2018 saw the completion of the latest stage of the Perrodo Project at St Peter’s College. Thanks to a £5 million donation made by the Perrodo family, two of whom are alumni of the college, St Peter’s now boasts a plethora of “flexible teaching spaces”, and numerous other “improvements”.
Many of the donors who shower Oxford’s colleges and departments with gifts have dubious backgrounds, even if – like the Perrodos – their philanthropy conforms to the University’s policy on charitable giving. The Sacklers, who give their name to the Sackler library, own Perdue, a company that pleaded guilty in 2006 to marketing drugs with “intent to defraud or mislead”. Their painkiller Oxycontin has since been at the forefront of an opioid crisis that had, by 2016, caused 200,000 deaths. Wafic Saïd, namesake and donor for the Saïd Business School, is credited with brokering a multi-billion dollar arms deal between Saudi Arabia and the UK. Further back, the 18th century slave-trader Christopher Codrington gives his name to the library at All Souls college.
Bearing this in mind, I decided to look a little more closely at the Perrodo family. Soon their donation was framed in a similarly murky light.
For almost half a century now, the Perrodos’ primary source of income has been Perenco GL, an oil and gas exploration company founded by paterfamilias Hubert Perrodo. Perrodo was born to a family of Breton fishermen and, after a number of years working in the oil industry, founded the company that became Perenco in 1975. In later life, he developed a passion for playing polo and growing wine – his polo team, Labégorce, is named after the vineyard that he owned near Bordeaux. Today, his descendants form one of the most influential ‘oiligarch’ dynasties. Their company, Perenco, is a low-profile yet mammoth player in the oil industry, extracting more than 250,000 barrels a day across the globe.
Perenco GL specialises in buying up sites that larger competitors deem unprofitable. Many of them come with a ‘problematic’ indigenous populace or environmental dilemmas that draw the unwanted media limelight to those at the top of the pyramid. Flicking through the scores of legal battles and criminal charges levelled against the Perrodo family’s flagship company, it became more and more clear that Perenco operates on the margins of what is moral – and on the margins of what is legal. Perenco’s abuses are hidden from watchdog organisations by a thick canopy of trees – the remoteness of its oil wells and the opaque Latin American systems of control mean that the international press has great difficulties accessing information about Perenco’s activities. But a little digging can perhaps give us a flavour of the behind the scenes of Perenco’s business activities.
According to a scathing report by Collectif Guatemala and French environmental groups, Perenco uses ‘1970’s-style’ drilling tactics in some of the most biologically diverse and vulnerable ecosystems on the planet. In breach of internationally-agreed extraction protocols (employing water and air-transport to limit rainforest destruction, for example), Perenco has constructed 204km super-highways through the heart of the Amazon. Only last year, a planeload of nature documentary-makers discovered a set of illegal runways that had been carved out of protected forest land using controlled fires near one of Perenco’s wells in Guatemala. In Columbia, Guatemala, Peru and the Congo, Perenco’s pipelines have leaked on an abnormal scale, destroying protected flora and fauna as well as polluting surrounding rivers.
On the human rights side, Perenco GL’s record is even more questionable. On the 1st of November 2018, Reuters reported that a Venezuelan state oil company official testified to having received millions of dollars in bribes from Perenco, in return for “preferential treatment”. The practice of bribing local officials seems not to have abated over the past two decades, since newspapers first began reporting Perenco’s practices. Already in early 2012, the Colombian newspaper El Spectador had reported on Perenco’s policy of illegally outsourcing work to undercut and thereby maroon unionising contract workers.
Most sinister of all, in 2012 French Newspaper Libération reported on the several testimonies by paramilitary fighters who accuse Perenco of having financed armed militias for several years in eastern Columbia, paying out thousands of dollars in oil in return for serving as the coercive arm of the company. The fighters were members of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, a paramilitary and drug trafficking group responsible for the deaths of at least 50,000 Columbians.
Just as problematic is Perenco’s ongoing illegal expansion into the homelands of the last remaining ‘uncontacted’ Amazonians. The Interethnic Association for the Development of the Peruvian Rainforest presented a court case against Perenco for what it deems illegal intrusions into ‘Area 67’, a preserved hinterland reserved for local indigenous groups by international convention. In 2012, Perenco faced international condemnation when it came to light that the environmental consultancy it had contracted had withheld evidence of an ‘uncontacted tribe’ in the company’s operational zone. These tribes are at serious risk from Perenco’s oil rig workers: environmental groups estimate that 50-80% of the indigenous groups could die within months due to their limited immunological defences.
Perenco’s quiet expansion into Amazonians’ territory is unlikely to be halted by anything other than concerted legal action and global condemnation – Area 67 was recently found to have a vast oil reserve beneath it and the Peruvian government is unlikely to neglect capitalising on such a lucrative source of revenue. Perenco GL itself completely denies the Amazonians’ existence. Perenco’s Latin American regional manager likened the idea of contemporary Amazonians living alongside his rig workers to the idea of the Loch Ness monster: “much talk…never evidence”.
When Cherwell asked Perenco about the allegations, a spokesperson for the company said: “Perenco is a leading, responsible, oil and gas company, adhering to the highest industry standards wherever it operates. Furthermore, Perenco makes a significant contribution to the national and local economies where it operates and runs a wide range of initiatives to improve the lives of those living close to its operations.
“With regards the specific points you have raised, Perenco strongly denies any such allegations.”
Perhaps the Perrodo family itself is actually unaware of the day-to-day running of their company and simply reaps the dividends, dishing them out plentifully for nobler pursuits, such as investing in education, playing polo or sponsoring 24-hour car races at Le Mans. One would like to imagine that the Perrodos have somehow innocently overlooked the storm of bad press their flagship company has been receiving over the past decades and could at some point be stirred into action by well-meaning student activists writing in the Cherwell. That is, I think, unlikely.
Billionaire oligarchs’ grants go some way to guaranteeing Oxford’s continued hegemony. To see how central oil money is in the university’s make-up, one need only note the existence of the Blavatnik School of Government, the ‘Shell Professor of Earth Sciences’ and the BP-funded Centre for the Analysis of Resource-rich Economies. The oligarchs who invest in Oxford and universities across the country enhance their brand image, receive tax breaks for donating to registered charities, and are immortalised through cutting edge architecture. This is one current cost of our prestigious education.
When told of the questionable background of the Perrodos’ fortune, many of my colleagues at college nodded knowingly and reminded me that this was the nature of corporate capitalism; such corporations would always meet local resistance and be challenged by environmentalists. As a PPEist friend of mine drily noted, such issues inherently crop up when predator multinationals go for gold in the Global South (think Shell, BP and Nestlé, for example). Perenco is no better and no worse than many other multinationals. But is that a reason to accept their money without question or comment? St. Peter’s didn’t seem to think twice – when asked to comment on the allegations levelled against the Perrodos’ company, Perenco, there was only talk of the family’s “charitable purposes”. According to the Master, “the entire fabric of the college has been greatly enhanced”.
At heart, it is a question of posterity. Today, we look on Christopher Codrington and Cecil Rhodes with distaste. Will we look at Oxford’s acceptance of oil-tainted money with the same feelings a hundred years hence? Even those who think Rhodes should stay perched on his plinth – or who believe Oxford’s implication in the Paradise Papers is only natural – can surely agree that colleges would do better to consider donors’ packages as a whole and not be led blindly by big money philanthropy and grandiose promises. Of course, we may stand corrected in a decade’s time if Perenco achieves its lofty green energy goals and governments legislate the rest. But for now, this seems little more than a pipe-dream.