Fiddling while the Planet Burns

The third report to emerge from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in the span of eight months has again exposed the folly of humankind on its addiction to dirty energy sources. The report clearly shows that there must be significant reduction in the use of fossil fuels. The Secretary-General of the United Nation, Antonio Guterres, has been forthright in sounding the climate alarm and he did not mince words over the new report when he declared, “Today’s IPCC report is an atlas of human suffering and a damning indictment of failed climate leadership. With fact upon fact, this report reveals how people and the planet are getting clobbered by climate change. Nearly half of humanity is living in the danger zone – now. Many ecosystems are at the point of no return – now. Unchecked carbon pollution is forcing the world’s most vulnerable on a frog march to destruction – now.”

The IPCC report offers policy makers some stark figures on how fossil fuels use must decline. These include that there must be 85% less use of coal by 2050 and 60% less oil. The report also indicates that there must be 45% less use of fossil gas by 2050.

What the IPCC is essentially saying is that the world must move away from fossil fuels, not grudgingly, not slowly, but resolutely and quickly, understanding that this is a “now or never” situation. What the IPCC did not say is that 2050 may be a bridge too far! The world is heating faster than previously thought and the 1.5C and “well below” 2C fig leaves offered by the Paris Agreement are already shrivelled and are blowing in the wind. 

The IPCC is obviously being cautious not to be alarmist even with the alarming evidence before it. Clearly today’s leaders and fossil fuel speculators would prefer to fiddle while the planet burns. Africa is particularly vulnerable to the climate impacts having serious sea level rise, coastal erosion, displacement of communities and over 28 million people at risk of chronic hunger due to weather variabilities.

The thing is that the fossils must be left in the ground. According to the UN Secretary-General, the report shows that “coal and other fossil fuels are choking humanity.” Certainly, this should make sense to a species that prides itself with being able to control and exploit Nature at will.

It is shameful that the world cannot stop pandering to the whims of an industry that desires to keep exploring, to keep digging up and burning fossils and then talk of sucking the carbon out of the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide removal pathways that are often proposed include ocean fertilisation and direct carbon capture and storage. These experiments need to be carried out at planetary scale and kept going permanently. Their efficacy is not assured, and the negative fallouts could compound the problems faced by already vulnerable nations and territories.  These technologies help to lock in fuel fuels use by suggesting that the released carbon can readily be sucked out of the atmosphere. Some of the carbon capture and storage technologies are used to push out more crude oil from oil wells to burn such oils which then release more carbon that keeps the destructive cycle creaking on. 

The promotion and pursuit of technofixes are happening at a time when wind and solar are getting more economically viable as replacements for fossil fuels. And there is the option of converting disused offshore platforms and floating vessels into wind and solar farms and thus putting them to cleaner use. It is incredible that humans prefer to bandage the scarred planet rather than halting the crisis at the roots.

The world must wake to acknowledge those in the frontlines of resistance against the expansion of the fossil fuels frontiers as true climate champions.  We must applaud the fishers and communities of South Africa, for example, who have so far successfully staved off the claws of oil companies from carrying out seismic activities in their waters.  The cries of “Fish not Oil,” and “Ocean not Oil” are distress calls by children of the Earth for humanity to recover their common sense and think of the future. When the Ogoni people said not a drop of oil should be taken out of their land and demanded a clean-up of their grossly contaminated environment, they were seeing into the future, a future built without dirty energy. This is the time to applaud these climate champions. 

It is time for the world to invest in building resilience, stop mindless distracting fossil-fuelled wars against hapless peoples and to stop mindless assault on other living beings through industrial, toxic, fossil fuels dependent agriculture. It is time to support agroecology to produce healthy soils, cool the planet and feed the world with safe, healthy foods.

The IPCC report may not have said it, but we need a mind reset requiring the universal recognition of the Rights of Nature and the acceptance of ecocide as a crime in the same order as other extreme and unusual crimes. An exploitative and transactional relationship with Nature has brought the world to the brink. Continuing with the mindset that we can fix Nature by placing her on life supports provided by geoengineering or biotechnology and other synthetic formulations will only lead humans blindfolded on the highway to the precipice.

The IPCC projections cannot be achieved through nationally determined contributions. We must highlight historical and present responsibilities, demand common but differentiated responsibilities (CBDR) – the foundational base of the United Nations Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Climate justice is not a thing to be cherry-picked. The demands of solidarity require that polluters do their fair share. It requires the payment of a climate debt owed those least responsible for the climate debacle, not a $100bn token which remains promissory. The justice in the just transition requires that no one should be forced to bear more burdens through extraction of more minerals for “green” energy. It is time to pay for loss and damage and halt the reign of carnage perpetrated by wars, mindless extraction, and wastes.

How many times must the IPCC sound the alarm before humanity wakes up? Wake up, world, the fossil age cannot wait until the last drop of oil has been scrapped and burned or the world will be burned up before then.

Oil, Rot and Divestment

The reason why persons or corporations make investments is dependent on the expected or desired outcomes. The same can be said of why investors divest. Investments are predominantly made for profit. For instance, a corporation would estimate how much profit would accrue, in financial terms or material gains, and over what period, for an investment that has been made. In other instances, investments may be made for humanitarian, not-for-profit reasons or for desired social change.  Whether for profit or for altruistic ends, investments are made with gains in mind.

Investments are not made carelessly or by whim. Investors carry out detailed studies or assessments of the objective conditions surrounding the issues on hand to put their resources in areas where they expect the best outcomes.  Controls and regulations are established by governments or other relevant authorities to ensure that the pursuit of profit does not expose citizens and the environment to unacceptable levels of harm. 

It is for this reason that the idea of sustainable development emerged to moderate the inclination of those pursuing the transformation of Nature for profit without consideration of long-term socio-ecological implications, from doing so. It is also for this reason that proponents of physical development projects are required to carry out environmental, social-economic, and other impact assessments before embarking on such projects.

Assessments or studies carried out before projects or investments are approved are site specific, and studies done elsewhere cannot be applied in an entirely different location simply because investors or regulators assume there would be similar outcomes. The point to note here is that some tangible and intangible conditions could differ even where demographics and geographies appear similar. To ensure that such peculiarities are not blindsided, the people living in locations where investors, governments or institutions wish to carry out projects/activities must not only be consulted but must be part of the assessment processes. It is one way by which communities can provide informed consent for investment or development projects to be carried out in their territories.

The situation in the Niger Delta over the years has largely been one of willful neglect and refusal to consult or engage the people in decision making processes regarding investments, development, or even infrastructural projects. Projects are often thrown at communities even when they are not the priority needs of the people. Little wonder that the projects get abandoned during construction or are left to rot after completion. 

The most worrisome case is that of extraction of resources from the Niger Delta. The concerns have remained the same from pre-colonial to colonial and present neocolonial state. There are historic records of kings and leaders in the Niger Delta who were exiled or killed in the pre-colonial days for insisting on their right to have a say on trade, cultural observances or decision making in their territories. The burning of Akassa in 1895 by the British Navy over the control of trade issues remains a clear example of such infractions.

Crude oil development and the installation of industrial infrastructure in the Niger Delta were carried out without consultations with the people. Community gatherings organized by the transnational oil companies and their colonial governments were mostly moments for selling dreams of developmental progress that would happen once the wells began to spurt. Some of such events saw the showing of moving pictures of shinny cars, houses, schools and hospitals and nothing of the environmental impacts that would occur in their communities. It did not take long for the dreams to burst and for the gory realities that prevail to this date to manifest.

Efforts to bandage the massive harms inflicted on the Niger Delta has been carried out through various means including oil company driven Memoranda of Understanding with communities, and various government interventions through agencies such as Niger Delta Development Board (NDDB) established in 1961, the Niger Delta Basin and Rural Development Authority (NDBRDA) established in 1976, the Oil Mineral Producing Areas Development Commission (OMPADEC) established in 1992, the Petroleum Trust Fund (PTF) in 1995,  Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) established in 2000 and the Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs created in 2008. These bandages seek to cover up festering wounds, without dealing with the fundamental ailments that over six decades of disastrous exploitation has wrought. 

At a global level, foils used by the fossil fuel industry to obscure the fact that they are the major drivers of climate change has now been torn to shreds. The world is at the brink of irreversible climatic chaos unless urgent shifts are made in investments in the fossil fuels sector. However, the industry has so captured government structures around the world that climate negotiations hardly refer to this prime cause of the threat, and governments tend to believe that more investments are needed in the sector to develop safer energy options. Such oxymoronic arguments are simply mind boggling. 

The crisis of the Niger Delta continues to build up. With lands, water, and air polluted and the region ranking among the top ten most contaminated places on earth, bandages no longer suffice to cover the ecological crimes. Making matters worse are the frequent oil spills that are futilely blamed on third party interferences even when the rotten state of the facilities and poor oil field practices are obvious. Recall the AITEO oil well blowout at Oil Mining Lease (OML) 29 that spewed hydrocarbons into the Santa Barbara River at Nembe over a period of six weeks starting from 1st November 2021. Recall the decrepit Trinity Spirit FSPO that recently burst into flames off the coast of Delta and Ondo States. Do not forget the oil well blowout and fire that has been raging at Ororo-1 oil field (OML 95) off the coast of Ondo State since May 2020 with no discernible efforts to stop the disaster. Between 2018 and 2019 the National Oil Spills Detection and Response Agency (NOSDRA) recorded 1,300 oil spills, averaging 5 per day. Add to these, the unmitigated disaster related to bush refineries in the region – a clear outcome of regulatory failures by the state and lack of duty of care by the corporations.

Today the Niger Delta has over 1,481 wells and 275 flow stations, over 7,000 kilometres length of oil/gas pipelines and over 120 gas flare furnaces. The Niger Delta is an exploded ecological bomb and citizens and the environment have since been sacrificed.

Years of agitation for a legislation that speaks to the problems of the petroleum sector, the environment and the communities eventually yielded the Petroleum Industry Act (2021) which still leaves the communities on the lurch regarding economic benefits and environmental protection while pandering to the desires of oil corporations. 

The current drive by oil companies such as Shell and ExxonMobil to divest from onshore and shallow water oil fields or even to leave completely brings up very serious issues. After the oil companies drilled the Niger Delta without consulting the people, to leave the region without as much as informing the communities represents an unacceptable closing of the loop of irresponsible exploitation. In the ongoing confusion over whether ExxonMobil’s agreement to sell its assets /shares to Seplat stands or if the NNPC can take over those assets, there is no talk about what the communities think or desire.  

Communities must rise to demand that oil companies be held to account for historical and present harms inflicted on the environment and the people. They equally must decommission their rotten installations, pay for health and ecological audits, and equally pay for the clean-up and remediation of the entire region.

This is the conversation we must have.

Opening statement at a Community Training on the Petroleum Industry Act and Divestment hosted by Health of Mother Earth Foundation and We The People at the Ken Saro-Wiwa Innovation Hub on Wednesday 9 March 2022.

Reject Seed Colonialism in Africa

It has often been said that one of the ways to colonize a people is by dismantling or subverting their culture. This pathway is also effective for building dependency and disrupting the systems that organically secures the health of the populations. In terms of agricultural and food systems, the disruption is most effective when staple crops are targeted, appropriated through patenting and presented as mere merchandize. Food is fast becoming an instrument of control and power.

Science has been used as a cloak for the introduction of foods of dubious value and quality. The quest to solve perceived problems through artificial means introduces new problems, some of which can be intractable. Today we see unrelenting forces seeking to control our food and agricultural systems with attendant disregard for indigenous knowledge, natural cycles, biodiversity, and livelihoods of communities. 

We are concerned that food is being seen as a mere commodity or a mechanical or chemical product from a factory or laboratory. Truth is that eating is beyond swallowing food to satiate hunger; food has deep cultural and spiritual anchors with special significance in many religious observances. 

Food supply across Africa depends largely on the maintenance of a healthy and thriving biodiversity. Our farmers save, reproduce, and share seeds, understanding that these seeds encapsulate life. These communities engage in mixed cropping and harvest a mix of fruits, tubers and vegetables that yield foods that are rich and healthy, providing needed nutrition and building defenses against illnesses. They have a strong link to what is presented as food and harvests are never mechanical exercises. Moreover, many of our farmers do not see food production as mere business or for profit.

These practices are being threatened by the genetic modification of seeds particularly those that make up our staple foods.

Today we are speaking of the genetically engineered cowpea, popularly known as beans in Nigeria, and drawing attention to the fact that the insecticidal beans can also kill non-target organisms and that even the target pests can develop resistance. In the same vein, when crops are genetically engineered to withstand herbicides, we cannot ignore the fact that they kill other plants and microbial life and not only the so-called weeds. These modifications interfere with the webs of life in ecosystems, and this has intergenerational consequences. 

Although the promoters of the Bt cowpea claim that it will translate to improved food security in Nigeria due to availability of much higher amounts of cowpea, one concern that cannot be overlooked is that this GM variety will utterly contaminate natural varieties through cross pollination. This means that even where a farmer chooses not to grow the GM variety, the preferred natural variety will be contaminated. Thus, rather than promote food security, Nigeria/Africa is stepping into an era of uncertainty, of gross unpredictability and instability of food supply and resultant food insecurity.

The genetically engineered beans (recently approved for commercial release in Nigeria despite objections by HOMEF and several other stakeholders) is modified with the transgene Cry1Ab which has not been approved anywhere else in the world. Most of these genetically engineered events are prepared overseas and brought for testing in Africa and yet we boast that we are adequately equipped and innovative. The genetically engineered cowpea is originally a Monsanto product brought to Africa on supposedly humanitarian grounds. We insist that Africans must not be used as testing ground for novel and risky technologies.

Promoters of these risky technologies fight against strict liability clauses in national Biosafety laws. This has been experienced in Nigeria, in Zambia and in Uganda and so on. In Uganda a clause in their genetic engineering regulatory law was inserted to ensure that producers of GMOs will be held accountable for any harm that may come from cultivation or consumption of their products at any time, even if such effects manifest years later. Since then, GMO promoters and producers scientists have branded President Museveni and the Ugandan parliament as being anti-science. 

There are attempts to overlook the Precautionary Principle which is the bedrock of biosafety regulation. Simply put, the precautionary principle advice that where there are doubts regarding human, animal or environmental safety, we should hold the breaks. Good genetic engineering science must not leave room for doubt and when harms manifest, the producers should be held strictly liable. 

The speed with which Nigeria is permitting GMOs is highly suspicious and offers no assurance that the government is concerned about food safety, the preservation of our biodiversity or the rights of our indigenous peoples. Neighboring and other African countries should beware.

As you are already aware, this press conference is a platform for exposing the grave risks our food and agricultural systems face through the introduction of genetically modified beans. Besides the environmental and health risks, our people’s right to choose what variety to plant and what food to eat is absolutely breached by the introduction of the genetically engineered beans, a staple and critical source of protein for our peoples. The right of choice is eliminated because our food systems do not allow for labelling. This right is fundamental, and our people should not be ambushed to eat any risky material. We call on farmers to reject Bt Cowpea seeds and continue to protect our food system.

My welcome words at the International Press Conference on Bt Cowpea held on 7th March 2022 via Zoom

Time for a Peoples’ COP

THE 26th Conference of Parties (COP26) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) took place from 31 October to 13 November 2021 and had a loud, but uncertain achievement. No, this was not just about the Glasgow Climate Pact which highlighted the phasing down of coal. It was the facing down of the victims of climate change who are fighting a tough battle against a crisis to which they did not contribute. It was a COP that left its justice foundation on life support and offloaded the burden of climate action unto generations yet to be born.

While COP26 went on, there was a parallel Cop26coalition’s people’s summit which centred on forging real climate action rather than being driven by vested fossil interests. The urgency shown by the popular summit exposed COP26 to best be described as a Conference of Polluters, Conference of Profiteers or Conference of Procrastinators. 

The badge of procrastination in the face of an emergency was displayed in the emblematic Net Zero pledges of the parties. The concept was so pervasive that posters with elephants and whales were displayed at train stations and other public spaces in Glasgow to celebrate it and possibly to announce expanded threats that could emerge with big animals being designated carbon sinks. 

The conference was an avenue for world leaders to showcase their ambition towards tackling the climate menace. The reality was that all they could display was their voluntary pledges to cut emissions iced or capped with pledges on when they would attain net zero carbon emissions. The voluntary suggestions on what levels of reductions countries would take is the linch pin of the Paris Agreement. Nations were excited to endorse and celebrate the Agreement with its Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC) because it afforded the big polluters the opportunity to avoid making emissions cut based on science and historical responsibility.

The Paris Agreement set paradoxical temperature targets that were considered ambitious and chose the voluntary pathway to achieve it. That was a paradox that attempted to seal the pandora box.

The temperature targets set in the Paris Agreement appear to have been purposely ambiguous rather than ambitious. As was noted by the Prime Minister of Barbados during the COP, it is unlikely that NDCs can solve a global problem.  The truth in this position has become evident by the projected outcome of the NDCs and Net Zero pledges. The best possible outcome of the present pledges is given as a 2.4C average temperature increase above preindustrial levels. That average stands beyond the 1.5C and well below 2.0C targets of the Paris Agreement.  We note the apparent contradiction in those targets when we realize that anything that is “well below” 2.0C should be less than 1.5C. The question arising from this is whether an upper limit can be lower than the lower target?

For regions like Africa that have temperatures about 50 percent above global averages, a 2.4C global average possibility translates to an incinerating 3.6C average. It beats the imagination that anyone from these vulnerable regions would accept that possibility as a laudable target. 

There was loud debunking of the net zero concept before and during COP26. It was shown that net zero is not zero and does not herald the stoppage of emissions. It merely projects some mythical action whereas it means a continuation of business as usual, a continuation of burning fossil fuels and stoking the atmosphere with carbon while proposing carbon capture, carbon removals or some measures of solar radiation management. Net zero has also been shown to be a glorified name for carbon trading which helped to portray COP26 as a carbon trade fair.

While nations trade in hot air and negotiate inaction, children and youths are becoming more strident in their denunciation of the procrastinating leaders. They see the pledge to achieve arithmetic net zero by 2050 or 2060 or 2070 as a blatant insult and an attempt to deny them a future. For the youths, the struggle is about justice today and not a promissory note that may not ever be fulfilled, or that would be of no consequence by 2050 should the planet have already stepped into catastrophic climate change by that time. 

The unwillingness to follow the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities (CBDR) was also manifested in the way the issues of climate finance and that of loss and damage were handled. When it comes to climate finance, the Glasgow Climate Pact sounds as if it were a draft or recommendation for people other than parties to implement. It “Notes with deep regret that the goal of developed country Parties to mobilize jointly USD 100 billion per year by 2020 in the context of meaningful mitigation actions and transparency on implementation has not yet been met, and welcomes the increased pledges made by many developed country Parties and the Climate Finance Delivery Plan: Meeting the US$100 Billion Goal and the collective actions contained therein.” This May sound like excellent diplomatic phraseology but should be seen as unbecoming in an emergency. A section was also allocated to platitudes on the matter of loss and damage. If the UNFCCC had listened to the call for recognition and payment of a climate debt accumulated over centuries of rapacious exploitation of peoples and colonial plundering of nature, there would be no debate over climate finance. 

The COP26 outcome could not call for a phasing out of fossil fuels even though science clearly shows that it is their burning that is roasting the planet because of the undue influence of the fossil fuels industry. Rather than stop funding fossil fuels the industry is set to pump more finances into the dying sector. In Oil Change International’s report, Sky’s Limit Africa, we learn that the fossil fuel industry plans to sink USD $230 billion into the development of new extraction projects in Africa in the next decade and up to USD $1.4 trillion by 2050. Tone deaf? The COP could not make any move that would hinder the plans of the fossil fuels sector because with 503 delegates from 100 fossil fuel companies at the conference, including being part of 27 national delegations, such a suggestion was dead on arrival. The industry had more delegates than Brazil, who with 479 delegates had the largest national delegation at the COP.

The climate pact is a study in the choice of words to leave room for avoidance of further consideration. A critical example is with reference to climate justice. The pact says, “Noting the importance of ensuring the integrity of all ecosystems, including in forests, the ocean and the cryosphere, and the protection of biodiversity, recognized by some cultures as Mother Earth, and also noting the importance for some of the concept of ‘climate justice’, when taking action to address climate change.” How on earth can a framework ostensibly predicated on justice state that climate Justice is only important “for some”?

Reading the body language of the COPs we conclude that it is time to replace the COP with a Climate Change Conference of Peoples. When Copenhagen flopped, Bolivia convened the Peoples Summit on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth in Cochabamba in April 2010. With more than 30,000 delegates from over 100 countries, the peoples of the world came out with a clear roadmap for climate action as well as the Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth. It is time to denounce net zero myths and demand real zero emissions. It is time to echo the truth that climate change is a global problem that must be tackled not by xenophobic nationalist self-interest tagged NDCs but by binding emissions cut based on CBDR.

COP26: Injury Time

12 years ago 

We were already in Injury Time

Fighting for a temperature target of 1C

Today Nature has been patient enough

So patient not to call off the game

Though the ball has left the pitch

Nature has given humans a moment to think

This is extra time in Injury Time

It is time for action!

Here we are redefining idiocy

Trumping good sense with xenophobic nationalism 

Silencing the victims via vaccine apartheid 

Standing on Nationally determined 

Self destruction

Here we are Conferencing and Partying

As though global warming 

Has suddenly become a national warming

And not a global  catastrophe

This is extra time in Injury Time

It is time for action!

The celebrated Paris Agreement 

Set out “1.5 degrees” and obviously jokingly added 

Or “Well below 2 degrees”

If my maths is right

Well below 2 should fall far below 1.5

Right?

But flags were raised, glasses clinked, backs were slapped

To celebrate such arrant technical nonsense 

This is extra time in Injury Time

It is time for action!

Now the con men openly run crazy

Do what you can do

Lie about what you will do

Set deadlines to when the beings on the Planet may all be dead

Net Zero by 2030

Net Zero by 2050

Net Zero by 2060

Net Zero by the turn of the century 

Net Zero isn’t Zero

This is extra time in Injury Time

It is time for action!

Keep polluting

We can capture the carbon

Keep consuming 

We can bury the waste

Keep cooking the planet

We can set sunshades in the sky, fertilize the ocean 

If folks stay stupid we can label whales and elephants carbon sinks

Reinvent slavery and colonialism for more sinks

This is extra time in Injury Time

It is time for action!

The Sahara is expanding 

Deserts showing up in the Amazon 

Polluters fighting to trash Okavango

Glaciers melting

Climate refugees floating on the Mediterranean

Forests burning

Oceans cooked

Islands disappearing

Mad cyclones, hurricanes 

Yet you dig more fossils, burn more coal, oil, gas 

And power locust invasions

Across the Horn of Africa

As you worship fossil dollars 

On the altar of greed

This is extra time in Injury Time

It is time for action!

We refuse to allow polluters and mad men 

shooting wildly with hot guns

On COP movie sets

Dancing with hot guns on the graves of the poor

On COP movie sets

Awake people, 

Arise people

Mother Earth is not a movie set

This is extra time in Injury Time

It is time for action!

12 years ago 

We were already in Injury Time

Fighting for a temperature target of 1C

Today Nature has been patient enough

So patient not to call off the game

Though the ball has left the pitch

Nature has given humans a moment to think

This is extra time in Injury Time

It is time for action!

This is time for a Peoples’ COP

I hear the echoes of Cochabamba 

When People’s stood up for climate justice

And the Rights of Mother Earth

Rejecting militarism 

Exposing the dirty fingers of market Environmentalism

Denouncing carbon markets shrouded in divers cloaks 

Now they must hear our resounding rejection of so much noise without action

This is extra time in Injury Time

It is time for action!

  • Nnimmo Bassey

6.11.2021 written and read at the Global Day of Action (COP26)

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

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

I will not Eat a Pesticide

Food and nutrition are key to human health. We strive to ensure that we have nutritious foods and that the seeds from which we produce these foods are free from contamination and do not pose a threat to our biodiversity. It is a fact that biodiversity is key to food sovereignty as we work to ensure food security. Food Sovereignty is achieved when we have the freedom to maintain our seeds/foods and cultivate and consume them in ways that are culturally appropriate and safe. 

In a recent Right Livelihood lecture (hosted by the University of Port Harcourt), Prof Hans Herren stressed that African farmers could nourish the continent if certain basic conditions are met. The production of nutritious is based assured through the cultivation of crops in methods that are in harmony with nature. This means using biological means of protecting crops and using organic fertilizers rather than toxic pesticides and chemical fertilizers. Healthy foods are more likely going to be produced when the farmers are not only concerned with profit maximization but aim to get nutritious foods to the market.  Herren also stressed that were there is a healthy relationship between farmers and consumers, the dietary choices of consumers tend to shape farmers’ choices. In such a situation the best pathway is agroecology – an agricultural system that is both socio-culturally appropriate and ecologically healthy.

In considering nutrition and food safety, we cannot afford to ignore the smallholder farmers who are those feeding us and the entire world today. We often tend to look down subsistence farming because it is not wedded to the agribusiness web. This notion is indefensible if we accept the fact that 70 percent of the for that we eat comes from these farmers using a mere 30 percent of the resources available in the sector. An understanding of the key role these farmers play and that most of our people make a living from smallholder farming requires investment of resources to shore up the efforts our farmers.

Smallholder farming needs to be integrated into our farming system to achieve sustainable agriculture and food security. This farming system protects the three dimensions of sustainability – the ecology, society, and economy of people. To achieve this, there is a need to preserve the diversity of crops and varieties that provide the nutrition that we need for good health. This requires the protection of farmer saved seeds and protection of varieties that local farmers have selected and developed over the centuries. The implication of this is that the whittling down of varieties due to commercial and related narrow interests must be rejected.

The point is that there are over 3000 crops that can be farmed in Africa, but farmers have been pushed into farming just a few varieties to the detriment of our peoples. Today we see increasing pressures for the adoption of genetically modified crops in Africa. These crops are mostly genetically engineered to withstand dangerous herbicides which kill other varieties except the engineered ones. The basic facts here is that the crops serve the interests of the chemical companies who concentrate their power of control over the sector and expose farmers and consumers to harm. Other crops are genetically engineered to act as pesticides and kill identified pests that would otherwise attack the crop or seeds. Examples include Bt Cotton and Bt Cowpea or beans. The implication of eating a seed engineered to kill a pest if that you are eating a pesticide.

There are other cosmetic reasons for genetically engineering crops, fish, and animals, but those are not our focus today. We wish to stress the failure of genetically engineered crops to pass the sustainability test and emphasize the fact that they derogate our right to safe and wholesome food. Crops that pass the sustainability test, should protect soils and biodiversity as well as the quality of life of farmers, consumers, and society at large.

Thousands of lawsuits have been instituted in the USA and Europe against Monsanto (and Bayer who bought up the company) over their glyphosate-based herbicides. Glyphosate, an active ingredient in the herbicides used on several herbicide tolerant crops have been classified as a probable human carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer(IARC). It is also reported that animal studies have shown such herbicides to be genotoxic, meaning they damage the DNA. They are also known to be endocrine disruptors. 

Glyphosate based herbicide applications are also known to alter soil microbe populations, and this may contribute to the proliferation of plant and animal pathogens, and negatively impact plant growth and productivity. These chemicals are harmful to soils beyond the plants that farmers may consider to be weeds. A recent report also showed that aquatic creatures exposed to glyphosate-based herbicides have suffered deformities and had oxidative stress in the brain and affected behaviour of the fish.

One point that must be noted is that genetic engineering in agriculture ignores the fact of the interdependence of species in the webs of life. While they aim to protect one crop, for instance, they end up destroying several others and destroy soil organisms as well. A similar situation occurs with pesticidal crops. They kill both target and non-target varieties. The practice of chemical-based agriculture has led to the decimation of butterflies, bees, and other pollinators, thus posing a serious threat to future food supply and the health of our ecosystems.

Responsible use of technology in agriculture requires that we keep careful watch on their effect on human and environmental health. We also need to consider the fact that technologies that promote monoculture and erodes our biodiversity is not sustainable and must be avoided in a world that is almost at the brink of ecological collapse. We cannot afford to make a fetish of techno fixes or consider them to be silver bullets. 

The arguments used in the promotion of genetically engineered crops do not hold water. The argument that we need GMOs to be able to produce enough food for a growing global population is a myth. GMOs have not led to an increase of food production since their introduction over twenty years ago. In any case, about 30 percent of the food currently produced in the world today goes to waste. In Nigeria, a high percentage of harvests do not make it to the market or to dining tables due to a dearth of storage or processing facilities, and due to poor state of infrastructure. When we throw insecurity into the mix of adverse factors it becomes even clearer that we open a space for manipulations that can complicate our security concerns simply because we are yielding to commercial myths. 

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