Kribi. It could be paradise. The small beach town on Cameroon’s Atlantic coast is one of the country’s prime tourist attractions. The dense rainforest stretches almost to the water’s edge; a strip of white sand beach is all that separates the greens of the forest from the turquoise waters. Just south of town the famous Lobé waterfalls tumble over black volcanic rocks directly into the ocean. Market women sell and prepare fish right off the boats at the town’s small port.
The first time I visited Kribi was in December, 1994, and the beauty of the place was stunning. Of course, most of the town was rundown and ramshackle. Electricity ran intermittently and the water was not fit to drink. Unfortunately this was (and is) the story of much of Cameroon. But Kribi managed somehow to have a certain charm and people spoke proudly of their little corner of paradise.
A few years later, I was surprised to hear about plans to bring an oil pipeline from Chad to Kribi. This wasn’t like bringing a pipeline to the port of Los Angeles. The port of Kribi was filled with pirogues, not tankers. There wasn’t even an industrial zone in the area; Kribi was surrounded by forest. Cameroonian and international environmentalists and civil society activists were vehemently opposed to the pipeline project, but in the end the ExxonMobil-led consortium prevailed. The pipeline project got the green light and in late 2003 the first oil was pumped from the Doba fields of Chad to the marine loading terminal off the shore of Kribi.
In 2007 I returned to Kribi. The town had grown. There were more bars and clubs and lots of construction on the edge of town. Change, but no noticeable improvement. The roads were in terrible condition; the electricity was still spotty and I certainly didn’t want to try the water. Kribi, terminus of the 1070 km. pipeline, seemed untouched by the new oil wealth. Later at the port I heard that the fish were gone. Pipeline construction crews had blasted away a reef just offshore from Kribi, sending the fish miles further out to sea. The local fishermen, with their pirogues, were unable to reach the now- distant fishing zone. Nearly five years after destroying the reef, the ExxonMobil-led consortium finally constructed an artificial reef from old tires. The fish, however, had not returned.
That trip prompted me to look further at the Chad-Cameroon pipeline. The project, which received a fair amount of press coverage during its construction phase, was a test case whose promoters vowed that petrodollars would finally fight poverty. When the oil from Chad began to flow there were a few more press reports, but over the years this story dropped from the radar. Yet, much has happened since October 2003 when the first oil-filled tanker left Kribi. In 2008 the World Bank quietly pulled out of Chad, a tacit admission of the project’s failure to alleviate poverty. Kribi will soon be the site of an iron ore export facility and a deepwater port, confirming fears of many environmentalists that the pipeline would open the door to large-scale industrial development in a fragile, coastal forest zone.
I decided to revisit the story of the Chad Oil Project…and that was the starting point for Pipe(line) Dreams.