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Documenting The Paradox Of Oil, Poverty In Nigeria

Nigeria is the sixth-largest producer of oil in the world and one of the main suppliers of oil to American customers. Yet even though the West African nation is awash in oil money, much of its population is destitute.

A new book, Curse of the Black Gold, examines the relationship between oil, the environment and the community in Nigeria in the 50 years since oil was discovered there.

Photojournalist Ed Kashi, the book's co-author, spent years documenting the country's oil industry. He tells Liane Hansen that Nigeria has reaped more than $600 billion of oil wealth in the past half-century. But for the people in the region, he says, oil has brought dire poverty and a lack of development and fostered government corruption.

"While it's very easy to point our fingers at the oil companies — and we absolutely need to — it's the Nigerian government that I feel having spent three years working there that really bears the greatest responsibility," says Kashi.

"As one environmentalist in Nigeria pointed out," he adds, "because the politicians are not beholden to being voted into power and they get their money from the residual monies that come in from the oil industry, there's a way that they can bypass the people and they don't really have to serve them."

The region's oil industry also has had a profound effect on the environment and health, Kashi says. The past two decades have seen the equivalent of two oil spills a day, and a 2006 World Wildlife Fund report called the Niger Delta one of the most polluted places on Earth.

Still, the people who live there have learned to adapt. One of Kashi's photographs shows Urhobo women in the oil town of Afiesere baking tapioca in the heat of a massive gas flare.

"It's like baking a cake from the tailpipe of your car," Kashi says.

He says that those people "who have the least are the most resourceful ... because it's about survival."

The average person lives on less than a dollar a day, even though Nigeria takes in $2.2 million a day in oil revenue. And the poor have seen little or no benefit from the spiraling price of crude.

"If we spend more money here in America or Europe on oil, it has no impact on the people in the Niger Delta, no positive impact," Kashi says. "What it does is just further enriches the power structure, from the government people to the chieftain and tribal leaders who all benefit from the rise of the oil prices."

Nigeria is among the world's largest oil producers — and a major supplier to the United States. But Kashi says it has been overtaken by Angola as the largest producer in Africa, a shift largely due to a militant group known as the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, or MEND.

In the past three or four years since it was formed, MEND has grown more aggressive in attacking oil facilities and taking oil workers hostage. Kashi says the group has "shut in" more than a quarter of Nigeria's oil production — meaning not only that production has been stopped, but that the oil has been stopped from leaving the country.

But he says the conflict has had a negative trickle-down effect on the poor and is contributing to the increase of oil prices around the world.

For his book, Curse of the Black Gold, Kashi says he strove to create powerful images that would grab public attention and tell the story of what is happening in the Niger Delta.

Because the United States imports a sizable amount of oil from Nigeria, he says, all Americans are consumers of Nigerian energy.

"It's important that we understand that connection," Kashi says. "I feel the days are gone in this world when we can just blithely ignore these kinds of connections because what I see from traveling around the world ... is that it's unsustainable. What's happening in the world today is unsustainable."

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