by Ashley Bair
“We survived the Ottomans; then we survived the British; then we survived Saddam Hussein. After all that we’re still here, but the oil companies may be the end of us.”
These words were shared by a villager in the town of Haji Ahmed, Iraq. The past two years of his life and those living in his village were spent working to protect their land from fossil fuel companies. The land in Haji Ahmed is being used by Exxon Mobil as a drilling site.
Two years ago I, and a team from the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship, met this villager when we traveled on a Christian Peacemaker Team delegation to Iraqi Kurdistan to learn more about how the fossil fuel industry was impacting villages in the Middle East. This June I will walk 260 miles from Louisville, KY to St. Louis, MO for the PC(USA) 223rd General Assembly to raise attention about the need to divest from fossil fuels. As I prepare for that journey, I am reflecting on my experience in Iraq with people and families who welcomed us alongside their journey to resist this industry for their land and lives.
The two largest oil and gas companies in Iraq are Exxon Mobil and Dana Gas. Haji Ahmed is one of the many villages impacted by fossil fuel extraction. Similar stories were told by others in villages we visited on that delegation: the land is drilled for oil and gas, the companies use the village’s water supply for their own purposes, promises are made for job opportunities and prosperous futures. The reality is that the fossil fuel companies have destroyed many acres of village farmland, water wells have dried up, jobs are given to outside recruits and not to villagers, roadways are destroyed, and the livelihood of many families who have lived in these villages for countless generations are gone for the foreseeable future. I will never forget a village leader who told me, “This land has been in our family for a long time. You see that path beside the house? That path is older than Islam.”
The extraction of fossil fuels in this region are compromising the villagers’ access to basic needs for survival. Two villages we visited had to import bottled water for drinking and cooking. Roads are controlled and closed by the companies, limiting access to hospitals and schools. It would seem that there would be help from the government to work with fossil fuel companies and negotiate considering how they are treating the villagers’ property and humanity. However, many of the companies are drilling with the blessing of the Iraqi government. The government has security teams overseeing the sites and is under contract with fossil fuel companies to make money annually. They are supposed to be compensating the villagers for the destruction of their land, but at the time of our visit no villagers had been compensated and they are not offered work. What’s more, much of the land still has remnants of war from Saddam Hussein’s regime which left landmines all along the sides of the road which are accessible to them.
The villagers our delegation met with were striving to act against the fossil fuel companies non-violently. They organized and protested the companies. They met with members of parliament and advocated for their land, compensation, and for work. They resisted in every way they know how. In Haji Ahmed, the villager’s efforts did lead to Exxon Mobil’s exit from their land. However, that result was not typical of resistant efforts, nor made with a promise not to return.
I journeyed alongside the villagers for three weeks, but this reality is their everyday life.
The fossil fuel industry is continuing to contribute to climate change and environmental disaster, impacting those who come into direct contact with them in devastating ways. Two years ago our delegation team left Iraqi Kurdistan with a deep sense of urgency to to help eliminate this devastation and our connection to fossil fuels to the best of our abilities. Today, the resolution we thought best still stands.
We need to divest from fossil fuels.
Enough is enough.
Climate science consistently produces evidence of the irreversible changes that will impact our world––we need to also listen to the voices of those who are most impacted by fossil fuel extraction. These are the voices that speak truth into our present world, like the villagers in Haji Ahmed, people in the disappearing wetlands of Louisiana, and others on the margins. These are the voices telling us time is up––the time to change is now.
Two years later, I have seen little difference from companies like Exxon Mobil and Dana Gas. It’s time for us, as the church, to declare that what is happening is wrong.
In Mark 12, when Jesus is asked, What is the greatest commandment?, he answers, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”
It is our call to love God, love creation, and love people above all else. Divesting from fossil fuels will show the world that we are a church that believes this call from the Gospel and listens to the needs of our neighbor.
As we left the villagers, we asked them what it is they thought we could do to help in their resistance efforts. They responded with this request: “Speak about us. Tell your people we need their help. Do not forget us.”
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