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Fishers in Senegal suffer the consequences of the fossil fuel industry’s “dash for gas.”

Fishers in Senegal suffer the consequences of the fossil fuel industry’s “dash for gas.”

The many faces of inequality

There is an honest debate about the inequality of climate change: are poorer countries like Senegal justified in tapping their fossil fuel reserves?

At the COP27 climate conference, many parties, including some African delegations, made the case for more fossil fuel investment.

Not all Africans are buying these arguments, especially not the continent’s grassroots climate activists. Their pushback, supported by reporting and data, is that these projects are filling Europe’s energy supply gap, not expanding energy access in Africa. Africa is already experiencing the harshest impacts of the climate crisis, and fears about the “resource curse” continue to loom large. And as The Guardian summarized a recent World Bank study, “Oil-rich countries in Africa systematically perform worse than other country groups in terms of voice and accountability, political stability, rule of law and the control of corruption.”

What’s more, oil development in places like Equatorial Guinea has not lifted people out of poverty, and the touted financial benefits of new projects are often unrealistic or overstated.

Fishing communities in sacrifice zones are of course deeply suspicious of the promise of fossil fuel development—confident it will serve up the same old poverty and inequality in a devastating new package.

Either way, you cross over

For many who live in the largely Indigenous settlement of Bargny near Senegal’s capital Dakar, where multinational companies are exploring for gas in the offshore Rufisque field, the economic promise of oil and gas feels empty. The town, whose beauty once attracted foreign tourists, is now positioned between a cement factory, a coal plant, a mineral export port, and an ever-rising ocean, and the air is thick with pollution. Flooding has damaged landmarks across Bargny, including a local cemetery—now in the shadow of the coal plant—that has been submerged by rising tides.

One more example of a climate and industry sacrifice zone. What will a new offshore facility bring?

Many residents aren’t waiting to find out and are already fleeing their troubled town. Some will relocate within Senegal, and some will head north through the Sahara to Europe in a journey known as Mbeukmi, Wolof fisher slang for “facing the desert.” Others will try their luck with the ocean: it takes roughly a week to reach Spain in a fishing boat.

Barça or Barsaax (“Barcelona or die”), they say. “Either way, you cross over,” explains an activist. “To the other side [Europe] or to the world of the dead.”

Whose pain, whose gain?

Rich countries have set the stage for the human and environmental tragedies that are unfolding in Saint-Louis and Bargny, not only with their greenhouse gas emissions but with their investments: the US government has poured more than $9 billion into oil and gas projects in Africa since the 2015 Paris climate agreement.

And although the Biden administration eventually agreed to the loss and damage fund at COP27, it was a fight to the finish

Meanwhile, fisherfolk and other communities that wield little political clout are facing life-threatening fallout from industrial practices and climate shocks.

The loss and damage fund represents a major win for frontline communities across Africa, but it faces headwinds—and questions. Who will contribute to the fund, who can access it, and for how long? The fact that rich countries continue to fail on multiple funding commitments—including their 2010 pledge to provide $100 billion a year in climate finance for developing nations—is cause for serious concern.

Equally worrisome is the risk that the new multinational dash for gas will offset potential gains from the climate fund by deepening the losses and compounding the damage, with communities like Dieng’s caught in the crosshairs.

For developing countries and their allies, wresting agreement from the world’s wealthiest nations to help pay for the consequences of climate change was just the beginning. Now, the real work begins.

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