ExxonMobil oil explorations in Shawre Valley, Kurdistan Region of Iraq

“Our ancestors have lived here and worked on this land for centuries but now we are afraid that our water sources will soon be destroyed and we will have to leave this place.” Finally, the project was stopped.


In May 2013 ExxonMobil began exploring the Shawre Valley in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) for crude. Since the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003 the oil and gas industry has been developing at a steady pace in the KRI, where relevant hydrocarbon reserves were still largely untapped. However, the introduction of the energy industry into the rural fabric of the region has had dire socioeconomic and environmental impacts on traditional livelihoods. Whereas in most cases protests against extractive projects were ineffective and short-lived, the mobilisation against ExxonMobil’s upstream operations in the mountainous valley stretching north of the city of Ranya, instead, was unprecedented in scale, coordination efforts, and outcome. To date, it is the only case in which the outright refusal to extractive activities by local communities induced, among other reasons, an oil company to relinquish an exploration block. 

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Basic Data
NameExxonMobil oil explorations in Shawre Valley, Kurdistan Region of Iraq
ProvinceShaqlawa district (Erbil Governorate), Ranya district (Sulaymaniyah Governorate)
SiteShawre Valley
Accuracy of LocationHIGH local level
Source of Conflict
Type of Conflict (1st level)Fossil Fuels and Climate Justice/Energy
Type of Conflict (2nd level)Oil and gas exploration and extraction
Specific CommoditiesCrude oil
Project Details and Actors
Project DetailsExxonMobil started exploration and drilling activities in the Betwata block in May 2013, pursuant to the production-sharing agreement signed with the Kurdistan Regional Government in October 2011. The block was named after one of the many villages lying across the Shawre Valley. The Bureau of Geophysical Prospecting Ltd., a subsidiary of the China National Petroleum Corporation, was contracted by ExxonMobil to undertake initial seismic explorations with the use of dynamite explosives and conduct a geological survey of the area. The oil major had already appropriated around 18 hectares of agricultural and grazing land between the villages of Hajji Ahmed and Sartka (in the Shaqlawa district) to build a 3,000-meter deep oil well. Drilling operations were temporarily suspended in 2014 due to the insurgency of the Islamic State group, but resumed in February 2015. Amid heightened protests and non-prospective findings, ExxonMobil abandoned the block at the end of 2016.
Type of PopulationRural
Potential Affected Population~ 5000
Start Date06/09/2013
End Date06/12/2016
Company Names or State EnterprisesChina National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC ) from China
ExxonMobil Corporation (Exxon) from United States of America
Relevant government actorsKurdistan Regional Government (KRG)

Natural Resources Committee of the Kurdistan Parliament,
Environmental justice organisations and other supportersAssembly for the Protection of the Environment and Public Rights.

Christian Peacemaker Teams – Iraqi Kurdistan (CPT IK) https://cpt.org//work/iraq, https://cptik.org/
The Conflict and the Mobilization
Intensity of Conflict (at highest level)MEDIUM (street protests, visible mobilization)
When did the mobilization beginPREVENTIVE resistance (precautionary phase)
Groups MobilizingFarmers
Indigenous groups or traditional communities
Local ejos
Social movements
Religious groups
Forms of MobilizationBlockades
Development of a network/collective action
Involvement of national and international NGOs
Media based activism/alternative media
Official complaint letters and petitions
Public campaigns
Street protest/marches
Threats to use arms
Refusal of compensation
Environmental ImpactsVisible: Air pollution, Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity), Food insecurity (crop damage), Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation, Soil contamination
Potential: Oil spills, Surface water pollution / Decreasing water (physico-chemical, biological) quality, Groundwater pollution or depletion, Reduced ecological / hydrological connectivity
Health ImpactsVisible: Mental problems including stress, depression and suicide
Potential: Accidents, Exposure to unknown or uncertain complex risks (radiation, etc…)
Socio-economic ImpactsVisible: Increase in Corruption/Co-optation of different actors, Lack of work security, labour absenteeism, firings, unemployment, Loss of livelihood, Militarization and increased police presence, Violations of human rights, Land dispossession
Potential: Displacement, Loss of traditional knowledge/practices/cultures, Loss of landscape/sense of place
Project StatusStopped
Pathways for conflict outcome / responseCriminalization of activists
Project cancelled
Withdrawal of company/investment
Development of AlternativesMost villagers did not received adequate, if not actual, compensation. However, compensation for losses was secondary to the demand of withdrawing from further explorations and any other future development in the valley. Moreover, as laid down by CPT IK, requests included “the full consultation with, and free and informed consent of, area residents as a precondition to KRG permits for hydrocarbon exploration or development”.
Do you consider this as a success?Yes
Why? Explain briefly.Local communities proudly consider the withdrawal of ExxonMobil as the direct result of their resistance. Although unsatisfactory oil discoveries certainly played a role in the company’s decision to relinquish the exploration block, the resolute and coordinated mobilisation of rural villages across the Shawre Valley set a remarkable precedent in the KRI. Moreover, protests initiated by activists created widespread awareness of the dangers extractive industries pose to traditional livelihoods and the symbiotic relationship with the natural environment.
Sources and Materials

Iraqi Kurdistan vs. Big Oil, Slate
[click to view]

Sweet grapes and the bitter taste of oil, CPT IK
[click to view]

Haji Ahmed community breaths the gas of destruction, CPT IK
[click to view]

Locals protest oil exploration in Exxon block, Iraqi Oil Report
[click to view]

Exxon Mobil puts operations on hiatus because of ISIS, but Kurdish villagers cannot access land, CPT IK
[click to view]

Oil companies continue to steal and destroy land, CPT IK
[click to view]

"We are writing history...", CPT IK
[click to view]

Exxon Mobil pollutes Kurdish villages, CPT IK
[click to view]

Exxon cuts Kurdistan portfolio by half, Iraqi Oil Report
[click to view]

Media Links

CPT IK documentary "Voice of the People"
[click to view]

Other Documents

ExxonMobil oil well near the village of Hajji Ahmed (1) Source: CPT IK
[click to view]

ExxonMobil oil well near the village of Hajji Ahmed (2) Source: CPT IK
[click to view]

Other CommentsSecondary sources were supplemented with interviews with local residents and activists.
Meta Information
ContributorAlessandro Tinti, Sant'Anna School of Advanced Studies
Last update12/08/2018