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Offshore petroleum threatens fishing livelihoods and marine biodiversity in Mauritania

Offshore oil and gas development is advancing as the result of autocratic governmental policies and in disregard for Mauritania’s biological marine ecosystems, necessary to the country’s fishing trade.


Based on strong prospects for petroleum, President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz campaigned for a ‘new’ Mauritania, depicted as a promising metropolis resembling Dubai (Choplain and Lombard 2009). In the same oil and gas rich coastline an abundance and highly biodiverse ecoregion provides a 500 million euro fishing industry to the country and much of its population. Such biological abundance would be greatly limited by widespread oil developments such as those that are taking place along the whole of Mauritania’s coast, even offshore from the country’s famous national park. Yet, the imagination of oil wealth masks the more stark realities of an economy that could become dependent upon its short term benefits, realities such as constantly shifting petroleum markets, clean-up of environmental hazards related to the industry, and social unrest as youth and workers’ expectations are not met by improvements in employment conditions and opportunities.  In a report by OilWatch from 2004, it was predicted that oil/gas development offshore in Mauritania would serve only to strengthen the government, and not the country’s infrastructure and development initiatives, a premonition that is slightly being revealed at the local scale. Despite numerous reports cautioning the government to slow its oil development, in 2015, Mauritania’s government made it easier for petroleum companies to obtain exploration – exploitation contracts by permitting the decision to be made by decree, as opposed to through a lengthy legislative process. Still, today, there are more than seven companies invested in exploring offshore petroleum deposits, but of these only a few have begun to extract the resources. Nonetheless, Mauritania’s coastal economic health is hinged upon this development (Faujas 2016; OilWatch 2005), one that tends to benefit only an elite segment of the population (Choplain and Lombard 2009). What remains to be seen is how if and when the government will address the potential for heavy ecological and social losses as a result of its non-protective mining policies.     Historically, Mauritania has moved out of colonization and into autocratic rule by a privileged elite. The first democratically elected president, Sidi Ould Cheik Abdallahi served for only 16 months (2007-2008) before he was ousted by a coup by General Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, who is the current president. The coup was met by fierce opposition by the Mauritanian populace andthe EU, who demanded that the military junta restore Abdallahi to power, while European countries pulled out aid programs. Abdallahi was perceived as the first and only democratic president, who refused to permit the country’s wealth to be squandered in the hands of foreign companies.  As a mark of integrity, when the oil revenues were not sufficient to pay the salaries of civil servants, Abdallahi took a 50% pay cut to his own salary (Augé 2007). According to the Courrier International, Abdallahi’s treatment of oil contracts heavily contributed to the putsch.    In recent years, civic unrest has dominated the political discourse in the country, during which the government under Aziz has ordered violent suppression of peaceful protesters on multiple occasions, especially those who disrupt the government’s development agenda. In 2012, mining companies engaged in violence against workers holding a labor meeting, leading to the death of one worker.  This propelled people to the streets in Nouakchott carrying a banner with the victim’s face and demanding an independent investigation into his death. The police responded initially by arresting the protest’s top organizers, but quickly released them when they saw the persistence and increasing unrest amongst the remaining protesters. In April 2017, the government responded to a peaceful protest by students vindicating the lack of work and opportunity through arbitrarily arresting and repressing the marchers.  In May 2017, protests rang out in Paris by the CMAF (Collectif des Mauritaniens de France) against the potential for discrimination based on skin color that was being manifested in Mauritania due to the development of a biometric identification card, which is part of the country’s fight against terrorism. The persistent marginalization of the black Mauritanian population leaves many without justice in the country, but provides a ready and affordable labor base to international companies.       The country’s coast possesses one of the most abundant fisheries on the planet with makerel, marlin, shrimp, sardines, barracuda and many other species providing for 50% of the country’s foreign currency earnings. In response to this rich ecology, Mauritania has followed suit with many other countries in the Sahel, stating that the means to protect the marine ecosystems are both unattainable due to financial constraints and also secondary to the short term economic gain (Magrin et al 2011). This is true also for the Parc National de Banc d’Arguin, one of the largest parks in West Africa at 12,000 square kilometers, covering Mauritania’s Atlantic coast and the Sahara Desert between Nouakchott and Nouadhibou.The indigenous Imraguens living along the coast have been on the frontlines of a changing ecosystem as fishing trawlers and oil development threaten to permanently alter the marine ecosystem that protects their livelihood.     Offshore oil and gas development puts into question the sustainability of the coastal livelihoods and the abundant fishery. Despite the presence of laws protecting the coast, the weakness or unwillingness of the Mauritanian state translates to less preparation in situations of urgency such as an accidental oil spill or leakage (World Bank 2011). There are few technical or institutional mechanisms in place to respond to and coordinate such a situation (Magrin et al. 2011).  Furthermore, the seismic technology being used to gather data on deep water oil reserves is destructive to both fish endocrine systems and the communication systems of marine mammals. Environmental organizations within and without Mauritania have written reports about the problems related to offshore oil development, including the Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), Oil Watch, and the United Nations.   In 2014, the government revised the mining code, but did not account for the appeals of these multiple environmental justice groups. According to the 2014 Mining Code revision, mining contracts are given for a period of four months, which can be renewed only one time. A prospecting contract does not guarantee an exploitation contract, and the area must be lesser than 500 square kilometers. In 2006, Mauritania created a national fund from hydrocarbon revenue (FNRH), and they also adhere to the Initiative for Transparency in Extractive Industries (ITIE) (Waxma 2016). Nonetheless, the country’s elite capture of wealth from the petroleum offshore resources has provided further means to continue with a rent-based economy, which has not responded to the employment, environmental protection, and development wishes of the population (Magrin et al 2011). 

Basic Data
Name of conflict:Offshore petroleum threatens fishing livelihoods and marine biodiversity in Mauritania
State or province:Dakhlet Nouadhibou
Location of conflict:Banc d'Arguin (Coastal National Park)
Accuracy of locationMEDIUM (Regional level)
Source of Conflict
Type of conflict. 1st level:Fossil Fuels and Climate Justice/Energy
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Oil and gas exploration and extraction
Specific commodities:Crude oil
Natural Gas
Project Details and Actors
Project details

Extractivist policies governing the petroleum develop within coastal Mauritania are related primarily to the lessening of fiscal responsibility in the 1990s and the establishment of the coast as a primary oil site by the pioneer investor, Woodside Petroleum. In accordance with the mining code, foreign companies possess 90% holdings and have little tax responsibility. An ODI report recommends substantial changes to the country’s development plans, due especially to the fact that petroleum reserves could last from a decade to 30 years, which is a very short time period in comparison to long term coastal opportunities - eco-tourism, fishing, and other activities (Daniels et al 2016). Ecological concerns are thus echoed more by the non-governmental organizations operating in and out of the country than the government's Secretary of State for Ecological Affaires, which was created in 2006.

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Project area:10,000
Level of Investment for the conflictive project1,068,000,000
Type of populationRural
Affected Population:79,516 (as of the year 2000)
Start of the conflict:01/01/2012
Company names or state enterprises:Woodside Energy from Australia
Chariot Oil and Gas Limited from United Kingdom
Total SA from France
Dana Petroleum from United Kingdom
PETRONAS from Malaysia
Kosmos Energy from United States of America
Tullow Oil Plc from United Kingdom
British Petroleum (BP) from United Kingdom
Société Mauritanienne des Hydrocarbures et de Patrimoine Minier (SMHPM) (SMHPM) from Mauritania
Relevant government actors:Government of Mauritania
International and Finance InstitutionsThe World Bank (WB) from United States of America
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
Oil Watch.
Conflict & Mobilization
IntensityLATENT (no visible organising at the moment)
Reaction stageLATENT (no visible resistance)
Groups mobilizing:International ejos
Local government/political parties
Forms of mobilization:Creation of alternative reports/knowledge
Development of alternative proposals
Involvement of national and international NGOs
Street protest/marches
Appeals/recourse to economic valuation of the environment
Environmental ImpactsVisible: Noise pollution
Potential: Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity), Fires, Food insecurity (crop damage), Global warming, Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation, Soil contamination, Waste overflow, Oil spills, Surface water pollution / Decreasing water (physico-chemical, biological) quality, Large-scale disturbance of hydro and geological systems
Other Environmental impactsPotential threat to fisheries in the Bay of Arguin
Health ImpactsPotential: Accidents, Occupational disease and accidents, Deaths, Other environmental related diseases, Violence related health impacts (homicides, rape, etc..)
Socio-economical ImpactsVisible: Lack of work security, labour absenteeism, firings, unemployment, Militarization and increased police presence
Potential: Increase in Corruption/Co-optation of different actors, Increase in violence and crime, Loss of livelihood, Social problems (alcoholism, prostitution, etc..), Violations of human rights, Loss of landscape/sense of place, Other socio-economic impacts
Project StatusProposed (exploration phase)
Proposal and development of alternatives:Several proposals of alternatives include:
1) A moratorium on further exploration and oil development to permit the population to develop laws protecting the environment, society, and coastal livelihoods
2) The conservation of biodiversity in the Banc d'Arguin and its surroundings in order to establish alternative livelihoods such as tourism and low impact fishing
3) In respect of the UN Climate Agreement, keeping the oil and gas reserves under the ground would permit both Mauritania and the countries represented by each multinational to respect this agreement and work towards a solution to climate change by not introducing new fossil fuels to the atmosphere.
(Oil Watch 2005 Report)
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:No
Briefly explain:There are many eyes on the offshore oil development in this region, but few of the voices of environmental groups are being heard. While it is an important case, the conflict and campaigns to protect the coastal fishery are still latent, as local actors are already preoccupied with other constraints on fishing (trawlers) and, as of yet there are not many visible floating oil rigs in the Atlantic. What is playing out are more general protests, which, due to the lack of political freedom in the country remain couched under a title of 'unemployment' and 'youth dissatisfaction.' This is a case to continue to observe.
Sources & Materials
Juridical relevant texts related to the conflict (laws, legislations, EIAs, etc)

2014 modification of 2008 mining law
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References to published books, academic articles, movies or published documentaries


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OilWatch 2004 Report on Mauritania
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Magrin et al. 2011, La Mauritanie et la mer : et si le pétrole aidait à mieux gérer l’insécurité écologique ?
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(World Bank 2011) Strategic Environmental and Social Assessment of Oil and Gas Development in Mauritania
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(IUCN 2004) Gestion environnementale de l'exploitation de pétrole offshore et du transport maritime pétrolier
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(BBC 2001) West Africa's delicate fishing balance
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Mauritania's Embassy website in Japan
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(Tagba 2015) Mauritania: Malaysian Petronas quitting business
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(Nomads 2015) Report: Mauritania
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(Offshore 2017) Jubilee FPSO heading stabilized, further shift needed
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(OGJ 2017) Total signs exploration contract for Mauritania’s C7 block
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(Faujas 2016) Mauritanie : les investisseurs se tournent vers le pétrole et le gaz
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Tullow taps another fruitless well in Mauritania
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(Subsea 2012) Chariot to Acquire 3D Seismic Survey Offshore Mauritania
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(Tuquoi 2008) Mauritanie : au pays des Imraguen
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Ashcroft 2016) Chariot Oil & Gas exits Mauritania, expands in Morocco
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(Offshore Energy 2013) Ministry Approves Farm-Out of Block C-19 (Mauritania)
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(Energy-pedia 2008) Mauritania: Petronas group to begin exploration and appraisal drilling
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(Wee 2017) Barakah Offshore picks up $14m Petronas decommissioning job
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Mauritanie,ministère du pétrole : « les perspectives du gaz mauritanien sont plus que prometteuses »
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IRIN 1999 Le pétrole, une catastrophe pour les populations ?
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( 2016) Kosmos Energy Announces Successful Appraisal of Gas Discovery Offshore Mauritania and Senegal
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(Coulibaly 2014) Fermeture de la mine d’Akjoujt en Mauritanie : à quoi joue la MCM ?
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(Reuters 2015) Malaysia's Petronas says still operating in Mauritania
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(NDARINFO 2017) Exploitation gaz offshore Sénégal-Mauritanie : Dakar a abrité hier une consultation publique sur l’impact environnemental
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Meta information
Contributor:Julie L. Snorek, EJAtlas, [email protected]
Last update22/07/2017
Conflict ID:2876
Legal notice / Aviso legal
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