Oil boom in Angola: In a poor land, an exploration of the trickle-down effect

Fishing boats on the Zaire River Fishing boats along the Zaire River


Compensating for an oil spill, failing crops and disappearing fish, and the continued hunger for oil

Despite what the fishermen in Soyo had heard, the fishermen of Cabinda had not received enough compensation to buy cars and motorboats in the aftermath of the 1999 spill near the Malongo oil base.

The Fundo Apoio Social (FAS) and a local environmental organization Grémio ABC had introduced me to the realities and personalities of Cabinda: representatives of a fishing association told me that only 10 percent of their men had received the $2,000 given as compensation for their loss of six months of fishing. But why were the other men denied compensation? And what of the women who make their living marketing and selling the fish? What of the children who once played in the water? What of those who subsist on fish and were left with nothing to eat? And those who opted to eat the contaminated fish rather than starve? What about the effects on the food chain - from the most basic of organisms up to the sharks? Will future stocks of fish and generations of fishermen be compromised long into the future?

Six months of compensation for a few fishermen following the spill ignores the wider circle of community members dependent upon the fishermen and the broad range of environmental problems sparked by the incident. Cabindan fishermen described their existence as contaminated by the oil-production activities in the region. They attributed failing crops and reduced fish stocks to pollution. However, a local scientist from the Department of Environment claimed that an infestation of whitefly and industrial fishing, respectively, were responsible for these problems. In the absence of unbiased laboratory facilities - the only operational labs in Cabinda are those of ChevronTexaco - it is difficult to determine what is depleting the fish populations, damaging the crops and negatively affecting the health of local people.

Despite the absence of scientific proof, Cabindans' perception that the local exploitation of oil has had a negative impact on their communities is grounded in a social reality. Indeed, many Cabindans believe that the Angolan government's hunger for oil cost them their independence. (The Portuguese had treated the Cabindan enclave as a separate colony and had assured that it would be granted independence separate from Angola in several documents. However, at independence in 1975, Cabinda was declared one of Angola's 18 provinces.) Furthermore, they claim that the continued war in the highland forests and occupation of Cabinda by 45,000 Angolan troops are evidence of the government's willingness to use force to control areas rich in natural resources. Cabindans taught me that the dimensions of struggle conditioning people's daily existence cannot always be measured in parts per million: my future program of research must couple ecological indicators with assessments of social realities.

— Kristin

Downtown Cabinda The Cathedral dominates the central praça of downtown Cabinda
(Kristin Reed photos)