to warn the people and provide buses to transport them away from the toxic gases, but many of the people are afraid to get on the buses or they say they would rather die on their land than be displaced.

When Exxon first arrived in 2014, the community of Haji Ahmed was told that they would only be there for five years, but the community doubts this is true. Even if they did leave and never come back, the land is destroyed and the community says it will take generations for it to be useable again.

Before Exxon came, the people of Haji Ahmed would go daily to the land that is now destroyed to care for their vineyards. When the weather was good, they would sometimes camp out on the land together, many families sharing food and sitting around fires on the land that had been part of their families for generations, through the era and terror of the Ottomans, the British, and Saddam Hussein. The Kurds have survived so much and for so long, but they fear that these oil companies may destroy their land and livelihood beyond any hope of recovery.

And what can we do? Those of us in the Presbyterian Church (USA) can work to divest our church’s money and our own money from these oil companies. We are past the point of shareholder investment—we have tried that and people and lands are still dying because the money from oil is worth more than the lives and land of the Kurds and others like them. A boycott won’t work, because we are in too deep.

 We must change our own habits and policies of consumption, but we must do this in conjunction with divestment in order to put the necessary pressure on these companies to leave the oil in the ground. The oil companies will only leave the land and the people in peace when it is no longer financially profitable for them to do so. Divesting from companies like Exxon Mobile and others sends a message to the oil companies and to the world that our faith teaches us that people are more important than profit.

It is not just the Kurds here whose lives and land depends on a change in values and policies—it is all of us.