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ISIS not the only enemy for Iraqi Kurds


Australian chemical engineer Geoff McKee says that he has never heard of such things as people having to be bussed away from a drilling rig emitting poisonous gases.

But this is a reality for Iraqi villagers living adjacent to an Exxon Mobil oil rig.

In Northern Iraq, foreign owned oil companies have been moving in. They are signing new 'partner sharing' agreements with the Kurdish Regional Government where they are paid a percentage for each barrel of oil extracted. 

As some are turfed from their land to make way for oil production, Iraqi people must fight for their most basic rights.

In late 2014 I travelled to the region as part of a Christian Peacemaker Team.

There, in Shaqwala district on the outskirts of Erbil, I met Mushin, the community leader of Sartka village. Mushin’s family lost 70 dunums of land when Exxon Mobil moved in. His father was so distraught by the loss of their prized land he had a heart attack and died not long after. 

Mushin led a defiant last stand, blocking the road to Exxon Mobil when they came.

'I didn’t take any gun with me,’ he says.

It’s better if you have no gun, just sitting on the road by myself and closing the road in [a] peace way, not fighting and using [the] gun,' he says.

But his actions were in vain, guards moved in and he was dragged away as a bulldozer cleared the land to make way for the rig. The driver crying as he destroyed crops and fields.

But Muhsin has a new job now.  He is the 'emergency' bus driver. As poisonous gases are released from the rig, an alarm sounds and villagers are instructed to board the emergency bus, which takes them to the safety of the next village. Now landless, Mushin has no other job options.

At a community consultation meeting, the community was promised new roads, schools and a hospital in exchange for giving up their land. None of of these benefits has eventuated. Instead they received 60 new school bags for the kids worth around $50 each.

Eventually it was agreed that villagers would receive compensation in the form of rent for use of their lands. The varied amounts determined by the Ministry of Agriculture have been a source of tension among villagers. A deliberate tactic is to divide communities and quash resistance. 

'We just want our rights,’ he says, 'They are nearly 4500 metres down. How can we stop them now? We cannot stop them.’

'But we want to know, how many years they will be here and for how long will this money continue,' Mushin asks. 

From Mushin’s house high on the top of a hill, it’s possible to look down on the abandoned rig. Oil workers were among the first to be evacuated last August as the threat of ISIS was upon them. The rig remains, but it is protected by local personnel only. Despite the US bombings, the rig workers have not returned.

In another village, I meet a Pershmerga, whom I cannot name for security reasons. He has just returned home for a 10-day break from fighting ISIS. 

After several rounds of tea, he pulls out some photos of his heyday, collecting grapes in his vineyard. But grapes no longer grow here. He says that poisonous gases coming from the rig have caused the local crops of wheat and grapes to fail. The last two seasons have failed to produce a yield.

It’s later revealed that the alarms did sound but villagers refused to board the emergency buses.

'We would rather stay here and die in our village, than be forced to leave,' a young man from the village says. 

Geoff McKee puts forward two hypotheses. That the alarms could be a psychological tactic. Or it could be pockets of H2S a toxic gas that would warrant such emergency evacuation.

According to Exxon Mobil’s corporate website:

It is Exxon Mobil Corporation’s policy to conduct its business in a manner that is compatible with the balanced environmental and economic needs of the communities in which it operates.
To comply with all applicable environmental laws and regulations and apply responsible standards where laws and regulations do not exist.
ExxonMobil is committed to engaging with indigenous communities in a manner that is respectful of their cultures and customs.
We respect property rights in the countries where we operate, including those of traditional land users.

For the people of Gullan Valley, where Exxon Mobil is currently scouting for oil, it’s pretty clear. Exxon Mobil is not welcome. Villagers have been blocking the roads to Exxon Mobil vehicles. 

The area is rich fertile agricultural land and any potential accidents from oil operations would be an environmental catastrophe, wiping out the valley.

People like Mushin and the Pershmerga I interviewed, who are forced to live amidst the poisonous gases of the oil rig, are simply casualties. And the consumption of oil in the West is not unrelated to their plight. 

We in Australia must bear some responsibility for the environmental degradation occurring in Iraqi Kurdistan and our moral responsibility to these people goes beyond merely dropping bombs on ISIS targets. 

After my visit there, I’m certain that behind the war in Iraq is a struggle for control over oil resources but the subsequent environmental damaged is a story that is not being told elsewhere. I only saw a small glimpse of it during my visit there, but having now returned to Australia, I think often of the innocent Iraqi civilians who are paying the ultimate price.  

Vanessa PowellVanessa Powell was part of an international delegation that travelled to Iraqi Kurdistan late last year with a Christian Peacemaker Team.



Topic tags: Vanessa Powell, Iraq, Kurdistan, oil, Exxon Mobil, ISIS, Christian Peacemakers



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Existing comments

Thank you, Vanessa. This is not something you would read about in the mainstream press, as the war against Isis/Daish is what makes headlines. Most foreign interest in Iraq since at least the end of WW 2 has been about oil. Exxon already has "form" elsewhere regarding pollution. It is unlikely, unless politically and/or economically pressured so it hurts, or threatens to hurt, they will do anything about the matter.

Edward Fido | 10 February 2015  

Thank you for this article Vanessa. It is disgusting to see the mistreatment of farmers by big oil when western governments are intervening militarily.

Marianne | 11 February 2015  

This is yet another classic story which supports the strict enforcement of private property rights, as libertarian organisations urge the world over. The Kurdish Regional Government is clearly steamrolling over these basic human rights. People should be free to deploy their land for agriculture, mining, or whatever usage. Any pollution or other negative effects from any activities they should be liable for. That's how a decent world would operate.

HH | 15 February 2015  

Can we please refrain from using the term / acronym ISIS - but instead use IS or ISIL. As a woman - I knowof ISIS as a significant goddess of ancient Egypt who was honoured for over 3000 years. In the broader picture she is symbolic of the Divine Feminine energy in the universe, in much the same way as our Holy Mother Mary. Peace

Anne Zevis | 19 February 2015  

Thank you Vanessa for bringing our attention to how Iraqi Kurds been exploited by Exxon Mobil. We need more of this kind of story to be covered on the mainstream media.

Joyce Fu | 23 February 2015  

Vanessa, it was great to talk with you in person today about this experience and others like it. Thanks so much for taking the time to document such grave injustices, and to infuse the story with such poignant personal moments as you have done. It is this sort of publicity about the incredibly blatant human consequences of Exxon Mobile's actions, like you have pulled together here, which inspires the rest of us to go and try to make a difference, as well, if nothing other than to go be present in people's pain and let them know you care. I hope your extension of this man's voice with your powerful writing will cause others to consider involvement in good solid accompaniment organisations such as Christian Peacemaker Teams, EAPPI, and the like.

Clair Hochstetler | 07 May 2015  

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