Where ignorance fears to tread.
28 September 2016 10:30 (South Africa)
Politics

Lewis Pugh: Frack off, Shell!

  • Alex Eliseev
    AlexEliseev
    Alex Eliseev

    Dubbed a "troublemaker" for his investigative work, Alex Eliseev is also an award-winning hard news journalist who has reported from Haiti, Japan and Libya. Currently an Eyewitness News reporter, he's worked for South Africa's top newspapers, including The Star and Sunday Times. To quench the thirst of his soul, he writes human-interest features. He also collects shirts with birds on them. 

  • Politics
frack you shell

On Friday 25 March, environmental activist Lewis Pugh delivered a passionate call to action at a public lecture in Cape Town. He implored South Africans to stand up for our rights – particularly the right to water, and the right to a healthy environment – and take on corporate bullies like Shell. If you care about the Karoo, if you care about our country, keep reading.

Ladies and gentlemen, thank for the opportunity to address you. My name is Lewis Pugh.

This evening, I want to take you back to the early 1990s in this country. You may remember them well. Nelson Mandela had been released. There was euphoria in the air. However, there was also widespread violence and deep fear. This country teetered on the brink of a civil war. But somehow, somehow, we averted it. It was a miracle. And it happened because we had incredible leaders. Leaders who sought calm. Leaders who had vision. So in spite of all the violence, they sat down and negotiated a new constitution.

I will never forget holding the Constitution in my hands for the first time. I was a young law student at the University of Cape Town. This was the cement that brought peace to our land. This was the document, which held our country together. The rights contained herein, made us one.

I remember thinking to myself – never again will the rights of South Africans be trampled upon. Now every one of us: every man and every women – black, white, coloured, Indian, believer and non-believer – has the right to vote. We all have the right to life. And our children have the right to a basic education. These rights are enshrined in our Constitution.

These rights were the dreams of Oliver Tambo. These rights were the dreams of Nelson Mandela. These rights were the dreams of Mahatma Gandhi, of Desmond Tutu and of Molly Blackburn. These rights were our dreams. People fought – and died – so that we could enjoy these rights today.

Also enshrined in our Constitution, is the right to a healthy environment and the right to water. Our Constitution states that we have the right to have our environment protected for the benefit of our generation and for the benefit of future generations. Fellow South Africans, let us not dishonour these rights. Let us not dishonour those men and women who fought and died for these rights. Let us not allow corporate greed to disrespect our Constitution and desecrate our environment.

Never, ever did I think that there would be a debate in this arid country about which was more important – gas or water. We can survive without gas... We cannot live without water. If we damage our limited water supply, and fracking will do just that, we will have conflict again here in South Africa. Look around the world. Wherever you damage the environment you have conflict. Fellow South Africans, we have had enough conflict in this land – now is the time for peace.

A few months ago I gave a speech with the former president of Costa Rica, Oscar Arias. Afterwards I asked him: “Mr President, how do you balance the demands of development against the need to protect the environment?” He looked at me, and said: “It is not a balancing act. It is a simple business decision. If we cut down our forests in Costa Rica to satisfy a timber company, what will be left for our future?” But he pointed out: “It is also a moral decision. It would be morally wrong to chop down our forests and leave nothing for my children and my grandchildren.”

Ladies and gentlemen, that is what is at stake here today: our children's future. And that of our children's children.

There may be gas beneath our ground in the Karoo. But are we prepared to destroy our environment for five to ten years worth of fossil fuel and further damage our climate? Yes, people will be employed – but for a short while. And when the drilling is over, and Shell have packed their bags and disappeared, then what? Who will be there to clean up? And what jobs will our children be able to eke out?

Now Shell will tell you that their intentions are honourable. That fracking in the Karoo will not damage our environment. That they will not contaminate our precious water. That they will bring jobs to South Africa. That gas is clean and green. And that they will help secure our energy supplies. When I hear this, I have one burning question. Why should we trust them? Africa is to Shell what the Gulf of Mexico is to BP.

Shell, you have a shocking record here in Africa. Just look at your operations in Nigeria. You have spilt more than 9 million barrels of crude oil into the Niger Delta. That's twice the amount of oil that BP spilt into the Gulf of Mexico. You were found guilty of bribing Nigerian officials, and to make the case go away in America, you paid an admission of guilt fine of $48 million. And to top it all, you stand accused of being complicit in the execution of Nigeria's leading environmental campaigner, Ken Saro-Wira, and eight other activists. If you were innocent, why did you pay $15.5 million to the widows and children to settle the case out of court?

Shell, the path you want us to take us down is not sustainable. I have visited the Arctic for seven summers in a row. I have seen the tundra thawing. I have seen the retreating glaciers. I have seen the melting sea ice. And I have seen the impact of global warming from the Himalayas all the way down to the low-lying Maldive Islands. Wherever I go, I see it.

Now is the time for change. We cannot drill our way out of the energy crisis. The era of fossil fuels is over. We must invest in renewable energy. And we must not delay.

Shell, we look to the north of our continent and we see how people got tired of political tyranny. We have watched as despots, who have ruled ruthlessly year after year, have been toppled in a matter of weeks. We too are tired. Tired of corporate tyranny. Tired of your short-term, unsustainable practices. We watched as Dr Ian Player, a game ranger from Natal, and his friends, took on Rio Tinto (one of the biggest mining companies in the world) and won. And we watched as young activists from across Europe, brought you down to your knees, when you tried to dump an enormous oil rig into the North Sea.

Shell, we do not want our Karoo to become another Niger Delta. Do not underestimate us. Goliath can be brought down. We are proud of what we have achieved in this young democracy, and we are not about to let your company come in and destroy it.

So let this be a call to arms to everyone across South Africa, who is sitting in the shadow of Goliath: stand up and demand these fundamental human rights promised to you by our Constitution. Use your voices – tweet, blog, petition, rally the weight of your neighbours and of people in power. Let us speak out from every hilltop. Let us not go quietly into this bleak future.

Let me end off by saying this: you have lit a fire in our bellies, which no man or woman can extinguish. And if we need to, we will take this fight all the way from your petrol pumps to the very highest court in this land. We will take this fight from the farms and towns of the Karoo to the streets of London and Amsterdam. And we will take this fight to every one of your shareholders. And I have no doubt, that in the end, good will triumph over evil. DM

Lewis Pugh is a lawyer and environmental activist. He belongs to the Treasure the Karoo Action Group.


Watch more:

Photo: Camdeboo conservancy, outside Graaff Reinet, The Daily Maverick.

  • Alex Eliseev
    AlexEliseev
    Alex Eliseev

    Dubbed a "troublemaker" for his investigative work, Alex Eliseev is also an award-winning hard news journalist who has reported from Haiti, Japan and Libya. Currently an Eyewitness News reporter, he's worked for South Africa's top newspapers, including The Star and Sunday Times. To quench the thirst of his soul, he writes human-interest features. He also collects shirts with birds on them. 

  • Politics

Get overnight news and latest Daily Maverick articles

Do Not Miss

Daily Maverick has temporarily suspended comments on the site. Until the interwebs figures out a better way to deal with the naughty kids in the class, the space for your comments is on our Facebook page and the Twitterverse.

Alternatively, you are welcome to send a letter to the editor.