Curse of the Black Gold

The cost of oil exploitation.
Curse of the Black Gold

On August 3, 2011 the British-Dutch oil giant Shell accepted responsibility for two massive oil spills in Nigeria's Niger River Delta. The spills released an amount of oil equal to 20 percent of what leaked into the Gulf of Mexico after the Deepwater Horizon/BP disaster last year, and many of the area's fishermen lost their livelihoods. Shell will pay compensation totaling at least £250 million ($410.5 million) to around 69,000 Nigerians—mostly members of the Bodo community—who were affected by the spills. The news of the payout sent Shell's stock price tumbling, but it should also serve to draw attention to the "scramble for African oil"—a gold rush Ed Kashi and Michael Watts documented in their recent book, Curse of the Black Gold. Today, Mother Jones is republishing some of the photos and text from Curse of the Black Gold.


Nigeria, a major supplier of oil for the US, is the sixth largest producer of oil in the world. Set against a backdrop of what has been called the scramble for African oil, Curse of the Black Gold is the first book to document the consequences of a half-century of oil exploration and production in one of the world’s foremost centers of biodiversity. This book exposes the reality of oil’s impact and the absence of sustainable development in its wake, providing a compelling pictorial history of one of the world’s great deltaic areas.

The publication of Curse of the Black Gold occurs at a moment of worldwide concern over dependency on petroleum, dubbed by New York Times journalist Thomas Friedman as "the resource curse." Much has been written about the drama of the search for oil—Daniel Yergin’s The Prize and Ryszard Kapuscinski’s Shah of Shahs are two of the most widely lauded—but there has been no serious examination of the relations between oil, environment, and community in a particular oil-producing region. Curse of the Black Gold is a landmark work of historic significance.

(A selection of images and text from the recent book by Ed Kashi and Michael Watts.)