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.
Since the arrival of ExxonMobil, around 30 villages (Gullan, Betwata, Haji Ahmed, Sartka, Daraban, Allawa, and Sorabani to mention a few) staged concerted demonstrations with the aid of civil society activists, who played a fundamental role in raising public awareness and reaching out independent oil engineers to assess the effects of oil drilling, in order to oppose land concessions to the company. Based on other experiences from the region, a group of activists formed an association (called Assembly for the Protection of the Environment and Public Rights) to organize people’s grievances and support local councils. Likewise, the international NGO Christian Peacemaker Teams – Iraqi Kurdistan (CPT IK) followed the conflict in all its phases.
The potential depletion and pollution of groundwater and natural springs was the first concern put forward in the campaign. As ExxonMobil cleared 18 hectares of orchards and vineyards to build a camp and look for potential drilling sites, villagers documented restricted access to farmland and consequent loss of annual harvest, soil depletion, disruption of traditional farming livelihoods, release of excess gas, arrests and personal threats directed against activists. Even the Head of the Natural Resources Committee of the Kurdistan Parliament, Sherko Jawdat, was denied access to the militarised ExxonMobil’s site in March 2015.
Despite deployments of Kurdish security forces, villagers openly defied at their own peril regional authorities by organising protests to dissuade ExxonMobil and its contractors from carrying on explorations further. People from the valley are renowned for a revolutionary and tenacious temperament, which has its roots in a history of resistance against foreign occupiers (not least the 1991 Kurdish uprising against Saddam Hussein). Most notably, on 15th August 2015 between 80-120 people gathered in the village of Daraban and block the main road with wooden logs to interrupt the passage of ExxonMobil’s workers and trucks. The collective action was broadcast by Kurdish media.
Initially against the oil company, protests increasingly targeted the Kurdistan Regional Government, blamed for undermining the delicate environment of the valley and seeking revenues at the expense of local communities. Although protests were nonviolent with no exceptions, protesters came to the point of threatening the use of arms as a last resort. The strong sense of place and the emotional attachment to the natural landscape were crucial factors for the mobilisation to grow and endure, despite power asymmetries. As ExxonMobil withdrew in 2016, the situation is reportedly calm but it is feared the future concession of new licenses to oil operators.