Okavango and the Tragedy of Fossils in Africa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Niger Delta with No Fish?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oil Field Monologues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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. 

Abolishing Persistent Ecologic and Economic Crimes in the Niger Delta

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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).

Who Says the Town Crier is Gone (The Life of Patrick Naagbanton)

Standing 12 years older than Patrick Naagbanton, it feels strange to be speaking at his memorial. However, many greats have gone before us after spending abbreviated years on planet Earth. Many such greats include Thomas Sankara, Ken Saro-Wiwa, Amilcar Cabral, Walter Rodney, Frantz Fanon, Che Guevara, Chima Ubani, Bamidele Aturu, Oronto Douglas and Festus Iyayi. Some of these greats passed by natural means while the majority had their lives cut short either by systemic failures or outright machinations of the anti-democratic forces. 

Patrick Naagbanton’s passing was abrupt and, of course, unexpected. To say it was traumatic, would be to put it mildly. If it rang so for us, co-travellers on the environmental justice paths, imagine what it meant and means to his young family. 

Placed on the canvass of life expectancy in the Niger Delta, one would find that he left at 49 years. Average life expectancy in the world ranges from about 50 years (Chad) to 89.4 years for Monaco. In Nigeria the figure is 55 years – about the fifth worst measure in the world. The point is this: life expectancy in the Niger Delta is atrociously low. It is almost unimaginable. But that is the reality.

Brutish and Short

Writing in the Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes said left to a free reign of human competition and exploitation of other humans and of nature, people would end up in a situation, “… which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” He went on to call for governance through social contracts that sets rules that govern social relationships and may include the letting go of certain personal liberties.

Looking at the life of Patrick Naagbanton, what he stood for and fought for, we come to the sad conclusion that life is indeed brutish and short in Nigeria. Happily, he left a corpus of writings in the form of poetry and prose, thus giving us a window through which to peep into his thoughts, dreams and life.

I got to know Patrick when he joined Environmental Rights Action (ERA) in the late 1990s as her Field Monitor. His fearlessness was apparent for all to see. He was literally ready to go anywhere and at any time. His Field Report of the Jesse pipeline fire of October 1998 remains the reference document for information of what transpired at that time. His reports were so detailed he would make readers feel they were at the scene of environmental crimes around the Niger Delta and the wider nation. He consolidated what became the routine format for monitoring reports – not just chronicling the pollutions and reckless extractive activities, he set out the socio-cultural context of the victims and their communities. This approach gives readers a means of knowing that what was being lost was not merely oil that was spilled, gas that was flared, but lives and dreams that were cut short.

Patrick Naagbanton was an expert on conflicts and paid special attention to the proliferation of small arms in the country. He did not write about violent action actors but was bold to step into their camps to observe and better understand what spurred and sustained such trajectories. He was fearless.

He was a man who was content with what life brought to him and could do with the barest necessities. No one could bend his position with cash. Money was nothing but a means of exchange for basic needs. His travels were by the most basic public transportation means. He epitomised the ideal that consolidated the environmental justice movement in Nigeria – live and travel the way the majority of our compatriots do. Such ideals are increasingly hard to track these days. No doubt, these endeared him to the people and opened doors to a broad spectrum of Nigerians, from those in high office to the boleseller on the streets.

Our Environment our Life

While our stations in life may differ and the foods that garnish our tables may be vastly different, we all have some things in common: the need to breathe. What we breathe may differ depending on where we live, the vast majority of Nigerians uniformly breathe highly poisonous air. Although the nation does not have adequate air quality monitoring stations, available data confirm that the air we breathe is deadly. The poisons in the air include those coming from emissions from automobiles, electricity generators, incinerators, gas flares among others. Particulate matters in the air are visible in the blanket of soot that has persisted over Port Harcourt, Rivers State and the Ekpan area of Delta State. There are high levels of sulphur and Nitrogen dioxides, volatile organic compounds, etc. 

Besides the polluted air that Nigerians must breathe, there is also extensive water pollution. High levels of toxic chemicals including heavy metals and pesticides have been recorded in Nigerian water resources. Industrial and human wastes empty into water bodies across the country with little checks. In some communities, both beasts and humans drink directly from the same ponds. 

The pollution covers both surface and ground water. And additional cause of poor water quality is climate change. An example in this connection is the dramatic decline in the quantity of water in Lake Chad. Coastal erosion and canalization by industry have led to increased salination of previously freshwater systems thereby denying the littoral communities’ access to drinking water and generally changing their aquatic ecosystems.

A 2017 UNICEF report “ranked Nigeria among the top 5 countries globally with large numbers of people without access to safe water, improved sanitation and practicing open defecation.” The report also showed that 66 million Nigerians did not have access to potable (safe drinking) water, and 109 million lacked access to improved sanitation.

Plastic pollution is a huge environmental problem in Nigeria. Efforts by NGOs to create awareness of the menace and promote the use of durable and reusable packaging still requires to be supported by suitable legislation. As we speak, Nigeria is yet to enact any law outlawing single-use plastics.

Biological pollution is another huge problem in Nigeria which if not check will evolve into serious biosecurity threats. Since the Nigerian Biosafety Management Agency Act came into life in 2015, there has been a flurry of permits for genetically modified organisms in the country.

As I stated in a recent roundtable with lawyers on the issue:

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

Failure is wished away and risks and rejected. Two examples. First is that it was in the same year that genetically modified cotton (Bt. Cotton) failed spectacularly in Burkina Faso that Nigeria approved the same variety for release in the country. That permit was issued on a public holiday that also happened to be a Sunday (1 May 2016). 

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

No matter how much Nigerians protest against GMOs, the government simply keeps mum and prefers to swallow the myths peddled by industry or to allow citizens to be used as guinea pigs in their fight for profit. 

Deforestation remains a huge challenge in Nigeria. At the United Nation’s climate summit in September 2019, President Buhari pledged to plant 25 million trees. Youths were to be mobilised for the plantings. An inter-ministerial committee was set up to see to the planting of the trees and state governors all pledged to be a part of the exercise. A year has gone by and the pledge remains in the air.

Perhaps the most visible environmental challenge in Nigeria is the degradation brought about by the oil industry.  Patrick Naagbanton did quite a lot on this, not just as a avid environmental monitor but also as a writer. He tackled the oil menace from a political as well as human rights perspective. In one clearly political engineering process, he was involved with the Kaiama Declaration of Ijaw Youths in December 1998, even though he was Ogoni and not Ijaw. 

The devastation of the Niger Delta environmental by hydrocarbon pollution has rendered the region as one of the 10 most polluted places on earth. From oil spills to gas flares, to oil thefts, pipeline explosions and dumping of produce water and other contaminants into the land and water bodies of the region, the Niger Delta is a huge crime scene. NOSDRA recently reported an average of 5 oil spills per day in 2018 and 2019. 

The oil sector is literally a law unto itself and poor communities have besieged the courts in Nigeria and outside Nigeria for justice. Efforts to enact a Petroleum Industry Bill (PIB) has dragged on for over a decade. A judgement on gas flaring against Shell in 2005 is yet to be enforced. A few days ago, the Nigerian Supreme Court rejected a request by Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria Limited to review and set aside a N17 billion judgment entered against it last year as damages for a decades old oil spillage in Ejama-Ebubu in Tai Eleme Local Government Area of Rivers State.

The depth to which hydrocarbons had penetrated Ogoni soil was put at 5m in the UNEP report on the assessment of Ogoni environment. By the time one of the locations was remediated by HYPREP in 2020, the pollution had sunk to 10 metres.

Meanwhile, many countries and jurisdictions in the global north will cease to produce internal combustion engines in the coming decades. This will mean a flood of Tokunbo cars into Nigeria and other African nations as we are still thinking that internal combustion engines will remain eternally. Another implication is the constriction of markets for petroleum resources. And, of course, on a global scale, less pollution. At our local scale, we can expect more pollution as the fossil fuels age creaks to its terminal point bring to fulfilment the saying that “the stone age did not end for lack of stones” and the fossil age will not end for lack of crude oil.

All these announce the urgency of the clean-up of the entire Niger Delta because if this is not done while the goose is laying the golden egg, it will be a hard sale when the goose turns decrepit.

Poems on Wheels 

We will close this conversation with some pieces of writings that Patrick Naagbanton shared with his contacts via SMS. They show his sharp analysis and poetic capturing of thoughts and ideas. He was clearly a man in a hurry and this short form of real time reporting was very powerful and should remind all of us that we have no time to waste. Here are his words.

  • Restive journeys of Patrick Naagbanton 

In spite of the late yesterday evening heavy downpour in parts of Port Harcourt, the weather around Choba stretch of the East- West Road, the weather is hot. I am on another restless journey to Abonnema and other riverside towns in the south-west parts of Rivers- Eastern Niger  Delta. The towns are in celebration mood, but I am not. I am in my typical adventurous mood. They are celebrating their annual Go-to- Niger/ Liberation Day. The above event is always celebrated in a reflective, comic and satiric manner. They are celebrating their freedom from the ordeals they reportedly suffered in the hands of battle-fatigued Biafran soldiers who swooped on their towns during the unfortunate tribal Nigeria- Biafra wars. Am not part of the Go- To- Niger celebration. But will be in the midst of the celebrants soon due to my atypical adventurous beats. I don’t know where I will sail to after there

(18 June 2019)

Restive trips in parts of the restive eastern Niger Delta creeks, rivers and tributaries- always breathing fearfully and restively. Am not afraid of the deltaic ‘waters’ and its elements – I always enjoy sailing in them than travels by air or road. Am safe and fine after my “sojourn” in ‘The River Between’. I just arrived in the Bonny Island after my restive battles with the restive ‘waters’. Rain falling restively like sporadic gun shots from the low, dark and broken rumbling clouds over the island. I will be here until my journey end.

(21 June 2019)

  • Selfless Service

top Rivers politician just called me on phone, ‘to beg me’ to use my connections to give him contracts in HYPREP. My first reaction was to laugh heartily at his request. Later, I acted like what the late Comrade  Gani  Fawehinmi did at the Ibrahim  Auta Kangaroo Tribunal that gave the order to hang Saro-Wiwa  and others. Auta has wrongly said Gani shouldn’t complain of lack of cash to photocopy laws books he quoted from at the tribunal, and that then, he was getting a lot of foreign grants.  Gani spent about 2 hours to educate the Tribunal of High Injustice how he has NOT received a kobo as grants from any internal or external source. That was exactly what I did, and the man said ‘nawaoo. I thought you are part of them.’ Nigeria is an illiterate society. Even the so-called educated ones are inquisitive. Most of their opinions on a person or thing are derived from the wild rumour mills.

(13 August 2019)

  • Cemetery, Prisons and Violence in Ogoni:

Am told that the ongoing violence in Ogoniland – is sponsored by the Nigerian State to provide the basis for siting of military barracks, cemetery and prisons in Ogoniland.

(18 August 2019)

This presentation is left inclusive and you are invited to carry on the struggle. We believe this is what Patrick Naagbanton would wish that you do.

Thank you.

These were Nnimmo Bassey’s Talking points at First Memorial Lecture and book launch for Patrick Naagbanton held on Thursday, 3rd December 2020 in Port Harcourt, Nigeria.

————————————————————————————————————

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


The COVID-19 Centre

Bole 2The aroma from the tilapia on the grill wafted around the street corner. Entering every home through the front door and exiting through the windows. Everyone in the neighbourhood knew when Mama Ogie had set up shop for the morning and when some tilapia sizzled on her open grill. The pull was magnetic. By 11:00 am a line of community folks and passers-by had formed even though the first servings were yet to land on the plastic plates that crowded the tray on the rickety wooden table that served as her bukateria.

“I’m grateful to Mama Ogie,” a man said to his neighbour. “Her grill is so special. I don’t come here because I am hungry…”

“You don’t come here because you are hungry? Please, say something else,” his neighbour interrupted him. “What do you come here for? To learn how to cook?”

“I come here,” the man calmly replied, “because whenever I perceive the aroma of the tilapia, I am assured that I am well. You know one of the symptoms of COVID-19 is the loss of sense of smell.”

“So, this is your testing centre? Why don’t you smell the aroma from a distance instead of wasting my time by taking the space before me?”

“I would gladly have done so and saved some cash,” the man replied. “Unfortunately, I have to eat the fish to be sure that my sense of taste is still okay.”

“I know how you eat your fish,” replied his neighbour. “Through your nose!”

Mama Ogie looked up the customers lined up before her and splashed some vegetable oil on the grill.  Today will be a good day, she told herself. Ogie, his 10 years old son, shared a broken wooden chair with his friend, Idemudia. The two were inseparable. They had big dreams of life as business tycoons or politicians. Every day the same debate: what is the difference between the politician and a business tycoon?

“Who will be the politician? Who will be the tycoon?” Ogie asked.

“That is easy to know,” Idemudia laughed. “Who makes promises and never keep them?”

Mama Ogie turned the fish and nodded satisfied by how they were turning out. She roasted some plantain along with the fish. The two made a perfect lunch for those who could afford them. Just a few months ago most of her customers always bought a combination of fish and plantain. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, only a few could buy the two. They had to decide whether to snack on fish or pile their belly with plantain.

Soon it was the man’s turn to place his order.

“That’s Mr Social Distancing,” Ogie whispered to Idemudia.

“Yes,” Idemudia agreed. “We will see if the plantain will keep a social distance from the fish today.”

The man looked around furtively and signalled his neighbour to maintain his distance. He drew in as much of the aroma from the fish as he could. He wished he could get a mouthful of the delicacy through his nostrils. Then he bent forward, got closer and closer to the fish…

“Mr Man,” Mama Ogie yelled at the man. “Be careful! Stay back. Maintain your social distance.”

“Social distance is between people,” the man replied, “never between man and fish.”

“That bridge is crossed with Naira,” Mama Ogie stated sternly. Then she laughed. “You are a funny man. What does your pocket say today? Can it close the gap between the fish and the plantain?”

Ogie winked at Idemudia. No social distance between man and fish? Does he live in the river? He always enjoyed the banter between her mother and the man. This was their street corner school. They learned the habits of the neighbours just sitting here besides the Mama Ogie’s Fish is Ready shop.  Ogie thought they should prepare a signpost to brand his mother’s business. Maybe even produce some business cards, Idemudia suggested. We could even start a fish delivery service. Mama Ogie’s Tilapia Special. That sounded nice. Since Idemudia’s father was a fisher, they could ensure there is enough supply of fish to be grilled. We will be rich! We can turn it into a joint business, Mamas Ogie and Idemudia Special Tilapia?

Trouble was that Idemudia’s mother was a dealer in catfish. While Mama Idemudia was engaged in aquaculture, her husband would not tolerate any fish that was not caught at sea. He had no qualms killing fish but believed that the fishpond was restrictive and punishing for the fish. Eating farmed fish was like eating chicken bought from the big poultry farm from across the city. Lazy chicken. You could kick them, shove them. They could not and would not be moved. Fat chicken. Papa Idemudia believed that for chicken to land on his plate it must be able to fly over buildings and be chased across the neighbourhood. The chicken had to fight for its life before he would be satisfied. Just the way he chased fish when they dragged his line in a futile attempt to escape his grasp.

Fishpond fish or fish from the sea. This was the contention at the dinner table most nights when Papa Idemudia was not out at sea. One day he had a bout of runny stomach after dinner and accused Mama Idemudia of having cooked some of her catfish. She swore it was the wild catfish.

“You could tell by the length of their whiskers, can’t you?” she asked her husband. “You know everything about fish and can tell which is from the pond and which is from the sea by looking at them or simply by looking at how they lie in the pot.”

“You are right,” Papa Idemudia answered. “I can tell which is which even in the darkest night. In fact, when I am out fishing, I just have to whistle a tune for a particular fish to jump into my net. Or to swallow my hook. There is one particular fish I know by sight. It likes playing around my boat. Sometimes I pat its head with my paddle. I think it may want to come home with me, except that I do not think it would like your pond.”

Ogie’s eyes widened as a big car pulled up. Mama Ogie urged Mr Social Distance to pick up his roasted plantain and move on. He looked wistfully at the fish he could not afford. He couldn’t just saunter off. He hung around to test his sense of smell a little bit further. Maybe his belly could be filled through his nostrils as they say doctors do, at times. The door of the big car opened, and someone stepped out. Ogie’s mother was effusive in her welcome. This person had never stopped by her stand. There was to be a party tomorrow and the person wanted to give invitees a special treat of street food. A large order was placed. Tomorrow at noon. Sharp. Grilled fish and roasted plantain. A wad of cash exchanged hands. And the car zoomed off, tyres screeching, water splashing. Street Food. How could anyone call her special food Street Food! In any case, the money was good. No receipt. No guarantee. That person may love street food, but certainly there was no street sense.

Ogie eyed Idemudia. That’s the sign to confirm that we are in business. Mamas Ogie and Idemudia Special Tilapia. And Catfish! Yes, Mamas Ogie and Idemudia Special Tilapia & Catfish.

They would sell the idea to their mothers, and their mothers will sell the idea to their fathers.

They gave themselves a congratulatory high five and fell off their broken chair almost knocking down the grill. Horror! They looked plaintively at Mama Ogie. Would she hit them with here ladle?

“Go home, both of you,” Mama Ogie shouted, alarmed. “Idemudia, what will I tell you mother? That I poured hot oil on you? Go home!”

“Yes, home, children,” Mr Social Distance spat, then unable to stifle a sneezed let out an earth-shattering burst, tripping over a pile of charcoal. His plantain flew out of his hand, and landed in a puddle by the roadside, making his enviable dive to capture it completely useless. He sat in the puddle lamenting his misfortune. Although his olfactory organs functioned okay, he would have no way of knowing if his taste buds were yet in good order. No way to know, except someone offers him a morsel to bite, that is. And nobody did. Not yet. His neighbour walked close, clutching his plantain and the head of a tilapia. He wouldn’t offer him even the eyes of the fish.

“Go home!” Mama Ogie shouted again. “What must I do to you two?”

Idemudia began to pull Ogie by his shorts. Blame it on Mr. Social Distance. No, blame it on the broken chair. No piece of grilled fish for them today. Just then Idemudia’s father passed by on his bicycle. Stopped.

“Good morning, Papa Idemudia,” Mama Ogie greeted. “I will need plenty of fish tomorrow morning.”

“W-o-n-d-e-r-f-u-l!” Papa Idemudia replied slowly. “That sounds like music to my ears. What are you celebrating? Marriage anniversary? Or is Ogie going to the university?”

Ogie wanted to step forward to greet Papa Idemudia but his friend pulled him back. Too late.

“Idemudia! Idemudia! How many times have I called you? Papa Idemudia called. “You should be at home helping you mother feed her catfish. What are you doing here at this time? Come with me quickly. These days no one knows who is spreading the virus. Have you washed your hands?”

“The pond is empty,” Idemudia whispered as his father drew him away and made to leave.

“Wait!” Mama Ogie called after him, “please, collect a deposit for the fish.”

That was a new one for Papa Idemudia. Getting paid before he goes fishing? Was that a good mor bad omen? And did she say, please? Wonders will never end. Mama Ogie, the fish and plantain seller, pleading with him to collect a deposit for fish he was yet to catch? Where will the fish come from? His fishing expedition of last night had fallen into a recent pattern. He had toiled, laboured and fished all night. What did he come back home with? A pitiful catch that could hardly fill up a bucket. What a rough night it was. He thought of joining his wife in catfish farming. But Mama Idemudia told him that due to the inter-city restriction of movements the supply of fish feed had dried up. Didn’t he help her pick all the fish from the pond two days ago? Just one throw of his net and everything came up, flapping this way and that. He saw Mama Idemudia peering at the pond the next day. Throwing a few scraps into the water and expecting a fight for her offering. There was no stir. The only ripples came from what she dropped. Her heart thumped. The pond remained silent.

He had gone to the sea with hope. He had to stay in the shallow waters. A naval blockade stopped movements into the deep waters. Did COVID-19 come from the deep? Throwing nets at the shallow waters yielded debris, plastics, invasive weeds. He got caught a few wiggly creatures. Is the Navy keeping us at the shore so that those international thieves that came with big trawlers could take everything away unseen, unchallenged? It was annoying that they were stealing the fish to make animal feed, not even for eating. What more rotten ideas would humans come up with? Thieves trawled in the deep, oil spills coated coastal waters. And the oil companies not only polluted the waters, they slashed through the mangrove forests creating canals for their barges and monstrous machines. Our freshwater creeks turning brackish. Adding salt to injury. He began to see sense in the fishers always saying fish is better than oil. He dreamt of Idemudia on an oil rig. A big man to care for him when he retires from fishing. Wie cannot eat oil. We cannot drink oil. Oil is forcing him into retirement. Should he give up? Here was cash for him to collect. Will tomorrow be better than last night? What if it isn’t? Oh, but my friend will dance to my paddle. It is quite big, almost the length of my canoe. If I invite it home… How do I get through the blockade to reach my friend? Will I betray a friend? Pandemic. Pandemonium. Take the cash? And then what? The pond was silent! The sea? He could only see!

“Here is the money,” Mama Ogie stretched her hands to Papa Idemudia over the head of the man in the mud.

“Ammm,” Mr Social Distance cleared his throat, still seated in the puddle, his plantain sinking into the mire. Out of sight. “I need to test my taste buds.”

Ogie winked at Idemudia as he climbed on his father’s bicycle. Mamas Ogie and Idemudia Special Tilapia & Catfish! You promised me a piece of fish, Idemudia frowned.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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