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ExxonMobil oil explorations in Shawre Valley, Kurdistan Region of Iraq


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. 

Basic Data

Name of conflict:ExxonMobil oil explorations in Shawre Valley, Kurdistan Region of Iraq
State or province:Shaqlawa district (Erbil Governorate), Ranya district (Sulaymaniyah Governorate)
Location of conflict:Shawre 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 commodities:Crude oil

Project Details and Actors

Project details

ExxonMobil 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
Affected Population:~ 5000
Start of the conflict:06/09/2013
End of the conflict:06/12/2016
Company names or state enterprises:China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC ) from China
ExxonMobil Corporation (Exxon) from United States of America
Relevant government actors:Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG)
Natural Resources Committee of the Kurdistan Parliament,
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:Assembly for the Protection of the Environment and Public Rights.
Christian Peacemaker Teams – Iraqi Kurdistan (CPT IK),

Conflict & Mobilization

IntensityMEDIUM (street protests, visible mobilization)
Reaction stagePREVENTIVE resistance (precautionary phase)
Groups mobilizing:Farmers
Indigenous groups or traditional communities
Local ejos
Social movements
Religious groups
Forms of mobilization:Blockades
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-economical 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
Conflict outcome / response:Criminalization of activists
Project cancelled
Withdrawal of company/investment
Development of alternatives:Most 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 an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:Yes
Briefly explain: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 & Materials

Links to general newspaper articles, blogs or other websites

Iraqi Kurdistan vs. Big Oil, Slate

Sweet grapes and the bitter taste of oil, CPT IK

Haji Ahmed community breaths the gas of destruction, CPT IK

Locals protest oil exploration in Exxon block, Iraqi Oil Report

Exxon Mobil puts operations on hiatus because of ISIS, but Kurdish villagers cannot access land, CPT IK

Oil companies continue to steal and destroy land, CPT IK

"We are writing history...", CPT IK

Exxon Mobil pollutes Kurdish villages, CPT IK

Exxon cuts Kurdistan portfolio by half, Iraqi Oil Report

Related media links to videos, campaigns, social network

CPT IK documentary "Voice of the People"

Other documents

ExxonMobil oil well near the village of Hajji Ahmed (1) Source: CPT IK

ExxonMobil oil well near the village of Hajji Ahmed (2) Source: CPT IK

Other comments:Secondary sources were supplemented with interviews with local residents and activists.

Meta information

Contributor:Alessandro Tinti, Sant'Anna School of Advanced Studies
Last update12/08/2018



ExxonMobil oil well near the village of Hajji Ahmed (1)

Source: CPT IK

ExxonMobil oil well near the village of Hajji Ahmed (2)

Source: CPT IK