Food Security in the Niger Delta can best be examined using the classic rule of thumb of the right to food and the right to be free from hunger. This basically requires that we approach the subject from the premise that we must own our food narrative. We shouldn’t be adjudged malnourished or hungry simply because we do not eat certain prescribed foods, in what manner and in what quantities. This necessitates that we consider the crucial need to approach food security in the context of food sovereignty.
The implication is that we have to focus on food that is produced by the people and that are culturally appropriate. This is vital, because food availability does not necessarily address the issue of food security if the people end up eating junk or are force-fed on foods they don’t really want. In the Niger Delta, as in the overall national situation, while we have spots where few citizens battle with mountains of food, the majority are drowning in the ocean of hunger.
Hunger arises due to a complex of socio-political realities.
Food is a human right. Food security is hinges on agriculture, property rights and environmental management. The deep link to agriculture is inescapable as the majority of our people are engaged in the production of food in one form or the other. And the story of the despoiled Niger Delta environment is well told.
In 1996, SERAC filed a case against the Federal Government of Nigeria at the African Commission Human and Peoples’ Rights denouncing “the widespread contamination of soil, water and air; the destruction of homes; the burning of crops and killing of farm animals; and the climate of terror the Ogoni communities had been suffering of, in violation of their rights to health, a healthy environment, housing and food. In terms of the African Charter, these allegations included violations of Articles 2 (non-discriminatory enjoyment of rights), 4 (right to life), 14 (right to property), 16 (right to health), 18 (family rights), 21 (right of peoples to freely dispose of their wealth and natural resources) and 24 (right of peoples to a satisfactory environment)”
When the Commission reached a decision in 2011, the FG was found culpable violating the people’s right to food. Thus, when we consider the food security in the Niger Delta we must keep in mind that there is a continued failure of the governments to uphold the right of the people to safe and satisfactory food and by extension, all the other rights.
Absence of food is a major threat to human security.
Food is available when food producers are able to invest their time, energy, resources and skills in the farming, herding or fishing and attain good harvests for subsistence or for commercial purposes. Food is accessible when it can be found within reach of the hungry, and critically so when they have the purchasing power to acquire it. Food availability is also anchored on the appropriateness of the items within the cultural context.
Production and consumption of food depend not just on current realities, but on the collective and cultural memories of the people. These include how seeds are acquired and from whom, as well as how they are sown and by whom. Are the seeds purchased or do farmers get them from what they had saved? Is planting solely individual effort or does it include the cooperation of neighbours and other communal configurations?
For farmers to supply food in quantities that cover their needs and leave surpluses for the market, they have to sow sufficient seeds of good quality and on good quality soil. The impoverishment of farmers could lead to reduction in the scope of their productive ability – including farm size, quality and quantity of seeds as well as their capacity to work.
Soil and Seeds
When soils are of poor quality, the best efforts of the farmers would be largely futile and unproductive. When the soils are bad, the harvests would be bad and seeds saved to be planted would be of poor quality and are bound to yield poorer harvests. In situations of this nature, farmers engaged in farming as a routine, on automaton, expecting little and getting nothing. With the depth of pollution in the Niger Delta, farming is often mere tradition.
Over the years, local food varieties have been lost or abandoned. Massive deforestation due to logging, land use conversion, infrastructure development and industrial activities threaten vital food sources.
Oil exploration and extraction have brought about major changes in food production and access in the Niger Delta. The impacts come through the entire chain: from seismic activities of the exploration stage to the production, transportation and eventual usage stages. Seismic activities in the seas have direct impact on aquatic life forms and drilling wastes impact both land and water bodies. Dumping of hundreds barrels of produced water into the environment adds to the deadly pollution. Oil spills from equipment failure and from third party interferences add to the tragic situation. Gas flares diminish agricultural productivity and the use of the furnaces to process foods contaminate and poison the people.
Indiscriminate harvesting of fish by international fleets raise unique security issues and wreak havoc on fisheries, further impoverishing local fishers.
Canalizations for oil sector operations have also damaged fresh water systems by bringing in salt water from the sea. This has marked implications for fish and agricultural productivity. Coastal erosion is Eating up farmlands and infrastructure.
The overall situation is so bad that fishermen and women depend on imported fish for sustenance.
When Security Breeds Insecurity
Paradoxically, the presence of security forces in the Niger Delta to some extent promotes insecurity in the region. This happens in the sense that the citizens are insecure in the presence of these officials. Curtailment of certain undesirable activities may also become impossible if those charged with halting them do nothing or get compromised in the process. Collective shaming and punishment as evidenced in the many checkpoints in the creeks and have been seen in the cases of Ogoni, Odi, Odioma, Gbaramatu and many others attest to this.
Military shields around oil and gas facilities reduce the fishing zones and keep fishers away from customary or known fishing zones. Fisher folks now have to go to international waters, at great cost and risks, if they hope to make any reasonable catch.
Dumping of industrial waste at sea further hampers the productivity of the efforts of the fishers. This has raised concerns for fisher folks in the Niger Delta and in nations with offshore extractive activities.
The must assured way of ensuring food security in Niger Delta is the protection/management of the environment and the enhancement of her agricultural biodiversity. Agro-biodiversity is the one of the basic productive assets of family farmers. This will require a halt of the pollutions, including gas flaring going on in the Niger Delta. On a national scale, it would necessitate the repeal of the National Biosafety Management Act 2015 and the enacting of a National Biodiversity Management Act that would not only protect and ensure the preservation of our agricultural biodiversity but would help kick start a bio-economy based on nature’s gifts to the nation.
Working the Future
1. Clean up the Niger Delta, restore the environment and compensate the people for loses suffered
2. Government to support farming and fishing communities structurally – including agricultural extension services, finance, creation of fish markets, storage facilities and rural infrastructure
3. Research into and support biodiversity conservation and promote the building of an economy that is based on local knowledge as well as on the principles of Re-Source Democracy
4. Establish a National Biodiversity Management Agency – and cover Biosafety matters within this agency
5. Demilitarize the Niger Delta and encourage community policing instead.
Speaking points by Nnimmo Bassey, Director, HOMEF
at the Roundtable on Food Security in the Niger Delta, 29 July 2017 at Yar’Adua Centre, Abuja