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Such a stark indictment would surely draw reaction from the government and oil companies. But repeated efforts to arrange on-the-record interviews with officialdom—oil company executives, the governor of Rivers state, the commander of the Joint Task Force, which is the military arm responsible for security in the delta—were foiled. Shell and Total, a French company, had offered tours of their facilities, but soon after I arrived in the delta, a spate of kidnappings of foreign oil workers, especially around Port Harcourt, prompted the multinationals to restrict the movements of personnel. Amid the violence, the oil companies have hunkered down in silence.

At the Finima meetinghouse, the men grew restless and, one by one, drifted into the dusk. Before he left, Felix Harry declared that faith in God would reward the community. That belief must be deep on Bonny Island, judging from the barrage of signs for revival meetings and church services along island roads. One church promoted PUSH: Pray Until Something Happens. Christianity has found fertile ground in the delta after Protestant missionaries arrived in force in the mid-1800s, and it is now the dominant faith.

Harry recited Psalm 91, praising God with a flourish: "He is my refuge and my fortress." We walked outside. There, stranded on the shore, were the village fishing boats, several dozen of them. Only a miracle would get them into the water.

Across the delta, people are hoping that someone will pay attention to the region's problems and intervene. The U.S. and western Europe, the major consumers of Nigerian oil, are watching closely. With the U.S. consulate in Lagos warning of a possible rebel attack on Bonny Island, diplomats are urging greater military security. Stockholders of the oil companies are asking why the situation has turned so perilous. Who is to blame? The answers are as complicated and murky as the water trails in the delta.

When the oil curse began with that first great gusher in the creekside village of Oloibiri, 50 miles (80 kilometers) west of Port Harcourt, Nigeria was still a British colony. At independence in 1960, few observers expected that Nigeria would mature into an oil giant. But in subsequent decades, the oil companies, led by five multinational firms—Royal Dutch Shell, Total, Italy's Agip, and ExxonMobil and Chevron from the U.S.—transformed a remote, nearly inaccessible wetland into industrial wilderness. The imprint: 4,500 miles (7,200 kilometers) of pipelines, 159 oil fields, and 275 flow stations, their gas flares visible day and night from miles away.

No one can deny the sheer technological achievement of building an infrastructure to extract oil from a waterlogged equatorial forest. Intense swampy heat, nearly impenetrable mangrove thickets, swarming insects, and torrential downpours bedevil operations to this day. But mastering the physical environment has proved almost simple compared with dealing with the social and cultural landscape. The oil firms entered a region splintered by ethnic rivalries. More than two dozen ethnic groups inhabit the delta, among them the Ijaw, the largest group, and the Igbo, Itsekiri, Ogoni, Isoko, and Urhobo. These groups have a history of fighting over the spoils of the delta, from slaves to palm oil—and now, crude oil. The companies disturbed a fragile landscape that supported fishing and farming. Engineers and project managers constructing pipelines through a mangrove swamp, or laying roads through marshland, could disrupt spawning grounds or change the course of a stream, threatening a village's livelihood.

Recent reports by the United Nations Development Program and the International Crisis Group identify some of the questionable strategies employed by oil companies: paying off village chiefs for drilling rights; building a road or dredging a canal without an adequate environmental impact study; tying up compensation cases—for resource damages or land purchases—for years in court; dispatching security forces to violently break up protests; patching up oil leaks without cleaning up sites.

"After 50 years, the oil companies are still searching for a way to operate successfully with communities," says Antony Goldman, a London-based risk consultant. The delta is littered with failed projects started by oil companies and government agencies—water tanks without operating pumps, clinics with no medicine, schools with no teachers or books, fishponds with no fish.

"The companies didn't consult with villagers," says Michael Watts, director of the African Studies Program at the University of California, Berkeley. "They basically handed out cash to chiefs. It wasn't effective at all."

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