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THE NEW YORK TIMES: Gas Flames a Reminder for Nigeria's Poor

EABOCH, Nigeria (AP) — Sooty towers of flame spew into the air night and day as excess natural gas from the petroleum industry burns off, buffeting Nigerian villagers with jet-force heat and noise. For many living near the dozens of gas flares dotting southern Nigeria, the flames are a potent reminder that the country's oil wealth has done little to benefit its people.
''The fish have gone from the rivers because of the noise. The fields are polluted from the oil, nothing grows,'' said Uche Onyemetu, who lives near an oil installation and four flares.
''This is supposed to be a rich village, but the whole area is poor,'' the unemployed 31-year-old said.
Oil began flowing shortly before the West African nation's 1960 independence from Britain. International oil companies operating in Nigeria have since paid untold billions of dollars to the federal government.
But most of Nigeria's 130 million people remain mired in poverty, much of the oil money stolen by leaders.
Across the south, Nigerians are clamoring for a greater share of the proceeds from the region's huge oil installations. Some have taken up arms, attacking oil installations and kidnapping foreign oil workers to press their point.
Bitterness over seeing so little benefit from the oil industry is compounded by living with the pollution it produces.
The natural gas flows along with the crude when it's pumped from the ground. While a valuable energy resource in its own right, processing and shipping the gas wasn't viewed as sufficiently profitable when much of Nigeria's oil infrastructure was built, so the gas was treated as an unwanted byproduct and burned off.
Gas flares pollute the fields and traditional fishing grounds. Villagers say their acrid black smoke sickens and blinds them and the flares' keening whine, which sounds like a jet plane, hurts their ears.
''They never end, never since before I was born,'' said 27-year-old Gift Obilor Jonah.
A Nigerian court recently ordered Shell and its joint-venture partners to pay $1.5 billion to one community to clean up the pollution, but the decision is under appeal.
The federal government, under pressure from residents of the Niger Delta, said about a decade ago that all the flares must be extinguished by 2008.
The international firms that work with Nigeria's state-owned oil company are investing billions to harness the excess gas so it can be sold, but they say a lack of major regional markets and other spending priorities are hampering the effort.
Shell, which plans to shut off its flares by 2009 — about a year later than originally planned — ''is committed to ending routine flaring of gas in its Nigerian operations,'' said a company spokeswoman, Caroline Wittgen.
''This requires the company to gather and bring to market gas from more than 1,000 wells, which is a big undertaking,'' she said by telephone from London.
At Eaboch, a town of mud huts and a one-room schoolhouse, vows to end the flaring, create jobs and develop the region are given little heed.
''They keep telling us that it will stop, but it's not stopping,'' said Onyemetu. ''The government is always saying they'll stop … But up to now, it's still continuing.''
At one of the few flares that shoot sideways a few feet off the ground, Ukpamueki Ogwhe has found a way to use the fire.
Ogwhe, 70, staggers under a woven basket balanced on her head and filled with shredded cassava. She places the cassava as close to the flames as she can tolerate.
The cassava, a staple food in Nigeria, dries faster near the flares than under the sun. Oghwe can produce the tasteless white curls faster than her competitors and sell more of them at a roadside market.
''This is good for us, it's useful for us. We can dry our cassava,'' she said as the flame roars nearby. ''But if it could be used to make lights or fuel for cooking, it would be even better.''

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