Stilt Roots and Power

The vital place of the narrative strategy is in awakening memories and building consciousness for actionOver the past months we have experienced an evolving of our understanding of critical storytelling. We have seen the overturning of previously held notions and seen a surge for inclusive actions to provoke change. Initially we sought to tease out folktales and songs from centuries ago but while these exude a sense of nostalgia, the epistemic value of lived stories of struggles, defeats, and victories, of pollutions, degradations, deprivations, and resilience are more prevalent in our communities. These stories, poems and songs underscore our grasping of the bases of the resolute push for a shift in power modes, as well as a systemic power shift that are rising in our communities. While the stories cover broad power equations, they areall spurn and woven around the standing, suffocating or missing stilt roots of mangroves. 

The Niger Delta houses the 4th largest mangrove forest in the world. The livelihoods of coastal and indigenous peoples are inseparably coupled with mangroves which erode due to mangrove loss or degradation. Research shows that the Niger Delta mangrove ecosystem is the breeding ground of more than 60% of commercial fisheries in the Gulf of Guinea. Thus, degraded mangrove or losses in the Niger Delta affects fish production and the fisheries value-chain in the Gulf of Guinea. After over six decades of unmitigated oil and industrial pollution, Niger Delta mangroves are amongst the most degraded mangrove ecosystems globally, with a recent review of crude oil impact on mangrove showing that 37% of the global impact has occurred in the Niger Delta. 

Mangrove forests serve as coastal protection from storm surges and tidal waves. They are very valuable for climate change mitigation both by providing resilience to sea level rise, coastal erosion, and as very efficient carbon sinks. Sadly, an estimated 340,000 to 980,000 hectares of mangrove forests are lost or degraded annually due to activities of humans and corporations. Such destructive actions include crude oil and plastic pollution, unregulated harvesting, urbanization, so-called land reclamation, dredging activities and the spread of the invasive nipa palm. 

In the course of investigating the place of mangroves in the power equations in some communities, activists from CEHRDand HOMEF recently reached the conclusion that mangroves must be protected and that a key way to do this is through the use of indigenous knowledge and the revival of customs of community conservation of mangrove forests. While a mangrove forest is being preserved on the coast of Kono in Ogoni, there is a heavy threat by the fast-spreading Nipa Palm. These invasive palms were introduced into the Niger Delta by a colonial officer in 1906 in the belief that the Nipa Palms were more aesthetically pleasing than mangroves and were useful for beautification and beach erosion control.

At Bundu, a densely populated neighbourhood in Port Harcourt, there is urgent need to clean the mangrove ecosystem of the massive oil spills and plastics and to prevent further despoliation of the creek. Fishers in Bundu community recall that they used to have customary norms for protecting mangrove forests in certain parts of the territory, with some being used as cemeteries for the young. 

Both Kono and Bundu communities have traditional laws that debarred the people from harvesting mangrove woods or fishing in mangrove forests on certain days or periods of time. Except in Kono, this conservation mode has largely become history. Replacing Nipa Palms with mangroves in Kono and cleaning oil coated mangroves from Bundu must be a collaborative effort with the government and the community including local and international organizations. 

Mangroves play vital roles in shaping livelihoods and cultures in coastal communities. Their degradation also negatively impacts the cultures and spirituality of the people. Migratory fishers carry tales bound to these ecosystems wherever they go. 

The Shifting the Power Lines session of HOMEF’s School of Ecology brings Stilt Roots Stories from three continents – Africa, Latin America and Asia. Member groups of Oilwatch Network in the regions undertook the fishing out of stories connected to mangrove ecosystems. As the stories come, one recalls a visit to a vast area of destroyed mangroves at Magein the Guanabara Bay area not too far from Rio de Janeiro which the fisher folks euphemistically term the cemetery of mangroves.

During the visit in 2012, we met with members of Homens e Mulheres do Mar Association (AHOMAR) – Association of Men and Women of the Sea in the Guanabara Bay. That name did not include women initially, but after years of gender struggles, the role of the women had to be duly recognized and acknowledged in the name. One fisher pointedly told us about why they struggle to secure their livelihoods from the polluting actions of Petrobras. “We are resisting because we have no options. We might live or die. Our death may not result from gun shots, but because our livelihoods have been destroyed.” He added: “We are not seeking to be rich; we just want to live our lives in dignity.”

The reports, stories and songs from Africa, Asia and Latin America reveal the interlinkage of struggles and cultures across the continents. We learn also of the great need to recognize the intrinsic value of the gifts of Nature to humanity. We also learn that people power is essential to constructing the right power alternatives by which we can collectively design the future where every person lives in dignity, fully respecting other species, and their right to enjoy the cosy embrace of Mother Earth. Do not only see the trees when you look at mangroves. See the thriving life support systems that cut across species. See the culture of struggle and resilience. See power, power modes and unfolding alternatives.



Welcome words at HOMEF’s School of Ecology on Shifting the Power Lines. 27.07.2021

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

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.

Ecocide and Carbon Crimes

The environment has been subjected to so much flagrant damage basically because there is no law against such acts. Ruinous exploitation of Nature for the extraction of capital has been permitted as a necessary, or good, evil. This state of affairs has allowed subsidiaries of transnational corporations to commit environmental atrocities in countries far off their home bases. 

Extensive damage to the environment often amounts to literally killing the environment. Such harms impact the soil, the air and water of such the affected areas in more or less irreversible ways. A word that aptly describes crimes of this nature is ecocide.

The International Criminal Court (ICC), established to end impunity of the most serious crimes of concern to the international community is governed by legislations under the Rome Statute. The ICC has 123 member states and four crimes have been internationally recognised under the Rome Statute. These crimes are:

  1. War crimes, 
  2. Genocide, 
  3. Crimes against humanity and 
  4. Crime of aggression. 

While war crimes include severe and long-lasting damage to the natural environment, there are currently no provisions for the protection of the environment from such harms during peacetime. We have heard of some military examining the specious idea of how they can wage war without harming the environment. War harms the environment and impacts can last far longer than the time of conflict. These include pollutions from military hardware and biological weapons and other chemicals used directly against the environment and peoples.

It is intriguing that widespread damage to the environment from mining, including oil and gas extraction, has so far been overlooked in international criminal law when such harms clearly offend the right to life of peoples.  

Why Should Ecocide be a Crime?

Stop Ecocide defines ecocide succinctly as “mass damage and destruction of ecosystems – harm to nature which is widespread, severe or systematic.”  This definition hits the roots of the problem. The problem is both widespread and systematic. 

Examples of ecocide can be found in the massive excavations of the earth through mining in ways that do not allow for the erasure of the scars and do not permit adequate restoration due to the sheer extent of the damage. Others are the impacts of deep-sea mining, large oil spills and routine gas flares. The oil field communities of Nigeria and Ecuador, the tar sand mines of Canada, the coal mines of South Africa, the gold mines of Ghana, South Africa, etc., the industrial farms and polluting industries of the USA and Europe are clear examples of irreversible harm to Nature. Examples can be found all over the world.

We can also count deforestation that translates to huge habitat losses and drives species to extinction. Industrial fishing through deep sea bottom trawling, for example, is highly destructive.  Industrial and colonial agricultural monocultures destroy complex ecosystems and create green deserts. Factories located on coastlines often use the ocean as waste dumps and simply pump their effluents directly out into the sea.

As earlier stated, due to the notion that these harmful activities are supposedly needed to ensure high living standards and inordinate consumption, they are taken as normal, as acceptable. 

Stop Ecocide and supporters believe that the Rome Statue should be amended, and ecocide added as a crime alongside the crimes against humanity, war crimes and the others. One of the steps being taken is the commissioning of a panel of international criminal and environmental lawyers to draft a legal definition of ecocide. The panel is being co-chaired by Philippe Sands, a French/British lawyer and professor, and Dior Fall Sow a Senegalese jurist and legal scholar.

The notion of ecocide is not new. But it has only started to gain traction in recent years. It was on the table when the other international crimes were debated, but somehow fell between the cracks until Polly Higgins picked it up as a lifetime commitment and promoted it as the key means of halting large scale ecological crimes. Higgins believed that 

“The rules of our world are laws, and they can be changed. Laws can restrict or they can enable. What matters is what they serve. Many of the laws in our world serve property – they are based on ownership. But imagine a law that has a higher moral authority… a law that puts people and planet first. Imagine a law that starts from first do no harm, that stops this dangerous game and takes us to a place of safety….” Together with Jojo Mehta, Higgins founded the Stop Ecocide Foundation, pursuing the Stop Ecocide campaign.

In 2010, Polly Higgins submitted this definition of ecocide to the United Nations Law Commission: “Ecocide is the extensive damage to, destruction of or loss of ecosystem(s) of a given territory, whether by human agency or by other causes, to such an extent that peaceful enjoyment by the inhabitants of that territory has been or will be severely diminished.”

It is now 75 years since Crimes Against Humanity and Genocide were coined at Nuremberg. It is hoped that a legal definition of ecocide will pave the way for its being added as a fifth international crime against peace — not just as a crime against humans but also as a crime against Mother Earth or the natural world.

So far eight ICC member states, the Pope and the European Union, have openly expressed interest in the possibility of amending the Rome Statute. The eight countries are Vanuatu, Maldives, France, Belgium, Finland, Spain, Canada, and Luxembourg. Parliamentarians from a further 10 states Sweden, the Netherlands, Ireland, Germany, Portugal, the UK, Philippines, Australia, Cyprus and Brazil are interested to consider that definition.

Will Ecocide be Retroactive?

In conversations on this topic there have been issues raised about what threshold of destruction can be set before it can be said that a crime of ecocide has been committed. There is also the issue of the law not being retroactive. Going by standard law, a person is not charged with an offence committed at a time when there was no law against such an action. This must be a huge dampener for those who hope that once the crime of ecocide is adopted, they would simply file cases for obvious crimes committed before such adoption. The point is that we do not necessarily have to sue retroactively based on claims of what happened at the time the crime started to be committed. The fact is that these ecological crimes continue to grow, to expand, and starting at any point in time, there are sufficient grounds to hold ecological criminals accountable. Moreover, the law would create incentives for eco destroyers to check their reckless acts going forward, knowing that they would be held to account for such harms.

Recent court rulings in the home countries of transnational corporations over crimes committed by their subsidiaries in Zambia and Nigeria are pointers to things to come. They show that ecological crimes will no longer be easily hidden. On 10 April 2019, the Supreme Court in the United Kingdom ruled against Vedanta Resources PLC, insisting that Zambian victims of their polluting activities can sue the company in UK courts. The case was filed by almost 2,000 Zambian villagers against Konkola Copper Mines and its parent company Vedanta Resources PLC. The case was a long shot, a David versus Goliath match, considering that Konkola Copper Mines, the company that was polluting the water of the four farming communities with sulphuric acid and other toxic chemicals, is a subsidiary of the giant copper conglomerate, Vedanta Resources PLC.  The Zambian plaintiffs can now seek redress in the UK courts and ensure that the polluter is held to account.

In February 2021, the same Supreme Court ruled in the same vein against Royal Dutch Shell in the case of Okpabi vs Shell. This ruling was a landmark victory for a group of about 50,000 victims of Shell’s polluting actions in Ogoniland, Nigeria. The court ruled that the UK Appeal Court was not right in holding that Shell could not be held accountable for offences committed by its Nigerian subsidiary, Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC). The plaintiffs from Ogale and Bille communities are demanding clean-up and compensation from Shell for years of harmful activities in their communities that has harmed them by, among other things, polluting their drinking water. They can now sue Shell in the UK.

The oil giant suffered the same fate in the cases brought against it in the court in The Netherlands by four farmers for pollutions in Oruma in Bayelsa State and Goi in Ogoni, Rivers State. The judges ruled that Shell would have to compensate the fishers and farmers for the harm inflicted on them by Shell’s oil spills. The judges declared that they needed more evidence before making a ruling on the case brought by the plaintiff from Ikot Ada Udo in Akwa Ibom State.

The judgements against Shell must be a strong signal to the other polluting fossil fuel companies that they cannot continue to get away with murder. 

Carbon Crimes

Carbon crimes may also be called climate crimes considering the catastrophic changes portended by the increased stock of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. These are crimes at a planetary scale, beyond anything previously seen on planet Earth. Climate crimes are sharp examples of ecocide. In this sense we refer to the two ends of the fossil fuel pipelines – the demand and supply ends. We also bear in mind the false solutions being proposed by corporations and politicians looking for ways to avoid or delay climate action as long as it gives them time for raking in profits. Some of these false solutions pertain to actions such as geoengineering that can only be taken on planetary scales and which would have massive intended and unintended consequences. The focus on carbon molecules without accounting for the ones in the ground also helps to obfuscate the searchlight on the way out of the climate mess.

The current stock of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are already creating desperate problems for vulnerable communities, including Small Island States and increasingly threatened South Eastern seaboard of Africa that has suffered heavy battering by cyclones Idai (2019), Kenneth (2019) and Eloise (2021) in recent years. Cyclone Idai killed more than 1000 persons, affected 3 million others and caused about $2 billion worth of damage. Territories are already beginning to go under the sea. The crime is growing.

Destructive Development 

Some development projects are destructive to the environment and to communities in which they are sited. Projects in this category would include big dams, superhighways and coal fired plants. Big dams such as the INGA dams in the Democratic Republic of Congo pose serious threats to the Congo Basin. The dams are planned to be the biggest hydropower dam in the world is built as planned. Whereas 91% of the people in DRC do not have access to electricity, this dam is planned to provide electricity for extractive industries and for export. 

International Rivers notes that “diverting the flow of the Congo river to create a reservoir would flood the Bundi Valley, affecting local agricultural lands and natural environments, and may cause huge methane emissions that would contribute to global warming. The effect of a reduced flow in the Congo River may cause loss of biodiversity and a shift in the dominant species. The flooded area may also create an environment that is conducive for the breeding of water-borne vectors such as the malanquin mosquito.”

A coal power plant that was proposed for Ghana was successfully fought off by environmentalists. The coal power plant proposed at Lamu, Kenya, is being resisted by the people who see the plant as a threat to their pristine environment, pollute the ocean, freshwater systems and hugely increase Kenya’s greenhouse gas emissions by 700 percent. The coal dust would also literally suffocate the lush mangroves in the area. 

The case of a proposed superhighway that was to pass through the Cross River National Forest in Nigeria was a huge threat. The highway was conceived with 10 kilometres right of way on either side and would have swallowed up swathes of primary rain forests, destroying communities, farms, habitats and cultural heritage of the people. The highway was realigned away from the forest due to concerted grassroots resistance. The government lost interest in the project probably because the aim was to harvest the timber and devastate one of the last standing primary forests in the region.

Tearing the Corporate and Nationalist Veils

Corporate ecological crimes have been condoned because all companies have had to do is pay fines or find ways of prolonging cases until the plaintiffs die off. This impersonal relationship with individuals and communities in which corporations extract value for their boards and shareholders has permitted gross misbehaviours in ways that may not occur if the directors of the corporations and responsible public officers are held personally liable for ordering or condoning the crimes in the same way politicians or war lords are personally held to account for war crimes, genocide or crimes against humanity. 

While we await the acceptance of Ecocide, the question remains as to whether the ICC can bite in a just manner. Some African countries have complained that the court operates as though it was set to watch over Africa while some countries simply ignore the court. The challenge is to ensure that powerful nations do not shield their citizens, corporations and corporate leaders from accountability for ecological crimes. This is not impossible to achieve as the global crises caused by reckless abuse of the environment and Nature generally is moving citizens to rebelling and demanding action in order to give humans and other species a breathing space, a space to recover from centuries of abuse. 

Ecocide is a law whose time has come, even if almost late. It will be a key tool for fighting for environmental justice. It will be a tool for ensuring that humans understand the duty of stewardship over Natures gifts that we merely borrow from our grandchildren. Ecocide will tear the corporate veil and should eliminate nationalist shields.

We demand that nations make the crime of ecocide a part of national laws now! There is no time to waste. The era of merely treating the environment as a passing concern in our statute books must end. 

To destroy the Earth is simply idiotic. “There is no beauty in mass damage and destruction. A beauty born of deep care, however, is a beauty that comes from the heart — not simply an adjunct, added on as a veneer.” We cannot escape the fact that ecocide is a crime both morally and ethically. 

Standing on Living Soils… Looking back from the Future

We have got to a stage in the world where selfishness has been lifted up as national interest. It is a sad platform where inequalities have been hoisted as a virtue. Humans have become so smart that we think machines can replace us, replace relationships, replace agriculture. We even think we can relocate to destinations on asteroids or somewhere else in space! And the truth is that we are diminished by all that.

The Years of Repair challenges us to jump into the future and look at the paths by which we got there. It shows us the power of our imaginations and underscores the fact we can get to our preferred destinations by acknowledging the strength of going together in movements powered by love and solidarity.

Looking back requires that we step forward. Looking back from the past is an uninteresting, unimaginative and unproductive enterprise. Looking back from the future enables us to lay the paving stones that ensure we are not trapped in the quick sands of toxic relation with Nature. It helps us escape the entrapment inherent in the pursuit of primitive accumulation of capital and power.  It helps us show how sterile racism, colonialism and imperialism are. It takes us to the end, restores our faith in humanity, and takes us back penitent and renewed. 

Washing hands should not stop us from seeing each other’s hands and learning from the hands that promote our entangled dreams.

We cannot afford to dream alone. And after a good dream it doesn’t make sense to remain prostrate in dreamland. After a good dream it is time to get up and jump into the struggles to build the dream. 

We learned key lessons from the pandemic … 

Brave smallholder farmers hold the key feeding the world. They are ignored everywhere, never bailed out and never helped even as they point the right way forward as agriculture gets to the crossroads. 

Real farming frames the imaginations of today and tomorrow …

Real farming brings back to life soils killed by agrotoxics.

Real farmers fight against seed laws that criminalize the use of indigenous seeds and stifle knowledge and local wisdom. 

Real farmers halt the erosion of native species that are truly climate smart and reject the promotion of alien species that are truly climate dumb.

Agri without culture is the highway to disease, pandemics and extinctions. 

This mindset tramples on Mother Earth ignores critical creatures such as worms and a variety of pollinators that labour to ensure we stay alive.

Healthy soils produce healthy foods and healthy populations 

Healthy soils produce healthy crops that are strong enough to resist pests 

Trouble is humans operating behind corporate shields are not just the worst pests but are incurable and insatiable predators…

Farmers are essential workers. The time has come to insist that essential works must no longer be discounted and overlooked

Sparks change things. We are the spark needed for the change and transformation that must happen

We truly need to repair relationships 

At personal levels: pay the debt of love

At collective levels: pay the Climate and ecological debts 

The building blocks to the future on the finite planet rejects destructive exploitation of nature, refuses any act that promotes species extinction and trashes the dignity of our peoples.

These building blocks hold corporations accountable for ecocide — whether they are in the extractive or colonial agricultural sectors.

It all boils down to building systems of care and repair to ensure that Mother Earth is not sacrificed and that our peoples are not sacrificed on the altar of capital.

Life Sustaining Soils 

Soil is the skin and flesh of the Earth. It is a source of life. We are sons and daughters of the soil. Earth rootedness holds a key to building global citizenship, securing the commons and propagating love both for humans and for the Earth.

A handful of fertile soil however contains thousands of species, billions of bacteria and other microscopic organisms. 

Each organism in the soil system has a function in the food web with some specialising in the decomposition of matter while others help in the dispersal of dead organic matter. There is a living give-and-take economy beneath our feet that we must bend down to learn.

The linear and extractivist mindset has led to a rapid deteriorating of soils worldwide.

Economies of exploitation that sees labour as disposable and nonessential and continuously looks for ways to replace humans. 

Bad soils and land grabs lead to displacement, forced migration and at times outright violence. We easily forget that there is a loss of knowledge and culture when farmers are displaced to seek livelihoods in cities

Healthy soils are spongy and retain water while poor parched soils are more impervious get easily eroded. Urbanization and cementification of soils… Killing of soils!

In contrast to the barren concrete landscapes, healthy soils are great carbon sink. We can learn to regenerate our lands through simple, inexpensive but tested methods including the 

Farmer-Managed Natural Regeneration (FMNR) and the rebuilding of soils using the indigenous Zai technology as in Burkina Faso

As Gandhi said, “the earth provides enough to satisfy everyone’s needs, but not a few people’s greed”. 

The scare of scarcity — hides the cause of scarcity and hunger. Appropriation of the commons, exclusion and conversion into private properties and for-profit speculators and so-called investors are grabbing millions of hectares of fertile land/soil without any concerns for local populations. Locals turned into outgrows or outright farmyard slaves.

Economies that do not recognize the intrinsic value of Nature and the continuous nurturing contribution of Mother Earth.  These spurn socio-economic injustices. Competition that tramples cooperation and displacement of farmers disconnects millions not just from there farm but from the soil.

The dependence on herbicides and crops genetically engineered to withstand them has led to the rise of super weeds. These super weeds emerge as an attempt by nature to repair the ruptures created by humans. A way of human-proofing biodiversity. We have to come to the realization that one man’s weed may well be another man’s vegetable.

In all, we must never forget that there are consequences to every action. And we must bear in mind that we all have a common duty of care or repair. We have a duty of rebuilding relationships with the soil and with one another.

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Above are thoughts from conversations on the Message from the Future (Oxford Real Farming Conference 2021) and on Living Soils (Navdanya International’s Earth University).

The Colour Blue is not the Problem with the Blue Economy

The color blue is not the problem with the blue economy. We often hear that sustainable development stands on three legs of social equity, economic viability and environmental protection. The intersection of these three leads to sustainability.  The challenge is that these three are rarely given equal consideration when actions are being taken. A careful consideration of the impacts of alterations or transformations in the environment leads to less degradation and ensures less destruction of habitats. Economic measures aimed at profit accumulation will ride on the exploitation of nature and labour to the detriment of the environment. Measures taken will dress business as usual in the garbs of technological advancement and innovative ideas. Where social inclusion in decision making and implementation is not a cardinal consideration, unethical and immoral decisions may be the outcome. Such decisions may cause divisions in society, entrench inequalities and promote racism and xenophobia. These are issues we have to keep at the back of our minds as we continue.

The world has been engulfed in crises arising from turmoil in the social, economic and environmental spheres. The climate crisis is one of the most challenging problems of our age. Analysts agree that the crisis is a result of a deeply flawed economic model that sees nature as an inexhaustible source of materials including the non-renewable ones like coal, oil and gas. This mindset has led to massive deforestation, and monoculture agriculture leading to nutritional deficiencies. It has generally encouraged over consumption, wastage and the driving of species to extinction. It goes without saying that of the three legs of sustainability, it is the economic one that takes precedent, creates the problems and is at the same time presented as the solution. Some of the economic bandages applied to the multiple crises engulfing the world include the Green Economy and the Blue Economy. If we are not careful the Green New Deal may end up being another of these.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) proposed a response in the form of a Global Green New Deal (GGND) aimed at using the multiple-crises as an opportunity for transformation through placing green investment at the core of stimulus packages, including green investment in regular government budgets and creating public-private green investment funding mechanisms. It also proposed the provision of domestic enabling conditions (fiscal/pricing policy, standards, education and training and global enabling conditions covering trade, intellectual; property rights, overseas development aid, technology transfer and environmental agreements.

UNEP sees the Green Economy as the “process of reconfiguring businesses and infrastructure to deliver better returns on natural, human and economic capital investments, while at the same time reducing greenhouse gas emissions, extracting and using less natural resources, creating less waste and reducing social disparities.” This statement reinforces the exploitative business as usual model that is driving the world towards the precipice. The Green Economy hinges on the commodification of nature.

Applying the mercantilist notion of the Green Economy to the seas, rivers and other water bodies will further erode the seeing of the gifts of nature as things that should be protected, preserved and nurtured from an intergenerational perspective.  This is imperative because over 200 million Africans draw their nutrition from freshwater and ocean fish and over 10 million depend on them for income.

Africa literally floats on water. She is surrounded by water. The Blue Economy covers the use of aquatic species, including those found in the creeks, rivers, lakes, oceans and underground water. It covers fisheries, tourism, transport, energy, bioprospecting, marine biotechnology and underwater mining. These will clearly have serious negative impacts on the integrity of our aquatic ecosystems. 

An African Union official sees the Blue Economy as “Africa’s hidden treasure” and declared that the “potential of oceans, lakes and rivers is unlimited.” He further added that the Blue Economy would move Africa “from an economy of harvests from limited resources to an economy of harvesting unlimited resources if we organize ourselves well. With the exploitation of resources come also sustainable financial means. But to approach this revolution we must completely change our perspective.” This vision raises a lot of red flags. Firstly, there is nothing that is limitless on a finite or limited planet. This idea of unlimited resources is what has gotten us into the current ruinous state, at national as well as global levels. 

We must understand that the Blue Economy is about the exploitation of water bodies. Just like land grabbing is raging across Africa, the Blue Economy will unleash an exacerbated sea grab on the continent. Already, marine resources on our continental shelf are being mindlessly plundered and trashed. The Blue Economy will solidify this trend. Maritime insecurity will intensify, and our artisanal fishers will be at great risk. Deep sea mining will increase the pollution of our water bodies. It is speculated that marine biotechnology can bring Africa up to $5.9 billion by 2022, but in a continent with very lax biosafety regulations this will mean reckless exploitation, contamination of local species and exposure to more risks and harms.

We conclude by iterating that the Blue Economy portends great danger for Africa. Besides the illogic of limitless aquatic resources, the economic template could open our oceans for risky geoengineering experimentations ostensibly to flight global warming. What we need is not cosmetic programmes that lock in the current ruinous track but a completely overhauled economic system built on the picture of a future that is truly socially inclusive, environmentally sustainable and economically just. These are just a few red flags on the Blue Economy.

 

Welcome words at the School of Ecology session on Blue Economy Blues. 10.09.2020


Alternative Power for Power Alternatives

IMG_2381 2We need alternative power scenarios to achieve needed power alternatives. The word power has many synonyms. Some of these are influence, authority, control and dominance. The term has interesting definitions in politics, military, religion, electrical, sports, law and mathematics. In physics it refers to energy produced by means such as electrical or mechanical ones in order to operate a device. Electric power can come from a variety of sources including solar power, fossil, nuclear systems, steam, thermal power, waves and hydro power. When a nation considers or uses a variety of these sources for secondary energy production, this is referred to as an energy mix.

We learn something about power when we consider its meaning beyond that of mechanically getting something moved from one point to another or getting a device to produce something. In social science and politics, power is defined as the capacity to influence the actions, beliefs, or conduct of others by an individual. We will return in a moment to examine the importance of power in the socio-political context.

The Tussle over Dams

A tussle continues between Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt over Ethiopia’s Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile. While Ethiopia wishes to become a net exporter of electric power, Egypt worries that the dam will constrict its share of the river if it is filled up too quickly. Sudan on the other hand could benefit from cheaper electricity from the power project but could also suffer catastrophic flooding if the dam fails. Tensions are running high as recent talks by the three countries did not yield a deal.

Meanwhile a mammoth Grand Inga hydropower project with a generation capacity of 40 GW is proposed to be built on the Congo River in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Conceived as the largest dam in the world, the scheme would be realized in three phases. Inga 3 with a capacity of 4.8 GW of power was originally announced in 2013 with the support of the World Bank at an estimated $14 billion price tag. The World bank withdrew in 2016 and a redesigned Inga 3 now has Chinese interests and is planned to produce 10 GW of power. Some of that power may head to Nigeria. Inga dams 1 and 2 built under the Mobutu regime in 1972 and 1982 had installed capacity of 2,132 MW and are said to have never produced more than 40 percent of their capacity. Although up to 90 percent of DRC’s population do not have access to electricity, this scheme is planned to mostly supply mining companies in the country as well as industrial establishments and urban centres in South Africa.

Governments Trapped in Crude

The oil price slump driven by the coronavirus pandemic may be easing, but confidence in the resource is not building up as fast as the crude oil dependent African nations would wish. Reports indicate that although “massive oil and gas discoveries have been made in Africa this century — from Ghana to Mozambique — the prospects of similar ones in the future look bleak” because operators are not investing as enthusiastically as expected. It is indeed believed that low oil prices have forced drillers to cut down on risky frontiers and that oil rigs are disappearing from Africa at a rapid pace.

While the rigs may be shifting away, the fossil industry has a peculiar hold on financial speculators or shareholders. Oil companies shore up their value by showing how much oil reserves they have. That way investors can peep into the distant future and see their investments secured in the oily soup. Consider the Mozambique LNG project operated by TOTAL. The company is sealing a deal to finance the project through the monetization of the reserves in the deepwater Area 1 of that country.

There is no shortage of huge fossil fuel projects in Africa. There is the $20 billion Ogidigben Gas Revolution Industrial Park (GRIP) owned by the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC); the $13.5 billion Etan & Zabazaba Oil Fields offshore Nigeria owned by Eni and Shell; the $12 billion Namibe Refinery Complex in Angola with two Russian investors holding 75 percent shares; and the $11 billion Dangote Refinery and Polypropylene Plant at Lekki Free Trade Zone, Lagos.

Oil dependency has spelt a big challenge for African governments and this has been heightened by the pandemic. According to  International Monetary Fund’s data, the breakeven prices for some African countries are as follows: Nigeria – $144 per barrel, Algeria – $109 per barrel, Libya – $100 per barrel, and Angola – $55 per barrel. With such high baselines and with oil prices currently below $50 per barrel, combined with the fact that the world is gradually shifting from this energy sources, it is clear that countries dependent on crude oil revenues are in for prolonged financial stress except they wake up from slumber and diversify their economies. In response to the revenue debacle, Nigeria has applied for about $7 billion in emergency loans as of April 2020. For how long can we go on this way?

Should Africa’s Energy Needs trump Climate Change concerns?

There is no doubt that Africa needs electric power and a whole lot of it. According to the African Development Bank(AfDB), “Over 640 million Africans have no access to energy, corresponding to an electricity access rate for African countries at just over 40 percent, the lowest in the world.”

With this level of power deficit on the continent, the obvious response is that the gap must be closed. Some have said that this gap must be closed “by any means possible.” By the way, when Frantz Fanon penned those terms, and when Malcom X used them at the founding rally of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), they obviously did not have self-harming connotations in their minds.

Electric power by any means suggests burning of more oil, gas and coal and use of nuclear power or big dams. These will generate the needed power, but what would it do to the climate? Africa is already one of the most vulnerable regions in the world, with temperatures rising more rapidly than the global average in some places. Extreme floods, cyclones, droughts and even locust invasions have grave implications for the continent.

At a recent webinar, a participant asked this question, “Is it fair not to allow countries in the global South to adopt the destructive pattern that built the global North?” This appeared to be in sync with a statement made by Gabriel Obiang Lima, the minister of Mines and Hydrocarbons in  Equatorial Guinea: “Under no circumstances are we going to be apologizing, …Anybody out of the continent saying we should not develop those [oil and gas] fields, that is criminal…”

Alternative socio-political power scenarios inspire the pursuit of power and energy alternatives. It is time for the intensification of community dialogues and the convening of peoples’ assemblies to determine what constitutes development and progress as well as to what ends Nature must be transformed. There is a critical need to disconnect our dreams and plans from the narratives of climate deniers and scenarios that lock us into interests of extractive corporations and politicians seduced by revenue sources that discount both the people and ecological costs.

The question is whether Africa’s need for electricity trumps our climate change challenge. Some analysts argue that as much as climate concerns are real, switching away from fossil fuels dependence will be misguided. We need to debate “development” and what being developed means.

Oilwatch International has been demanding that fossils be kept in the ground for over two decades now. This started before #KeepItInTheGround became a popular hashtag. Oilwatch is basically a global South network focusing on halting the expansion of destructive fossil fuel activities in the global South. The network recognises the need for power, but it also recognises the right of our peoples to life and dignity.

Alternative Power for attainment of Power Alternatives

Let us return to the question of power in the socio-political lens. We remind ourselves that it talks about the capacity to influence the actions, beliefs, or conduct of others. It is in this space that we can see possibility of drawing the line between drowning and dying with lights on or living and thriving with lights on. With the right political power, we can agree on, and deliver the right electric power.

Africa may resist the shift from fossil fuels on the basis of the argument that it is unjust for those who have benefited from the use of fossil power to now demand that Africa shuts down her few fossil power plants and plunges into darkness, bearing the brunt of climate action while the rich polluting nations and oil companies enjoy the spoils of their exploitation with no responsibility for historical recklessness and even crimes. The middle ground for this would be that the global North immediately shifts from polluting fossil energy while the global South engages in a managed decline, weaning off and shifting to cleaner energy in a gradual mode.

The point is that for this demand to be made in a convincing manner, Africa must have leaders with a climate justice mindset. The dominant neoliberal mindset that pursues projects and climate finance rather than the payment of climate debt will not do. A mindset that accepts the commodification of nature and false solutions such as carbon colonialism and slavery, that sees the continent as a huge carbon sink or data mine will not do.

We need a climate justice mindset that drives the political will to draw an immediate and long-term plan to power Africa from the abundant renewable resources she has, ensuring that these do not come with green land grabs and diverse dispossessions of poor communities and peoples. We need a new mindset to build alternative power structures that would birth continent-wide distributed renewable energy micro-grids managed by communities and associations and not shylock private companies.

We need an alternative power structure, one that is people driven, that builds power with the knowledge that you do not have to extract and use a resource simply because you have it. A system that understands that you don’t have to exploit a resource simply because it has a financial value while ignoring the values of liberty, dignity, solidarity and intergenerational equity. It is a good time also to define and debate development. Where has the current mode taken the world?

Alternative socio-political power scenarios inspire the pursuit of power and energy alternatives. It is time for the intensification of community dialogues and the convening of peoples’ assemblies to determine what constitutes development and progress as well as to what ends Nature must be transformed. There is a critical need to disconnect our dreams and plans from the narratives of climate deniers and scenarios that lock us into interests of extractive corporations and politicians seduced by revenue sources that discount both the people and ecological costs.

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Presentation at Health of Mother Earth Foundation’s Climate Change and Power Alternatives Dialogue/Webinar on 22 June 2020

 

The Irony of Growth

 

The rage of the Covid-19 pandemic has been as astonishing as any epic disaster can be. What startles some of us more is the unabashed projection that millions of Africans will die, probably as soon as the pandemic ends at the current epicentres. How come some of these analysts speak with so much certainty and do not suggest that they are merely projecting from indices that only they know? My deep hope is that their projections do not get validated. I know you might say that this is about science and not a matter of what our wish may be. But, what will the power brokers of this world do if the pandemic never takes root in Africa or in more places in the global south?

While the pandemic persists and we are on lockdown across the world, we have time to look at the world and the power plays at work. So many lives have been snuffed out. So many health workers have been exposed. The poor have been herded into ramshackle shacks, in stadia and some open fields since they could not say their homelessness or flimsy shacks back home were any better. The stratifications in societies are laid bare for all to see and to feel.

One thing that is stark at this time is the fact that disasters offer opportunities for profit. Whereas this should be a moment for a rethink of systems of production, distribution and consumption, the battle cry appears to be on how to bail out sectors that are most implicated in persisting socio-economic and climate crises in the world. Workers get laid off while corporate executives receive hefty pay cheques.

At a time when the social wellbeing of the majority of the people ought to be the concern of everyone, the focus is on how to cushion the inconveniences of the 1 percent. In the current paradigm, economic growth trumps the social wellbeing of the people; growth at any cost, even if workers are to be discounted and hurled away in body bags.

The pandemic has revealed the spirit of solidarity in cities and nations. Citizens journalists have brought us heart-warming videos of neighbours joyfully banging pans or singing together from isolated balconies. We have seen free donations of supplies to help health workers and to bridge the food shortage gap for persons trapped without cash or access to food.

We have also seen individuals, despots and autocrats using the pandemic as a cover for racism, xenophobia and abuse. Politicians have used the emergency as an excuse to shut national borders as though the coronavirus could be stopped by a wall or by the border police for that matter. Myopia can be a disease as dangerous as Covid-19.

The pandemic has given a reprieve or a sabbath of rest to Mother Earth. The skies are clear and quiet. Water ways are cleaner in some countries. Wildlife is free to go wild in many places. We must not allow the message that the lockdown could help show the direction of climate action to be buried by those profiting from dirty energy.

International financial institutions and governments persist in assessing the state of national and global economies by the discredited Gross Domestic Product (GDP) measure. When a defective measure such as the GDP is used in gauging the state of any economy, it is easy to see that actions to improve on such economies are bound to be defective. The GDP has been largely weaponized over the years to beat less powerful nations into line. It has been used by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) as a measuring rod or diagnostic tool by which they prescribe and enforce unpalatable, unhelpful and ruinous policies. Today nations are wincing as the drop in GDP stares them in the face.

Actions to shore up GDPs can be a measure of the deftness of statisticians. It is a cloak that covers the raw wounds of consciences of corporate and political leaders. It is amazing that with so much destruction in the world, global GDP is not rising. Has it stopped taking destructions as domestic products?

The impact of the pandemic on the crude oil market should wake us up to the power of the fossil fuel sector over politicians and political sectors. Imagine the fact that the production cost of a barrel of crude in Nigeria is about 30 dollars whereas in some other countries the cost is as low as 5 dollars. What is unique about the Niger Delta that makes oil production so expensive here? This is a pertinent question considering that the region has earned a place as one of the top ten most polluted places on earth, thanks to free reign of ecological corruption, corporate irresponsibility and environmental racism.

The pandemic has given a reprieve or a sabbath of rest to Mother Earth. The skies are clear and quiet. Water ways are cleaner in some countries. Wildlife is free to go wild in many places. We must not allow the message that the lockdown could help show the direction for climate action to be buried by those profiting from dirty energy. The bailout being contemplated for banks and corporate entities could very well be aimed at reshaping the power sector from fossil dependence to a renewable energy system. Let’s bail out the peoples for once and not focus on the drivers of the multiple crises in the world.

It is time to decouple the interests of corporate CEOs from those of political leaders even though they appear to be mutually reinforcing, just as in some cases the “pandemic and corruption are mutually reinforcing and inclusive,” to quote a post by Jaiye Gaskia on Facebook.

 

 

The Virus Will Not Change Anything We Won’t Change

24F6F9CF-069E-41E4-AA98-CDC61885D841A key fact we have to face is that the coronavirus will not change anything we won’t change. The change that will frame the post pandemic era will come from humans, our relationship with each other and with Nature. The push for change will inevitably revolve around our interpretation of what is happening around us.

There were tales of woe as hapless citizens got trapped at the land border between Bayelsa State and Rivers State in Nigeria. They were not trapped because the bridge straddling the Orashi River had collapsed but because the State Governments had shut off the states from the rest of Nigeria in a bid to halt the penetration of coronavirus. The scenario played out at other border communities and may get messier as interstate travel is halted across Nigeria.

One media report informed that “following the enforcement order on border closure in Delta State, hundreds of travellers in and out of the state were stranded at the Asaba and Onitsha ends of the River Niger bridge. Similarly, commuters and travellers were reportedly barred at Agbor, Koko junction and Patani borders from entering or leaving the state. Heavy duty trucks, buses and cars stretched over two kilometres on the busy Onitsha-Benin expressway as they were stopped by security agents from entering or leaving the state.”

With Lagos, Ogun State and the Federal Capital Territory (Abuja) entering a total lockdown and Ekiti State capping their restriction of movements with a curfew, the situation requires that we examine if these measures on their own can stem the tide of the pandemic. Shutting down the borders of states in the Niger Delta may well be a futile exercise considering the fact that some of them can be easily accessed by boats from different directions. In fact, the only points at which enforcement of shut-ins, or even shut ups, can be enforced would be at places where oil and gas pipelines cross the creeks or rivers. Such points are manned by the military and other security forces who exert virtually all their energy on securing pipelines and intimidating the locals.

Many commentators have made the point that total lockdowns in societies with a high proportion of citizens subsisting in the informal economic sector could be suicidal. We are talking of about 70 percent of Nigerians doing informal work and earning incomes on the go and often going for days with nothing coming in. The 70 per cent we refer to gives us an idea of the size of the problem, irrespective of what bogus population (200 million) figure the nation bandies about – at the behest of international financial institutions and other manipulators of economic and political indices.

This is no time to panic. The pandemic is exposing the depth of inequalities in our society, including by showing who gets access to being tested and who has no possibility of being tested and who dies without even being noted in the statistics. Now is the time for citizens to be many steps ahead of panicky governments.  

Although these compatriots are the ones driving the country’s economy, providing services for the middle class and the affluent, they hardly enjoy significant official services. They are the ones whose children attend public schools where learning is often under shade trees or on broken floors.  They are the ones whose informal settlements are brutally destroyed or simply walled off as recently happened to residents of Monkey Village in Lagos. They are the ones who sleep under the bridges or in uncompleted buildings and yet wake up every day working to keep the wheels of the economy moving. They are the ones readily sacrificed without any compunction.

Similar situations are playing out in other nations, notably India where millions of citizens are embarking on treks over hundreds of kilometres as they struggle to get back to their villages. These citizens, characterised as migrant workers although they never left the borders of their country, are heading to their home villages because, as is the case in Nigeria, that is where they are sure of social and economic support from the traditional systems.

This pandemic is a multi-faceted disaster, no doubt. However, disasters and emergencies have provided the cover for the powerful to dispossess the poor of their lands, farms, rivers, creeks and other resources. Responses to the pandemic may not (yet) generate physical dispossessions, but they are already propelling finances from the public purse into the wallets of corporations and their chief executive officers. Megalomaniacs in power will see opportunities to assume unbridled power and by so doing shake what remains of the slim spaces for public participation in governance.

This is no time to panic. The pandemic is exposing the depth of inequalities in our society, including by showing who gets access to being tested and who has no possibility of being tested and who dies without even being noted in the statistics. Now is the time for citizens to be many steps ahead of panicky governments.

Despite the challenges of collapsing state structures and economies, this is no time to panic. It is time to think and overcome the miseries fabricated by the system. It is time to organise, even if we are physically isolated.  As an activist reminded me recently, the virus will not change anything that we the people won’t change.

It is time to reflect on how to push for systemic changes to steer away from the pathways that led the world into the present cul de sac. It is time to forge new ways of organizing and bridging distances created by geographic separations. Already humans are forced to forego the luxuries and material things they thought they could not do without. This is what ought to be done without waiting for a virus to force us into line. We have to halt over-consumption and the rabid assault of our ecosystems. We have to rethink wellbeing and our relationship with Nature. It is time to halt warfare, including the use of biological weapons. We all deserve a breath of fresh air and should already be fashioning a positive post coronavirus era that is free of fossil fuels.

Not all borders are marked and closing marked and manned borders will obviously not end the pandemic. The brutalization of citizens and destruction of goods and foods in the name of enforcing regulations will only increase the pains of already helpless citizens. Security task forces may harass and hound citizens who break curfews or lockdowns, but the virus moves both by day and by night. Coronavirus respects no curfew or borders.

Despite the challenges of collapsing state structures and economies, this is no time to panic. It is time to think and overcome the miseries fabricated by the system. It is time to organise, even if we are physically isolated.  As an activist reminded me recently, the virus will not change anything that we the people won’t change.

Technofixes and the State of Our Biosafety

Technofixes and the State of Our Biosafety. A time like this demands and permits only sober consideration of where we are coming from, where we are and where we are heading to. The world is virtually shut down due to the ravages of a virus. This is no time for grandstanding or for anyone to claim that they have got anything under control. Interestingly, the virus is not a new organism. It has been around. It appears the consternation is over new variants that have emerged. If the virus has jumped to humans from bats, that would be a strong rebuke over the reckless ways that humans have degraded habitats of other organisms on the planet. If it has emerged from some biological weapons laboratory then it shows both the evil genius of humans and the strong warning that it is a short distance from rides on the back of a tiger and becoming dinner for the canine beast.

Addressing the issues of agricultural technofixes and the state of our biosafety gives us the template to consider the current situation in our world and the unpredictability of what could happen next. We are in precarious times. While scenario planners may have foreseen a pandemic of the scale that coronavirus has provoked, it comes as a total surprise to the average person.

We have had occasion to warn that things can go deeply wrong and out of hand if humans persist on toying with the genetic makeup of living organisms for the concentration of power in a few moguls, and for profit. Everyone knows that Nature is alive and active. She is not dormant and always responds to the manipulations of men. And so, when humans engineer crops to make them act as pesticides, Nature offers super pests or super bugs. When toxic herbicides are produced to kill all other crops except the ones genetically engineered to withstand them, Nature responds by offering super weeds. In either case, humans get trapped in needless and unwinnable battles against Nature. Today many farmers in the USA are suing Monsanto/Bayer over their exposure to one of the most notorious of these herbicides, called Roundup Ready. They are suing because they claim the glyphosate in the herbicide caused them to suffer from cancers. These herbicides are freely available for our farmers in Nigeria without any warnings.

Recently the mainstream genetic engineering has progressed to the level of editing genetic makeup of organisms and not necessarily having to engage in trans-species transfer of genetic materials. This has focussed on becoming extinction technologies – useful for killing off undesirable species and supposedly clearing the way for preferred species to thrive. This technology is the one proposed for gene drive mosquitoes to be released in Burkina Faso and possibly also in Uganda.

While modern biotechnology promoters like the National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA) and the regulator, National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA), feel confident that they can handle any sort of technicalities in both the mainstream and new fields of extreme technofixes, we are deeply concerned that their grandstanding would not stop the purveyors of these technologies from weaponizing them.

The current pandemic has often been described as warfare. The subtle implication is that the virus could well be a biological weapon. Whether it is a biological weapon or just a freak occurrence in Nature, some of the countries most affected by the outbreak and governments have had to rely on the armed forces as the only institutions that can mobilize the amount of resources needed to tackle the scourge. Do we have a military that can mobilize to tackle a biological attack or accident in Nigeria?

We are in precarious times indeed. It is a time when fear and panic are freely propagating terror among populations. We see the generosity of men on display as some donate needed medical supplies and health workers expose themselves to great risk to help the sick. We hear calls of mutual support and care among nations. In the midst of all that we see the drive for self-preservation that brings out a non-cooperating side of peoples and nations. We see this through the closing of national borders and promoting national interests before any other consideration. What we are seeing seems to say that when the tyre hits the tarmac it is everyone on his or her own.

Nigeria took the wrong step by setting up a biotechnology promoting agency before setting up a biosafety agency. By the reason of the promoter midwifing the biosafety agency and consolidating this scenario by law, separating the two has become a herculean task.

For the few days that humans have been forced to be quarantined or restricted by lockdowns, Nature has begun measures of self-healing. The air is getting fresher in some cities and water bodies are getting clean again. Aquatic ecosystems are coming back to life, just because humans have been restrained to their habitats or homes. Do we have to wait until a disaster before we rethink our ways? Do we need a total breakdown of our biosafety before we wake up to the fact that when disaster unfolds propaganda will not erase the challenge?

These are some of the questions we need to ask ourselves. Nigeria took the wrong step by setting up a biotechnology promoting agency before setting up a biosafety agency. By the reason of the promoter midwifing the biosafety agency and consolidating this scenario by law, separating the two has become a herculean task. The truth is that this situation will only be resolved through legislation and through having a biosafety agency that is neutral, regards the opinion of citizens and accepts the basic biosafety plan of precautionary principle.

In the global north, one of the platforms on which GMOs have been permitted to be allowed into the markets has been that they must be labelled. We have painstakingly explained that because of our socio-cultural setup it is impossible to effectively label GMOs in Nigeria. Genetically engineered beans have been released into the environment and we all know that no one will label and give citizens a choice between eating akara or moi moi made from this variety of beans. Genetically modified cotton has already been introduced into the environment. Our people will eat cotton seed cakes and oils without the slightest inkling that they are consuming GMOs. Where is the choice? We have surveyed the markets for imported GMO products, and several have been found, proudly displaying NAFDAC approval numbers. Did these products pass through the approval processes before they were sold to our people?

Our regulators require to accept that they are not infallible and that they need help. Even the Supreme Courts do meet sometimes to review themselves. Biological weapons facilities are sometimes forced to shut down for decontamination exercises when accidents occur before they dare to reopen.  We cannot keep running blind-eyed to technologies that portend so much danger and for which there are viable and proven alternatives.

 


Welcome words by Nnimmo Bassey, Director Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF), at the Stakeholders Conference on Biosafety hosted by HOMEF and holding on 23 March 2020 in Abuja