Tradition and modernity: In Chad oil firms are located in direct proximity to traditional huts of the local population. Dr Andrea Behrends has been studying the social and cultural impact of oil production since 2003. (Photo: Andrea Behrends)

Oil in Chad: a blessing and a curse

When a country has access to oil reserves, this goes hand in hand with unimaginable wealth, right? Chad is one of the poorest countries in the world. Since 2003 oil has been produced in this central African state. For twelve years, ethnologist Dr Andrea Behrends has been onsite examining how its society and culture have been changed by oil production.

“Don’t come to Chad!” was the first reaction Dr Andrea Behrends received in early 2000 to her plans. The ethnologist wanted to study the country and its inhabitants. In particular she was interested in the Sudanese border in the east of the country which was an area of crisis. After many phone calls, trips to the authorities and the required vaccinations, Behrends was allowed to enter. She didn’t know at the time that she would be following this country and its inhabitants up until present day.

Black gold?

Andrea Behrends (photo: Maike Glöckner)

Andrea Behrends (Photo: Maike Glöckner)

In 2003 the government in Chad began producing oil. Behrends was there as an ethnologist right from the start. “We wanted to see how one of the poorest counties in the world changed as a result of oil production,” the researcher explains. Presumably the country’s standard of living would improve through oil production: new jobs are created when oil is produced, the state profits from the sale of the oil and receives taxes from its export. Through these additional revenues the government can improve infrastructure and, for example, build new schools or hospitals. In order for Chad’s government to create the right conditions for oil production, it had to take out a loan from the World Bank. That loan was tied to certain conditions: “The government was obliged to transparently reveal its profits, to enhance the infrastructure in the country and to place some of the money in a trust for future generations,” Behrends explains. Sound good. But in fact, modern markets and football stadiums were built instead of hospitals and schools. The West tolerated these actions because President Idriss Déby was able to provide relative stability. For example, he continuously supressed uprisings by Chadian rebels which made the oil business much more stable.

The work of ethnologists is commonly qualitative: they don’t carry out large-scale surveys in order to obtain a general impression: “We try to understand the background and developments through key people and events.” This means that the researchers have to be onsite for longer periods of time and to speak with many different people. Field research is a main component of their work. “As an ethnologist you live directly among the local inhabitants and learn their language,” Behrends says. It’s also important to find the right clothing to wear during this time. Not only does it have to meet local expectations of what is appropriate, it has to be practical and sturdy since most of the conversations take place on the floors of huts, not on chairs at tables.

Living with Chadian people

For ethnologists these personal conversations are the heart of their work. When they arrive in a new country they attempt to establish contact with the inhabitants as quickly as possible and to be introduced to other people. Andrea Behrends did this by living with several host families. After all these years she has almost become a bona fide family member: “I have seen several of the families’ children grow up. At family parties people I don’t know have approached me and said: Oh, so you’re Andrea,” she reports, smiling. Thanks to these close, long-term relationships Behrends has been able to establish facts and become familiar with the personal stories of the people whose lives have been impacted by oil.

Behrends recounts a Chadian employee of an oil company who was responsible for making bore holes. He analysed the different soil layers in the earth and added chemicals to the drilling machines so that they would work more effectively. The oil company is responsible for ensuring that the soil is not too contaminated by this. After all, agriculture plays a major role in Chad. However, the measured values are frequently embellished, says Behrends. It is the famers who suffer – a large portion of the population in Chad. Plants grow poorly or sometimes not at all in their once fertile fields. Sometimes they don’t realise that the oil production is responsible for this. “The people notice that their soil is poorer, but they aren’t told the actual reason for this,” says Behrends who knows this from speaking with the farmers in Chad.

Oil production has changed the country in a lot of ways. The few people who had found jobs in the oil industry displayed their wealth. Behrends heard about one man who bathed in beer. “The people believed it would go on like this. Then came the great disappointment,” says Behrends. Sinking oil prices and stagnating demand in recent years also hit Chad hard. There is not much left of the original precautionary plans. “When you ask people in Chad how they have benefited from oil production, they say, not at all.” What Chad has experienced has been experienced in other countries as well. Even though relatively high profits were made, the majority of the population has come away empty handed. Sometimes their situation has even worsened. “In research these paradoxical phenomena are called resource curses,” Behrends explains. Even the value system has changed as a result of oil production. In the past private property did not play a very significant role. Now the wealth of the oil workers has attracted a lot of jealousy. Wedding dowries and private property have become much more expensive in oil producing regions.

How to leave the field?

After more than twelve years, countless research trips, conversations and scientific publications, the ethnologist wants to finally conclude her oil research. It’s a difficult farewell: “At the thought of it I realise I can’t,” she admits. Behrends continues to stay in touch with her host families in Africa – and has become firmly established there. The question of how a researcher leaves the field after such a long time will be something that occupies her for some time. Behrends will continue to conduct research on global inequalities and how they impact uncertainty and every day practice in rural and urban areas in Africa. Tom Leonhardt


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