"Leave the Oil in the Soil!"

The stench of rotting blubber would hang for days over The Bluff in South Durban, thanks to Norwegian immigrants whose harpooning skills helped stock the town with cooking fat, margarine and soap, starting about a century ago. The fumes became unbearable, and a local uproar soon compelled the Norwegians to move the whale processing factory from within Africa’s largest port to a less-populated site a few kilometers southeast.

There, on The Bluff’s glorious Indian Ocean beachfront, the white working-class residents of Marine Drive (perhaps including those in the apartment where I now live) also complained bitterly about the odor from flensing, whereby blubber, meat and bone were separated at the world’s largest onshore whaling station.

Ever since, our neighborhood has been the armpit of South Africa. A bit further south and west, in a black residential area, the country’s largest oil refinery was built in the 1950s, followed by the production and on-site disposal of nearly every toxic substance known to science.

The whalers gracefully retreated into comfortable retirement in the mid-1970s, their prey threatened by extinction. Conservationists had mobilized internationally, and thanks to the OPEC cartel, the cost of oil for ship transport soared in 1974, so the industry ceased operating in Durban. Even apartheid South Africa signed the global whaling ban in 1976.

What’s left is a small Bluff Whaling Museum where you sense the early Norwegians’ Vikingesque stance: brave, defiant, unforgiving to those they raped and pillaged, and utterly unconcerned about the sustainability of the environment they had conquered. The Bluff’s world-class surfing waves regularly toss ashore decayed fragments of sperm, blue, fin and humpback whales’ skeletons; tens of thousands were killed.

Déjà vu, earlier this month, when an invisible cloud suffused with a cat’s-piss ammonia stench floated from the South Durban petro-chemical complex – the continent’s largest – across the still racially-segregated belt of 300,000 residents. Once again the community’s salt-of-the-earth rabble-rouser, Des D’Sa of the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance (SDCEA), called a picket against an uncaring municipal bureaucracy on November 12, and in the next two weeks further protests are planned in Durban against inadequate national energy policy and global climate policy.

The unbearable smell, apparently emanating from the powerful corporation FFS, lasted for days, reappearing again last Friday night. Further south, the rotten-egg sulfur odor from petroleum refinery SO2 emissions is a permanent feature. These persistent pollution crises are a visceral reminder: we must follow the example of Norwegian whalers on The Bluff, gracefully retreating from capitalism’s reckless dependence upon oil, coal and gas. It is a task that society cannot avoid much longer, as a devastating climate change tipping point looms sometime in the next decade.

So nearly everyone was pleased, a fortnight ago, with the choice of Durban to host the 2011 Conference of the Parties (COP) 17, the world climate summit. Competition was tough. The conference centre in beautiful Cape Town was rejected, according to a guest post on former CT City Manager Andrew Boraine’s blog, because of “the high levels of security required… The CT International Conference Centre (ICC) falls way behind the ICC complex in Durban. You can lock it down completely and keep the over-the-top protesters well away from the high level attendees.”

Boraine, a Johannesburg NGO colleague of mine two decades ago when he helped Alexandra Township civic associations defend their over-the-top protests against apartheid, is now a public-private partnership facilitator. “Cape Town’s proposal,” he rebutted, “took into account the need to be able to lock down certain areas for government delegations and VIPs.”

Sorry, I don’t accept the need for to safely insulate these rascals, for last December in Copenhagen I witnessed how badly the VIPs performed when tasked with making binding emissions cuts. Not only were none made but even the 1997 Kyoto Protocol’s minor five percent cuts (measured from 1990-2012) were completely undermined.

SA and US presidents Jacob Zuma and Barack Obama joined Chinese, Indian and Brazilian leaders in wrecking the last vestiges of UN democracy and threatening their own societies (especially Zulu and Luo kinfolk who are on the climate frontline), on behalf of the (mainly white-owned) fossil fuel industry and (mainly white) frequent fliers (like myself). Chief negotiator for the G77, Lumumba Di-Apeng, poignantly asked, “What is Obama going to tell his daughters? That their [Kenyan] relatives’ lives are not worth anything?”

At the COP 16 climate summit, lasting through December 11 in Cancun, Mexico, these VIPs definitely need a strong wake-up slap – as activists there gave World Trade Organisation negotiators in 2003 – not a quiet meeting place where they’ll just back-slap.

Actually, the strategy many in civil society considered around this time last year, was what Boraine unintentionally advocated: ‘locking down’ (and in) the world leaders inside Copenhagen’s Bella Centre, so they would finally feel the pressure to sign a real deal, instead of the sleazy Copenhagen Accord.

This would have involved blockades preventing delegates from departing last December 19, the way activists did in September 2000 at Prague’s ancient palace, where SA finance minister Trevor Manuel chaired the World Bank’s annual meeting. The VIPs barely scampered to safety from global-justice protesters, after again doing nothing to reform globalisation.

The plan to lock down the climate-negotiating VIPs in Copenhagen was considered and then abandoned when Danish police turned semi-fascistic. It’s not even an option worth discussing in Durban given that City Manager Mike Sutcliffe regularly denies permission to peacefully protest.

But come to think of it, on 31 August 2001, a march of 15,000 to the ICC led by the late Fatima Meer and Dennis Brutus against a pathetic UN racism conference came close to barging in on the lethargic delegates. Recall the activists’ valid complaints then: no UN discussion of reparations needed for slavery, colonialism and apartheid, and no action against Israeli racial oppression and occupation of Palestine.

The reason why next year, leading climate activists may decline the opportunity to appeal to ICC elites – either asking politely, or amplified with a chorus of vuvuzelas – is simple: rapidly-rising disgust with filthy leaders who cannot even clean up the world’s fouled financial nests, judging by the recent South Korean G20 meeting, much less planet-threatening emissions.

The Cancun COP will again demonstrate that US and EU rulers will spend trillions of dollars to pacify the world’s richest speculators in financial markets, from Wall Street in 2008 to those holding state bonds in Athens, Dublin and Lisbon this month. But they’ll balk at a few hundred billion required annually to save the planet.

“If planet Earth was a bank, they’d have bailed it out long ago,” British climate campaigner Jonathan Neale remarked to laughter at the Norway Social Forum’s opening session last Thursday. The money is certainly available in Oslo, thanks to a petroleum rainy-day fund worth $500 billion, the world’s second largest sovereign hoard.

Norwegians in the campaigning group Attac with whom I spent the last few days are also intent on fighting what a workshop leader, Heidi Lundeberg, last Thursday termed Norway’s “Good Samaritan masking the face of our new oil imperialism”. Lundeberg’s edited collection for Attac, Klima for ny Oljepolitikk (Oslo, 2008), demolishes Norway’s image as responsible global citizen.

University of Bergen eco-social scientist Terje Tvedt has also complained that Oslo’s spin-doctoring generates “an aura of moral-ideological irrefutability”. It’s especially irritating when accompanying a revitalized eco-Viking rape-and-pillage mentality, such as growing collaboration with the likes of the World Bank, led by one of the world’s most destructive men, Robert Zoellick.

The fake Samaritan tendency, evident when former prime minister Gro Harlem Brundtland ran a 1983-87 world ‘sustainable development’ commission, is being taken to extremes by current prime minister Jens Stoltenberg and environment/development minister Erik Stolheim.

Workshop debate immediately ensued with the outraged director of the Oslo government’s Oil for Development fund, Petter Nore, who back in 1979 coedited a great book, Oil and Class Struggle. “We are NOT the Samaritan face of imperialism!”, he clamoured, yet his own reports reveal the fund’s role in occupied Iraq and Afghanistan, donating millions to lubricate the US looting of petrol and gas, and supporting a stable of venal oil-rich African dictators.

Nore’s office also promotes carbon trading to mitigate the flaring of gas at oil wells. He rewards both Northern financiers and Big Oil polluters with ‘Clean Development Mechanism’ payola, buying ‘emissions reduction credits’ for the Norwegian state in order to reform extraction systems in which, at possibly the world’s worst site, the Niger Delta, flaring has been declared illegal in any case.

As do so many ex-leftist Scandinavian technocrats, Nore has capitulated to the worst global trends. He’s using Norway’s oil-infused cash-flush aid to reward corporations for what they should be doing free. Activists from Port Harcourt’s Environmental Rights Action movement, led by Nnimmo Bassey (co-winner of the Right Livelihood Award last month) know better, demanding that carbon trading must not legitimize illegal flaring.

The same problem can be found in another Norwegian Clean Development Mechanism strategy: planting alien invasive trees in plantations across several East African countries. This wrecks local ecology and pushes out indigenous people, as my colleague Blessing Karumbidza from the Durban NGO Timberwatch recently reported: “the Norwegian firm Green Resources has entrenched itself in the Southern Highlands of Tanzania where it looks to acquire at least 142 000 hectares of land… to plant exotic trees (varieties of eucalyptus and pine) for the purpose of selling an expected 400 000 tons of carbon credits to the Norwegian government.”

Along with Norway’s serious environmentalists and development advocates, I find it heartbreaking that the government’s wonderful Soria Moria declaration is being trashed by Stoltenberg and Stolheim. The 2005 manifesto promised a U-turn, for example, through shifting funding from the World Bank to the United Nations.

Even in the North’s most left-leaning government, it was all fibbery, as shown when Bank executive directors had a chance to turn down the notorious $3.75 billion Medupi coal loan in April. The Norwegian representative only managed a limp abstention, not the “no!” vote demanded by a South African-led global coalition of 200 concerned groups.

When Nore told the workshop that fifty governments had come to his agency for assistance in managing oil resources, including South Africa, I flashed back to South Durban’s oil grievances:

• massive greenhouse gas emissions which contribute to SA’s emissions of CO2 per unit of per person GDP being twenty times worse than even the US,

• regular fires, explosions, and devastating oil pipe leaks,

• the world’s highest recorded school asthma rates (Settlers Primary) and a leukemia pandemic,

• extreme capital-intensity in petro-chem production and extreme unemployment in surrounding communities,

• a huge new pipeline to double the oil flow from Durban to Johannesburg (already two children were killed after falling into unprotected trenches), and

• an old airport earmarked for expansion of the petrochemical, auto and shipping industries.

South Durban is one of the world’s extreme sites of climate change cause and effect: well-paid managers run leaky-bucket toxic factories by day and escape to plush suburbs by night, and gasping residents either slowly die from the exhaust or wake in fear when the refineries erupt with noxious fumes late at night. Yet thanks to one of Africa’s finest eco-social campaigning groups, SDCEA, the area can become an inspiring site for fighting petro-power and visioning alternatives.

Consistent with a global consensus that whales should be left in the ocean, the only solution to the climate crisis is one that genuinely decent Norwegian community residents, fisherfolk, environmentalists and social activists are promoting in their own petrol-rich Lofoten region. The demand there is identical to one made by South Durban residents fed up with smells far more damaging than the decomposing blubber of yesteryear: “leave the oil in the soil!”

PATRICK BOND is on sabbatical from the UKZN Centre for Civil Society, based at UCal-Berkeley Department of Geography. His books include Uneven Zimbabwe and Zimbabwe’s Plunge.


Patrick Bond is professor of sociology at the University of Johannesburg in South Africa. He can be reached at: pbond@mail.ngo.za