Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Oil Road - James Marriott and Mika Minio-Paluello

The vast fossil fuel reserves of present day Azerbaijan have been exploited for centuries. In the 7th century CE camels were loaded with “bales” of oil for heating, light, warfare and medicine. Marco Polo told of a “fountain of oil…which is good for burning. In the neighbouring country no other is used in their lamps and the people come from distant parts to procure it.” As then, so too today. Azerbaijan along with Georgia, rarely figure prominently in the mind of the average European or North American, but they should. The two are part of the 2000km Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline that pumps one million barrels of oil daily to be loaded at the Turkish port of Ceyhan on tankers bound for European markets. The Oil Road exposes the corrupt relationship between oil companies and governments that put millions in companies’ pockets while causing misery for those living in the pipeline’s path.

The impetus for the BTC – the Oil Road of the title – came from Washington, London and Brussels, all of which wanted an “energy corridor” that would both bypass Russia and guarantee the supply of oil and gas to the global market economy by giving governments via the oil company BP control over the supply route. In the early 1990s Azerbaijan was in a situation that Western governments and BP could exploit: the USSR had just collapsed, the local economy was depressed, and there was a desire for Western recognition as an independent country. Leader Heydar Aliyev was willing to mortgage the country’s resources to get hard currency and, hopefully, regain the land it lost during its war with Armenia. Georgia and Turkey had parallel reasons for signing on to the BTC project. The deal eventually agreed upon is referred to as the “Contract of the Century” and what the FT later dubbed “the most controversial pipeline project” in history, for what the host countries gave up and what BP was able to win.

Near the start of the authors’ journey along the pipeline route, in Baku, they spoke with a human rights activist about how oil projects allow authoritarian regimes to gain wealth from resources rather than citizens’ taxes, making the needs of the population irrelevant. “…Europe, the US and the companies wanted more oil. Heydar Aliyev offered to give them control over our oil and its export route, and in return got unlimited rights to rule this country as he wanted.” Those unlimited rights include using brute force to silence opposition to the regime on pipeline-related issues, and to remove citizens’ freedom of assembly. When in Georgia, residents told how the pipeline runs a mere 25m from their homes, and how digging the pipeline ruined irrigation channels for their crops. As they felt BP and government were not listening to their concerns, they decided to blockade the highway to their village. According to one resident, the police badly beat everyone protesting, including children.

Some people have lost much more than their freedom of assembly – they have lost the safety of their homes and land that is part of their livelihood due to pipeline construction and its security corridor. A quarter of the way into their journey an Azeri villager tells his story. During pipeline construction, a 40m wide trench was dug, the topsoil removed, and for several years until construction was completed farmers were unable to use their fields. They were meant to receive about $4000, roughly a year’s salary, but the system was not carefully administered by BP. Some families received compensation, while others did not, or the wrong people did. Similar stories arise at all points along the pipeline, with BP refusing to deal with the issues, claiming it was actually the local authority’s fault. In a small Georgian village further along, people are separated from pastures, forests and hot springs they have used for generation by armed government troops charged with protecting BP’s infrastructure.

Security along the pipeline is another feature of the “Contract of the Century”. Host Country Agreements outline the expectations of BP and show the weakness of the bargaining position of the three countries, all of which are responsible for defending the length of the pipeline using its own military forces. In Azerbaijan, this meant cutbacks to social services, agriculture and transport as funding the police and army take up close to 20% of the country’s yearly budget. In Georgia, a transit country for the pipeline, it means nearly a quarter of its budget is spent guarding a pipeline from which it receives no economic benefits.

The Host Government Agreements also contain evidence of how oil companies such as BP have been able to negotiate their way into situations where they are essentially above the law. In Georgia, the preferred pipeline pathway was to come uncomfortably close to Borjomi National Park, from whose rivers the famous Borjomi mineral water is bottled and sole, accounting for nearly 10% of Georgia’s export trade. The Georgian environment minister adamantly refused to sign off on the pipeline route until she was escorted late one evening to the president’s office and after several hours admitted that she had signed off on the route, explaining that pressure came from the company BP and was directed not just on her but to the president as well. Host Government Agreements guarantee freedom of petroleum transit, and as a result host nations gave up their power to protect their citizens from environmental damage and health hazards for 50 years. The agreements override all existing and future laws because the foreign companies want confidence.

The Oil Road brilliantly sums up the folly of a system bent on exploiting nations for profit, letting people live in poverty while millions of dollars in oil flows underground to far away markets. There are few books that have done as good a job at showing the links between companies and national governments, and providing all the evidence needed to continue the struggle against allowing this to continue. With many oil pipeline projects presently in negotiation, this is an important book for activists. While the authors do not put forward an alternative to this system, they certainly do not fail to provide motivation for the search.

An edited version of this review was previously published in Socialist Review magazine

Friday, January 4, 2013

Vladimir Krajina: World War II Hero and Ecology Pioneer - Jan Drabek

Few people live lives that would make for an interesting book, and not all those who have lived such interesting lives are well known. Vladimir Krajina, a Czech botanist who worked at the University of British Columbia in the second half of the 20th century, fits this description. Biographer Jan Drabek, himself a Czech √©migr√© living in Vancouver, in  Vladimir Krajina: World War II Hero and Ecology Pioneer, has written an insightful and informative biography that will be of interest to both WWII and ecology enthusiasts alike.

Drabek’s biography is essentially two distinct parts, reflecting the dichotomy of Krajina’s life. The first follows Krajina’s life in Czechoslovakia as a member of the Resistance until his escape to London in 1948. The second part documents Krajina’s life in British Columbia where he worked as professor and researcher at the University of British Columbia’s botany department. What is similar in both halves of Krajina’s life is how important was the work he was doing, and how unknown it was – and still is – to the majority of people. For myself, I was aware of Krajina’s botanical and ecological work through my university studies, but had no idea of his experiences in WWII and knew little of the events in Czechoslovakia during this time.

Krajina was a student at Charles University in Prague when Czechosolvakia was a fledgling democracy after the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and before occupation by first Nazi Germany and then as a Communist country under the influence of the Soviet Union. Drabek hypothesizes it was this time living in an independent democratic country that Krajina felt strongly about, and when it was threatened by Nazi invasion he was compelled to play a role in protecting it.

By 1939 the Nazis had closed all of the universities in Czechoslovakia, and Krajina was no longer a botany professor but full time Resistance member. Krajina became a leading member in a group pivotal in the encoding, sending and receiving of intelligence-related information between Czechoslovakia and its exiled government in London. For example, it was Krajina’s group which relayed the intelligence that the Wehrmacht was planning to attack British-controlled Egypt and the Suez Canal, allowing some two months’ warning for precautions to be taken.

Drabek explains that Krajina was an ideal person for this kind of work because of “his enormous self-discipline and strict observance of rules of conspiracy”. However, he also intimates that Krajina was like the character in the Disney film “Ferdinand the Bull”:

…a magnificent animal chosen for the bullfighting ring. But Ferdinand prefers to smell the flowers instead of fighting and, eventually…is returned to his pasture…sitting there still, under his cork tree, quietly smelling his flowers. The flower-loving Resistance fighter may have been a thorn in the Germans’ side, but unlike many of his companions, he refused to carry a gun.” 

At one point in the war the author’s father had given Krajina a book of flower drawings done by Czech artist Josef Manes. When Krajina had to flee the Gestapo, he returned the book for safekeeping; the author’s father noticed that even during this dangerous time Krajina had made corrections in pencil to the names for each flower.

Between 1939 and 1943 Krajina was regularly on the run from the Gestapo, hiding in sympathizers’ homes, meeting intelligence contacts in the streets after dark, and somehow managing to send upwards of 6000 radio messages each year. However, by early 1943 Krajina was captured, interrogated and sent to Terezin concentration camp until the end of the war. Post-1945 Czechoslovakia saw political struggles as various ideologies fought for supremacy. According to Drabek, Krajina again felt compelled to be active politically instead of returning full-time to his botany work because it was important to him that Czechoslovakia return to the democratic nation it was before the Nazi occupation. Instead, Krajina found himself arrested and threatened with execution by the new Communist government unless he agreed to cooperate. Again showing his principles and courage, Krajina arranged to escape by skiing across the border to the US military in Germany. Once finally made his way to England he arranged for the escape of his wife and two children.

Reunited, the Krajina family made its way to Vancouver, British Columbia. Working in the botany department at the University of British Columbia, Krajina made his mark with his ecological approach to forest research and the influence this had on the province’s forestry industry. This perspective was unique at the time, as in a report Krajina wrote for a major forest company in 1954 he said: 

“Forest resources are natural resources which should not be exploited by the methods used in mining, where the products cannot be regenerated. Forest resources should be kept for a sustained yield through all generations.” 

Krajina went further, saying that virgin forests were rapidly disappearing without thorough analysis, and that a representative portion of them should be saved intact for future study, an important consideration when areas needed to be reforested after logging. This was the basis of Krajina’s research into what were later termed biogeoclimatic zones, 14 of which he identified for British Columbia and which are still referred to today. By the late 1960s the provincial government was discussing setting up ecological reserves under the models proposed by Krajina, passing the Ecological Reserve Act in 1971. For the rest of his life Krajina was an ardent campaigner for establishment of reserves to protect sensitive ecosystems, always having to argue for conservation over immediate logging / economic opportunities in the short term. In 1973 an ecological reserve was established on Haida Gwaii bearing Krajina’s name, its literature describing it as “an outdoor museum and laboratory available for botanical, wildlife and geographical fishery”.

Drabek’s biography is enriched by the closeness of the author to its subject. His father worked closely with Krajina during WWII in the Resistance movement, and the author was the same age as Krajina’s daughter and even attended the same school. Drabek has written a detailed portrayal of a man who spent his life engaged in principled struggles for democracy and the environment, from which and from whom much can learned and applied today.