Temporalities and spatialities of the problematic impact of oil: the case of Dixcove, a fishing community in the Western Region of Ghana. By Pius Siakwah

The problematic impact of natural resources on development, often referred to as the ‘resource curse’ has been the focus of much research and development policy. It has generated a great deal of research since the 1970s as natural resource rich countries in the developing world seem to perform poorly economically and on development indicators compared to resource poor countries. Researchers and development practitioners have explained the curse in terms of how natural resource windfalls are implicated in a country’s poor economic growth, governance, government borrowing and debt, currency movement, decline in manufacturing and agricultural sectors, environmental degradation and violent conflicts. Though the curse seemed visible in some countries, some skeptics however, argued that whereas the economic growth rate of resource rich economies was erratic, it was similar to the resource poor ones.

The framing of the existing literature on the impact of natural resources on development, and for that matter the curse, is problematic for its methodological nationalism (where it does not account adequately for global and local factors in shaping how resource windfalls impact development and how the curse or the problematic impact of natural resources can manifest unevenly). Such national-scale analysis that pushes questions of the role of transnational actors, agencies and structures and their impact on development outcomes and geographies of the problematic impact of natural resource (oil) across space and class. Indeed, whereas national scale analysis of the problematic impact of oil has been extensive, local level analysis of it, including how it manifestations unevenly and differentiated is limited (except for places like the Niger Delta where oil exploitation has been characterised by conflict and pollution). A ‘localised curse’ can be said to manifest where exploration of natural resources such as oil leads to a disruption of local economic activities due to pollution of rivers and farmlands, conflicts, poverty, inequality and increased local economic vulnerability. An analysis of the impact of oil on livelihoods of fisher-folks in Dixcove, Ghana has helped to bring to the fore the differentiated and temporal/spatial associated with oil-based development.

Dixcove is a fishing community in the Ahanta West District, located at the southern-most part of the Western Region of Ghana (indicated below). It is one of the oldest fishing communities in the district and Ghana. Dixcove is also one of the relatively developed areas in district, with access to social facilities such as roads, schools, and hospitals. There are about 7,500 inhabitants in Dixcove according to the 2010 national population and housing census. Seventy percent of the population live in rural areas, mostly engaging in fishing and farming. Fisheries accounts for 90% of livelihoods for the men in Dixcove, hence any disruption in the sector has implications for the local economy. Most of the women in Dixcove are also engaged in the fish trade through processing, making the area the center of fish trading for adjoining communities.

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 Ahanta West District (Geography Dept., University of Ghana, 2015)

Since Ghana discovered oil in 2007 in the Cape Three Point area, a place that has served as fishing ground for some inhabitants in the area, it seems that stakeholders such as the government, international institutions like the World Bank and NGOs have been more focused on institutionalised approaches, such as state level transparency, in the use of windfalls to avoid the resource curse which has manifested in some resource rich economies in the developing world. While it is important to initiate polices that can help Ghana to reduce or avoid the national scale curse, there is also the need to recognise how local economies and livelihoods are intertwined with and constituted through national and global political economy. There is the need to examine how oil exploitation can also impact local economies and in the process will produce winners and losers. For a fishing-based community such as Dixcove in the Western Region, Ghana, whose economy and livelihood is shaped and embedded in fishing and its related activities, an economic activity such as oil exploitation offshore that obstructs or competes with the fishing industry for space can have adverse consequences for its inhabitants.

Since the discovery of oil in 2007 offshore, near Dixcove, there have been changes in economic activities in the area. The residents, mostly fishermen and fishmongers expected that the oil sector would provide some employment and lead to poverty reduction in the area; but it seems, up to now, that this remains only an expectation. Focus group discussions with some of the fishermen and fishmongers during this study suggest that a decline in fishing and limited employment has resulted in an income decline in the area. Factors contributing to the decline of the fisheries sector in the area include: poor enforcement of fishing laws, unsustainable fishing, such as using small meshed nets, increased number of fishing vessels, inadequate supply of fishing fuel, inadequate supply of parts for outboard motors, and restriction on fishing around the oil rigs. Some of the fishermen suggest that restrictions on fishing due to oil exploration is the main cause of decrease in fish catch in the area since the fish are attracted to the lights at the oil rigs. There are also environmental challenges in the fishing communities.

Dirty environment in Dixcove

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Women waiting for fish from the sea.

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My study showed that there are temporalities and spatialities to the problematic nature of oil for development. Temporally, Ghana’s government increased borrowing backed by oil seems to be creating a ‘deferred or delayed debt curse’ for the future generation as well as a potential ‘deferred conflict’. Ghana’s experience with oil exploitation shows that the country is not currently experiencing oil-related violent conflict, even though there have been reported cases of clashes between fishermen and oil companies in the country’s western coast due to restrictions on fishing. But since conflicts are not episodic events, but can build over time, the seeming non-violent conflicts between the fishermen and state/oil companies could evolve into violent conflict in the future if the perceive neglect of fishing communities are not addressed. A ‘deferred violent conflict’ might emerge later in Ghana when fisher-folks’ grievances, income decline, and economic challenges are not addressed.

Spatially, whereas oil has had positive impacts on the provision of social services nationally and generation of some employment for the educated, the fisher-folks experienced decline in income due to restrictions on fishing in the sea near their locality. Based on the interviews and the survey with the fishermen and fishmongers in the community, the study showed that whereas the incidence of poverty in Dixcove and its environs in general is not as bad as compared to many other parts of the country, the incidence of poverty is unevenly distributed among the people, with fishermen and fishmongers in the area experiencing a decline in income due to restriction on fishing in the sea space near their locality. Eighty-one percent of the fishermen and fishmongers surveyed indicated during this study that between 2011 and 2015, their incomes declined between 20% and 50%. The problems that oil poses to Ghana’s development are differentiated and manifest unevenly, with temporal and spatial dimensions, and the directionality of incidences of poverty and inequality is not always predetermined in resources rich economies.

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