BERO, Chad - Sitting in the shade of a giant mango tree, the chief of this tiny Central African village of mud brick homes considers for a moment what to make of the untapped oil reserves beneath him. Are they piles of gold or the seeds of his village's destruction?
Stroking his chin thoughtfully, Daingar Ndingambaye, the slender 45-year-old leader, concludes, "We don't know what to expect in the future, but we hope that good things can happen."
He's speaking of a pipeline that will carry up to 250,000 barrels of oil a day from deposits near his home across the tropical scrubland of southern Chad, over the mountains of eastern Cameroon, and through the rainforest homes of isolated Pygmy tribes before it reaches gas tanks in the West.
It's a $3.7 billion project - one of the largest investments in sub-Saharan Africa. With enabling loans approved by the World Bank in June over a storm of protest by human rights and environmental groups, the pipeline is considered war-torn Chad's one shot to pull itself out of dismal poverty and a test of the bank's much criticized development policies in Africa. But critics fear the mammoth venture will follow the experience of other African oil-producing nations, fueling corruption and environmental destruction instead of bringing wealth to ordinary citizens.
Nearly 600 miles to the west of Bero in Cameroon, a village of Pygmies, known as the Bagyeli people, is asking the same questions as Ndingambaye.
Hidden deep in the forest, the villagers of Ndamayo live in huts fashioned from bamboo and palm leaves. They hunt rats, porcupine and monkey with homemade spears. Most have no formal education and little knowledge of a pipeline that will cut within 100 yards of their homes.
Ask Chief Gaston Mintouong what he thinks the pipeline will carry and he looks puzzled. "It will be empty," he says. Tell him the pipeline will carry oil, and he replies sheepishly, "I don't know what that is."
Hoping for compensation
But Mintouong does know he will be forced away from his home and hunting grounds once construction gets under way. And although he has yet to speak with anyone from the oil companies, he hopes to receive compensation from them.
"I want the oil companies to build me a new house with ceilings," says the 45-year-old chief, who sits in an unfinished home with half a palm leaf roof.
Farther down the line, in the coastal port of Kribi, where the pipeline will pass on its way to a floating distribution platform five miles out at sea, local fishermen are dreaming of high-paying jobs working on the pipeline, which is due to be completed in about four years. But they also worry about the danger of spills and disruption to traditional fishing practices that have endured through generations.
"That is my life. We don't have any other work here," says fisherman Charles Evehe, 31. But, he adds, "We cannot continue to fight the pipeline. It has been decided."
Now, he says, the fishermen must learn the best way to live with it.
The village of Bero is in the tropical scrubland of southern Chad. The flat landscape of shrubs, grasses and fields of millet the color of putting greens stretches as far as the eye can see, interrupted only by the serpentine paths of the Pende and Logone rivers.
Oil was discovered beneath the soil here more than 30 years ago. But the difficulty of removing it from a landlocked country with few paved roads and three decades of civil war kept oil companies away.
Now ExxonMobil and its partners, Chevron and Petronas of Malaysia, plan to take the risk to tap reserves believed to contain 1 billion barrels of oil. At today's prices, the oil companies could reap revenue of up to $30 billion over the next 25 years.
Like everyone else who lives along the path of the pipeline, Chief Ndingambaye is anxious to have that money trickle down to his village. And from Bero to Ndamayo to Kribi, villagers dream of riches that exceed reality.
No miracle ahead
So far, many villagers who have received financial compensation for their land have squandered windfalls on beer, parties and extra wives. Other villagers have stopped farming altogether, believing that oil companies will take care of them. And in a country with few opportunities, thousands of migrants may inundate the region, hoping to get rich off the oil boom.
In reality, critics of this and similar projects say, the amount of new wealth will be minimal, and villagers should expect water wells or latrines - not mansions and automobiles.
"We have to tell them, 'Cool it. This is not going to be a miracle,'" says Djimte G. Salomon, a spokesman for World Vision, a Christian nonprofit organization that has offered humanitarian aid in Chad for 15 years.
Other nonprofits complain that the oil companies' efforts to assist the villagers, while well-intentioned, sometimes backfire in absurd ways.
In several villages, the oil companies built latrines for the communities. But the latrines were the finest structures the villagers had ever seen, and they had locks. So, of course, the villagers used them to store their most precious belongings and went on relieving themselves in the bush as they had been doing quite happily for centuries.
In Bero, some of the compensation projects have changed things for the better, says Ndingambaye, a tall bearded man who wears a long white robe and sandals. Walking along the red dirt footpaths of his village, Ndingambaye proudly points out a school, a grain storage building and several other corrugated metal-topped structures that ExxonMobil offered as compensation for land taken from his village to develop the oil fields.
Now, like thousands of other villagers near the oil fields, he would like jobs for his people. But such expectations are far-fetched, the oil companies say. Nationwide, the oil companies have warned, there may be 4,000 jobs, not 400,000, as some people believe.
A scene at a small base near Bero illustrates the differences between reality and the expectations of people in this region of subsistence farming.
At the base built for Esso-Chad, the ExxonMobil affiliate heading the pipeline project, engineers and other oil workers live in cabins with toilets and running water. They watch satellite television and drive Toyota Landcruisers. On breaks they can play pickup games on a basketball court. They are shielded from the world outside by a 10-foot-high fence.
Outside the fence, people are living in what could be another century. Stooped over in the fields, women harvest millet and cotton by hand. Just down a red dirt road, nomads drive herds of cattle in search of grazing land. Everyone travels by foot or bicycle.
Sitting in a white plastic chair at the gate to the Esso base is Ndolebe Sanedi, chief of the Kome Canton, a group of 31 villages with 19,000 residents about a mile from the oil fields. Sanedi has been hired as a security guard for the base and is paid about $100 a month for his services. The money comes in handy, he says, because he has four wives and 10 children to support.
Sanedi wants his villages to receive school buildings, health centers, water and electricity. The oil companies will help with some improvements, but many requests will be up to the government of Chad and how it wants to spend its oil revenues. No matter what happens, Sanedi is warning families not to abandon their plows when hundreds of engineers, contractors and oilmen with heavy Texas drawls arrive here to drill wells, build an airport and construct homes and offices.
"The most important thing in this area is agriculture," says Sanedi. "The oil revenue is an addition to the agriculture. We cannot all expect to get jobs in oil."
Critics of the pipeline project fear that the hopes of villagers of Bero will be dashed as soon as construction begins, just as they have been in other oil-producing communities in Africa.
Although oil is one of the biggest exports from Africa, historically it has brought more corruption, environmental problems and chaos than assistance for the struggling nations.
In Nigeria, oil production continues to breed discontent and danger for residents of the Niger River delta, where thousands of people have been killed in pipeline explosions in recent years. The victims, local villagers upset that they remain desperately poor despite their country's oil boom, usually are killed while siphoning oil from a pipeline to sell.
And in Angola, oil fields and ocean platforms producing an average of 800,000 barrels a day are a major stake in a civil war that has raged there since 1975.
Chad and Cameroon, home to corrupt and brutal governments, would be no different, many human rights and environmental groups say.
Both countries have poor human rights records, histories of vote rigging in presidential elections and documented cases of extrajudicial killings.
"Do you know of anywhere in sub-Saharan Africa where an oil project has improved the lives of the people of the country?" asks Didier Amougou, the director of Planet Survey, a nonprofit environmental and development organization based in Yaounde, the capital of Cameroon. "There are always conflicts."
That is the fear 600 miles to the west of Bero in Cameroon, where the Pygmy village of Ndamayo is also awaiting the pipeline with a mix of hope and dread.
Hunting with spears
Ndamayo is about a six-hour drive west from Yaounde, most of it on bumpy, unpaved roads accessible only by four-wheel-drive vehicles. To reach the village itself, a visitor must leave the dirt road and travel the final mile on foot. A narrow trail winds through thick underbrush, over fallen trees, deep into virgin tropical forest.
Possibly no place affected by the pipeline could be further removed from the paneled offices and marbled hallways where decisions were made to put up billions for this project.
At the first break in the trees are two unfinished huts fashioned from palm leaves and bamboo. The frames of two more homes are visible nearby. A skinny African dog lopes along the perimeter of the homes, growling.
Chief Mintouong and his family are gathered around a slow-burning fire in the one corner of his home with a complete roof. It is hunting season here, and for Mintouong that means trudging with a homemade spear up to 10 miles from home in search of porcupine, rats or a monkey. But this morning, a heavy downpour keeps him home.
Mintouong stands no taller than 5 feet and wears a white collared shirt, trousers and sandals. Asked how many people live in the village, he pauses, looks from side to side a bit embarrassed.
"We don't know," says Mintouong, a man of sharp eyes and a roughly trimmed beard. "We want to count them now."
He looks from side to side again, then without getting up, leans back to count the residents in the second house across the clearing.
"Twelve," he announces. But his answer is met with a chorus of criticism from his family. "Maybe 20," he corrects himself. "But we don't count the youngest."
Some of the confusion stems from the fact that Mintouong's village was displaced once already because of the pipeline project, and some villagers decided to relocate to other places.
Mintouong's native village was a few miles away by the side of a dirt road. The chief cannot remember how long he lived there, long enough to bury his father and elder brother nearby. But, like most Pygmies who dwell in the forests of Cameroon, Mintouong did not own the land on which he lived.
Not officially recognized as citizens of Cameroon, the Pygmies inhabit a netherworld outside political boundaries. They cannot vote and receive few, if any, government services.
Prey to exploitation
Hunters and gatherers who have lived in small bands in the dense forest for thousands of years, the Bagyeli Pygmies have no electricity or running water. About the only conveniences they depend on from the outside world are soap and matches. And they have no desire for much to change, says Mintouong. "We are born in the forest, so we like living in the forest."
Lack of education and their lowly position in society have left the Bagyeli easy prey for exploitation by logging companies and by the dominant ethnic group in the region, the Bantu.
In the words of Jacques Lacoun, a member of the Bagyeli tribe who spoke out against the pipeline before the World Bank this year, the Pygmies are treated like "slaves." They live in forests claimed by town dwellers, who give them permission to stay. In return, the Pygmies must work for the landowners.
"It means the Bantu can come and tell them to go away," Lacoun says.
Which is exactly what happened to Mintouong's village when word came about a pipeline and possible riches. Mintouong's home was directly in the path of the pipeline so a Bantu chief, hoping to avoid any confusion over who should be compensated, forced the Pygmy villagers to move. They took up residence on land owned by another Bantu family and may be forced to move again.
Just down the road at the home of Mbile Maurice, a Bantu chief from nearby Kouambo, a sheet of paper on the wall lists 21 families who will be compensated when the pipeline arrives. Not one is a Pygmy.
Asked why not, he shrugs, and says there is no reason for the Pygmies to be compensated because they live on borrowed land. "If you don't exploit the land, the land is not yours," he reasons.
Under a compensation system set up by oil companies, landowners like Maurice receive money for every mango tree and piece of land disturbed by the construction. Maurice says he will receive $3,000 for a portion of his farm that will be disturbed by the pipeline - a huge sum in a country where mean per capita Gross National Product is $590.
He opens a glossy catalogue on his coffee table displaying the rewards offered by the oil consortium to his people as compensation: bicycles, watering cans, shovels, wheelbarrows, sewing machines. He can keep the money he is given, he explains, or use it toward buying a number of the items. The oil companies "don't want people to drink away their money," he says.
'Forest will be destroyed'
Without the support of the government or local villagers, the Pygmies are the most vulnerable group along the pipeline route, says Lacoun.
"The forest will be destroyed. The Pygmies will be displaced. And they don't know where they will be resettled," he says.
Although the oil companies held dozens of information meetings near the Pygmy villages and committed $600,000 to assist them, few Pygmies are aware of the project, Lacoun says. "We don't know what the pipeline is. We never had the opportunity to choose whether we wanted the project."
Pygmy chief Mintouong says he supports the project as long as it means he gets a job or money. Although Mintouong's name does not appear on any compensation list, he remains optimistic that he and his village will receive something for their troubles. "I want them to build us a house, a school and a health center," he says.
And what if he gets nothing? That's nothing to be afraid of, he says with the confidence of a man who knows real enemies. "We only fear gorillas and snakes. That's all," he says, noting that the other day a gorilla was spotted closer to his village than the pipeline would pass.
Poorest people ignored
Under an agreement reached with the oil companies, the government of Chad will earn about $2 billion in oil revenues during the next 25 years, increasing its annual budget by nearly 50 percent. Cameroon stands to earn about $500 million during the same period, some 3 percent of its annual budget.
In the months leading up to the World Bank vote on the pipeline in June, human rights and environmental groups mounted a campaign against the project, arguing that these financial benefits would bypass villages with the most to lose like Ndamayo and Bero.
When protesters blocked the streets of Washington during the spring meetings of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, the Pygmies and the pipeline became potent symbols in the fight against globalization. Opponents say megaprojects such as the pipeline benefit only the foreign companies and a handful of the local elite and ignore the needs of the poorest people. Protesters place much of the blame on the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, the two international lending institutions that help poor countries finance projects.
In a 280-page report released in May, the World Bank agreed that it needed to share the blame for making Africa poorer by sponsoring ill-conceived projects. The huge flow of aid over the years has done little to spark economic growth, sinking the continent deeper into poverty.
After decades of development aid, the collective economic output of sub-Saharan Africa's 48 nations is roughly the same as Belgium's, the report says.
But the World Bank asserts it has learned from its mistakes and now has better controls to manage aid.
In June, it agreed to lend $192 million to Chad and Cameroon to finance the governments' investments in the pipeline project. Although the World Bank loan represents less than 3 percent of the overall cost of the project, World Bank participation was considered necessary for investors to back the project because of the risks involved.
The World Bank said that the oil revenue would be earmarked for development projects in the country and that Chad's management of the money would be monitored.
Under the agreement with the bank, Chad will commit 80 percent of the funds to education, health and social services, environmental management, rural development and infrastructure; 10 percent will be held in a trust for future generations; and 5 percent will be earmarked for development in the oil-producing towns like Bero. The remaining 5 percent can be spent as the government wishes.
Notorious for corruption
Cameroon, a nation of 15 million run since 1982 by President Paul Biya, is rated the most corrupt country in the world in an index by the nonprofit group Transparency International. Its government has no spending requirements, although it must disclose where the money goes.
Critics of the project warn that in Chad, where President Idriss Deby holds an unsteady and sometimes violent grip on a nation seething with civil and ethnic unrest, the spending promises are meaningless.
"The World Bank has quite a lot of faith in the government. But the value of a written law is not great. Government paper is worth nothing," says Hans Zomer, coordinator for Eirene, a nongovernmental humanitarian organization working in Chad.
Chad guarantees freedom of expression, but when a member of Parliament spoke out against the project in 1998, he was imprisoned. Organizations opposed to the project have reported intimidation by government officials. According to local human rights groups, government forces threatened citizens with summary execution if they opposed the pipeline.
And with an active war in the northwestern Tibesti Mountains against a rebellion led by former Defense Minister Youssouf Togoimi, Chad officials will be tempted to funnel the money into the fight, critics fear.
Decades of war, instability
Since it won independence from France in 1960, Chad has been torn apart by civil war and instability. It is one of the poorest nations on the planet, and its government barely meets the most basic needs of its citizens. The entire country, about three times the size of California, has only a few hundred miles of paved roads and just 7,500 telephones for a population of more than 7 million. About 80 percent of the population live on less than $1 a day; the average life expectancy is 49 years; 85 percent of the population is illiterate.
Many buildings in the capital city of N'Djamena on the banks of the muddy Chari River still display bullet-pocked facades from times of war. Power and water service is sporadic. Children stand on street corners clutching metal bowls begging for coins.
One measure of conditions in this country may be the public health center in Chagoua district of N'Djamena.
Located in the southern suburbs of the capital, the yellow-painted building is packed with patients suffering from malaria, AIDS, typhoid, malnutrition and dozens of other ailments.
Surgery not possible
Treatment is limited. A surgery room is abandoned and dusty because the center has no electricity. None is provided by the city, and there is no fuel for the generator. There is no running water either, so the doctors and nurses must walk down the road to fetch it from nearby wells.
Several times each week when patients arrive looking for emergency surgery, the doctors direct them to another hospital with power and water.
"But by the time they get there, there is no future. They may die," says Dr. Tchonchimbo Djongali, 36, director of the center.
Djongali does not expect much of the oil revenue to reach his center. He says that in Chad, where Muslims from the north dominate the government, police and military, Christians and traditional believers from the south often are neglected.
The Muslims, "those who wear long dresses," as he describes them, "have nice houses and nice cars." Christians, "those who wear pants and shirts, do not."
The same division will continue in the distribution of the money from the oil, he predicts.
"I like the idea that the oil is being exploited, but it will help if [the people of Chad] have management of the revenues. If you have real management, the project will work. If not, it will be the same situation, and the government will not address the problems here."
Abderahman Dadi, secretary general of the Chadian presidency and chief coordinator for the pipeline project, said the government is attentive to proposals to improve management of oil revenues and is convinced the project will lead to the "quick economic transformation of the country and improve the lives of all the people of Chad."
He denied charges of intimidation against people opposed to the project. While he acknowledged that "human rights need to be improved in general," he insisted that "the pipeline is not the issue."
The oil pipeline, he insisted, is imperative, "an opportunity that must be seized to transform the country economically and socially."
World Bank officials and U.S. officials say they are hopeful that Deby's government can be trusted to meet the expectations being placed on it.
"There isn't anything else out there to give the country a shot in arm. Chad is at a crossroads. It has the best opportunity for political and economic progress since independence," says U.S. Ambassador to Chad Christopher E. Gold- thwait.
No other way
And, despite the many uncertainties, Ngoniri Gos Mbairo, coordinator of a federation of nongovernmental organizations, says he and other critics support the project, if reluctantly.
"There are two kinds of people who are against the project. Some for environmental reasons. And some who are not confident in our leaders' ability to manage the oil revenues," he says.
But in the end, both groups are forced to support the project "because they believe there is no other way to fight against poverty here."
Jean-Pierre Petit, general director of the project for Esso-Chad, is an optimist, perhaps out of necessity. Dealing with corrupt, unstable governments is part of the oil business, he says.
"Chad is not worse than a lot of countries we have to work in now. We are not going to find oil in a quiet place like Switzerland," he said.
He believes that in 10 years, oil revenues will help improve Chad, although maybe not transform it.
"In N'Djamena, you would see a lot of paved road, you would have electricity on a regular basis. Normal telephone service. Normal water supplies. Better schools and hospitals," he says.
It will not be Kuwait, but it will make a poor country less poor. "When you start at zero, and you get peanuts, it is a lot," he says.