Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Karoo Fracking Debate: A Pathway for Global South Dialogue on Dispossession

“What the Frack is Going On?” The landscape laid out for us last Wednesday described the Karoo as a vast area where land ownership resides with whites while local native communities are living in poverty.  The Karoo fracking debate joins a larger global one, albeit with a slightly different context. We were told that some of the local communities are in favor of fracking in the interest of job creation while whites, including wealthy whites like Johann Rupert are opposed to it in the name of environmental conservation. My suspicion is the companies aspiring to produce natural gas in the Karoo just have not yet figured out the right prices for landowners to acquiesce; however, I admittedly have little knowledge of the specifics of South African dynamics between oil companies, the government, regulators and landowners.
Gerrit van Tonder presents at the Fracking debate
What I wish to suggest here is that we must not look at Karoo Fracking – nor any fracking for that matter – as simply a gas extraction process that bears unique impacts on the environment. Rather, by drawing examples from and connecting with neighbors (to borrow from Achille Mbembe’s opening talk) who have faced similar scenarios, we must look at fracking within the larger process of continued indigenous land and resource dispossession.
While it is highly likely that Karoo fracking like any local industry may have short term benefits for the local population, one simply has to look at the wake of past oil booms in south Texas, Iraq, the Niger Delta, and the Gulf of Mexico (especially post BP spill) to see the beneficiaries are least of all of the poor, the jobless, and the landless. The profits have always lined the pockets of the so-called “1%” and their local enablers while native communities are left to contend with the environmental devastation that lends itself to further social devastation.
Fracking is not a new practice; it has simply been enhanced to enable extraction from deeper and denser geological formations. The fracking debate seems to me a bit of a distraction from larger pervasive issues; after all, any subterranean resource extraction wreaks havoc on the environment, no matter how ancient or advanced the technology employed. (My personal position is rather than getting mired in the fracking debate, we should also pool our energy towards addressing consumption and reducing the demand that drives oil and gas extraction into more and more sensitive environments.)
Dispossession Processes: The bigger picture is one of continued indigenous dispossession from the land and her resources. This also comes with fractured knowledge of our global south neighbors and our own subterranean resources, especially groundwater (i.e. very little was clarified during the presentation about the local ramifications for Karoo groundwater if fracking is to move forward. How does groundwater function in the Karoo now? Where will fracking water come from? What is the regulatory environment? Many essential questions were left unanswered).
Like the Karoo, South Texas is characterized by large expanses of land - private ranches - owned mostly by wealthy white landowners, many of which are absentee.  The local population is of Mexican decent and is in poverty despite the wealth that has been and continues to be extracted from the land. In fact, Mexicans are seen as intruders on their own land, suspects of illegally crossing the border, despite the fact that, as they put it, “we didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us.”
Landowners benefit from oil production in the form of royalties, a percentage payment for the oil extracted, and various other. As oil fields decline in production, wealthy landowners are finding a new revenue stream through environmental lawsuits, often agreeing to either turn large parcels of contaminated land into conservation districts or to institutional controls restricting groundwater use on the properties. Both of these options leaving the contamination in place and removing the land from productive life-sustaining use, further dispossessing the already-dispossessed from the land. Also as oil revenues decline, so too do the local tax benefits, and hence less investment in schools, roads, etc. The physical and social health of the native population is at stake.
Gaza Sea 1999
In particular, the role of conservation districts / parks / forests is a troubling one that has played a role in dispossession, not only in South Texas and here in South Africa as we learned during the JWTC, but also in the example of Palestine. Large national forests are a site of investment for Israelis and supporters of Israel to plant trees, surrounding the ruins of ethnically cleansed Palestinian villages, which are treated as historical sites for tourists as if the refugees didn’t live just a few miles away in camps, prevented from returning. In each of these cases, the dispossession is couched in some sort of environmental preservation or improvement. Israel claims to have made “the desert bloom” despite the reality on the ground of desertification (diverted the river Jordan which is barely more than a trickle and the dying Dead Sea). Even there is a dispossession from subterranean resources – Gazan fishermen are barred from the sea, where natural gas extraction is solely for Israel’s benefit, and more and more West Bank land is being stolen to supply Israel’s thirst for more and more water.
In reality, these ‘conservation’ efforts are yet another method of further dispossessing the natives from the land and her subterranean resources while continuing to wreak havoc on the environment and its inhabitants. While site-specific details may differ, the process is more or less the same. Via a simplistic engineering flowchart of sorts, the process of dispossession:
·         Settlers take land from natives / natives become demonized intruders
·         Settlers benefit from resource extraction; profits invested elsewhere
·         Environmental damage comes to the fore as a possible liability
·         Settlers become environmental saviors and manage to turn environmental liabilities into a revenue stream (watch the Karoo closely for this step)
·         Conservation the cure-all post resource extraction; landowners get paid for ‘lost value’ and oil companies off the hook for clean-up; land is given another off-limits layer preventing native use or habitation
Suturing the Fractures – Where Do We Go From Here? It seems an unfair burden for the global south, the ‘natives,’ and the dispossessed to ‘save the planet’ whose destruction they did not cause nor benefit from. Nonetheless, it cannot be ignored and hence the following questions with which I am grappling:
How can we have a meaningful global south dialogue composed of the landless, the dispossessed, the refugees – who very clearly see these realities we are theorizing here? Imagine a meeting attended by those affected in Iraq, Palestine, the Niger Delta, south Texas, and a sharing of their experiences with locals in the Karoo. Is there a way to transcend the disconnect between them and academic thought and knowledge production?
As a relative newcomer to the humanities, I find it quite frustrating that these initiatives are still undergirded by the same European philosophy that got us into this mess in the first place. Obviously from previous blog posts and discussions, this is a stumbling block for all of us trying to envision a new world free from this colonial legacy. How can we set into motion alternative philosophies of the global south – the few tid-bits we got from JWTC such as Achille’s discussion on central African relationship with nature or the lion hunting strategy shared by Clapperton Chakanetsa Mavhunga of ‘”see but don’t be seen?” Could these and other non-western worldviews open new pathways for counteracting colonial/neoliberal devastation? Could it be that there needs to be at least a momentary silencing of Western thought so we can meditate and think clearly in these registers?
Taking it one step further, is there a benefit to conducting global south conversations with the exclusion of whites/Europeans so as to at least initially prevent the intrusion of well-meaning liberals and the white savior complex that Teju Cole so eloquently writes about, albeit in a different context? (Is this an offensive proposal, and if so, why?)
Hadeel Assali
With special thanks to Katya for her thoughts and feedback

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A pretty good article, well written! I do think that sometimes the wealthy conservationists do have the land at heart, although they tend to forget/sideline the indigenous peoples. And I think that some of them will not give up the fight at any price. But, yes I do see that many of the wealthy landowners (white) of the Karoo have only their own interests at heart and that they indeed do have a price at which they will negotiate away the land/the environment.

Just to stir the debate even further read this arrogant piece :


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