Last month, Peruvian authorities found Paul McAuley’s body in the remote city of Iquitos on the Amazon River. McAuley had been murdered and his corpse burnt at the hostel he ran for indigenous youth.
McAuley was a renowned environmental and human rights advocate who reached global prominence when he was awarded an MBE in 1995 for his services to education. After studying at Oxford, McAuley became a priest and moved to Peru, the fifth-poorest country in Latin America. He set up a school and dedicated the rest of his life to campaigning for the protection of the Amazon and its inhabitants.
McAuley ended up spending much of his time fighting the corrupt Peruvian government and the giant multinational corporations destroying the rainforest, McAuley was branded a ‘terrorist’ and an ‘incendiary gringo priest’ by the predominantly right-wing national press. He was accused of driving big businesses and their jobs away from the ailing Peruvian economy: in 2010 the government attempted to deport him. Nine years later, he was murdered in cold blood.
Who killed Paul McAuley? We will most likely never know. What is for certain is that his death is part of a disturbing trend across Latin America, where environmentalists and human rights campaigners are indiscriminately murdered by crime syndicates to pave the way for multinationals to move in and exploit countries’ natural resources. 4 Peruvian campaigners were murdered by a local cartel in November last year; 125 Latin American land activists were killed in 2017 alone.
To us in the UK and specifically in Oxford, what is even more alarming are the close links our own university fosters with the very companies McAuley spent his days fighting against.
In many ways McAuley’s is a familiar story: he organised protests against the same big-money corporations which have been operating almost indiscriminately in countries such as Peru for decades. More often than not, the cost of their business practices is the devastation of the Amazon and its inhabitants’ livelihoods. Multinationals are free to do as they please in amongst governments plagued with corrupt officials and overly lenient regulation. The continued presence of these oil and gas companies perpetuates the vicious cycle of corruption and exploitation enveloping much of the Global South.
Three years after the Paris Climate Accords, Oxford University continues to enjoy close ties with oil and gas companies that completely disregard the possibility of a climate catastrophe. These connections run far deeper than college investment schemes or hosting controversial guest speakers. They are direct links to some of the few hundred oil and gas giants which account for more than 71% of global emissions.
In 2009, McAuley volunteered to help locals blockade the Napo River in western Peru. They were attempting to obstruct an Anglo-French oil company’s supply barges from proceeding upstream and commencing oil extraction operations in ‘Lot 67’, a vast swathe of land in heart of the Amazon. After a few days of protests, the then-president, Alan García (who has since attempted to flee the country on corruption charges), declared the drilling of Lot 67 ‘of national interest’. The army broke through the blockade: McAuley and his fellow activists were left to watch as the oil corporation hauled $200 million’s worth of drilling equipment into one of the fragile – and internationally-safeguarded – ecosystems on the planet.
The oil company which had gained access to Lot 67 was Perenco GL, a company registered in London and owned by the Perrodo family. The Perrodo family enjoys close ties to St. Peter’s College: exactly one year after the lucrative drilling on Lot 67 began, the Perrodo family donated £5 million to St. Peter’s.
Most of the details concerning Perenco’s dire human rights and environmental record can be found in Cherwell’s article here. In short, Perenco has a history of accusations levelled against it for funding paramilitary groups which explicitly target environmental and trade union activists. In 2012, the company was accused of funding ‘death squads’ in Colombia which killed an estimated 50 000 people.
Perenco has also amassed a series of bribery allegations. Just last year, the company was alleged to have bribed Venezuelan officials with $5 million in return for ‘priority drilling status’ in the tumultuous country.
Perenco is not the only company with links to Oxford operating in Latin America. Tullow Oil – an oil and gas company with a similarly chequered record – has repeatedly voiced its intentions to extract oil off the Peruvian coast.
Tullow originally signed a deal to gain access to the nature conservation area with former Peru President Kuczynski (currently in jail for corruption), but it has since become apparent that neither Tullow nor Kucyznski made any kind of effort to establish what the environmental and humanitarian ramifications of drilling in the area would be.
Tullow was also recently accused of bribing members of the Ugandan parliament to gain access to oil fields. Meanwhile, protests against Tullow’s expansion in Kenya have become so extensive that the company was almost forced to withdraw entirely from the region.
Mike Daly, a Visiting Professor of Earth Sciences at Oxford University, sits on Tullow Oil’s board as a non-executive director. In the face of UN warnings that environmental catastrophe is imminent, Professor Daly and his colleagues at Tullow have recently announced that they intend to up their company’s oil and gas exploration efforts in 2019. In West Africa alone, Tullow intends to up its oil extraction from 93,000 to 101,000 barrels per day.
Another Oxonian, Lord Browne, sits on the executive board of the University’s Blavatnik School of Government. The decision to accept funding from British philanthropist Blavatnik – who also made most of his fortune from oil extraction – was descibed by the University’s own specialist on corruption as ‘incomprehensible and irresponsible’ shortly before he resigned.
Lord Browne has recently begun working for Wintershall, an oil and gas company which also recently announced plans to massively increase its fossil fuel extraction project. Wintershall has been accused of witholding $900 million in profits from the UN-backed Libyan government.
Lord Browne was also previously the CEO of British Petroleum. The University continues to run the ‘BP scholarship scheme’ and accept funding from BP for the Centre of Analysis of Resource-Rich Economies. Just like Perenco, BP has been accused of funding Colombian ‘death squads’. Elsewhere, Shell, which continues to sponsor over twenty academics in the Shell-Oxford Research Collaboration, is currently embroiled in a £1 billion corruption scandal in Nigeria.
Perenco, Tullow and Wintershall are the very companies Paul McAuley dedicated his life to fighting against. It is yet to be seen how any single one of these oil companies – let alone their larger competitors BP and Shell – are doing enough to combat climate change and avert climate catastrophe.
What’s more, the Perrodo families and Professor Mike Dalys of the world – those profiting from Latin American natural resources at a grave cost to regional stability and locals’ lives – enjoy a hero’s welcome at Oxford University. Their names are engraved on plaques on magnificent constructions; their academic writing is published under the University’s name.
Last year marked a milestone in the campaign to make our institutions divest from fossil fuels. Over £80 billion was divested in the UK; globally, $6 trillion dollars were moved away from the most harmful industries. And still, Oxford University’s flirtation with oil money continues.
The Perrodos, Professor Daly and Lord Browne need to be held to account for their role in global warming and the seemingly devastating effect their companies are having on the environment.
Even philanthropy, as in the case of St. Peter’s and the Perrodo family, is never a one-way street. A donation to an educational institution must be seen as a transaction. Just as the University legitimises Professor Daly and Lord Browne’s business practices, St. Peter’s legitimises the way in which the Perrodo family make their millions. Equally, the Perrodo family are able to turn the spotlight away from the string of allegations levelled against their company, Perenco.
Why is the University continuing to turn a blind eye to the accusations levelled against its benefactors and employees? Why is it continuing to endorse individuals who work in very industries which are at the heart of the problem? If we are to avert the whole-sale destruction of our life support systems then we must continue Paul McAuley’s good work and stand up for those who are most vulnerable. It can never be a question of ‘take it and run’ when there is nowhere to run to.