Life in the Time of Oil: A Pipeline and Poverty in Chad

Life in the Time of Oil: A Pipeline and Poverty in Chad

Life in the Time of Oil: A Pipeline and Poverty in Chad

Life in the Time of Oil: A Pipeline and Poverty in Chad


Life in the Time of Oil examines the Chad-Cameroon Petroleum Development and Pipeline Project--a partnership between global oil companies, the World Bank, and the Chadian government that was an ambitious scheme to reduce poverty in one of the poorest countries on the African continent. Key to the project was the development of a marginal set of oilfields that had only recently attracted the interest of global oil companies who were pressed to expand operations in the context of declining reserves. Drawing on more than a decade of work in Chad, Lori Leonard shows how environmental standards, grievance mechanisms, community consultation sessions, and other model policies smoothed the way for oil production, but ultimately contributed to the unraveling of the project. Leonard offers a nuanced account of the effects of the project on everyday life and the local ecology of the oilfield region as she explores the resulting tangle of ethics, expectations, and effects of oil as development.


The entire country has its eyes turned to the Doba region, which has
become the center of national attention with the activities of conoco.
Of course, finding oil is always a roll of the dice. But when the work of
this company is crowned with success, supporting industries and complex
and specialized installations will proliferate. the key to the problem of
development will be found, and we will be able to make over the entirety
of Chad.

   —President François Ngarta Tombalbaye, Info-Tchad,
December 19, 1973

On my first trip to canton Miandoum, just as the Chad-Cameroon Petroleum Development and Pipeline Project was getting underway, Firmin took me to see le premier puits—the first well. It stood in a clearing on an abandoned plot of land, surrounded by scrub brush and high grasses, and was bright red, the color of a fire hydrant. a small metal plaque commemorating the oil find was affixed to the well. By the time I made the pilgrimage to the well with Firmin, everyone knew that other wells—hundreds of them—would follow. Firmin wanted to be photographed next to the first well. the photographs I took of him remind me of others I took of people posing with their prized possessions—not oil wells, but radios, bicycles, mobile phones, or decorative pots and pans. Firmin was wearing a Chicago Bulls jersey. He had one of his hands on the well and was leaning into it, possessively. His other hand grasped the handle of the hoe that was perched on his shoulder. in those images he seems to embody the tensions and transformations, the hopes and dreams of a nation on the verge of something big. the photographs capture an instant of wide openness, a moment of promise when it seemed possible that Tombalbaye’s dream might finally come true.

Nowhere in Chad was the connection between oil and development more deeply engrained than in canton Miandoum, where Conoco conducted exploratory drilling in the 1970s. the year after Tombalbaye announced that prospecting operations were underway in the Doba basin, euphoric headlines appeared in the national newspaper, the Canard Déchainé. Conoco had struck oil! the year after that, the president was assassinated in a military coup. in the decades that followed, Firmin’s parents and their families, friends, and neighbors took care of . . .

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