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.

What After Oil

Good morning, distinguished participants in this Public Forum. I have the privilege of welcoming us all to this event which is organized by the Shehu Musa Yar’Adua Foundation in partnership with Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF) and with the solid support of Ford Foundation. We hope this forum will trigger other inclusive engagements and platforms to help rouse us from slumber, ask ourselves frank questions, and take a peep at the energy and economic future of our country, Nigeria. 

The petroleum civilization is winding down. The handwriting has been on the wall for quite a while. The burning of fossil fuels has taken up the carbon budget and wrapped the earth with a thick blanket of greenhouse gases that have resulted in the hottest days in recent history and calamitous floods, wildfires, and other freak events. While climate change is a global crisis, we cannot deny the fact that we face peculiar impacts at both national and sub-national levels.

For one, the global shift towards more sustainable energy technologies is bound to provoke a precipitous reduction in global demand for hydrocarbon fossil fuels, such as coal, oil, and natural gas. With nearly 86 percent of Nigeria’s export value coming from fossil fuels, the global energy transition will have profound effects on our economy. The prospects of a zero-carbon future will also have a far-reaching environmental, social, and governance impacts on Nigeria. 

Most affected by this will be impoverished extractive communities who have been treated as sacrificial zones since the first commercial oil well was drilled at Oloibiri 65 years ago. The impacts of climate change are already being experienced through sea-level rise and coastal erosion. These impacts are multiplied by the massive pollution whose intensity going by NOSDRA reports amounted to 1,300 spills or an average of 5 spills a day in years 2018 and 2019. 

The global tumbling of oil fortunes has led to shifts in the calculations of fossil fuel companies. While some are rebranding through a change of name, others are shifting to other energy fields. And some are moving from onshore oil assets to offshore deep-water oil fields. 

This forum intends to build an understanding of the potential impact of the inevitable global energy transition on Nigeria. It also seeks to trigger improved inclusiveness in re-source governance and reduce the power asymmetry in climate action. Finally, we hope to see in what ways government can enhance commitment towards the implementation of policies, laws, regulations and initiatives that would lead to equitable economic, social, and environmental outcomes in extractive communities.

This is a pivotal public forum that will set the tone for further community-level engagements. Today we will be learning from economic experts and industry players as we figure out appropriate responses to the dramatic shifts unfolding before us. We are also looking forward to hearing from government officials and community representatives. We believe that even if energy shifts produce stranded assets, actions must be taken to ensure that we do not end up with stranded communities. 

Again, let me say what a great honour it is to welcome us all to the forum. Let us make this a major marker on the pathway to a Nigeria where every citizen has access to electricity and energy from clean, safe, and renewable sources. We look forward to a future where no territory will remain a sacrificial zone and where citizens are actively integrated into re-source ownership, management, and energy production.

16 September 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

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.

——–


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.

——-

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