Accelerating Climate Action by Design 

The theme for the World Habitat Day 2021, Accelerating Urban Action for a Carbon-free World, is a strong call on architects and all practitioners involved in the design and actualisation of the built environment and related services to be conscious of the fact that climate change is an existential threat to all living beings on Earth and is thus a fundamental design problem of our time.

It is often stated that cities are responsible for some 70 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions with transport, buildings, energy, and waste management accounting for the bulk of urban greenhouse gas emissions.[ii] The process of building, delivery and their utilisation are hugely responsible for global warming by reason of the energy needed to extract and process building materials and the energy needed to maintain habitable temperatures as well as general maintenance of the structures. The main culprits here, as you may suspect, include the emissions related to cement production and the burning of fossil fuels for energy production. In the USA, buildings consume some 40 percent of energy annually, and they are responsible for nearly half of the carbon dioxide (CO2) emission in the country.[iii] High impact building materials include concrete, steel, wood, and insulation materials.

The theme for this year’s World Habitat Day highlights carbon-neutrality. With the upcoming COP26[iv] of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the world has been regaled with a vision of a “net-zero” carbon future. While making supreme effort not to jump into the carbon-neutral or net-zero arguments at this point, it is pertinent to state that the concepts require considerable unpacking as they centre on needed climate action and are embedded in the theme of the Day. 

Why Do We Need a Carbon-Free World?

The question is whether a carbon-free world is possible. If the answer is in the negative, what is the significance of considering the possibility at all? What message do we seek to convey when we prescribe the desirability of aiming for, or having a carbon-free world? A simple answer to these questions would be that we cannot have a carbon-free world but can try to end or considerably reduce the emission of carbon to  a concentration level that is tolerable.  

Carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere have risen since the start of the industrial era from an annual average of 280 parts per million (ppm) in the late 1700s to 410 ppm in 2019.That is a hefty 46 percent increase.[v] The level that is said to be tolerable is 350 ppm. Besides carbon dioxide, other gases of concern in the atmosphere are methane and nitrous oxides. Ozone is also a greenhouse gas but is found mostly in the stratosphere and is useful in absorbing and preventing harmful ultraviolet radiation from the sun from reaching the earth. 

Global warming occurs due to increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Heat comes from the sun in short waves, but when bounced off the earth they go up in short and long waves. Whereas the short waves pass through the atmosphere without resistance, the greenhouse gases trap some of the long waves trying to exit the atmosphere. Scientists estimate that without the greenhouse effect the earth would be as cold as minus 18 degrees Celsius.  What this tells us is that we do need greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, otherwise we would freeze. The trouble is that when the concentration of the greenhouse gases gets higher than they ought to be, we set the stage to be roasted.

Climate Impacts 

Nigeria is severely impacted by climate change. The impacts include floods, droughts, increased heat, and water stress. There is persistent land loss due to coastal erosion in the South and due to desertification in the North. Coastal erosion is accompanied by salinisation of freshwater systems, thereby exacerbating species loss. Deforestation is a major contributor to global warming and it impacts on food production. Unbridled flaring of associated gas poses threats to the climate, environmental/human health, and agricultural production.  Oil spillages equally add to the crisis through the dumping of the highly volatile hydrocarbon products into the environment. 

While desertification and water stress, including the shrinkage of Lake Chad affect at least 11 states in Northern Nigeria, gully erosion is a great menace in the Southeast and South South regions. Lake Chad has shrunk from a size of over 25,000 square kilometres in the 1960s to a mere 2,500 square kilometres, breeding the attendant social upheavals in the area.

Climate change is implicated in exposing over 33 million Africans (spread across Madagascar, Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia, Zimbabwe, South Sudan, Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia, and Kenya) to food insecurity emergencies.[vi] The food situation has been compounded by the erosion of food sovereignty due to the loss of biodiversity. Violent conflicts and poverty add another dimension to the dire situation and raise the number of the vulnerable to over 52 million.

Southern Africa and some other parts of Africa warm at two times the global rate[vii] and the Southern Africa region experienced two massive cyclones in March and April 2019 and in 2021 leading to a loss of over 1000 lives and wreaking about $2billion worth of infrastructure. Having so many strong cyclones in a short space of time is a record. The intensity and upward reach of the cyclones on the Southeastern coastline also broke the records. Cyclones Idai and Kenneth impacted close to 3 million persons. Some researchers tie the cyclones to the warming of the Indian Ocean. If this is true, we can expect more cyclones as well as the devastation of marine ecosystems in the region as the IPCC report (2021) indicates that the warming here is higher than in other parts of the world.

Will the Climate Summit Turn the Tide?

In November 2021, the world will gather in Glasgow to take stock of what has happened since the Paris Agreement of 2015. The Agreement consolidated the voluntary approach to tackling climate change which was first introduced at COP15 held in Copenhagen in 2009. The key aspect of the Agreement is that nations would voluntarily suggest what amount of emissions reduction they would make as their contribution to tackling the climate crisis. This is what is known as the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). Bear in mind that the Agreement also settemperature targets at 1.5 degrees Celsius or well below 2.0 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. By the latest submission of countries to the UNFCCC, an aggregation and analysis of NDCs show that global temperature would rise by up to 2.7 degrees Celsius if that is the best the nations can do.[viii] We remind ourselves that prior to COP15, industrialised nations were required to adhere to legally binding emissions reduction targets under the Kyoto Protocol. That requirement was based on the foundational justice principle of Common But Differentiated Responsibilities (CBDR). Today, rather than mandatory emissions reduction, what is expected is legally binding reporting requirements. What a parody. 

The voluntary emissions reduction regime is already pointing at catastrophic global warming considering the freak weather events being experienced at the present 1.1 degrees Celsius level. Moreover, as earlier noted, parts of Africa warm at double the global average, meaning that if the global temperature lurches upward to a 2.7C scenario, Africa will be literally uninhabitable. 

An important part of the Paris Agreement is the Article 6 which seeks to establish a policy foundation for a carbon emissions trading system, that allows polluters to buy the license to continue polluting from less polluting nations. The fossil fuels industry and partner nations love this article because it would require nothing but a monetary exchange for their climate sins. The point is this: the polluters have the cash, and the vulnerable nations need the cash, but the Planet will suffer. Science informs that the world cannot afford to open new fossil fuel mines or fields. This sector is responsible for 80 percent of all carbon dioxide pumped into the atmosphere since the industrial revolution. Rather than halt the extraction of the climate harming fuels, the industry is set to invest more funds for new oil and gas projects.[ix]

Net Zero Is Not Zero

Now, let us look at carbon neutrality, net zero and their kind. A statement issued by Oilwatch Latin America offers a good analysis of the idea behind the Net Zero concept that has become so popular across the world. Countries, regions, and corporations are offering to achieve Net Zero by 2050. Two things should be of concern here. First is that net-zero does not mean zero emissions. Secondly, 2050 may seem to be a distant date, but even if the proposed action were to be a true solution, the world cannot wait for 2050 considering current catastrophic floods, fires, cyclones, and hurricanes.

The extraction, burning and industrial use of fossil fuels constitute the main cause of the climate crisis. Since 1830, and at an exponential rate of increase during the last two decades, the planet has warmed due to greenhouse gas emissions. Just 100 energy corporations are responsible for 71% of the emissions generated since 1988. Policies focused on monitoring and counting carbon dioxide (CO2) molecules are part of the problem, insofar as they are used to divert attention from the central issue: the continuing exploitation of coal, oil and gas under an energy-hungry, petro-dependent economic model. 

Carbon accounting – the basis of most official climate policies – is all about moving molecules around, creating false equivalences, erasing emissions with a “click”, and hiding responsibilities, to carry on business as usual while covering up the roots of the climate crisis. The focus is on inventorying emissions and percentages to be reduced (or rather, to be permitted) and using the numbers to claim that transfers of CO2 into the atmosphere can be “compensated for” by supposed future transfers out of it. 

Quantifying CO2 emissions is the smokescreen that allows the governments of the global North to continue to finance the fossil industry to the tune of trillions of dollars, even after the signing of the 2015 Paris Agreement. Pretending that addressing climate change is a matter of measuring and managing CO2 molecules is a way of privileging the market and subjecting traditional communities to violations of the rights of humans and nature, while at the same time making global warming worse. 

Examples of this farce include proposals for “carbon neutrality” or “net zero emissions”, which, by assuming falsely that emissions generated in the fossil extraction chain can be offset by the carbon fixed by natural processes or geoengineering, will only exacerbate global warming. Other examples include the Clean Development Mechanism, Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation Plus (REDD+), Nature-Based Solutions, “climate-smart” agriculture and livestock-raising, and Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS). Although such proposals are usually presented as conservation programs, they are in fact part of a speculative business model that that has nothing to do with constructive responses to climate crisis.[x]

What Can Architects Do?

Architects and related designers have huge roles to play in climate-proofing our planet. Climate change does not merely threaten the planet. It threatens living beings who inhabit the planet – humans and millions of others beings. The problem is that the crisis is triggered by human beings and systems designed and built by us. These systems include socio-political, economic, and other systems. It is important that architects understand these systems in order to design and deliver the built environment differently. 

So, what can we do as architects? Sea level rise is already on track to continue, and this places most of Southern Nigeria at risk of going under water due to the region’s low-lying nature and the fact that the geographic Niger Delta is a naturally subsiding zone. The immediate response here must include the use of flexible construction materials and designs that are ecologically conscious. Architects must pay more attention to the immediate and larger urban landscape in which their creations sit.

As architects we are often deeply concerned about form and efficient spatiality. We work to consciously ensure that our built spaces consume as little cooling, lighting, ventilation, and maintenance costs as necessary. As good as these are, considering the threat of climate change, we should also be concerned about what is called the embodied energy or the sum of energy required to produce goods and services. Embodied energy includes the energy utilised in mining the needed raw materials. In the building sector this also includes the construction and replacement/demolition of our buildings- quarrying, cement production, smelting steel, baking of the bricks, transportation of materials to site and their installation, dismantling and carting away. Did we say carting away? Let’s say suitably disposing of the materials.

Hoping that this conversation will continue beyond the symposium, let us share some issues to ponder on.

  • Raise awareness on the risks associated with current levels of overconsumption that is pushing beyond planetary limits leading to dramatic biodiversity loss and climate change.
  • We must re-examine our romance with certain climate harming building materials such as concrete and steel.
  • Reduce wasteful use of materials.
  • Work with other professionals to promote the greening of our urban areas, set aside spaces for urban farming and avoid the cementification of spaces.
  • Get involved in design for mass transit and other modes that encourage rapid transition from dependence on fossil fuels 
  • Integrate designs that are self-sufficient in terms of energy needs such as by using solar power, etc.
  • Design for circular use of resources and promote the recycling of wastes.
  • Design and build multi-use spaces that are flexible and durable at the same time. Encourage upgrading of existing buildings and retrofit for energy efficiency.
  • Encourage vehicular free zones in our urban areas and encourage open meeting spaces rather that exclusive boxed up spaces.
  • Take a closer look at our traditional architecture in terms of design, materials, craftsmanship and theory and encourage more organic approaches.
  • In terms of theory, we should see buildings as living things who have birth, midlife, and terminal points.
  • Be environmentally friendly with regards to materials and energy demands. 
  • Avoid the aping of postcard architecture and design respectful and culturally sensitive spaces. 

By Way of Conclusion

You have heard the saying that we first shape our buildings and then the buildings shape us. This perspective should encourage and challenge architects to generate designs that not only respond to current climate challenges but lay the pathways to provoke continued robust imaginaries and actions for upcoming generations.

Permit me to pause with a quote that urges us to consciously ensure that our narratives capture the story of our lives told by us and dipped in our experiences:

 “…If there is any hope for the world at all, it does not live in climate change conference rooms or in cities with tall buildings. It lives low to the ground, with its arms around the people who go to battle every day to protect their forests, their mountains and their rivers because they know that the forests, the mountains and the rivers protect them. The first step toward re-imagining a world gone terribly wrong would be to stop the annihilation of those who have a different imagination – an imagination that is outside capitalism as well as communism. An imagination which has an altogether different understanding of what constitutes happiness and fulfilment.”[xi]

End Notes


[i] Principal Partner, Base Consult and Director, Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF

[ii] World Habitat Day. https://urbanoctober.unhabitat.org/whd

[iii] Ned Cramer (2017). The Climate is Changing. So Must Architecture. https://www.architectmagazine.com/design/editorial/the-climate-is-changing-so-must-architecture_o

[iv] 26th meeting of the Conference of Parties to the UNFCCC

[v] EPA. Climate Change Indicators: Atmospheric Concentrations of Greenhouse Gases. https://www.epa.gov/climate-indicators/climate-change-indicators-atmospheric-concentrations-greenhouse-gases

[vi] https://reliefweb.int/report/world/2019-natural-disasters-claim-more-1200-lives-across-east-and-southern-africa

[vii] IPCC. Impacts of 1.5°C of Global Warming on Natural and Human Systems. https://www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/sites/2/2019/06/SR15_Chapter3_Low_Res.pdf 

[viii] UNFCCC. (2021). Full NDC Synthesis Report: Some Progress, but Still a Big Concern. https://unfccc.int/news/full-ndc-synthesis-report-some-progress-but-still-a-big-concern

[ix] Nnimmo Bassey (2016). Ambition, Selfishness and Climate Action in Oil Politics- Echoes of Ecological Wars, Daraja Press.

[x] Oilwatch Latin America. (October 2021). The Climate Debate is not About CO2 Molecules. https://www.oilwatch.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/10/Statement_OWLA.CO2_EN.pdf

[xi] Arundhati Roy. 2013. Decolonize the Consumerist Wasteland: Re-imagining a World Beyond Capitalism and Communism. Accessed at https://www.commondreams.org/view/2013/02/19

A paper by Arc Nnimmo Bassey[i], FNIA, MFR, at the World Habitat Day celebration of the Nigerian Institute of Architects (NIA), Akwa Ibom State chapter on 4 October 2021.

Politics of Turbulent Waters

The fact that Africa can be completely circumnavigated has advantages and disadvantages. One of the advantages is that the continent can be accessed by sea from any direction. This means that the seas can be a ready tool for wrapping up the continent and promoting regional integration and cooperation. We would be stating the obvious when we say that this spatial disposition has also made the continent prone to exploitation and assault. This position made it easy for Africans to be uprooted and relocated through slavery and this central location of the continent equally made it open to adventurers and colonizers. It is also noteworthy that key terrestrial infrastructure on the continent either begin or end at the shorelines.

The sea means a lot to Africa and her littoral states. The mineral resources and aquatic diversity have attracted entities with interest in legal activities and others with illegal intentions. With the world literally scrapping the bottom of the natural resource pot, there is a scramble for the sea and one way to sell the idea of limitless resources and opportunities has been to dream up the Blue Economy concept. In the publication, Blue Economy Blues, HOMEF stated:

To understand the Blue Economy, one needs to look at the concept that inspired its creation. That concept is that of the Green Economy. The Green Economy is another top-down concept that jars the organic relationship of humans with their physical environment as it essentially deconstructs that relationship and builds up on a philosophy that distances humans and other species from the environment and presents that environment as a thing to be manipulated, transformed, and exploited in a way that delivers gains along subsisting unequal power alignments.

African political leaders, including those at the African Union, are enamoured to the Blue Economy concept particularly when considering what can be done in the areas of fisheries, aquaculture, tourism, transport, shipbuilding, energy, bioprospecting, and underwater mining and related activities. The oceans and lakes simply appear to be spatially limitless and endowed with limitless resources. The truth is that these notions aren’t true.  African waters are among some of the most overfished waters, and this is often not for consumption in the continent. 

Our fisheries provide nutrition to about 200 million Africans and employment for over 35 million coastal fishers.Nevertheless, about 25 percent of fish catches in African waters are by non-African countries, according to an FAO report.

West African waters that have been among the most fecund have seen shrunken fish populations due to overfishing, illegal fishing and climate change. These illegal fishing activities are often carried out by large foreign industrial trawlers that travel over long distances with the help of harmful subsidies. It is said that about 65% of all reported illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing takes place in the waters of Gulf of Guinea.

The rush to exploit our oceans has manifested in criminal activities including sea piracy, waste dumping (oil spills) and stealing of fishes. Shockingly, 95% of all kidnappings at sea is said to happen in the Gulf of Guinea

Their catches are said to end up being used to feed livestock in Europe and the USA.  According to reports, these trawlers come from China, Russia and countries in the European Union. They catch more fish in one day than what an artisanal fisher would catch in a year. These unregulated and illegal activities largely go unreported. 

IPCC—Oceans warming faster than expected

Warming oceans lead to reduced fish populations and catches as fish migrate to cooler waters and away from equatorial latitudes. Ocean warming has been fingered as triggering more violent cyclones such as cyclone Idai, Kenneth, and Loise on the southeastern seaboard of Africa. The warming has also led to the destruction of coral reefs off the coast of East Africa. This clearly has impacts on fish stocks.

The sixth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) affirmed that 1.5C temperature rise above preindustrial levels may be reached by 2050 due to the continued dumping of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. If drastic emissions cuts are not embarked on, the world is on track to overshoot the Paris Agreement targets thereby literally frying Africa and cooking our oceans. This will make nonsense of any notion of the Blue Economy, except that the oceans could become arenas for geoengineering experimentations aimed at sucking carbon out of the atmosphere or for some form of solar radiation management by pumping sea water into the clouds.

With temperatures rising and polar icecaps melting, the IPCC report assures that sea level rise stays on a steady course. The floods are coming. Submergence of coastal communities and cities will go from being a threat to becoming stark reality. We are already seeing deadly floods on virtually every continent. With sea level rise comes loss of coastal land and infrastructure, as well as loss of freshwater systems through salinization. For a continent that often suffers water stress and has the spectre of water conflicts hanging like the sword of Damocles, real action must be taken to counter climate change. 

One key action that must be taken is the outlawing of new oil or gas fields in our oceans and other aquatic ecosystems. The oil rigs and FSPOs (Floating Productions Storage & Offloading) cut off fishing grounds and engender human rights abuses by security forces who expose fishers to extreme danger just to ensure an expansive off-limits cordon ostensibly to protect oil company installations.

It is equally a time to halt the building of petrochemical refineries and other polluting industries (such as the one at Lekki Free Zone at Lagos) on seashores as they are sure to pollute the waters, poison the biodiversity and negatively impact the food chain. A phosphate factory at Kpeme, Togo, for example, pumps its  wastes into the Atlantic Ocean, literally fertilizing the continental shelf to death. Nutrient pollution can have devastating impacts on public health, aquatic ecosystems, and the overall economy. 

Blue economy sails on the highway of pervasive market fundamentalism that seeks to shrink public involvement in productive endeavours and yield the space for the private enterprises. Market fundamentalism blinds policy makers to the fact that the so-called efficient and profitable private sectors depend on subsidies and securities provided by the public sector. One only needs to think of the bailouts of financial institutions during economic meltdowns, and the elimination of risks by pharmaceutical companies in the race for COVID-19 vaccines. These are, of course, justified by overriding public interests.

The drive to support industries such as those producing plastics, and our love for disposable products, permit highly polluting materials such as plastics to be unleashed into our environment thereby causing great harm to our oceans and aquatic creatures. It has been said that there would be more plastics than fish (by weight) in the oceans by 2050.

Reports indicate that the production of plastics increased twentyfold since 1964 and reached 311 million tonnes in 2014. This quantity is expected to double again over the next 20 years and almost quadruple by 2050. It should be noted that the volume of petroleum resources needed to make plastics has been increasing steadily, and despite the highly visible pollution impacts the demands keep rising with only about 5% of plastics being effectively recycled and 40% ending up in landfill. 30% of the plastics end up in sensitive ecosystems such as the world’s oceans.

Already there is a plastic flotilla or a Great Plastic Patch in the Pacific Ocean that is euphemistically called the 8th continent. The patch is “three times the size of France and is the world’s biggest ocean waste repository, with 1.8 billion pieces of floating plastic which kill thousands of marine animals each year.” Sadly, those plastics will require hundreds of years to degrade if left floating out there.

The politics of economic development and market fundamentalism, allow what would ordinarily be unthinkable to happen. A drop of crude oil contaminates 25 litres of water making it unsuitable for drinking. Imagine how much water was polluted by Shell’s 40,000 barrels Bonga Oil spill of December 2011 or Exxon’s Idoho platform spill of similar volume in 1998. Shell’s Forcados terminal spill of 1979 dumped 570,000 barrels of crude oil into the estuary and creeks, while Chevron (then known as Texaco) released 400,000 barrels of crude oil in the Funiwa incident of 1980. Add to these the Ozoro-1 oil well blowout off the coast of Ondo State in April 2020 that has remained a crime scene more than a year after.

A little help from Nature

Once upon a time, our turbulent seas were embraced by verdant mangroves on our coastlines. Today the mangrove forests have been deforested for energy or to make way for infrastructure or urbanisation.  These forests are key components of a viable Gulf of Guinea. Without them the region has no answer to rampaging waves and sea level rise. The spawning ground for fish species and nurseries for the juveniles gets eroded and lost as mangroves get depleted. Oil pollution turns the mangrove forests into dead zones. Their deforestation opens up space for invasive nipa palms introduced to the Niger Delta in 1906 by a horticultural adventurer.

The call for restoration of mangrove forests must be supported and acted upon. This can be done in cooperation with community groups that are raising nurseries and demonstrating their efficacy through pilot efforts. Support by government can bring these efforts to scale and impact. Alternative energy sources also need to be provided for communities that depend on mangroves for fuelwood.

Protecting selected freshwater and marine ecosystems could be a way of securing thriving biodiversity in our oceans, seas, lakes, and rivers. However, such areas must be delineated with close attention to indigenous knowledge and the cultural protection norms of communities that depend on them for their livelihoods.  Top-down approaches to establishing protected areas end up dislocating communities, harming their economies, and eroding their cultures, spirituality, and dignity. Some of such areas are simply demarcated for officially sanctioned land and sea grabbing. They can, and have been, used as tools of oppression and exploitation. 

In an article titled “Protected areas must promote and respect rights of small-scale fishers, not dispossess them,” Sibongiseni Gwebani stated, “The concept of protecting an identified fishing area, designating marine spatial territory and linking this to specific regulations has a long history in South Africa. These have been influenced by the apartheid spatial planning legislation introduced in the 1960s. Large proportions of coastal land were forcibly cleared for either forestry or marine conservation by using racial segregation laws. The histories of all of the major marine protected areas in South Africa are shaped by racially based removals through land and seascape during the 1970s and 1980s.”

No Politics with our Seas

The statistics rolled out during Health of Mother Earth Foundation’s (HOMEF) School of Ecology on the Politics of the Sea, show a very disturbing situation in the Gulf of Guinea. The gulf has become one of the most dangerous maritime areas in the world. He informed that 90% of sea based environmental pollution footprint in the Gulf of Guinea takes place in Nigerian waters. The region is very laxly policed and is a zone of plunder with hundreds of thousands of stolen crude oil moving unhindered.

When we gaze at the ocean, creek, or river, let us think about life below the surface, not as an SDG goal, but as creatures that have rights to live and thrive as children of Mother Earth. Let us see our water bodies as arenas of life and remind ourselves that we are just a tiny fraction of the biomass of living beings on earth. The seas offer us a canvass for learning positive politics of life rather than scrambling to grab and trash whatever we can lay our hands on.

Coastal Communities Under Threat

Climate change and variability in Nigeria is starkly illustrated in the northern and southern regions of Nigeria by desertification and coastal erosion respectively. This is so because attention is often focussed on these phenomena in the North and in the South. The implication of this is that the extent of climate impacts in the region between the north and south is often underreported. These emblematic phenomena do not however tell the full story of environmental changes in the impacted communities in Nigeria’s northern region and in the coastal communities.

It should be noted that within regions, as among nations, climate impacts are unevenly distributed due to differential exposure to certain physical and socio-economic factors. Other factors that affect the distribution of impacts include community structure and organisation, risk perceptions, economic systems, and available resources.  

Nigeria’s 850 kilometres coastline is notably challenged by activities of oil industry in the Niger Delta and the mammoth refinery being constructed at Lagos. Deforestation is another key factor as the shoreline protection provided by mangrove forests is rapidly being lost. Canalisation and sand filling for infrastructural and urban development are other major factors. 

The attention paid to coastal communities also varies depending on whether such areas are urban or rural. The flooding and projected impacts of the refinery on Lagos, a mega city, attracts global attention, while smaller towns such as Ibeno and communities such as Uta Ewua, Ibaka or Ago Iwoye hardly get a mention.

Coastline communities depend on aquatic ecosystem resources to secure their livelihoods and maintain their cultures. A distortion of this environment brings about both subtle and direct impacts on the social, cultural, and economic lives of the people. Canalisation, for instance, and sea level rise, bring in salt water from the sea, thus contaminating freshwater sources. This brings about the stressful contradiction of living on water and yet having none to drink. Besides the pressure on potable water, the intrusion of salt water also alters the diversity of aquatic and terrestrial species in the territories. 

The threats of sea level rise to the Niger Delta are compounded by the fact that the region is naturally subsiding. This means that the net sea level rise here is higher than in other parts of Nigeria’s coastline owing to the unique combination of factors.

We often hear of the description of some ecosystems as being fragile. That fragility is not attributed to such areas because of an inherent weakness in the ecosystem but to camouflage the harm visited on them by corporations and individuals. Perhaps we should speak of sensitive ecosystems rather than fragile ones. In this sense, sensitivity places a duty of care and respect on humans and institutions led by them.

The fact that hydrocarbon pollution on the coastal communities of the Niger Delta is not restricted to communities that host oil company facilities is well known. When an oil spill occurs at an offshore rig or at a Floating Production Storage and Offloading (FPSO) vessel, the extent of the spread of the pollution cannot be predicted and can only be determined after the  act? Mobil offshore oil spill in 2012 off the Ibeno coastline spread as far as 32 kilometres from its source, devastating fisheries in the area. Multiple oil spills in the area in 2012 and 2013 led to the coating of the entire Akwa Ibom State coastline with crude sludge. 

Other incidents include the rupturing at the Forcados terminal of Shell Nigeria Production and Exploration Company(simply known as Shell) in 1979 where 570,000 barrels were emptied into the estuary and adjoining creeks. Chevron (then Texaco) had a major spill in 1980 at Funiwa, where 400,000 barrels of crude oil were emptied into coastal waters, and which destroyed 340 hectares of mangrove forests. Mobil also had 40,000 barrels spilling in January 1998 at their Idoho offshore platform. That spill affected at least 22 coastal communities.

One major offshore oil spill recorded in Nigeria is the Bonga oil spill of 11 December 2011 at Shell’s Oil Mining Lease 118 located 120 kilometres offshore. The oil company reported that 40,000 barrels were spilled, but the significance of this spill goes beyond the volume of oil spilled. It is significant because the oil company, Shell, claimed that it pumped the 40,000 barrels into the Atlantic Ocean in error, thinking they were pumping the oil into a tanker, MV Northia. An investigation of the incident found that the pumping of the crude oil into the ocean was because of an equipment failure at the FPSO. The oil spill spread over a large extent of the coastline. It was reported to have impacted 168,000 persons in 350 communities in Delta and Bayelsa States alone. 

Following the Bonga oil spill, the National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency (NOSDRA) slammed a fine of $1.8 billion on Shell “as compensation for the damages done to natural resources and consequential loss of income by the affected shoreline communities.” NOSDRA also fined Shell another $1.8 billion as punitive damages. Shell refused to pay the fine and instead brought a case in 2016 to a Nigerian federal court challenging NOSDRA’s power to impose any fine on it. Two years down the road, the court dismissed the suit filed by Shell and found that NOSDRA was right to impose a fine of $3.6 billion on the offending oil company. That fine is yet to be paid by the oil major. While Shell and NOSDRA engage in their tug of war, the communities are left high and dry, suffering the impacts of the oil spill, and getting a signal that succour may not come after future incidences. The Artisanal Fishermen Association of Nigeria (ARFAN) continues to urge Shell to pay the fine imposed on it by the Nigerian government.

Of the 7 million artisanal fishers in Nigeria, 80% are found in the Niger Delta. These fishers produce about 9 million tonnes of fish locally, meeting only a fraction of the fish needs of Nigeria. Interestingly, some of the offshore oil fields are named after animal and fish species, probably to preserve the memory of species destroyed by oil company activities for posterity. An oil field is named after bonga fish, and another is named ebok or monkey. A lot of monkey business obviously goes on at those locations.

With the recalcitrant attitude of the polluting oil companies operating in Nigeria, coastal communities cannot depend on them in the struggle to maintain their aquatic ecosystems and defend their livelihoods. While communities are forced to live with these companies in their territories and off their coasts, they must take steps to protect their environment, livelihoods, culture, and overall dignity. Some of the necessary steps include a mapping of their ecological resources and preparing a matrix of what they had before and what have been lost due to multiple factors. Communities must equip themselves with knowledge on how to monitor their ecosystems as well as how to organise and advocate for the changes they wish to see.

Groups such as Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF), the FishNet Alliance and others work to learn from the existential struggles of vulnerable coastal communities and to support efforts to expose ecocide and end destructive extraction, overfishing and other harmful activities. We recognise that healthy aquatic ecosystems ensure the security of communities when their knowledge and conservation norms are respected. Community wisdom provides essential platforms for protecting shorelines from the ravages of raging waves, protect aquatic species and promote the wellbeing of the peoples. Efforts of communities to hold to account, individuals and corporations who wilfully inflict harms on their ecosystems must be adequately supported.

Talking points at HOMEF’s Coastal Community Fishers Dialogue/Training at Uta Ewua, Akwa Ibom State, Nigeria

Okavango and the Tragedy of Fossils in Africa

The quest for profit in a predatory economic system has made it possible for humans to wilfully ignore extractivist crimes unfolding in broad daylight. A clear case is the clawing into Namibia’s Okavango Basin in search of hydrocarbon resources by ReconAfrica, a Canadian oil prospecting company. The company has been licensed to explore for hydrocarbons in an area of 13,600 square miles straddling Namibia and Botswana. ReconAfrica could end up fracking for oil and gas in this highly valuable region which is said to hold up to 31 billion barrels of crude oil.

The Okavango Basin is touted as the “largest oil play of the decade.” It is just as well that oil companies describe their finds as “plays” because what they do with these resources is a tragic play that routinely ends up devastating communities and basically irretrievably harming ecosystems. At a time when the world knows that not more than a third of known fossil reserves can still be extracted and burned without surpassing the already alarming 1.5 degrees temperature target of the Paris Agreement, it is shameful that oil companies are still allowed to prospect for more oil, coal, and fossil gas. 

Already, ReconAfrica’s officials claim that they are playing according to rules set by the Namibian government as they go about their exploratory activities. We understand how such rules play out, who reaps the benefits of such rules and who suffers the negative consequences. Experts have already noted that the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report produced by ReconAfrica and accepted by the Namibian government would not pass serious scrutiny and the process was not open to public participation. Public consultation is a critical requirement in any EIA process and where this is lacking the process is null and void. If the Minister of Agriculture of Namibia could say that his ministry was not consulted, why should we think that citizens were consulted?

It is concerning that governments keep on allowing oil companies to arm-twist them into accepting patently false promises of revenue booms and of capacity to avoid ecological harms and to trigger development in affected oil field communities.  When the first commercially viable oil well spurted in 1956 in Nigeria’s Niger Delta, there were wild celebrations of progress arriving in the area that had hitherto suffered hundreds of years of pillage of agricultural natural resources by imperialist and then colonial forces. The first oil exports commenced in 1958 and so far, more than 5,200 wells have been drilled in the region with over 603 being discovery wells. After more than six decades of hydrocarbons exploitation in the Niger Delta, the region now ranks as one of the top ten most polluted places on earth. Water bodies, soils and the air have all been stoked full of harmful pollutants and life expectancy now stands at a dreary 41 years. 

You may say that Nigeria is an odd case. Consider the devastation that Texaco, now Chevron, wreaked in Ecuador where up to 18 billion US gallons (68 billion litres) of toxic waste and 17 million gallons of crude oil was dumped on pristine rainforest soil in an area spanning 4,400 square kilometres or 1,700 square miles.

How about the ongoing massive pollutions in South Sudan and in Sudan? What about the tar sand fields of Canada, the home country of ReconAfrica? What of the burning coal caves in South Africa? In the words of Saul Landau in his collection of essays – A Bush & Botox World – “The quest for corporate profit invalidates concern for the environment.” Besides, these companies also drag vulnerable nations into debt with the false promises of liquidity and hollow credit worthiness.

Namibia’s Minister in charge of mining, Tom Alweendo, interestingly claimed that there was nothing to worry about oil and gas extraction in the Okavango Basin even though the area is a treasure to the people of Namibia and the world. According to the minister, “It’s true the company has an oil and gas exploration license and obtained an environmental clearance certificate to do research drilling. They are not going to do hydraulic fracturing (fracking) – a more invasive method – but a conventional drilling method,” 

The truth is that exploitation of petroleum resources has routinely been accompanied by extreme ecological harms, and in some cases has also been the reason or pretext for violent conflicts and wars. Consider the invasion of Iraq and the destruction of Libya. Think of the unfolding violence in North East Mozambique and the instability in the Lake Chad basin. The handling of wastewater and other toxic wastes from test drill pits already pose serious concerns.  

The massive area earmarked for drilling by ReconAfrica reminds one of a time when Shell had the entire geographic space known as Nigeria as its concession. Okavango basin is home to over 200,000 Namibians and these Africans mostly rely on the Okavango River which brings supplies of fresh water from the forest regions of Angola all year round.  Of course, ReconAfrica will pollute the natural potable water sources of the people and sink water bore holes for them. That is the epitome of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) that has proven to be nothing other than crass irresponsibility elsewhere. 

The Okavango Basin is an area of rich cultural heritage and boasts of several species that make living in this area a unique experience. The permission by the government of Namibia for the commencement of highly polluting and damaging activities in Okavango Basin is a willful denial of the real risk of permitting ecocide on its territory. It is a permit that promises glory but may end up offering genocide. It is a move that denies the existential challenge posed by climate change, the impacts of which Namibia is not a stranger to. It is digging for profit that ignores the fact that adding oil from there to the fossil fuel fires already raging in the world will compound the floods, droughts, desertification, population displacements, and other negative impacts of global warming. 

Okavango is a highly treasured living community in Namibia and Botswana. Why should anyone allow the quest for petrodollars turn this into an arena of death? It is not late for governments of Namibia and Botswana to halt this race for an asset that is bound to get stranded as the world shifts away from fossil fuels. Why permit actions that simply add to climate crimes? It is not too late to pull the plug on this gamble.

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Note: Image is a photograph I took of an oil spill in the Niger Delta

Niger Delta with No Fish?

Before the onslaught of six decades of unrelenting oil pollution, there was an abundance of fish species in both freshwater and marine ecosystems of the Niger Delta. Today, many of these fish species are endangered due to constant pollution and some are already going extinct. 

The head of Shell oil company was recently quoted as saying that the Niger Delta no longer suits their business model. They were moving from onshore to the deep waters offshore for this reason. They are going offshore in order to avoid responsibility for their continued environmental misbehaviour in our communities. They are heading offshore after committing ecocide onshore. They are shifting offshore after sucking the land dry and trashing whatever they came across. Above all, the hopes of our fishers remain in the fish that pollution has driven offshore and now the polluters are threatening to take their business there. 

If transnational oil companies replicate their prodigious pollution offshore, the fishers, the peoples and communities of the Niger Delta will be totally stranded on both land and sea. That is the definition of disaster. Besides shifting pollution offshore, our fishers will face the hazards of security forces cordoning off oil installations and at the same time be confronted by the largely unchecked activities of sea pirates. 

While talking of sea pirates, we must not forget the activities of illegal fishing fleets scouring and sweeping our continental shelf. Their nefarious activities are known to be heavily depleting the fish stock in the Gulf of Guinea. Added to the reported sale of a protected coastal territory to the Chinese by the Sierra Leonean government for the establishment of fish meal factories, we can be sure that they will literally make mincemeat of what remains of the fisheries of the region. It is time for the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to wake up and call sleepy littoral nations in the region to order. Colonial extraction of resources, whether fish, minerals or timber must be halted and the interest of our fishers and communities protected.

Today, we sit on the shoulders of Taylor Creek. For years we have heard of reports of oil spills in this beautiful Creek that was once teeming with fish. We can imagine what a joy it was for our people going to fish with traps, nets and other gears and returning with bountiful catch. Today, the stories are tainted by oil spills, gas flares and toxic wastes and are largely different from what it used to be before the oil rigs plunged into the belly of our land.

We believe that fishers are the custodians of vital cultural values. Our fishers are frontline protectors of our aquatic ecosystems. They are also the first to be affected when the ecosystems are damaged. They are equally in the best position to monitor and report these harmful incidents and insist on remediation and restoration as well. They must stand with our communities to insist that even if the oil companies sell their onshore fields to Nigerian firms, they must retain their liabilities. Our people must refuse to be dribbled by companies that are driven by nothing but profit. There are reports of transnational oil companies selling onshore facilities to Nigerian firms and simply walking away from the mess they had created. We hear that they claim that they had sold everything and questions should be directed to the new “owners.” When communities turn to these new “owners,” they claim they know nothing of old pollutions and that the question must be directed to the company that had walked away.  Communities must refuse to be stranded by being treated as pawns by corporations that care for nothing about the environment and the people.

Our future is connected to the sea. We are concerned about the future of our people as oil and gas business begins to fade as the world transits from dirty energy to clean energy. We need the transition, but in the process, new harms must not be offloaded on our peoples. Government has a responsibility to quickly review its business approaches in the sector and ensure that the operators bear due responsibility for ecological destruction wreaked on our territories. Government must also support our fishers with fishing equipment, modern landing points, processing facilities and fish markets. 

As the petroleum civilization slides into its twilight zone, or injury time, a mapping of the ecological devastation in the Niger Delta must urgently be carried out. This must be followed by a Niger Delta wide clean up and restoration exercise, with special attention paid to the Taylor Creek. There is no better way to mark the 2021 World Environment Day than to commence  a complete detoxification of the Niger Delta. We cannot afford to imagine a Niger Delta without fish.

Welcome words at an Oilfield/FishNet Dialogue at Gbarain on Friday, June 4, 2021

Oil Field Monologues

The noise from gas furnaces burning across the Niger Delta make it impossible for parents to whisper to their children. Whispering may sound conspiratorial, but parents cannot even speak normally to their children – a thing people take for granted. The explosive noises and hisses from the infernal fires make shouting the only way to hold a conversation. This anomaly has become the norm for two reasons: they must speak louder than the thunderous flares or shout to overcome the challenge of many persons slowly going deaf.  Sometimes monologues appeal in the oil fields, because then you only shout at yourself.

Dialogue in the oil fields require keen attention because much of what is communicated is more in what is not being said than in what is said. Tears and sorrows, groans and gnashing of teeth speak louder than speeches or songs. Rivers coated with crude oil or bursting in flames at the whiff of a naked flame, say more than words can convey. And how about the fishes popping up belly up? The whale or the dolphin washing ashore and attracting machetes, saws and hammers as malnourished fishers hack away at the hope of a meal. They tell tales of feasting in dangerous pots.

Living in the oil field has been a disaster. And the many-tentacled roots of the ecological crisis require deep considerations. At one end is the willful irresponsibility of the oil companies who simply rake in more profits as they externalize production costs by heaping harms on the hapless communities and ignoring their groans. At the other end are the complicit governments who are trapped in the false hope that extractivism can extricate their nations from the carefully engineered grip of poverty. 

Joint Ventures easily turn into misadventures as the oil companies take the driving seats and determine how much of the revenue goes into production costs and what crumbs are shared as profit. Taking the measly shares coated with promises of rising production to the bank, the governments suddenly become “credit worthy” and get enticed by financial institutions to start a borrowing spree and sink into the quicksand of debts. Oftentimes, they borrow their own cash stowed away in foreign banks. Indebted and addicted, communities and their environments are sacrificed so the companies can keep up the rapacious binge.

Oil wealth flies above the heads of communities. Just like power lines take power elsewhere leaving us in the dark. Communities farm and endure rotten harvests.  Fishers fish, but the fishes are banished by crude. Fishes eat imported iced fish. Communities live by the riverside but may well have been in parched deserts.  Riverine communities drink pure water!

Oil spills are waved off as inconsequential. And no matter how much is spilled, the volume exported is never affected because the export volume is a twisted piece of fiction. Whether on land or in the deep sea, no one knows exactly how much oil is extracted. When NEITI blew the whistle concerning offshore oil the government agency responsible for ensuring responsible behaviour among the oil companies squirmed and provided some specious denial. Oh, we know how much is taken! Really?

The oil spills that turned farmlands into an oily lake at Ikot Ada Udo in 2006/7 was ignored for many months. The spill attracted media and NASS’s attention and became a tourist attraction before Shell adjusted the cap on the well. The Niger Delta holds so much crude oil that hundreds of thousands of barrels of the resource can be spilled or stolen daily and no one would bat an eyelid. Community farms get destroyed. Forests get incinerated. Rivers get suffocated by blankets of crude. The big shots directly committing this ecocide are safely hidden away in air-conditioned board rooms onshore and offshore.

At Ororo-1 oil well at OML 95 off the coast of Ondo State, a blowout-induced fire has been burning for almost one year with no one lifting a finger to stop it. 

And over a period of two years (2018-2019) NOSDRA registered 1,300 oil spills or 5 spills a day.

Oil spills are readily classified as being caused by sabotage even before officials get to the scene of the incident. The poor community people, the victims, are labeled criminals while the actual criminals are safely ensconced in stately mansions and are serenaded by wailing sirens as they dash between the bank and their stuffed bars and pepper soup joints.

Dialogues in the oil fields have to be hurried because our communities are basically open isolation wards of the forgotten. Territories of the sick and forgotten. The toxic air loaded with volatile hydrocarbons give visitors a headache within a few minutes of arrival there. For the locals, the fumes produce breathing diseases that make their whizzing sound like dull dirges and their voices crack like overstretched funeral drums.

Will this state of affairs continue for ever? The answer is a resounding NO. Soon the income from crude oil will dry. Soon, crude oil will become a stranded asset. The signs are in. At the height of COVID-19 lockdowns, the price of oil went below $40 per barrel. The Nigerian government struggled to meet budgetary needs. The struggle continues today. While the world charts ways out of the oil pit, we dig deeper into it.

Our healing will come, and it must come soon. Now is the time for the process to begin. As we sit at the banks of our rivers or in the middle of our forests, let us remind ourselves of stories of times when we could drink water from our streams and never needed to buy water hawked in plastic sachets. It is time for us to reflect on what went wrong and who we accepted should exploit our land in exchange for a dream that has become a nightmare. It is time for reflection as to what went wrong that our land would be so polluted while the polluter walks away free. It is time for us to reflect on what must be done so we can live in our land with dignity and enjoy the gifts of nature with no hindrance.

It is time for us to hear ourselves again, to hear the crickets chirp and the birds sing. It is time to quench the evil flames and allow the moon to light our night sky again. The time it is for us to flush away the polluting crude and toxic wastes from our steams, creeks and rivers and once more see our faces in our waters.

The future begins with an open whisper, an open dialogue. An open dream. An open conspiracy where people hear each other and whispers ride on the waves of our hopes.

Our future begins today with dialogues, not monologues, on our struggles, visions and hopes. 

My talking points at an Oil Field Dialogue at Ikot Ada Udo, Akwa Ibom State, Nigeria on 20.04.2021.

Emerging Technologies and the Politics of Hunger

The number of persons in the world that go to bed hungry hovers around 700 million. The hungry equally fall under the same category as the malnourished besides those whose plates may be loaded with unsuitable foods.  COVID-19 is also said to have put about a third of food and farming livelihoods at risk. Interestingly small farmers, herders, and fishers who account for about 70 percent of the global food supply are also among the most vulnerable to food insecurity. There are also estimates that a shocking 3 billion people or more cannot afford a healthy diet in the world today. And such persons are found in all parts of the world.

Hunger is not a neutral phenomenon and can be triggered by a number of factors, including being used as a weapon during wars and as a political tool through hunger strikes. Generally, people are not hungry due to lack of food, but more on account of lack of access to food, poverty and violent conflicts among other factors.

The politics of food and hunger require that we examine why hunger persists in a world where about a third of available foods either go to the waste bin or get spoilt while in storage. The situation where some people are forced to eat foods that are unsuitable, inappropriate and non-aligned to their bests interests or culture needs to the interrogated.   

Hunger is a critical matter for policy making because it concerns everyone as everyone needs food for survival and as a right. Hunger can debase a person’s dignity and wilfully starving anyone is a crime, an infringement on their right to life. The spectre of a national or global population bursting the charts can raise fears of hunger and force decisions that overlook food quality but rather focus on quantity. Indeed, talks of food security sometimes appear to be a call for anything that can fill the belly in the name of food. Hunger is a powerful tool often used to subvert arguments for ecological agriculture and support of majority farmers – the small holder farmers. The fear of a projected galloping human population has literally become the vehicle for speculating on foods and for promoting technologies and practices that would otherwise be treated with a healthy dose of scepticism. 

The politics of food shortages have been shown by some analysts to be a system where food supplies are underestimated while future demand is overestimated – all based on doubtful assumptions. While projecting rapid and continuous population growth, policy makers ignore the fact that improved socio-economic conditions would naturally place brakes on such exponential growth. It can be argued that such projections are reflections of the fact that policy makers have no intention of building pro-people policies that cater for the optimal wellbeing of the people. 

It is intriguing that policy makers reject small holder farming despite research outputs showing that the best chance for the world to meet her food needs is not to be found in industrial scale, chemical-intensive agriculture, but in non-polluting agroecological production that cools the planet, does not pollute the environment and revitalizes rural communities. The fact that small holder farming feeds the world was validated by the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development’s (IAASTD) Agriculture at a Crossroads.

Emerging Technologies

Technologies and technofixes receive instant attention in today’s world. This happens in many sectors including that of agriculture and food. Wearing the cloak of being hunger killers, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), gene edited organisms, synthetic biology and intensive use of pesticides are all presented as the solution to hunger in the world. For over two decades GMOs have been touted as providing super yields and being capable of fighting off pests as they act as pesticides without creating a dent on the hunger figures. Meanwhile the system rigidly neglects those feeding the world through farming in cooperation with Nature. 

With the rise of artificial intelligence, big data and rapid technological innovations, the agricultural sector is seeing a rising population of digital networks and data merchants. The argument for the technological pathway echoes what was said of GMOs: to increase yields, slash harvest times, and ultimately reduce costs and environmental impact. This goes beyond genetic manipulation and aims at automated agriculture that would require little assistance from humans. The lure of the promise of precision agriculture where machines would take the supposed drudgery out of farming can be quite attractive to those who don’t see the wider picture of agriculture and foods.

In automated agriculture, systems are being developed that have ability to “monitor, feed, and harvest crops from seed through to sale. Automation combines the use of a wide array of sensors, computers, feeding mechanisms, and everybody’s favorite, robots. Complete automation is a nearly self-sustaining system that can handle all day-to-day activities on the farm. It all but removes the need for human staffing, which can be good or bad depending on how you look at it. One of the core resources of automation is a vast network of sensors.” 

With the ravages of COVID-19 and climate change, technofixes have become indeed so attractive that they have become highly fetishized and irresistible. We are made to believe that resilience and adaptation to the dawning future requires wholesale acceptance of crops generated in laboratories and farms run by artificial intelligence besides appetites and choices molded as we click on social media buttons. At this point we should pay attention to the points made by the ETC Group: Putting food security at the mercy of digital networks and potential data glitches worries governments and food movements alike. So does the plight of farmers (who are forced off the land into ‘smart cities’ and e-commerce villages, or reduced to digital out growers).

Some of the emerging tools, technologies and systems include the following:

Gene-editing, a new technique for altering the genetic make of plants, animals and humans. It is said to be a precise science, but results have been seen already showing that there are unintended outcomes. There are serious ethical concerns about its application, and these must be considered along with the pure scientific exercises.

Synthetic biology has been defined in many different ways. According to the CBD, “the key features of synthetic biology include the “de novo” synthesis of genetic material and an engineering-based approach to develop components, organisms and products. Synthetic biology builds on modern biotechnology methodologies and techniques such as high throughput DNA technologies and bioinformatics.”  It could also involve the redesigning of organisms for desired purposes or to have new abilities it would not have in nature. Synthetic biology has applications in agriculture, medicine and manufacturing.

Nanotechnology involves the manipulation or building of structures at nano or very tiny scale.

Robots like drones which are used to autonomously plant seeds, tend the crops and harvest them. Satellite imaging, weather tracking and possibly geoengineering can come into play. 

3D Food Printing – There are ongoing research on 3D printing of foods so that you can have the food you need with a combination of specifications at the press of a button. These would offer digitalised nutrition and customised food designs.

An History and a Future

From the signing of the National Biosafety Management Agency Act in 2015, things have taken a predictable downward spiral in Nigeria. Indeed, the dangerous slide probably began with the establishment of the National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA) in November 2001 on the strength of a National Biotechnology Policy adopted in April 2001.  Setting up an institution such as NABDA without a regulatory agency in place meant that Nigeria was a playing field for promoters of modern agricultural biotechnology without any oversight over the processes. Probably recognizing that they could not openly pursue their mandate, the agency became a major driver concerning what sort of regulatory agency should be put in place. And when NBMA was finally birthed, NABDA, the topmost official promoter of the technology assured itself a seat on the board of the regulatory agency. It can be said that NBMA is a baby of NADBA. As expected, this agency teamed up with an infamous company to obtain the early approvals for the official entry of GMOs into Nigeria.

Whereas the mandate of NABDA is the “promotion, coordination, and deployment of cutting-edge biotechnology research & development, processes, and products for the socio-economic well-being of the nation.” Its vision shoots first at “food security” before mentioning “job/wealth creation, affordable healthcare delivery, and sustainable environment.” The major campaigns and advocacy of these twin agencies have been on modern agricultural biotechnology or promotion of GMOs which they loudly proclaim as safe as though they were professing a religious doctrine and not a science prevalent with uncertainties and guided by precaution. 

The point we are making is that NBMA was principally set up to legitimize the aspirations of NADBA. The maiden State of Biosafety in Nigeria report issued by Health of Mother Earth Foundation shows how key principles of biosafety, including the Precautionary Principle, have been downplayed. It also shows how public consultation and opinion received scant attention in this crucial sector. HOMEF’s market shelves surveys conducted annually since 2018 show that there are several products with genetically engineered ingredients in our markets for which there are no approvals from the regulatory agency. We also note that there is no clear sync between agencies regulating foods that get to our market shelves and to dining tables. 

Recall that Nigeria was once a frontline state for the liberation of Africa from vestiges of colonialism. The nation has now become the soft entry point of risky technologies, agrochemicals and manifestations of agricultural neocolonialism into the continent. The Bt. cotton variety that failed in Burkina Faso is the same variety approved for cultivation in Nigeria indicating how much thought and rigour goes into the process here.

Dangers Ahead

The modern agricultural biotechnologies we are discussing are mostly the basic varieties involving the transfer of genetic materials from one specie to another to accord certain traits such as to be herbicide tolerance or being pesticidal. Emerging food technologies such as gene editing do not require cross species manipulations but can edit genes in a particular species with the aim of forcing certain traits or even triggering extinction.  Gene editing can readily be weaponized and should be a concern for our national biosecurity.

It is mindboggling for Nigeria to expand the scope of her biosafety regulation to cover gene editing and synthetic biology when the handling of the elementary versions has generated serious doubts and worries. The NBMA Act 2015 was amended in March 2019 to open the way for gene editing and synthetic biology applications by inserting their definitions in the Act. This was followed by Gene Editing Guidelines prepared and adopted by NBMA. The guidelines offer a peculiar process that allows some gene edited products to be approved without going through the rules governing the approval of GMOs if the agency reckons that the product does not contain any recombinant DNA. Meanwhile the Act, as amended, declares that no one would engage in gene editing without the approval of the regulatory agency. We note that the determination that the product has no recombinant DNA will be made by NBMA who would then allow gene editing to proceed unregulated and unhindered. More troubling is the fact that such approvals can be given within 21 days of the application being submitted to the NBMA. This approach of the NBMA if allowed to stand will completely expose Nigeria to grave risk.

Time to Retrace Steps

It is not too late for Nigeria to get out of the biotech hole before it turns into a bottomless pit. The so-called guidelines for gene-editing and extreme GMOs are dangerous and needless – just as the permission of GMOs has always been in Nigeria. We are at a time in this nation when simple mechanical equipment are not maintained; where refineries refine zero barrel of crude oil while guzzling humongous amounts of money; where for a nation of so many millions we barely manage to generate 4000 megawatts of electricity. We are in a nation where research and educational institutions are crying for basic equipment and receive scant attention. We are unfortunately in a nation wracked by corruption and insecurity. The flagship biotech laboratory in the country is in a temporary cabin. We do not need to add risky technologies that clearly pose a security threat to our peoples and environment.

As we have said elsewhere, the purpose of introducing the so-called definitions into the Biosafety Act was to create a crack in the door so as to open Nigeria to vested interest promoting the easy-to-weaponize and extinction-driving gene editing technology. NBMA has again shown itself to be determined to lead Nigeria and Nigerians on a path of no-return. This agency should be called to order. At no time should Nigerians be used as guinea pigs or laboratory rats.

Who is feeding the world? Who is feeding Nigerians? Who will feed us into the future? It is time for us to recognize the facts of our best interests and support agroecology, small holder farmers and provide their basic needs including infrastructure, storage/processing facilities and extension services. It is time to halt and completely overhaul the biosafety architecture in Nigeria and invest resources towards ensuring that our farmers get out of poverty and hunger and do what they have always done and struggle to continue to do.


Presentation at HOMEF’s Biosafety Conference held on 13 April 2021 in Abuja, Nigeria

Abolishing Persistent Ecologic and Economic Crimes in the Niger Delta

When Chief Fidelis Oguru, Mr Alali Efanga, Chief Barizaa Dooh and Elder Friday Alfred Akpan filed a suit against Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC) thirteen years ago, they would not have imagined it would take so long before a waft of victory would come their way. 29 January 2021 will go down in the annals of international jurisprudence as very significant because on that day, the Appeal Court at The Hague determined that the Royal Dutch Shell subsidiary was liable for oil spills that ravaged Goi in Ogoni, Rivers State and Oruma in Bayelsa State. Earlier in 2013, the lower court had held that SPDC was culpable over an oil spill that occurred at Ikot Ada Udo, Akwa Ibom State. 

A cap to the rain of judgements against one of the topmost polluters in the Niger Delta occurred on 12 February 2021 at the Supreme Court in the United Kingdom. The Court ruled in the suit brought before it by HRH Emere Godwin Bebe Okpabi and the Council of Chiefs (suing for themselves and thousands of citizens from Oghale Kingdom and Bille Kingdom, in Rivers State), against Royal Dutch Shell Plc that the oil mogul can be sued in the United Kingdom for environmental offences committed by its subsidiary in the Niger Delta. 

The spills at Goi and Oruma go as far back as 2004 and 2005. Besides ruling that the oil spills were not caused by third party interferences or so-called sabotage, the court ruled that the parent company, Royal Dutch Shell, has a “duty of care” in the activities of its subsidiaries.   

The Supreme Court judges in the UK noted that a recently decided case brought by Lungowe against Vedanta Resources Plc was similar to the Oghale and Bille cases. In that case, the Supreme Court had determined that civil claims for negligence brought by Zambian claimants against Vedanta, the parent company and its Zambian subsidiary (Konkola Copper Mines plc) for damages suffered in Zambia could be heard in English courts. 

These cases mean a lot to the suffering peoples of the Niger Delta whose cry for justice has often been met with indifference or with utter violence as was the case that led to the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa and other Ogoni leaders. The judgements clarified that parent companies can be held accountable for ecological crimes committed by their subsidiaries and not continue to enjoy financial returns from such misadventures. 

Personally, it comes as therapeutic as Goi in Ogoni has for nearly two decades become the symbol of the devastated Niger Delta. It is one community polluted, degraded and burnt by oil and whose people have have been forced to suffer the indignity of living as refugees dispersed across Ogoni and other Niger Delta communities.  Sights of kids swimming in the polluted creek at Goi and fishers desperately searching for invisible fish and other aquatic resources have been, and still are, heartbreaking. 

These judgements offer the people some hope that their peaceful fight for justice is finally being vindicated. It also offers the polluters a great opportunity, an incentive indeed, to do the right thing by swiftly negotiating and compensating the people and urgently remediating and restoring their environment. 

The struggle for justice also illustrates the power of solidarity across borders. The judgements highlight the power of peoples united and collaborating for a common cause. The case of the four Nigerians against Shell benefitted from a partnership between the Friends of the Earth groups in The Netherlands and Nigeria. The case in the UK benefited from the untiring commitment of the law firm, Leigh Day. 

We are gathered here today to examine, discuss and highlight the significance of these judgements to the global struggles for environmental justice. We also hope that the outcomes will strengthen the cause for justice for our peoples and for our environment. Indeed, the judgements should be seen as clarion calls for the utter abolishment of the persistent ecocidal ecological and economic crimes in the Niger Delta. 

We are privileged to have in our midst, Barrister Chima Williams, one of the lawyers for the four Nigerians that sued Shell in the Netherlands and he will be giving the lead paper helping us understand the implications of the judgements against the transnational oil corporation, Shell. We are equally privileged to have one of the litigants, Chief Eric Barizaa Tete Dooh of Goi Community, here with us to share his reaction to the judgement after so many years of tortuous litigation and the passing on of his father who had commenced the suit. We also have here, Comrade Celestine Akpobari, a frontline Ogoni environmental justice activist who will help situate the story of hope and pain in Ogoniland as representative of the Niger Delta. 

The unending pollution of the Niger Delta can be summed as blatant ecological and economic corruption. Thus, no better person to comment on the presentations today than an astute environmental, transparency and anti-corruption crusader, Rev David Ugolor. And, of course, this whole affair will be piloted by an indefatigable environmental and gender justice activist, Comrade Emem Okon.

Welcome words at the Polluters’ Judgements Roundtable held at Oronto Douglas Conference Hall, HOMEF Head Quarters, Benin City, Nigeria.

An Eye on Biosafety

The natural world is a resilient world. A major way by which this resilience is built and preserved is through diversity. Diversity raises the chances of survival of species if a part of the group is attacked or altered by some freak incidents. Diversity within species sometimes enhance multiple usage due to their colour, texture, smell and taste. For example, there are about 50 maize varieties in the world today, but the most common are the white or yellow ones. Today a number of these varieties are genetically modified to either tolerate certain herbicides or to produce toxins that kill off some pests.

The business of genetic engineering is just that: business. Promoters target staple crops or varieties with wide industrial usage in a bid to take control of markets and food systems. Since the advent of the first wave of modern agricultural biotechnology the promises of this technology have been that they would end hunger, increase yield, reduce chemical inputs and so on. More than two decades on, these claims remain myths.

What has not been mythical concerning the technology is the fact that it has been pushed relentlessly byphilanthrocapitalists and related business speculators. The narratives that keep the risky and failed technology alive is mostly fetish. People tend to think that technology can solve every problem. More importantly, the push is empowered by neocolonialism and control. Willing warrant chiefs get elevated and integrated into systems where they have ready access to beads, whiskies and gunpowder. 

Failure is wished away and risks and rejected. Two examples. First is that it was in the same year that genetically modified cotton (Bt. Cotton) failed spectacularly in Burkina Faso that Nigeria approved the same variety for release in the country. That permit was issued on a public holiday that also happened to be a Sunday (1 May 2016). By December 2019 the National Biosafety Management Agency had issued 13 permits for various types of GMOs. 

When the president of Uganda insisted that that country’s GMO law must have strict liability clauses, the promoters of the technology accused him of attempting to stifle science. In other words, Africans should be guinea pigs and accept to be used for experimentations with no one taking responsibility over possible mishaps. The Nigerian law does not have strict liability clauses.

The process of subjugation of our agriculture and food systems to corporate interests goes on in various tracks. GMO food products flood our markets without much regulation. HOMEF conducts annual market shelves surveys and finds GMO products in shops and markets across the nation. Most are brought in without any form of authorization by the relevant agency, beyond the NAFDAC numbers on them. 

There was an interesting case of a seizure of over $9m worth of genetically modified maize imported by WACOT from Argentina. After much theatre orchestrated by the NBMA, the Nigeria Customs, the NASS and the Federal Executive Council, the seized maize were ordered to be sent back as they were imported without approval. Within weeks, the importer applied for a permit to import genetically modified maize and was granted a three years license to import GM maize at will.   

Here is how the NBMA explained their about-turn on this matter:

‘NBMA confirmed that WACOT imported GMO maize in December 2017 and explained that it was after the firm had applied and met all regulatory conditions necessary for approval as prescribed by NBMA, which the firm was unable to do at the time its goods were not allowed entry into Nigeria. ‘’The Agency issued some permits and due processes were followed in the course of reviewing the applications and ensuring that all the necessary requirements are met before the permits were granted,’’ she stated.’ The agency also accused HOMEF of making unpatriotic comments concerning the WACOT matter.

The second wave of GMOs have since been released in the world without much regulatory restraints. These are of the gene drive types and already find application in manufacturing. They have been called extinction technologies as they have the capacity of wiping out targeted species within a few generations. An experiment towards wiping out anopheles mosquitoes in Burkina Faso is being attempted. Nigeria is a whistle away with the amendment of the NBMA Act to include gene drives and synthetic biology!

Researchers believe that the new GMOs have the potential to transform our natural world and even how humans relate to it. According to Friends of the Earth USA, “Gene drives force a genetically engineered trait to be expressed in every single generation, driving engineered traits through an entire species to permanently change it or cause it to go extinct.” Needless to say that this technology poses a threat to human safety as they can easily be weaponized or even used to trigger a pandemic.

Welcome words at HOMEF’s Biosafety Roundtable held on 24.11.2020 in Abuja


The Guardians of Neocolonialism

Let us begin by saying that colonialism is not yet history in Africa, or in the world. The global trade architecture has been in place for centuries and has been engineered by transnational corporations and international financial institutions as the chief guardians of neocolonialism and institutionalised thievery. Their interests are assured through the preservation of these mechanisms.

Transnational Corporations (TNCs) grew out of deep colonial roots. They are products of imperial geopolitics whose levers they hold, manipulate and tilt to suit their profit-making propensities. They have succeeded thus far because of careful modes of manipulation, erasure and replacement of imaginations as well as histories. The strength of neocolonialism lies in the perpetuation of coloniality. 

Coloniality, for those not familiar with the concept, has been described as “the living legacy of colonialism in contemporary societies in the form of social discrimination that outlived formal colonialism and became integrated in succeeding social orders.” It talks of “racial, political and social hierarchical orders imposed by European colonialism in Latin America that prescribed value to certain peoples/societies while disenfranchising others.”

In many instances, transnational corporations were the original colonialists, invading territories with their bands of mercenaries and harvesting profits for imperial powers. As their direct rule became expensive and untenable, they handed over political and administrative control to their home governments who then provided the security needed for continued plunder by the corporations. That system continues today and persists under the reign of neocolonialism. And there are many subtle and not so subtle tools that keep the system going. 

Foreign direct investments (FDIs) is one of the key tools of benign neocolonialism. Nations get to compete for foreign investments and in doing so lower regulatory and other bars so as to ensure the ease of doing business. There is even a so-called ease of doing business index! 

The notion of integration into globalised markets and value chains further instigate the watering down of biosafety laws and right to save and use indigenous seeds.

Translational corporations or colonial governments entrenched the idea of plantation production. Plantations thrived under conditions of slavery and extreme exploitation of labour. Today they drive monocultures including through industrial agriculture. The idea goes with the notion of cash cropping which emphasises the idea of food as a commodity and disrupts the relationship of agriculture with nature and culture. Plantations inexorably lead to land grabs, deforestation, starvation and cruelty. They can be said to be centres of dispossession and displacements.

The World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other international financial institutions (IFIs)are the ultimate guardians of neocolonialism. While maintaining humane faces due to their placement in multilateral spaces, they can be vicious and unforgiving in their deals.

The Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) of the 1980s and 1990s stand as clear examples of how to wreck, emasculate and impoverish nations using economic pressures. Those programmes eliminated support for public institutions including in the health, educational, agricultural, manufacturing and other sectors. Nations that were net food exporters suddenly became food importers. Economic conditionalities imposed on the former colonies literally brought them to their knees before their former colonialists. Nations that previously had healthy foreign reserves became so poor they competed to be classified as highly indebted poor countries so as to access some crumbs. Each effort to escape the clutches of the IFIs sucked these nations deeper into the traps of odious debt.

Export Processing Zones grew from way back in history and are still popular in neocolonial states. These are presented as launch pads for development for poor countries whereas they are zones of plunder. One analyststated that “The EPZ is an economic legation for FDI to operate free from the Nigerian tax laws, levies, duties and foreign exchange regulations.”

These are enclaves without links to the rest of the economy and ensure that TNCs enjoy reduced costs, better or dedicated infrastructure and are laws unto themselves. It is not surprising that fossil fuel companies and other extractive sector companies find these zones as the ultimate locations for their insatiable grasps at profit without responsibility or accountability to the nations in which they operate.

Neocolonial Extractivism thrives on irresponsible exploitation of Nature and labour. Indeed, labour is often seen as disposable as was clearly illustrated by the Marikana mines massacre of 2012 in South Africa. All the workers demanded was better wages. 34 miners were cut down. And of course, the army of the unemployed provides a ready pool for replacements. 

With Africa holding 30% of the world’s known mineral reserves, her attractiveness to the exploiters will not fade anytime soon.

We note that corporations strive to exploit the continent even when the value of the resources they seek wanes. Case in point is the widespread search for crude oil and gas in Africa. As oil companies see their fortunes dropping and the world appearing to shift in the direction of renewable energy resources, we learn that these companies are investing in producing more plastics and earning a whopping $400 billion annually. These will thrash the planet and compound the problems associated with the impact of climate change. And, because recycling may not match the mountains of wastes being generated, the polluting nations are looking to use Africa as a continental waste dump.

Recall that in 1991, Lawrence Summers, an economist with the World Bank had declared that many countries in Africa are vastly under polluted.  He also justified why toxic wastes could be dumped in Africa without conscience or consequences. The argument was that the population was dying anyway, as their life expectancy was lower than that of the polluting nations. Here him: “The measurement of the cost of health-impairing pollution depends on the forgone earnings from increased morbidity and mortality …I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that.”

The theft of Africa’s natural resources by TNCs is an open secret. It is believed that about $50 billion has been lost annually over the last 50 years through illicit financial flows. This sum trumps the economic aid the continent receives annually.  While the plunder goes on, the IFIs and multilateral agencies blame the economic situation in Africa on poor governance and corruption. The colonial and neocolonial roots of the challenges are hardly whispered. Consider what the Bank of Ghana said about the share of the wealth that the country receives from the mining sector:

The amount that goes to communities directly impacted by the mining industry is 0.11%, and the government of Ghana received a total of less than 1.7% share of the global returns from its own gold. Clearly, it is not the “corruption” of the government officials that brings Ghana only 1.7% of the gold revenues. When the World Bank and IFIs blame “poor governance” and corruption they are simply wilfully and conveniently overlooking the systemic larceny by the TNCs. They ignore the systemic plunder that has been engineered by colonialism and neocolonialism over the years.

Unfortunately, many of us are sucked into the “governance” debate without recognizing the tragic reality that neoliberal capitalism deepens the extractive-export model in the Global South that continues to lead to displacement, destruction of the environment, new dependencies, and recolonization. If we do not call a spade a spade, we will continue to endure a regime of deflected actions and continue to pace the burden on the poor while carbon slavery, unfair/ undifferentiated responsibilities and ecocide assault the continent.

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Bassey’s Talking points on a webinar hosted by Justiça Ambiental (Friends of the Earth Mozambique), on 16.09.2020, on the theme Transnational Corporations, the World Bank and the Global Trade Architecture: Guardians of neocolonialism?