LIANE HANSEN, host:
The price of crude oil reached a record high this past Thursday, close to 146 dollars per barrel. In the oil-rich nations it would seem to follow that some of the wealth would trickle down through society, but that's not the case in Nigeria. The country is the sixth-largest producer of oil in the world and one of the main suppliers to American customers. The West African nation has been producing and exploring for oil for 50 years.
A new book, "Curse of the Black Gold," examines the relationship between oil, the environment and the community, and the picture is not bright. Nigeria is a paradox. In the midst of plenty, there is dire poverty. Ed Kashi is the photographer and co-author of the book and he joins us from our bureau in New York. Welcome to the program.
Mr. ED KASHI (Photojournalist; Co-author, "Curse of the Black Gold"): Good morning. Thank you.
HANSEN: Can you briefly explain exactly what the "curse" of the black gold is?
Mr. KASHI: The curse in the title really refers to the idea that in the last 50 years - this is the 50th anniversary of oil coming out of the Niger Delta. And they have produced over 600 billion dollars of oil wealth in that time. And yet, what it has brought to the people of that region is dire poverty, a lack of development, almost a backwards movement in their development, as well as fed the corruption that is very real there. I know it's a cliche for those who think of Nigeria as being a corrupted place, and in fact, it really is.
HANSEN: There's a picture on page 20 of some townspeople drying tapioca. I mean, right by an oil flare. So the people are adapting to the oil industry, one could assume from this picture.
Mr. KASHI: I mean, this is what I find all over the world is, you know, the people who have the least are the most resourceful, if you like, because it's about survival. And in this particular instance, this is an oil flow station, a Shell flow station, and the local people have used the heat of a flare to bake their tapioca. But the thing is it's not only dangerous to work in that area but it's like baking a cake from the tailpipe of your car.
HANSEN: What have been some of the effects in the past 50 years on the people's health and on the environment in which they live?
Mr. KASHI: Well, the environment has suffered greatly because of the oil works that, you know, invariably pollute and really have a profound effect on the ecosystem. And the Niger Delta is the second-largest revering system in Africa, you know, one of the largest in the world. But I do have to say that, you know, we all want oil. It has to come from somewhere. And while it's very easy to point our fingers at the oil companies and we absolutely need to, it's the Nigerian government that I feel, having spent three years working there, that really bears the greatest responsibility because after all, governments are the stewards of our land and our resources and of the people.
And as one environmentalist in Nigeria pointed out, because the politicians are not beholden to being voted into power and they get their money from the residual moneys that come in from the oil industry, there's a way that they can bypass the people and they don't really have to serve them.
HANSEN: There has been a steep rise in the price of oil. Is it having any effect on the people in the Niger Delta?
Mr. KASHI: Oh, if we spend more money here in America or Europe on oil, it has no impact on the people in the Niger Delta, no positive impact. What it does is just further enriches the power structure from the government people to the chieftain and tribal leaders who all benefit from the rise of the oil prices.
HANSEN: The statistic I took from your book was it produces 2.2 million dollars in oil revenue and the average resident lives on less than a dollar a day.
Mr. KASHI: Exactly. That's 2.2 million dollars a day of oil revenue.
HANSEN: What about production? Is there still as much production of oil in the Niger Delta? Or is it beginning to slow down?
Mr. KASHI: Well, what's interesting, they actually - Nigeria was just overtaken by Angola as the largest producer of oil in Africa. And I think that has a lot to do with the activities of MEND, which is this militant group, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta. And they sprouted up about three, four years ago and they've become quite aggressive in attacking oil facilities and taking oil workers hostage. And so they have been responsible for shutting in more than a quarter of Nigeria's oil production. And by shutting in, I mean not only stopping that production, but not allowing it from leaving the country.
HANSEN: And so that conflict is going to have a negative trickle-down effect, again on the poor.
Mr. KASHI: Absolutely. And it's also contributing to the increase of oil prices around the world.
HANSEN: Ed Kashi is a photojournalist whose pictures appear in the new book, "Curse of the Black Gold: 50 Years of Oil in the Niger Delta." He joined us from our New York bureau. Thank you.
Mr. KASHI: Liane, thank you so much.
HANSEN: To watch a video about the oil industry's impact on the Niger Delta, visit npr.org.