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A Smith Fulbright Scholar in Cameroon

Last year, Smith students won nine Fulbright Scholarships, a record for the college. One Fulbright Scholar, Erica Nichols ’04, is spending this year in Cameroon's capital city. She recently submitted this piece about her life and work there.

Erica Nichols ’04 with Bagyeli schoolchildren in the village of Makoure

By Erica Nichols ’04

I will never forget the day I stepped off the plane and into my new life as a Fulbright Scholar in Yaoundé, Cameroon, the west African nation’s capital. Since September 2004, I have conducted independent research here on a controversial oil project connecting Chadian oil fields to coastal Cameroon for export. Oil resources affect every aspect of life in this region. My experiences here in Cameroon have shown me the true meaning of the phrase “cultural exchange”, and I feel so lucky to be here.

My research is multidisciplinary, and focuses on the environmental and social aspects of the Chad-Cameroon Oil Production and Pipeline Project. A significant goal of project officials was for the pipeline to serve simultaneously as a commercial and development project, as opposed to creating another example of oil wealth, exacerbating poverty and undemocratic governance. The support of the World Bank and the imposition of its guidelines and safeguards were aimed to reduce risks associated with the project. Because of these development guidelines, the pipeline is considered by some to be a model project for extractive industries.

Unfortunately, there exist very few independent, academic analyses of the project. Virtually the only sources of information are produced by project officials or by critical non-government organizations, each of which have unique motives and limitations. The contradictions between these sources of information and the lack of alternate sources make it very difficult to objectively assess project impacts. One of my goals for this year is to produce a work that will address this problem.

Signs such as this are found along the Chad-Cameroon pipeline; this one was vandalized to express local discontent with the project

My research examines local impacts of the Cameroon section of pipeline from a perspective of international significance. I spend most of my time discussing intricacies of the project with each project stakeholder, from Exxon and World Bank officials to local indigenous populations along the pipeline route. It is through these exchanges, in Yaoundé and along the pipeline, that I am able to gain an objective and more global understanding of the project’s environmental and social impacts. I am particularly interested in local perceptions of the project’s execution, for instance in compensation for environmental damages and treatment of indigenous peoples.

Information accessibility has been a significant obstacle for me, but as a neutral researcher, I have been able to look at the project through the eyes of each project actor, and then assess how their roles affect rural Cameroonians and their environments along the pipeline route.

I never imagined how wonderful it would be to be a member of the Fulbright community. I feel supported in every endeavor, and not only are our projects self-designed, but the program is also very flexible to changes that arise during research.

Living in Cameroon has been a wonderfully enriching experience. I have really enjoyed being immersed in French, and it has been very exciting to be based in a large African city. I have encountered many challenges during my time here, both in Yaoundé and in the field, but I believe the key to my success has been an open mind and passion for my research. I feel like the luckiest woman to be here, with the tools I gained at Smith and the financial support of the United States government. I still have trouble believing that this is my first post-Smith “job”: to research something that fascinates me, live happily in Cameroon, and feel that I’m really making a difference in the world.

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