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In Sudan, China focuses on oil wells, not local needs

China has invested billions in oil facilities and pipelines, but not in much else, say Sudanese locals.

By Danna HarmanCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / June 25, 2007



Paloich, South Sudan

Li Haowei's girlfriend gave him a silver ring when he left Liaoning, his home province in China, nine months ago. Before he boarded the flight to Sudan, Mr. Li had never even left Liaoning before. "You are so lucky," his girlfriend said, then, enviously.

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"I was happy to go abroad and see the world," says Li, an accountant for Petrodar, a multinational oil consortium. "But I did not know enough to know I did not want to come here."

Paloich is not a particularly welcoming place. The heat surrounds and suffocates you like a plastic bag. The dust in the dry season sticks to your eyelashes and fills your nostrils. Mosquitoes buzz in your ears relentlessly.

Li is making three times the salary he would at home. But he misses his girlfriend, he says, twisting his ring around. He misses Liaoning. He misses real Chinese food. Sometimes he can't sleep. Fear of malaria is a constant. He broke down crying when he read a tender letter from his mother last month. He does not like it here.

The local Sudanese are not too keen on his presence here, either.

Sudan's oil production averages 536,000 barrels a day, according to estimates by the Paris-based International Energy Agency. Other estimates say it is closer to 750,000 barrels a day. And there is an estimated 5 billion-barrel reservoir of oil beneath Sudan's 1 million-square-mile surface, almost all of it in the south of the country, an area inhabited mainly by Christian and animist black Africans who fought a 21-year civil war against the Arab-dominated Muslim government of the north.

The vast majority of this oil, 64 percent, is sold to China, now the world's second-largest consumer of oil. And while neither Khartoum, China, nor Petrodar release any statistics – this is generally believed to be an oil deal worth at least $2 billion a year.

China's National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) is the majority shareholder in both Petrodar and the Greater Nile Petroleum Operating Company, two of the biggest oil consortiums in Sudan.

CNPC has invested billions in oil-related infrastructure here in Paloich, including the 900-mile pipeline from the Paloich oil fields to the tanker terminal at Port Sudan on the Red Sea, a tarmac road leading to Khartoum, and a new airport with connecting flights to Beijing.

But they have not invested in much else here.

Locals live in meager huts, eating peanuts with perch fished out of the contaminated Nile. There is no electricity. A Swiss charity provides healthcare. An American aid group flies in food and mosquito nets. Most children do not go to school. There is no work to be found. Petrodar, for one, has its own workers – almost all of whom are foreigners (mostly Chinese, Malaysians, and Qataris) or Sudanese northerners. The consortium hires Paloich residents only rarely, for menial jobs.

It's a picture of underdevelopment not unusual in Sudan's semiautonomous south. While some pockets – like the regional capital of Juba and the bigger towns of Rumbek and Wau – have seen some economic revival since the signing of the 2005 peace agreement, the majority of the south remains mired in abject poverty.

Locals blame their lot on oppression by Sudan's Islamist government and the long war with the north. But they also blame the Chinese.

"[The Chinese] moved us away so we would not see what was going on. They were stealing our oil and they knew it," says Abraham Thonchol, a rebel-turned-pastor who grew up near Paloich. "Oil is valuable and we are not idiots. We were expecting something."

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