OBIOKU, Nigeria - At first glance, it is hard to imagine anyone fighting over this place.
Approached by a creek, the only way to get here, a day's journey by dugout canoe from the nearest town, it presents itself as a collection of battered shacks teetering on a steadily eroding beach.
On Sunday morning, the village children shimmy out of their best clothes after church and head to a muddy puddle to collect water. Their mothers use the murky liquid to cook whatever soup they can muster from the meager catch of the day.
Yet for months a pitched battle has been fought between communities that claim authority over this village and the right to control what lies beneath its watery ground: a potentially vast field of crude oil that has caught the attention of a major energy company.
The conflict has left dozens dead and wounded, sent hundreds fleeing their homes and roiled this once quiet part of the Niger Delta. It has also laid bare the desperate struggle of impoverished communities to reap crumbs from the lavish banquet the oil boom has laid in this oil-rich yet grindingly poor corner of the globe.
"This region is synonymous with oil, but also with unbelievable poverty," said Anyakwee Nsirimovu, executive director of Institute of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law in the Niger Delta. That combination is an inevitable recipe for bloodshed and misery, he said. "The world depends on their oil, but for the people of the Niger Delta oil is more of a curse than a blessing."
Africa is in the midst of an oil boom, with companies and governments pouring $50 billion into projects that may double the continent's oil output in the next decade.
In the world's thirst for oil and the United States' efforts to obtain it outside the troubled Middle East, African oil has become essential. Africa is expected to provide the United States with a quarter of its oil supply in the next decade, compared with about 15 percent now, and much of it will come from the Gulf of Guinea, where the Niger Delta sits.
But much of that oil will come from places like Obioku, and with it a tangled and often bloody web of conflict marked by poverty and a near abdication of responsibility by government.
Even though Nigeria elected a democratic government in 1999, which raised hopes for the long-suffering delta region, almost none of the enormous wealth the oil creates reaches places like this. The isolation of Obioku is total. With no fast boats available, the nearest health center or clinic is a day's journey away. No telephone service exists here. Radio brings the only news of the world outside. Nothing hints that the people here live in a nation enjoying the profits of record-high oil prices.
"It is like we don't exist, as far as government is concerned," said Worikuma Idaulambo, chairman of Obioku's council of chiefs.
Nigeria is a longstanding OPEC member that exported nearly $30 billion of oil in 2004, the United States Department of Energy said. Nigeria sends 13 percent of revenues from its states back, a hefty sum for the underdeveloped ones where oil is produced. Much of that is siphoned off by corrupt regional officials who often pocket the money or waste it on lavish projects that do little, if anything, for ordinary people.
A result has been a violent struggle over the jobs, schools and other aid that oil companies have offered to encourage local residents to cooperate. Here in Obioku, as in many towns in the delta, an oil company, in this case a subsidiary of Royal Dutch Shell, has brought the only signs of modernity. In 1998, Shell bought the rights to drill for oil near a small fishing settlement at the edge of Obioku, no more than a handful of rough shelters made of grass and wood.
Shell signed agreements with the chiefs of Obioku and with leaders in the nearest town, Nembe-Bassambiri, to help develop Obioku. In time, Shell built a water tower, gave the village a generator and built a primary school. In return, the village agreed to allow Shell and its contractors to work freely.
For years Shell did nothing with the field. Then, early last year, a Shell contractor arrived to begin work, and trouble started.
Officials in a nearby town, Odioma, laid claim to the land, and demanded that the oil company pay tribute if it wanted to drill.