Sophia's Peace Work

Friday, November 13, 2009

Working with Saddam?

I'm back in Iraq now and we are finding more and more that companies are approaching us to do "comprehensive ecological baseline surveys" and Environmental Impact Assessments (aka EIAs) for big oil development projects throughout the country.

I went on-line to a website for the Temple Group, an environmental and consultancy planning company and here is what they say about the costs of these activities:

The costs of an EIA vary widely depending on the scale and nature of the development/project being assessed, the relative accessibility of information and the type of consultation involved. A relatively small scale EIA is likely to cost between about $40,000 to $100,000 whilst a large scale development/project could cost in excess of $400,000. In the case of a very large EIA, costs may exceed well over $1 m.

But apparently, in Baghdad you can hire an Iraqi "expert" to do an EIA for around $4000 or $5000 and he (or she) will never even leave the comfort of his (or her) own home to do it! But hey, we are environmental organization and we have to be alot more discriminating because our reputation is on the line and working with a known polluting industry could easily become a conflict in interest for us.

Of course there are many arguments for us to do it. EIA's and the baseline surveys that go with them, must be done as a means to protect these sites; we can perform these activities much more properly than anyone else in Iraq; if not us, than who? Perhaps one of those Baghdad "experts"?; wow, that's alot of money and could support our research and advocacy work for another year or more! And in a time of increased difficulty in securing funding, that can be rather enticing.

But there is a reason why, in the rest of the world, non-govermental organizations (NGO's) as a general rule do not perform these activities. Though they may sometimes be involved, such activities are usually performed by for-profit consultancy companies, like the Temple Group mentioned above. Most NGOs can't afford to keep a staff with the full compentency required to do comprehensive EIA's. Or, if an NGO is just providing baseline surveys for such a project without a say in the final EIA, they might have to lobby against a process they have no control over once their data is in the company's hands. Also the NGO might find itself protesting at the very gates of the development that it had helped to go forward. And finally, if the development causes pollution, the NGOs name is forever associated with it. In any event, participating in such a process means your name is always on the line and as an environmental group, do we really want to hitch our wagon to the oil companies in Iraq?

Our Iraqi staff are new to all this and I struggle with trying to explain the dangers. To one I tried to show him by providing an alternative way of looking at the problem in an Iraqi context:

What if a man came to you and offers you alot of money to perform an EIA for a new prison they want to build in your area. The man looks surprisingly just like Saddam but your aren't sure who he is really and even though he says the prison is necessary and that it will rehabilitate people, you have no way of knowing if in fact people will be tortured and killed in the new prison. All you know is that the guy looks and sounds alot like Saddam and that prisons in Iraq have tortured and killed people in the past. But also you know that in the past, anyone who worked with the real Saddam and his prisons will be forever guilty by association. What should you do?

Now of course, the thought occurs to me that our staff may not think a prison and an oil field can be compared in this way. They are budding, young ecologists who have never been exposed to this kind of danger before. You point them in a direction and say collect data and write me a report and they will do a good job of it without much critical thinking about the purpose behind the request. But for me herein lies the difference between people who merely work in an environmental field and an conservationist and environmental activist. I would say that the prison and the oil field are in essense exactly the same.