Activist Tara Mariwany joined ONCA’s Gallery Supervisor & Communications Manager Susuana Amoah to talk about her role in BP or not BP’s protest against the British Museum’s BP-sponsored Ashurbanipal: King of the World, King of Assyria exhibition.
Tara Mariwany: So I’m an independent activist, but we took part in actions with the group called ‘BP or not BP?’ which is a creative group seeking to break ties with cultural institutions and BP, and highlighting the detrimental effects that BP is having on our climate. And so we came up with a number of aims, or a number of reasons as to why we took action. And the first one is BPs complicity in the invasion of Iraq. There’s a quote here, which is tiny, but I’ll read out:
‘After 2003, and more than two decades of war and sanctions, Iraqis expected their country to benefit from increased oil revenues given the rise in oil prices and the end of sanctions. Instead, revenues were diverted into corrupt spoils and elite consumption of imported goods, leaving the country’s infrastructure, public services, industry, agriculture and transport systems in ruins, and leaving the environment in a lethal state. Oil companies have been major players in this tragic situation.’
That’s a quote from an Iraqi economist called Kamil Mahdi and it kind of sums up the role that BP had to play prior to the invasion and actually getting the British government to invade. And so oil companies are actually amongst the first to jump in at the prospect of war, and there’s minutes from meetings that were happening in November 2002 – that’s less than 4 months before the invasion – where the British foreign office held a meeting and invited BP to talk about the opportunities in Iraq. And the minutes state ‘Iraq is the biggest oil prospect. BP is desperate to get in there and political deals should not deny them this opportunity.’ And this is also highlighted by the fact that BP took technical reviews of Rumaila, which is the third largest oil field in the world which is in the southern region of Iraq.
So I’m going through them quite quickly just to give like a basic of the situation. Um, another reason is that there have been mass Iraqi protests against the impacts of foreign oil companies, since – well actually since 2015. In Baghdad specifically, protests have been ongoing every single Friday – and when I say every Friday it actually mean every single Friday – since August 2015, against the corruption that is going on and the standard of living that is having a massive impact on Iraqis. And they’ve continued across the country since. And one of the reasons in particular against the impact of foreign oil companies is that more than 80% of Iraq’s total GDP comes from ports around Basrah which is the southern province in Iraq. And yeah 15% of Basrahis, the inhabitants of Basrah, live below the poverty line. And in summer 2018, in particular, or up until around December time, there were almost daily protests in Basrah to highlight this issue and to hold the officials accountable. But also to hold the oil companies accountable.
So there’s a video now. Actually I’m going through the hashtag because it shows kind of what was going on in Basrah in 2018 last year. [Video playing in background.] So you’ve got mainly young people on the streets.
It’s really just snippets of what was going on. [Video playing in background.] So they also took some inspiration from the Yellow Vest movement in France [noise]. So these protests were ongoing daily in Basrah, which… Local government offices were stormed, entry to key oil fields were blocked off by protestors – including Rumaila – and Rumaila is actually operated by BP. And that summer, violent reactions by local government forces meant that 20 Iraqis were killed, which is actually quite a small estimate. Locals estimate that the number is much much greater than that. But that’s also reflected in the number injured, that’s 492 and 125 were arrested for participating in just one of them alone.
Another reason why we took action was that BP is extracting in Iraq’s wealth with no benefit to Iraqi citizens. And, as I said, oil revenues account for 88.8% of total revenues – yet only 1% of jobs in the oil sector actually go to Iraqis. And because of these protests that were going on in the summer last year, the governor promised more jobs, particularly for young people. But Iraqis have accused these oil companies of doing fake agreement practices. Because they’re saying that applications are kind of just for show, just to show that they are making some strides and hiring, recruiting Iraqis. But people have said that as soon as you get to the next stage of the application, the bureaucracy is too complex for people to actually be able to succeed in these applications and for them to be hired.
BP is also depleting and polluting Southern Iraq’s scarce water supplies. [Image of filthy water] So that’s the water that’s coming out in Basrah. And Southern Iraq in particular is facing a massive water crisis. Around 100,000 people were hospitalised last summer and the numbers were pretty much growing by the hour. So when you’d be on Twitter, you’d constantly be getting an increased number of reports – by the thousands they would be going up. It wasn’t that people were drinking this water, it was that people were washing their hands, having showers, washing their clothes. Really just the very very basic… but they would end up in the hospital a few hours later. And up to 66.6% of residual water of the Tigris, so there’s two rivers in Iraq – the Euphrates and the Tigris. It’s 66.6% of residual water from the Tigris is potentially available by use by the oil industry in Basrah and BP has been using a vast amount of this water to keep up with their level of oil production in Rumaila, through their water injection programme, which meant that BP injected over 720,000 barrels per day of water in 2016 and 17.
[Video plays] This picture is of an incident that happened again last summer, this is a kind of very very small scale picture. These are all dead fish that occurred one day. There were loads and loads of reports around thousands of tonnes of carp dead in the Euphrates river. And, you know, the Iraqi government said that they would do some investigations, there was a huge amount of rumours around what was happening. Saying that it was competition. But it was actually affecting so so many farmers that were relying on fish to sell in local markets. And then later on, when the Iraqi government, local government was doing some research together with the World Health Organisation, they found that it was a bacterial infection and the contamination of the water was a high content of coliform bacteria and heavy metals and a high concentration of ammonia. And even though they concluded that this is not a threat to human health, but they obviously can’t sell these. They can’t go to the local market and provide, sell dead fish – or sell ill fish for that matter. And so oil companies like this are having a huge effect on the life of Iraqis, on the health of Iraqis.
In 2015, a Government official said the province records fifteen new cancer cases each month due to the pollution in the air that is associated with oil extraction. And in 2018 the Basrah’s province health and environment committee revealed that 4 new cases of cancer are registered every single day as a result of the air pollution.
And obviously BP is exacerbating climate change in Iraq to a huge extent. It means that Iraq’s mean annual temperature is expected to increase by two degrees Celsius by 2050, which means more frequent heatwaves and – I mean the temperature in Iraq right now in Baghdad for example is already in the high 40s and we’re not even in peak summer yet. And the mean annual rainfall is expected to decrease by 9% by 2050 as well. Which also means of course a decrease in agriculture productivity, loss of arable land and an increase in the likelihood of crop failures which obviously is affecting small scale farmers – it’s not affecting big companies, it’s affecting the local population.
Pictured here is gas flaring, which is also having a massive impact on the environment. Greenhouse gas emissions, releasing both CO2 and methane, it’s having an effect on acid rain, increase in premature deaths, increase in respiratory illnesses, asthma and cancer, as I said. And even though BP pledged to phase out gas flaring by 2030, that obviously means air pollution is going to continue to rise until then, which isn’t around the corner. You know, time is moving but not that quickly.
Which ultimately brought us also to BP whitewashing its . activities in Iraq by sponsoring an exhibition of ancient Iraqi and Syrian culture in the British Museum. So the first one, the first action that we did was quite small scale. It was a few Iraqi activists or activists of Iraqi descent, who, we came together and pretended to be ordinary Iraqi citizens protesting BP. And then we had some BP officials, or pretending to be BP officials.
[Video below plays]
So that was the first action that we did in November, that was at the press launch. So we were right outside the exhibition and we had some things before that as well, and afterwards came together as well, as a group. They tried to kick us out but we stayed. And that was in preparation for the 16th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq in February, which was the biggest protest in the history of the British Museum, which was incredible. And there’s another video to show you kind of the scale of that.
[Video below plays]
So that’s a snippet of what we did in February. And I don’t know if you could read the bit at the end: some of us also organised an alternative exhibition about the effects of oil companies on Iraqi people, done by, the artwork was all done by Iraqi artists based in Iraq.
And then I guess one of the things that we were keeping in mind is how should cultural organisations respond to climate change and the climate crisis which is also one of the questions that we’re asking today. And some of the things, you know, that we were discussing is working with climate change justice organisations in the UK and beyond. Which is also… when talking about these kind of things, we also have to talk about the repatriation of indigenous artefacts by the British Museum and actually the history of the British Museum in reproducing colonialism. And the problem also of who’s active in climate change activism in Iraq is also a difficult one because the publicity – the more public you are, the more dangerous it becomes, and in particular women speaking out, is something that there’s been a pattern of – of active women being shot on the streets just for speaking out against the corrupt politicians, against the corrupt exploitation of Iraqi oil. And of course we can’t do this, we can’t talk about responding to the climate crisis whilst supporting the exploitation of oil resources, benefiting the corrupt politicians who are in control of the militias shooting down these protesters, these activists on the streets.
One of these things, one of the things that’s I guess quite exciting though, which has been happening around the recent developments on cultural institutions, and I’m not sure if you saw that yesterday a leading artists called on the National Portrait Gallery to cut ties with BP. A judge of the BP portraits awards as well, spoke out against it – against the National Portrait Gallery working with BP. But at the same time, BP has also been flying more and more money into cultural institutions. So they’ve given £1,000,000 into a new space in Aberdeen, which of course has been responded to by activists blockading BP headquarters in London. So you know, you’ve got both – while they’re sponsoring more and more exhibitions, people are still speaking out against it.
And then another thing is around the artefacts – because we can’t talk about climate change and these cultural institutions without continuing to raise the fact that the artefacts that are in these museums, not just in the UK but also beyond, are the result of looting, are the result of smuggling which wouldn’t have been possible without the invasion that companies like BP lobbied for. So there’s more and more news coming out about artefacts being sold on Facebook and ending up either, you know, in France or in the UK, but also in countries like Lebanon. And Iraq says in 2003 actually, there was a 3 day period of lootings happening in the Iraqi national museum but also cultural archives. And . Iraq says 15,000 artefacts have been looted since the US-led invasion in 2003 which also includes statues and treasures from the Akkadian era, which was … 2000 BC.
And there’s also an article somewhere … down here talking about the corruption that’s not just happening in the south of Iraq but also the north where you’ve got the supposed reconstruction of Mosul which was taken by ISIS. And you know the money has been given by the Iraqi government to the local government officials but that money has disappeared and no one knows where it is. Well everyone knows where it is, it’s gone to the corrupt politicians that have fled to areas that they can’t be arrested in. Which can’t be separated from the invasion, can’t be separated from these companies that are exploiting the resources.
Which leads us to not only why are we protesting against the outrageous nature of BP sponsoring an exhibition on the culture of the people whose land it’s destroying, but another focus was of course on the British Museum as a cultural institution being able to exploit these Iraqi artefacts and as I said, the history of the British Museum. I’m not sure if you saw, there was a film this year or last year on Gertrude Bell for example, who was instrumental in drawing the lines of Iraq and in the middle east. It was played by Nicole Kidman so as to make it look she was brilliant and actually, you know, amazing. She was called the ‘Queen of the Desert’, and, but she actually enabled and lobbied for laws that were changing to enable cultural theft, so they were working towards, they were able to push through during the British mandate of Iraq, push through laws that meant that they were able to, that artefacts that were in a country could be taken back to the UK. Which was before that it was the Ottoman empire saying that if you find an artefact, it needs to stay in the country where it was found. Which also you know in the New York Times two days ago there was another article of how brilliant it is that Bell pushed for laws that would mean foreign excavators donate at least half of their findings to the Iraqi National Museum which is again pathetic, saying at least half should be, we should be so thankful for that.
Even though Iraqi museums are now recovering from the lootings that took place following the invasion in 2003, there’s also no steps being taken to actually look at the losses that have happened since then. Just this morning I was listening to a podcast, a lecture on the burning of cultural archives that was going on in the days before the 2003 invasion – the institute of music. Once, you know, and this was in retaliation to finding out that there were actually no weapons of mass destruction but something had to be done. So I guess that’s burn down all the cultural history and archives of Iraqis. And as I said, you know we can’t see the invasion, the exploitation of the Iraqi resources, the destruction of cultural artefacts and the impact of companies like BP thriving at the expense of Iraqis, as separate issues.
And lastly, I guess some things around next steps and how people can support is: check out some of the organisations that have been doing work on severing ties between cultural institutions and oil companies, like BP or not BP?, Liberate Tate, Culture Unstained, Art not Oil Coalition. But also look out for the anticipated wave of Iraqi protests which we’re anticipating to see this summer again. And just support I guess the things that we are seeing pop up. My whole Twitter throughout the summer is just me retweeting Iraqis and videos and all that stuff, which is the least that we can do. But yeah, that’s – that’s me.