The real treasure here is the beauty of the land, not the oil beneath it

By: Rebekah Dowling

In Australia there is continuously growing concern over mining. We talk about losing farmland, homes, traditional sites, polluting waterways, endangered species and climate change.

During my delegation in Kurdistan, Latif shared with us the story of his village's fight against Exxon Mobil. It is a part of the Kurdish story that I can relate to an Australian context and in a weird way that is exciting for me. It is just that we so often portray the Kurdish people as either silent victims or terrorists but hearing this story completely dispels that and crosses contexts and cultures.

Gullan village. Photo by CPTers.

Latif is from a small Kurdish village called Gulan. In 2013 Exxon Mobil moved into his rural farming community to begin drilling for oil. Most of the time people think the can do nothing to stop these massive oil companies but this village was organised and they knew that they did not want an oil company here destroying their land, polluting their waterways and leaving them destitute. Latif said, 'we were sleeping on a sea of oil and freezing to death'. They had seen what oil companies had done in other towns and would not let it happen to them. So Latif and some friends formed a council and began organizing demonstrations and informing the people and media what was happening.

The council talking to media. Photo by CPTers.

The council talking to media. Photo by CPTers.

At first it was very peaceful, they visited the company and the government and tried to negotiate. But the companies knew they had government support which meant military and police. What could these villagers do?

Working on the drilling site continued so the newly formed council organised a demonstration. They called the media and people. They made signs with statements such as, 'Don't destroy our country for bosses pockets!' and, 'We won't exchange water for oil!'.

The police were called to show the government's might, but the demonstrations just grew.

The people brought logs and created a road block to the drilling site. Latif told how the drivers were shocked, this was the first time that a struggle like this had grown out of the people. They made sure everyone knew that they were peaceful, but they would, 'struggle with anyone who destroys our country'.

The villagers blockading the road. Photo by CPTers.

If you visited Gulan you would understand their passion. It is beautiful. A friend described it as the Garden of Eden and imagining it being lost under the machinery of international corporations is enough to bring you to tears. The whole of Kurdistan was like that, heart-wrenchingly beautiful. We would be driving along dusty roads then, wham, another view of endless golden hills, rocky cliffs, hidden gardens, secret waterfalls, grazing goat herds, enchanting stone walls and elegant mosques. The phrase God's Country, kept flitting through my mind. Then you hear these people's stories of war and suffering and it is so frustrating. Doesn't the world know that this place should be treasured not ripped apart by human greed and arrogance?

We visited another town, Hadji Ahmed, where  Miro, a farmer, told us of the complications their area has faced because of oil drilling. When CPT first visited him he could barely access his fields because of the checkpoints set up by Exxon Mobil. They had opened a gas and oil drilling site in between his house and his fields and were forcing him to show an ID every time he wanted to pass and limiting the times he was allowed to do so. Currently because of the bad economic situation'work on the site has been capped, but not before they had cleared the land and dug a 3000 meter deep well. A few weeks ago Miro saw more workers from the Natural Resources ministry scouting the area for potential drilling sites. What will happen to his family, to his walnut trees, to his village, to the remaining natural water sources, if they do find something?

Kak Miro picking up grapes from his vineyard. Photo by CPTers.

According to KRG natural resources laws you cannot just go and drill for oil without following certain procedures in emotional and material compensation and environmental measures. These laws are barely followed or acknowledged. The Natural Resources minister is Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and if KDP wants to drill for oil they will drill. Renas, who is also from the town, said, 'They (politicians) use oil to stay in power. They bring international companies in because they want support from world powers'. And it works. A friend pointed out that Obama has shifted from referring to protecting USA people to protecting their overseas interests. It is in the open. The United States will go to war for oil, and let's be realistic, so will Australia.

Oil in Kurdistan is mostly a curse. Currently in the KRG their are demonstrations happening over months of unpaid wages of those in the public sector, particularly teachers but also pensioners. One reason for the cuts is a dispute between the Iraqi Central Government and the Kurdistan Regional Government over the sale of oil. Yes another oil fight creating problems for people who were always unlikely to benefit economically from it. It is time for all of us to take inspiration from Gulan. We will not sell our neighbor's right to live in peace.

In their final meeting with the Exxon Mobil Latif's friends brought a rose from his garden. He kissed it and showed it to the business men, 'I love my country,' he said, 'and I would not exchange this rose for the entire wealth of Exxon Mobil'. Latif tells me that after that, the men from these oil companies finally understood and said they would not come back.