Nigeria is the sixth largest oil exporter worldwide . Most of its oil comes from the Niger Delta, which fuels its entire economy. However, villagers there do not receive any of the economic benefits from the oil trade . The delta used to be abundant with fish and farming, but women, who are primarily responsible for such subsistence activities, report that land dispossession and pollution from the oil industries have destroyed the environment . One U.S. company, ChevronTexaco (also known as simply “Chevron”), is particularly to blame for the shocking poverty and environmental degradation in Escravos, where schools often have no roofs or books, hospitals have no equipment or windows, there is little work, the villages have no sanitation . Oil companies such as Chevron began such chaos owing to “male deals,” wherein some of the men in villages made deals with oil companies in hopes of bringing in economic development without the consent of the rest of the village, particularly without consent from women who were more intimately aware of the consequences of these deals from their subsistence work . Christiana Mewe, a women’s activist group leader from Escravos, said, “Our land is sinking. We cannot farm, we cannot kill fishes and crayfish from the river again, every where, pollution … It is the gas that Chevron burns that is causing it” . Ororo Irene, another female protest movement leader, added, “We have no good water source … Most of the time we have spillage, which brings oil to the river. You cannot use it to wash clothes, how much less to bath … The gas that Chevron is burning, when the rainfalls into a drum, the water will be white. It is the gas. When we drink it we always fall sick. The oldest person in town is no longer more than forty” (sic) .
Protesting in the Niger Delta goes back 40 years, against the Shell company. In Escravos it was already common from the early 2000s when locals demanding a fairer share of the oil money, would often kidnap workers from oil companies and demand ransom. Armed men would also sabotage oil companies to pressure them for jobs, protection money, or environmental damage compensation . In one particular incident in April 2002, the ChevronTexaco Escravos site was attacked and 43 oil workers were taken hostage . Women began organizing a very different kind of peaceful protest. On Monday July 8, 2002, a core group of middle-aged women activists (Queen Uwara, Alice Oyuhe, Christiana Mewe, Ororo Irene, Anunu Uwawah, and more) affectionally called “the mamas” but formally known as the Escravos Women Coalition led more than 600 women ages 30-90 from local indigenous communities (the Ugborodo, Ogidigben, Ajudiagbo, Imaghaho, Itsekiri, and Iyala peoples) in a ten-day occupation protest at Chevron’s main oil terminal in Escravos, hijacking the ducks, airfield, gas plant, and tank farm [2, 3, 5, 11]. This manifestation came about when the women had been tired of waiting for three weeks for a response from Chevron to a list of demands they sent . Men were not allowed to join the protest because, as Alice Oyuhe explained, “We don’t want men there … if our boys and men come Chevron will say we want to come and fight them. But as the women went there, we didn't touch their things, we only stopped them from working. What we want is to stop them from working” (sic) . The occupation started with an infiltration team of 150 women who first snuck into the facility. Making way for the rest of the protesters, the rest of the women, communicating with the infiltration team through walkie-talkies, then blocked the airstrip, helipad, and port, the only exits at the facility, which is surrounded by swamps and rivers. As Anunu Uwawah recalled, "I was the leader of the air strip team. If any plane came, I would drive my people there and we circled it” . They brought their own food in straw mats and thermoses and cooked meals in the terminal cafeteria, also rotating shifts with reinforcements from the outside . During the following days, fellow women and even some allied men also occupied twelve other oil facilities across the Niger Delta in coordination with this main protest. Over 1,000 women occupied six oil stations belonging to Chevron specifically including Abiteye, Makaraba, Otuana, and Olera Creek. 100 women even paddled a massive canoe for 8km into the high seas to take over Chevron’s deepwater operation in the Ewan oilfield . Chevron attempted to evacuate its expatriate staff, shut down production and refused to negotiate with the women, though 700 U.S., British, Canadian, and Nigerian workers were still trapped in the terminal that first day. Two hundred employees were allowed to leave Sunday, and hundreds more two days later, leaving just a few dozen inside. [2, 6].
On Wednesday July 10, 2002, two days after the occupation began, about 100 police officers and soldiers armed with assault rifles stormed the terminal to protect the facility . Indeed, Queen Uwara, deputy chairperson of the Escravos Women Coalition, stated, “Chevron brought soldiers and police to threaten us when we were at Chevron yard. If Chevron wants to kill us, we are no longer afraid” . Rapes, beatings, forced prostitution, and murder were all common tactics that soldiers employed to take down female protesters. Attacks on men as fathers, husbands, and sons also hurt women for a multitude of reasons, such as how widowed women are typically disinherited or outcast. The police officially claimed that they were strictly ordered not to hurt any of the women, but various women had been attacked anyway . The occupation remained peaceful, however, and the women retaliated by threatening to take off their clothes. This gesture is called the “curse of nakedness,” and is the most powerful thing a mature woman of 40 or older can do to seriously shame people . There is also the common belief in rural communities that the act inflicts magical curses on enemies ranging from madness to death . As the occupation became a mass naked protest of more and more women, shaming Chevron, they finally began negotiating with corporate management. The protesters initially had 26 demands, including establishing a permanent conflict resolution board between multinationals, the state, and local women; permanently hiring community representatives from each village; building vital infrastructure; giving all elders older than 60 a monthly stipend of $375; providing new ways for villagers to generate more income; and most importantly, getting rid of all local Chevron facilities . However, after ten days of the blockade, the women signed a memorandum ending the occupation in exchange for the company’s promise to improve sanitation, give villages electricity, build schools, clinics, town halls, chicken, and fish farms, and employ 25 locals for five years [2, 4, 5]. During these ten days of protest, the terminal was prevented from producing approximately 500,000 barrels of oil each day .
Despite the initial celebration of this partial success, Chevron as well as Shell who had owned other oil facilities occupied by the second wave of women activists after the Monday infiltration in Escravos were taking too long to implement their promises. Consequently, on August 8, 2002, over 4,000 women from the Warri, Ilaje, Ugborodo, and Ijaw tribes performed another peaceful operation and naked protest at the companies’ regional headquarters in Ekpan as four additional Chevron facilities in the Niger Delta [2, 7, 15]. These women refused to budge until senior company executives would get moving on their promises to improve the communities and provide jobs. They did not sabotage any equipment and just sang together, but were still attacked by police and soldiers, according to protest leader Josephine Ogoba . Protester Alice Youwuren elaborated, “we were just singing, we didn’t destroy anything. We were peaceful. The police and soldiers misbehaved. Look at me, seven armed men pounced on me and reduced me to nothing” . The United Nations Integrated Regional Information Network reported that Shell police killed at least one woman, though Shell refuted the claim, saying that “to the best of our knowledge, the protests at our offices went without any major incident” . Two days later, the companies reached another verbal agreement promising to provide the jobs and amenities, and Chevron even promised to throw a party for the women, their families, and their neighbors as a thank you for not damaging the facility equipment .
During this time, another 50-member wave of these protesters were also occupying Chevron’s deepwater Ewan oilfield facility. The naked women brought samples of their broken fishing equipment and polluted water to the offices in boats, with leader Ibimisan Ebiwonjuni stating, “Our fishing lines and waterways have been destroyed, and our commercial trees, straw-mat farms are all dead as a result of gas flaring and oil spillage” [7, 8]. Irene Wamala also threatened the curse of nakedness, showing her genitals in retaliation for the companies not paying for her hospital bills . Having been shut down so many times in 2002, Chevron agreed to not only clean up the environment and provide amenities to locals, but also shut down one of its Ewan oilfield facilities .
The relative success of the naked protest movement rapidly gained attention worldwide. In solidarity, on September 26, 2002, Nigeria’s Environmental Rights Action, Project Underground and Acccion Ecologica, the Ecuadorian affiliate of OilWatch International started a boycott against Chevron’s oil, and more than a million people in the U.K. launched a similar boycott against ExxonMobil to resist the atrocious conditions in oil producing countries. Furthermore, on November 12, 2002, women in California, inspired by the Nigerian story, started a movement around the world doing naked protests against the imminent Bush attack on Iraq. From February to July 2003, Nigerian men working in the oil industry also striked in solidarity with women doing another naked protest occupation for eight days against Chevron., and another one again happened from July to September 2003 .
Not everything was a happy ending, however, as in 2005, Chevron began cutting its community amenities projects because much of the approximately $60 million for aid was fueling further violence and corruption because of a serious lack of transparency . Uneven implementation favoring the communities in the most profitable oil zones sparked a lot of hostility, jealousy, and violent outbursts between neighbors . Moreover, many young men hired as part of the deals were paid to basically do nothing and often also threatened and extorted people for protection money during occupations, kidnappings, and oil theft. Consequently, in February 2005, villagers demanding that Chevron still honor the promises for jobs and amenities at a protest at the Escravos facility were also shot at, killing one person and injuring several . (See less)