- As foreign oil companies are lining up to explore Guinea-Bissau's potentially oil-rich waters, the government is trying to build up capacity and knowledge to avoid the gravest environmental damages. Potential reservoirs are close to internationally-renowned nature reserves, and Bissau wants to avoid repetition of experiences in the Niger Delta. New legislation is therefore being prepared.
The Bissau-Guinean government has teamed up with civil society, the global environmentalist group IUCN and foreign aid agencies to be better prepared for the upcoming large-scale offshore oil exploration. The National Oil Committee recently brought these groups into dialogue with the Bissau parliament to discuss positive and negative environmental experiences in other countries.
"There is no oil exploration without pollution, but it is possible to reduce this pollution to a level compatible with other activities," the IUCN's Clive Wicks told the Bissau parliament. Risks were not limited to exploration and exploitation, but also strongly connected to the transport of oil, he added, pointing out that Guinea-Bissau so far had not signed any conventions of the International Maritime Organisation, which aim at preventing pollution and secures international assistance in the case of an accident.
The National Assembly immediately swiftly responded to the message. "To protect ourselves from accidents that may be caused by the traffic of more than 400 oil tankers off Bissau-Guinean coasts, the National Assembly commits itself to ratifying the international convention on transport of petroleum products as soon as possible," promised the second vice president during the workshop's closing ceremony.
Potentials for grave accidents in Bissau waters are indeed big. Guinea-Bissau is already known to have oil resources at sea, primarily located at only some tens of kilometres off its coasts. Main potential oil sites are very close to some of the country's principal nature assets. Oil companies plan to operate in the immediate vicinity of the Bijagos Archipelago, classified by the UN as a Biosphere Reserve.
The shallow waters of Guinea-Bissau are renown by ecologists to be among the most important hatching grounds in the West African region, meaning that regional fisheries in many ways depend on the environmental well-being of these waters. These shallow waters and the 700 kilometres mangrove coastline are considered fragile environs that would suffer immensely from future oil spills.
The ecological disaster of the Niger Delta - somewhat ecologically comparable to Guinea-Bissau's mangrove coast - is well known in Bissau, and stands out as an example of how not to do things, specialists from the IUCN had noted. As in southern Nigeria, the impoverished population of Guinea-Bissau lives directly from the resources the rivers, coasts and sea give, meaning that oil spills also would immediately harm household economies and welfare.
While Bissau parliamentarians now call for prudence and improved legislation for the oil sector, there is still a general approval of a quick start of offshore oil exploration in the country. With rampant poverty and very little international support, Guinea-Bissau cannot afford to wait becoming an oil producer - as soon as possible.
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