Oil money trickles down to Azerbaijan’s dispossessed

Tehran Times
April 28 2004

Oil Money Trickles Down to Azerbaijan’s Dispossessed

SANGACHAL, Azerbaijan (AFP) — Medanet Mamedova does not know where
she stands in the fierce ethical debate raging around the world
between the oil industry and campaign groups which argue that “Big
Oil” is making its shareholders rich by exploiting the poor.

This 32-year-old mother in the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan
does know, though, that she is earning desperately-needed cash for
her family by stitching together work gloves for sale to a nearby oil
terminal operated by multinational company BP.

Mamedova is one of 10 women living in the ramshackle Umid refugee
camp who have been given the equipment and training to make the
gloves, which are then sold under a contract to the contractors
working to enlarge BP’s Sangachal terminal.

Mamedova, part of a women-only co-operative, works from her shack,
sitting at an electric sewing machine.

If she makes 15 pairs of gloves a day, in between looking after her
two young children and household chores, she can earn about five
dollars (4.2 euros), or $150 a month.

That might not seem much, but Mamedova’s husband is unemployed and
the family’s only other income is the 20$ a month it receives in
state benefits.

Before now, oil industry contracters imported the gloves because no
manufacturer inside Azerbaijan could qualify for the necessary
quality certificate.

The co-operative only started work last week but it has already got
orders for 3,000 pairs of gloves.

The glove-making project was the idea of BP executive Jacobus
Nieuwenhuijze, the manager of the Sangachal terminal.

With the help of a local non-governmental group, the Small and Medium
Business Support Society, he provided the sewing machines and
training for the co-operative.

He said the project was evidence that ordinary people could feel
real, sustainable benefits from the oil company’s activities in
Azerbaijan. “(This project) is giving work to people, to families,
who did not have any income,” he said. “We are providing them with an
opportunity to start living a real life.” Azerbaijan, an impoverished
state which borders Iran and Russia, finds itself the focus of the
global debate over the ethics of “Big Oil.”

The reason is the $3b Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline being built by a
BP-led consortium which when completed will pump oil from the
Sangachal terminal, through neighbouring Georgia and Turkey, to a
tanker terminal on the Mediterranean Sea.

The debate hit the headlines earlier this month when anti-pipeline
campaigners from Azerbaijan and Georgia were barred from speaking at
BP’s annual shareholders’ meeting in London.

Supporters of the pipeline project, which include the administration
of US President George W. Bush, reject the charge that it will
exploit the region.

Construction on the pipeline and work on related offshore oil fields
is creating thousands of local jobs, while once in operation, the
countries along the route will receive huge sums from transit fees
and, in Azerbaijan’s case, from the export of its oil.

Opponents of the pipeline counter that the new jobs will disappear
once construction is completed. They also say that in Azerbaijan and
Georgia — which rank near the top in global corruption league tables
— there is no guarantee that the cash windfall will ever reach the
people who need it most.

Critics also claim that the pipeline will jeopardise the ecology of
the region, a charge that is denied by the pipeline consortium.

A women’s sewing co-operative with just 10 employees is unlikely to
silence the oil industry’s critics.

But in the refugee camp, where the residents — who fled a war in the
early 1990s between Azerbaijan and its neighbour Armenia — live in
drafty one-room shacks and where the dirt streets are ankle deep in
mud, it is a lifeline. “This will be very good for us,” Mamedova said
as she stitched a pair of gloves together. “I will sew and we will
have an income from that.”