“Agriculture is my life, and now we lost all of our land.” The arrival of an oil company searching for oil in his region has a big impact on the life of Mirza Abdurahman. The 40-year-old farmer lives in Haji Ahmed, a sleepy village half an hour’s drive from the Kurdistan capital of Erbil.
As Abdurahman leans against the wall of his home, which is hardly more than stacked grey concrete blocks topped with a roof, he states that, thanks to the oil company that confiscated his land, he has no money to finish the house.
Here poverty is part of life. Blue plastic is a main feature in the wet winter landscape of Haji Ahmed. It covers most of the roofs of the simple dwellings in the village and its four sister villages that are victims of one of the biggest oil companies in the world. Exxon Mobil is searching for oil in 13 different places on their lands.
Iraqi Kurdistan has one of the biggest oil reserves in the world. Here, 34 oil companies have received concessions to search for oil in 52 locations. Exxon is one of the three big companies that came forward. The Kurdistan government plans to export 300,000 barrels a day via Turkey soon, and wants to increase the production to a million barrels a day by 2015.
For some 300 families living in Haji Ahmed and its surroundings, the nightmare started last spring. An area of over 120 hectares was fenced in, containing their livelihood. Many of the fields were destroyed by bulldozers. Abdurahman lost the grapevines and pomegranate trees that guaranteed his income. He had not been forewarned, nor did he know what was happening.
“Everything is gone,” he mourns, showing the pictures of the last harvest of big blue grapes. He lost 150 donum (15 hectares), and the harvest on the land. “This land has been in my family for over 200 years. I can show you the ownership papers of my grandfather.”
Led by the mukhtar, the village chief, the villagers revolted and blocked the roads. When the mukhtar was picked up by police, local press arrived and reported on the protest.
Six months on, Exxon is there to stay. The village has to get used to the “terrible smell” during test drillings. The mosque has been armed with an alarm in case poisonous gas is released. During a meeting at the local school, Exxon warned of the dangers.
“They want us all to leave. But I stay until I die,” Abdurahman declares.
But how he and his wife Amina will cope, with five young children needing to be clothed and fed, he does not know. Since June he has had no income from the land, just a small wage for guarding foreigners that work for Exxon. The oil company does not offer the village much income, and the only two villagers who work there complain about the low wage and long hours.
Exxon is supposed to compensate the farmers for the use of the land and the loss of income. During a meeting with the Kurdish Ministry of Natural Resources it offered a compensation of $200 per donum (1.34 square meters) per year.
This means that Abdurahman would receive yearly $3,000 for his 150 donum, while in a good year he earns monthly $2,000 from his harvest. “I offered them $500 per donum if only I could get my land back,” he sighs.
The village chief, who is also Abdurahman’s brother, joins the family in the small, bare room. He expects that lack of money will force farmers to accept the bad offer.
Their request for help from members of parliament and the governor of Erbil had no result, Hussein Abdurahman claims. “The governor said: I can’t do anything, it is Exxon’s responsibility.”
Although no complaints have been registered from other locations where oil companies are active, more villages where Exxon is involved report the same problems.
Some change was made after the recent involvement of the international organization, Christian Peace Teams. After it released a video about the problems, Exxon contacted the village chiefs. More jobs have been created, mainly as drivers on the buses kept ready in case of a release of poisonous gas. Forty villagers are now paid to stand by day and night.
But the issue of compensation is not solved. Exxon is said to have promised to do so only after it gets paid by the Kurdistan government in March. Exxon has not replied to Rudaw’s requests for information.
The suggestion to involve a good lawyer in Haji Ahmed is dismissed immediately, showing enormous distrust. “Lawyers won’t help us,” the village chief says. “They always bend over to the government.”