Who Owns the World’s Oil?

George CaffentizGeorge Caffentzis
writes: 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 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 Hussein 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? (12/27/04)
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