THE PETROLEUM COMMONS: Local, Islamic, and Global

by George Caffentzis

1. All land and natural resources (including mineral resources) within the Ijaw territory belong to Ijaw communities and are the basis of our survival.

2. We cease to recognise all undemocratic decrees that rob our peoples/communities of the right to ownership and control of our lives and resources, which were enacted without our participation and dissent. These include the Land Use Decree and The Petroleum Decree, etc.

–The Kaiama Declaration (December 1998)

Introduction: Oil and Water

The struggles over the ownership of the two most important political liquids of this era, petroleum and water, have had different fates. Though water has been claimed to be either private, state or common property throughout history, the novel feature of this neoliberal period has been the move by corporations to totally privatize it. The powerful struggles against this corporate privatization of water from Cochabamba in Bolivia to Soweto in South Africa have focused world attention on the question: Who owns water? The consequent efforts to keep water as a common property on a local and global level are now some of the most important initiatives of the anti-globalization movement.

Petroleum, on the other hand, has in the last hundred and fifty years been considered exclusively as either private or state property. The pages of the history books on the petroleum industry have been filled with "magnates" like John D. Rockefeller or government "leaders" like Saddam Hussain and Winston Churchill. Thus the "struggle over oil" has been largely seen as a struggle between oil companies and governments, since its beginnings in the mid-nineteenth century.

But over the last fifteen years there has been a major shift in the physiognomy of the protagonists in the oil struggle. No longer do national governments and huge energy conglomerates dominate the scene so exclusively. The new protagonists include: "peoples" like the Ijaws, the Ogoni, the Chiapanacos, the U’wa, the Cofan, the Secoyas, the Huaorani, the Sumatrans; border-transcending social movements under the star of Islam and subscribing to "Islamic economics"; elements of the UN system like the World Bank, claiming to represent "global governance" of the "global commons." These peoples, movements and global entities have entered into the struggle for the control of oil production, legitimizing themselves with a new (and yet, at the same time, quite archaic) conception of property–common property.

Why is the notion of a petroleum commons emerging now, and what are its consequences for the oil industry?

There are three levels of claims to petroleum as common property, correlating with three kinds of allied communities that are now taking shape, for there is no common property without a community that regulates its use:

*First, some local communities most directly affected by the extraction of petroleum claim to own and regulate the petroleum under its territory as a commons

*Second, Islamic economists claim for the Islamic community of believers, from Morocco to Indonesia, and its representative, the 21st century Caliphate in formation, ownership of and the right to regulate the huge petroleum fields beneath their vast territory.

*Third, UN officials claim for the "coming global community" the right to regulate the so-called global commons–air, water, land, minerals (including petroleum) and "nous" (knowledge and information). This imagined global community is to be represented by a dizzying array of "angels" that make up the UN system, from NGO activists to UN environmentalist bureaucrats to World Bank "green" advisors.

These claims and their legitimizing discourse are displacing, with different results, the monopoly hold of governments and corporations over the ownership and regulation of the planet’s petroleum. There is much in common in these conceptions of the petroleum commons, but they are also often in conflict. These conflicts will determine how the struggle over the ownership of petroleum and the regulation of its extraction and use will be transformed by the entrance of the "commoners" into a field dominated for over a century by nation states and global corporations.

The Local Petroleum Commons: Nigeria, Chiapas, the Amazon

One of the most important areas where the petroleum commons is emerging as a political reality is the Niger Delta. This area is located in a crossroads of the world market. Three centuries ago the region from Escarvos to Calabar was the main storage and transshipment point of African slaves bound for the plantations of the Americas. This trade poisoned the Delta people’s social relations then. Today the Delta people are caught in the middle of the global oil industry that is poisoning them physically and economically as well as socially. They have been struggling against this fate with great courage and originality, taking a political road that began with a demand for reparations for past damages caused by the oil companies, and has evolved to the declaration of a petroleum commons in the Delta.

This story begins in the early 1990s, when the Ogoni people decided that the time was ripe to transform what had been a long-fought but largely unknown and parochial struggle against both the Nigerian government and the global oil companies into an internationally-recognized one. The Ogonis are a relatively small ethnic group in Nigeria (with a population of less than a million), but they have been in the middle of oil production in Nigeria from its beginning and have suffered greatly for it. Some Ogonis realized that if they had to fight a global oil company–in their case, Royal Dutch Shell–to get reparations, they had to become global themselves. But how was a relatively small, impoverished ethnic group in the midst of an "obscure" part of Africa to "globalize itself"?

Parochial ethnic politics had to be transcended to make clear that the Ogoni struggle was part of the worldwide ecological struggle against the major oil companies. On the heals of the "No Blood for Oil" struggle against the first US-Iraq war, the Ogonis pointed out that they too had suffered to fuel the profits of Shell and the industrial machines of Europe and the US. And with the help of one of their leaders, playwright Kenule Saro-Wiwa, who had built up an international audience with his writings, the message made a connection with environmental groups around the planet.

The Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) helped stimulate a "recomposition" of the anti-capitalist movement, since it made it clear that the Ogonis’ demands for reparations for Shell’s destruction of their environment were an integral part of the wider demand that the total costs of capitalist development be recognized and paid for by corporations everywhere. In 1995, Saro-Wiwa was arrested and hanged on false charges of murder by the Nigerian military regime of Gen. Sani Abacha–actions Shell was complicit with. In response, Greenpeace and other environmental groups organized an effective worldwide boycott of Shell, protesting the blood being painfully exchanged for oil in Nigeria as well as the Middle East. Ken Saro-Wiwa paid with his life for connecting the Ogoni with a world environmentalist movement, but his organizational model has been used again and again by other small ethnic groups throughout the world.

The high cost the Ogoni paid for their struggle was noted by other militant groups in the Niger Delta, which have de-emphasized the internationalization of their struggle and focused directly on negotiations with oil companies and the Nigerian government based upon their capacity to hinder or halt production or shipment of oil. These groups, however, have pushed the demands of the struggle to a new level–instead of demanding reparations as MOSOP did, they are claiming ownership of the petroleum underneath their territory as common property.

Thus the most prominent movement in the Delta after the MOSOP effort was the Movement for the Survival of Ijaw Ethnic Nationality (MOSIEN). The Ijaws form one of the largest ethnic groups in the Delta (with a population of approximately eight million), and their struggle has largely rejected non-violence and resurrected the militant symbols and memories of their collective past. The cult of Egbesu, their traditional war god, has been the recruiting ground for young militants who have liberated their leaders from government prisons, taken over oil installations, and kidnapped oil workers.

MOSOP was formally a non-violent organization. Ken Saro-Wiwa and the other Ogoni leaders believed that it was folly to think that a small ethnic group could directly confront the might of the Nigerian army–which was then controlled by a military government. The Ijaw armed resistance has rejected this path, even though it has faced devastating attacks by the Nigerian military–including the horrendous Christmas massacre at Odi in 1999 that left 2,000 dead. This shift in tactics put into question much of the international support that the Ogoni struggle and Saro-Wiwa’s martyrdom had engendered for struggles in the Delta.

There were other important changes in the struggle beside the turn to armed confrontation with the government and oil companies. These included the Kaiama Declaration, that formally claimed the petroleum within Ijaw territory as the common property of the Ijaw community. This notion of the petroleum commons has become the ruling discourse in much of the armed resistance in the Delta. A good example of this is the reply a former president of the Ijaw Youth Council and current militia commander, Alhaji Mujahid Dokubo-Asari, gave to a Financial Times reporter when asked about much his men take from pipelines each day, "As much as we can. It’s free." Another is the graffiti left behind after the Odi massacre by invading soldiers: "Na you get oil? Foolish people." ("Does the oil belong to you? Foolish people.")

Another dramatic political development was the entrance of women’s organizations into the struggle for a petroleum commons. Local women from the Ijaw and Istkeri ethnicities remembered the old tactic of shaming soldiers by appearing before them collectively naked–which was used to effect in the Aba Women’s War of 1929 against the British. After being brutally beaten by oil company guards in November 2002, one group of women protesters in the Delta threatened that "within 10 days from today, if our hospital and rehabilitation bills are not paid, we will all come out en masse fully naked, and we shall occupy not only their gates but their flow stations throughout the Niger Delta…"

What was more threatening to the oil companies and the Nigerian government than the presence of thousands of naked women occupying their oil installations, however, was the fact that women from different, often conflicting ethnic groups had come together at all. For the most powerful weapon the government and the oil companies have in escaping paying reparations and recognizing the Niger Delta communities’ communal ownership of the petroleum under their territory is the division between the groups themselves. However powerful ethnic ties are in strengthening the will to resist, they are also extremely divisive, resulting in thousands of deaths in the last decade. The fact that women from the oft-warring Itsekiri, Ijaw, Ilaje and Urhobos groups could join in a united front indicates that at least they have understood the secret of power. Whether their unity will set the pace for the petroleum commons movement in the Delta is still an open question.

Just as the early 1990s was a crucial turning point for the first step to a petroleum commons on the Niger Delta, that time also saw the organization of indigenous peoples around similar demands in Mexico, Ecuador and Colombia. We know that at that time the Zapatistas were organizing an armed rebellion in Chiapas, launched on New Years Day 1994–the precise moment NAFTA took effect. The Zapatistas’ Subcommendante Marcos frequently pointed out that when the indigenous cut firewood for their homes they are arrested and fined. But when the oil developers cut huge swathes through the forest for their roads and blow down trees with their dynamite, they are congratulated for their productivity!

But as fate would have it, post-rebellion Zapatista communities are often located near or directly over oil deposits. Consequently, the San Andres Accords–the main document arising from the peace talks between the Zapatistas and the Mexican government–included the recognition of the indigenous communities’ "collective right to evaluate federal and state plans to exploit strategic resources in their region in order to determine those plans’ effects on indigenous territories." This provision which, in effect, gave the indigenous communities a veto over oil exploration and exploitation, was certainly one of the main sticking points that prevented the approval of the Accords.

Similar developments took place in Ecuador in the early 1990s. Although oil exploration and extraction began in the Ecuadorian Amazon in the 1960s, it took some time for the indigenous peoples most affected by the industry’s pollution of their environment and the disintegration of their social life to organize: first to demand a clean-up and compensation, and then to claim the oil as a common resource whose disposition depended upon their will and not the state’s or the oil companies’–up to and including "The Right To Say, ‘No.’"

The Right To Say "No" became extremized in the struggle of the U’wa people in Colombia against Occidental Petroleum’s attempt to explore for oil in their territory, beginning in 1993. The U’wa threatened to commit collective suicide if Occidental Petroleum, which was granted exploration rights in U’wa territory by the Colombian government, actually drilled in their territory. The oil company had estimated over a billion barrels of oil there, and was anxious to verify the estimate. But a combination of law suits in Colombian and international courts, shareholder resolutions, demonstrations in front of its California offices and the home of its CEO carried on by the U’wa and their allies–as well as the threat of mass suicide by the entire U’wa community–somehow almost magically managed to "hide" the oil from the exploratory drills’ reach. Occidental Petroleum then pulled out of U’wa territory without making the second try which is usually standard procedure. Not surprisingly, these failed efforts by Occidental to penetrate the U’wa resistance have been followed by the exploration activities of Ecopetrol, the Colombian state oil company–which will face similar resistance and similar defeats.

The U’wa are one of many local peoples throughout the planet that are going beyond the position of supplicants demanding compensation from the oil industry for the harm oil extraction has caused. The growth of these non-corporate, non-state actors who claim communal ownership of petroleum is remarkable, and is having a decisive impact on the development of the oil industry. This is especially true of the expansion of oil exploration into the "margins"–areas that had previously been too distant from the main centers of the oil industry. It is exactly there that the oil industry is continually confronting people who still have a sense of the commons, since they often have common property resources such as land, and methods to regulate them. Consequently, the state and market paradigms of oil ownership are clashing with dozens of new, often "small," local movements and communities that, when integrated across the planet, are beginning to have an impact on the legal status of oil ownership.

The Islamic Petroleum Commons: From Morocco to Indonesia

Another notion of a petroleum commons has developed in Islamic economic theory and political practice since the 1970s. It claims that petroleum found beneath Islamic territory is the common possession of the world-wide Islamic community and neither state nor private property. This conception is challenging the relations that have been worked out between global oil companies and Islamic nation-states since World War I.

A key event in the development of the global oil industry was the destruction of the last Caliphate, the Ottoman Empire, at the end of World War I. A Caliphate requires a secular military-political entity that is pledged to defend the world-wide Islamic community, and the Ottoman Turks had been performing this role of the "defenders of the faith" since the fifteenth century. Their imperial lands included Iraq, Kuwait, and parts of Saudi Arabia–i.e., the center of the main oil reserves of the planet. In order for the petroleum industry to operate on a completely capitalist basis, the large international oil companies and major imperialist powers at the end of World War I (US, Britain, France) tore up the Ottoman Caliphate and created a number of rentier states that were largely under their control.

This antithesis between a Caliphate and the regular for-profit operation of the oil industry is simple. An Islamic Caliphate had to recognize certain redistributive economic principles (including the notion of a petroleum common owned by the ummah, the entire Islamic community) that are problematic to the kind of total corporate control envisioned by the founders of the oil industry in the Middle East in period between 1918 and 1945. A genuine Caliphate would have had to invest in ways that would have made it autonomous from the directives of the imperialist powers (governmental or corporate). Finally, a genuine Caliphate would have had worldwide reach, and be committed to intervening in areas where the Islamic community resided. These areas were often essential parts of the empires of Britain, France and Holland. (e.g., India, Algeria, and Indonesia).

What is called Islamic fundamentalism, or political Islam, or Islamism, is an effort to revive the Caliphate almost a century after its end. This is what gives these social movements their "global reach," for they claim to unite and to "protect" the Islamic community–which presently stretches from Morocco to Indonesia and, via immigration, into the heart of Europe and North America.

Whatever the ultimate fate of this type of patriarchal politics and whatever its class composition, this drive to a Caliphate is an important reality for the oil industry since both are operating at the center of the major oil reserves of the planet. Indeed, if one correlates the nation-state members of the Organization of Islamic Congress with the oil reserves that are estimated to lie in their territories, one sees that nearly two-thirds of the world’s petroleum is "Islamic." Such a drive, of course, is toward an "imagined community"–but then again, what community except the most intimate is not imagined?

Along with the revival of Islam as a political force has come the development of an "Islamic economics" that has a number of tenets relevant to the oil industry. First, since oil is a sub-soil resource, it is seen from an Islamic perspective as a gift from Allah and hence a community good. Although Islamic economics respects private property–after all, Islam is a religion founded by a merchant–it also recognizes the role of communally shared resources. Islamic economics accepts the standard division of private, state and common property, and oil is definitely included in the category of common property. It is now traditional to repeat at this juncture the famous statement of Mohammed: "The people are partners in three things: water, pastures and fire [today, petroleum]." The recognition of an Islamic petroleum commons is seen as a first step in the realization of an Islamic economics.

It is true, of course, some common property must be mined (like oil, gold, silver, and iron), but the minerals themselves remain the common property of all Muslims. The Caliphate might mine them itself or sub-contract their collection, but all revenues gained from their sale should be kept in the Bait al-Mal–the same treasury that the zakat or redistributive tithe, is destined for.

The second principle of Islamic economics is the redistributive one. Islam, for all of its respect of private property, instituted from its beginning a system of income transfers. Even non-Muslims know of the zakat, but there are many other redistributive mechanisms (e.g., the prohibition of charging interest) that make doctrinaire neoliberalism literally anathema in Islamic discourse. For a Caliphate is duty-bound to fund the poor, the needy, the travelers, the debtors and jihad from the funds in the Bait al-Mal. This is especially true of revenues derived from oil production, since they are directly derived from the sale of a communal good. Thus the charges of corruption hurled against the Saudi Arabian elite by Islamists are especially damning, since the Saudi elite’s extravagant ways are literally denying bread to the mouths of poor Muslim babes that Allah destined it for.

The third principle of Islamic economics is one based on the prohibition of waste and the concern for conserving scarce resources. Indeed, if the conspicuous consumption and self-protective expenditure on military hardware of the present elites are stopped, there would be an imperative to leave more oil in the ground. Such an economic policy would have an enormous impact on the pricing of oil, since it would not be considered a state or corporate commodity to be sold to the highest bidder; it would be a common good whose conservation is of value in itself.

Common property in the Islamic tradition is often not emphasized in typical academic expositions of Islamic economics, where the pride of place is taken by a symbolic zakat and a banking system that denies a role to interest. The works of Pakistani social thinker Sayyid Abul-Ala Mawdudi (1903-79), martyred Egyptian Islamist Sayyid Qutb (1906-66) and Iraqi writer Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr (1931-80)–the intellectual progenitors of Islamic economics–are often taken to task for trying to impose unrealistic constrains on the development of capitalism in the Islamic world, instead of heeding the free market wisdom of Frederick Hayek! But while critics cite the zakat and prohibition of interest, in fact their doctrine of the petroleum commons that would certainly have a much greater impact on world economics, if it were actually put into place throughout the Islamic world.

This oil doctrine is the theoretical basis of economic planning for an Islamic world of more than a billion people. If a number of Islamic nations actually transformed their petroleum resources into a commons, then three important, perhaps even revolutionary, changes would follow. First, it would lead to a tighter control of the pace of extraction and a willingness to exercise the "Right to say ‘No’," resulting in a much higher oil price. Second, the surplus of the commons would immediately flow into redistributive projects in the Islamic world and not into the financial systems of Europe and the US. Finally, of course, the whole basis of the neo-liberal program for the Middle East (as outlined in George W. Bush’s plan for the outcome of the Iraq war) would be definitely challenged.

The Global Petroleum Commons and the UN System

If we put together the local petroleum commons claims with those of Islamic economic theorists, then more than 70% of the oil on the planet is notionally claimed to be a part of a commons. Yet, there is still a third notion of petroleum as a global commons that incorporates all oil deposits, whether discovered or not. The proponents of this notion argue that the consequences of the exploration, extraction, distribution and consumption of petroleum are so problematic for "humanity" that they cannot be left to the devices of private companies or nation states. There is, in this view, a global petroleum commons that needs an appropriate regulative community. But what is this community in its present incarnation? The most prominent contemporary answer is: the United Nations system.

Indeed, the concept of a global commons has stimulated the revival of the UN system’s legitimacy in the 1990s–since the system had an identity crisis after the end of the Cold War. For the UN system is increasingly claiming to be the surrogate for a truly global community of humanity that clearly does not yet exist. On the basis of this official representation of the future global community, the UN system has negotiated a number of accords with mining and energy companies that promised these companies ideological legitimacy. These include the Global Compact and the Global Mining Initiative as well as, of course, the Kyoto Accords. This makes the UN system–which includes the World Bank and IMF–the global "partner" to and regulator of the oil, gas and coal companies of the planet.

It is crucial to understand why in the last fifteen years the UN system dares to claim the right to regulate petroleum as a global commons. During this time the extractive industries, with special emphasis on mining and oil, have been in crisis. This was not due to their reaching the absolute limits on supply of minerals or oil. It was due to the refusal of billions of people around the planet to accept the social and environmental impacts of their destructive activities. What appears to be the "natural" limit of extraction (as explained by either the Club of Rome’s "asymptotic depletion curves" or by M. King Hubbert’s "peak oil" graphs) is simply the resistance of an ever-wider circle of people to suffering the consequences of private or state mineral or oil extraction with no compensation or redress. Global warming, environmental pollution and illness, hazardous working conditions have increasingly been the source of anxiety about, protest against and disruption of operations in the extractive industries. Inevitably these responses and the problems they address–not the difficulty of finding new fields of coal, copper or petroleum–have led to these industries’ long-term loss of trust. The extractive industries needed some "legitimate partner" to negotiate with that would not pose the immediate threatening demands that organizations of workers and local communities increasingly present.

Just as the extractive industries were undergoing their crisis, the UN system was facing it own. After all, it was set up to negotiate the conflicts of Capitalism vs. Communism and Colonialism vs. Anti-Colonialism. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union and collapse of apartheid in South Africa, what was the UN system to do with itself? Here is where the call of the extractive industries, especially the oil industry, became one of its lifelines. Its identity crisis could be resolved by becoming the "partner" of the extractive industries and regulating them as a representative of the coming global community.

The difficulties of such a surrogate global community has been brought to every one’s attention after more than a decade of the anti-globalization movement’s critique of the UN system’s most powerful elements besides the Security Council–the World Bank and IMF. Instead of the inherent problems of the nation state being transcended by the rise to a global level, the experience of the neo-liberal turn of the World Bank and IMF demonstrates that the UN system often just magnifies the problems of nation-state capitalism. This UN-based "coming global community" once again poses the classic solution to all distributive problems: "What’s yours is mine, and what’s mine is mine." Thus this "virtual community" (actually composed of the UN-system and its satellite NGOs) feels free to demand, for example, that indigenous people in the South respect "ecological zones" or "conservation regions" it designates even though the actual indigenous community has no real power to control the behavior of this imaginary global community actually substituted for by the UN system. Indeed, the global petroleum commons as defined by the UN system can be seen as merely a preemptive strike against the local and Islamic commons.

The Petroleum Commons as Conflict and Opportunity

The entrance of "commoners" (indigenous peoples, Islamists, or UN officials) into the world of oil ownership and production on the three levels discussed here is undoubtedly creating major changes in the oil industry worldwide. The logic of both market and state rationality is increasingly losing its compelling power to determine the future of oil extraction and, with it, the whole system of capitalist production it energizes.

Critics of capitalism, however, cannot be complacent about the rise of the petroleum commoners. This social reality also poses political problems that can easily divide the anti-capitalist movement as well as make neoliberalism stumble. Every local commons requires a regulatory community with insiders and outsiders, and the outsiders might rightly demand to become insiders, with all the attendant possibility of conflict. Similarly, the regulation of the Islamic petroleum commons can conflict with the rules of local communities and their claimed commons. Finally, the demands of the global commons have already conflicted with the needs of local communities and with the Islamic ummah. But whatever the results of these conflicts, actual or potential, the assumption that petroleum is a different political liquid from water has been put in doubt by the demands and struggles of the petroleum commoners. Will petroleum be as common as water one day? Perhaps.


This article is based on the text of a talk given at the Fusion Arts Museum in New York City on Nov. 7, 2004


George Caffentzis is a member of the Midnight Notes Collective. With the Collective he has edited two books, both published by Autonomedia: Midnight Oil: Work, Energy, War 1973-1992 and Auroras of the Zapatistas: Local and Global Struggles in the Fourth World War. Midnight Notes is online at:

For more on Nigeria and the Shell boycott, see:


Special to WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, Dec. 10, 2004
Reprinting permissible with attribution