Technofixes and the State of Our Biosafety

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


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

I see the Invisible (Staying Closer Apart)

I see the invisible

I see the invisible 

I hear the inaudible

And I feel the intangible

I’m everywhere in no time

Floating on memories of strained futures

Aloft on lofty hopes

Sliding on rugged dreams in truncated nights

 I see the invisible 

I hear the inaudible

And I feel the intangible

Ears on the ground we tremble

At the departing footsteps of

Departed elders at marketplaces

 I see the invisible 

I hear the inaudible

And I feel the intangible

Eyes on the past we see the future

Cluttered by discarded viruses and their angry relatives

Hands glued to our sides social distances narrow to a kilometer apart

I see the invisible 

I hear the inaudible

And I feel the intangible

We have never been closer now we are apart

Finally, nature’s tiny beings shake sleep away

We are relatives and can have a good day

If we don’t scoff and cough in each other’s face

 

NB at RallyNnimmo Bassey

19 March 2020

Facing Coronavirus

Coronavirus-1The world is in the grip of a virus that could change many things. Coronavirus, that tiny, invisible organism, has reminded humans that there are things that are simply not under our control. The virus has attacked the rich and the poor, the powerful and the weak. It has largely taught us what equality could mean in an age when humility is not a common commodity. Now it has been formally declared a pandemic we must do our best to avoid any pandemonium even as towns and large swaths of nations have been locked down and large gatherings are avoided literally like there was a plague. At a time when it is normal for huge crowds besiege stadia to watch football matches, suddenly empty stadia are becoming the norm. Premier League matches are being postponed! Before Coronavirus it would have been crazy just to imagine that possibility. One can only wonder what this means for the economy of the world of soccer where players are happy to be traded like pawns on a board game.

Projections on the possible spread of the virus are ominous. At the time of this writing, over 115,000 cases and over 4200 deaths have been recorded worldwide. The USA has chalked up to 1000 cases and their president has had to address the nation and outlining actions that may lead to cancellation of travels between Europe and the USA. He had earlier suggested that the virus would possibly simply disappear just as it had appeared. The picture is now grimmer. The governor of the State of Michigan even declared a state of emergency following the identification of 92 possible positive cases. Out of that number 70 of the suspects were said to have attended a conference hosted by a big biotechnology company.

The Chancellor of Germany says that 60-70 per cent of citizens of that country could end up having the Coronavirus encounter. Spooky. Italy has been a huge hotspot in Europe. Schools have been closed, public events put on hold and travel checks intensified for all citizens. While the outbreak and most deaths happened in China, the number of new cases in that country is on the downward slide while the reverse is the case elsewhere in the world.

Schools are being shut down while, in some nations, schooling continues online. Employers are coming to terms with having workers work from home. Self-isolation or voluntary quarantines are being reported and accepted. Even large religious gatherings are being curtailed. Oil prices are hit and mono-product economies like Nigeria may be in for turbulent times.

Within the last one month, I have journeyed to Asia, Europe and the USA. There was a profusion of face masks at both the airport and the cities that I visited in Asia. One could say that face masks have become routine part of dressing in some Asian nations due to reasons other than this notorious virus. Visits to Europe and the USA showed a much lax attitude towards the possibility of coronavirus infections. No face masks, no sanitizers except in some washrooms. It appeared very few expect the virus to emerge anywhere near them.

The preparedness of Nigeria to ward off the virus is impressive, although comical in some places. Completing the proactive health-check forms before landing in the country is commendable. On arrival, we must agree that the state of the facilities in the washrooms, the quality and sanitary state of railings in the immigration hall leave much to be desired. And, arriving a regional airport to be welcomed by a sanitizer wielding official was the height of it all. But that was better than the bucket of water they were said to have welcomed travellers with a few days earlier.

The point that must be made is that humans can change. The change can be planned, or it can be forced. Coronavirus, as tiny as it is, drives that message powerfully. There certainly may be some things in your life that you have held tenaciously to. Some of those things were held on to because it was fashionable to do so, or because they accorded you some level of social standing. Some of us may stubbornly have rejected the advice from our doctors demanding that we embark on lifestyle changes in order to enhance our health. Some persons invest more in maintaining their cars and other properties without caring a hoot about maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

Coronavirus forces us all to consider staying at home as much as is possible and to avoid unnecessary travels and hanging out in large crowds. Good for families! But how do you avoid crowded places in Lagos or anywhere else in Nigeria? The markets are crowded. The buses are crowded.

The virus is also bringing out the bad side of humans. How can people justify denying a place for the infected simply because they wish to be safe? Imagine turning back a shipload of persons suspected to be infected or the banning of flights from certain nations. If this could happen at a time when the infection has not been officially declared a pandemic, what will happen when the alarm is blown?

A few more thoughts before we end this. If humans have responded to climate change the way we see responses to the virus, would the world be on a saner pathway with regard to temperature increases and the implications? How about if the natural defences in humans are breached or lowered by the genetic engineering of species promoted for profit by corporations and then a virus attack? What if dangerous viruses engineered by humans escape confinement and there are no immediate cures, or such possible cures are held back by those who would prefer to wipe out a chunk of humanity?

Coronavirus has shown that a tiny, invisible creature can change our lives, our systems and relationships. While the world is busy contending with this blight, politicians are still jostling to entrench or elevate their dictatorial might; pushing others off their seats and even sending them into exile. When will they learn that every physical thing is transient?

Petroleum’s Fatal Seduction

PollutionThe world has been fatally seduced by petroleum. Multiple oil spills continue unabated in the oilfields of the Niger Delta. While the oil companies claim that they have bettered their sense of responsibility by detecting and remediating oil spill sites, these largely remain tales for the gullible. For communities whose soil, water and air have been assaulted for decades, hopes of having a safe environment, as suggested in the Objectives of State in Chapter 2 of Nigeria’s 1999 Constitution, or as clearly stipulated in Article 24 of the African Charter for People and Human rights, remain but pipedreams.

It has often been said that provisions of Chapter 2 of the Nigerian Constitution 1999 – whether amended or non-amended versions are not justiciable. The cavalier treatment of the environment in the constitution underscores the lack of consideration of the fact that the state of the environment directly impacts on the quality of life of our peoples. One would expect that in a society where the majority of citizens live on and derive their livelihoods directly from the environment, environmental rights would be expressly justiciable.

Sadly, in instances where officials have thought of taking actions to improve on the quality of the environment, the attention has been on the draconian locking down of states from 7 to 10 am on the last Saturdays of every month. That so-called Environmental Sanitation is a relic of the dark days of military rule when the State could easily avoid its duty and foists the burden on hapless citizens.

The cavalier treatment of environmental concerns has seen the dramatic trashing of the Nigerian environment and the related destitution of the people. The filth around us is so pervasive it takes wilful blindness for anyone to avoid seeing them. Plastics dumped everywhere. Trash thrown out of windows of exotic cars. Makes you cringe.

The state of the creeks and swamps has been emblematised by the Ogoni environment. However, that in fact is like more than half the story not being told. Reports emerging from Bayelsa State are very worrisome. One case is the gas/condensate leakage that is suspected to have happened due to third party interference on a pipeline operated by the Nigerian Agip Oil Company (NAOC) on 28th July 2019 in the Taylor Creek at Kalaba Community in Yenagoa Local Government. A field report by Alagoa Morris and Akpotu Ziworitin of Environmental Rights Action informs that the spill has remained unattended for 7 incredible months after the fact of the pollution. The spill persists unattended as we write this.

Overall, the petroleum civilisation has seduced humanity to think that there are no viable alternatives to crude oil and its many derivatives. Feeding this myth means accommodating unconscionable ecological degradation, including climate change, as a minor price to pay. 

The report quotes an official of the community as saying, “The situation is posing threat to lives, as people pass through that area to their farms and lakes. We are urging Agip to come and do something; by clamping and clear the environment of crude oil so that our lives and livelihood would be protected. Right now, they are not protected. The leadership of the community has reported to several authorities concerning the spill. But even at that, there has been no communication so far in respect of this spill. I don’t know the intentions of Agip; whether to crucify us through this process or to suffer us through this process.”

Obviously, extreme pollution is not limited to Nigeria. Oil fields and locations of toxic industrial installations are more or less crime scenes. Crimes against Nature and against communities and individuals. They are locations of environmental racism as well as other forms of irresponsible exploitation. It is time that nations pay attention to how the South African Environmental Protection Agency captured the essence of environmental justice in these words – “no group of people should bear a disproportionate share of the negative environmental consequences resulting from industrial, governmental and commercial operations or policies.”

The Environmental Protection Agency of the USA defines environmental justice as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies.” Citizens have to collectively push for the operationalization of these and similar policies. At present we see that in many countries these declarations are little more than mere platitudes.

One country that can be said to have impacts comparable to Nigeria in intensity of pollution, if not size, is South Sudan. According to reports, the country currently produces about 166,000 barrels of crude oil per day compared to the production level of about 350,000 barrels per day in 2013 – before civil war broke out. Although the country has just signed another peace agreement, the pollution continues, just like it did in Nigeria after our government declared amnesty for militant agitators in the Niger Delta.

Politicians are addicted to extractivism. They do anything to keep oil and gas flowing through pipelines. It matters little what happens to the environment or to the people as long as sufficient quantity of hydrocarbon courses through the pipes to draw in the quantum of petrodollars required for their political projects. If it were not for this attitude, an environmental emergency would have long been declared over the incredible pollution and decimation of the Niger Delta.

The oil flows when the Earth bleeds. Those words from a poem I penned tells half the story of pain. The oil flows as the people bleed. Polluted creeks, swamps and lands are accepted as normal. Birth defects, cancers, premature death and all kinds of anomalies reign in the fields from where oil companies and their cohorts drill billions of petrodollars.

Overall, the petroleum civilisation has seduced humanity to think that there are no viable alternatives to crude oil and its many derivatives. Feeding this myth means accommodating unconscionable ecological degradation, including climate change, as a minor price to pay. However, all is not lost. The petroleum civilisation will have an end. And that end is near. It is for humans to decide if we want an orderly transition or a haphazard and cataclysmic one. The end is inevitable. Like any other addiction, the first step out is to make a decision to quit and to see the horrors in the oil fields as well as the impacts of global warming as challenges that need to be tackled head on.

 

 

Education and Actionable Knowledge

March2 Let’s look at activism, academia and politics. A conference on the intersection of academics and activism was recently held as part of events marking 40 years of the Right Livelihood Awards. It provided an excellent platform to mingle with ageing activists as well as young and aspiring ones. The conference was hosted in Bangkok and took place at the Chulalongkong University, Bangkok as well as at Wongsanit Ashram. It drew participants from all regions of the world and was hasted by the School for Wellbeing Studies and Research.

If you think that most of the time was spent on nostalgic recollection of some good old days, you would be totally wrong. Of course, there were moments for tracing the origins of the Foundation from when Jakob von Uexkull, the founder, felt that by refusing to give an environmental prize, the Nobel Prize was missing out an important constituent of persons and organisations courageously contributing practical and exemplary solutions to global problems. That was how the Right Livelihood Foundation and its awards came into being. 40 years down the road, the Foundation has chalked up 178 laureates from 70 countries.

The theme of the conference was Education for Right Livelihood – Connecting Activism and Academia. In the forum were laureates who received the award in the 1990s and who are still going strong, providing leadership in diverse struggles. They included Vandana Shiva who received the award in 1993 and Sulak Sivaraksa who was honoured in 1995. The Landless Workers’ Movement (MST) of Brazil who received the award in 1991 was represented. Survival International (France) received the award in 1989 and was represented by Fiore Longo who was quite young at the time the organisation received the award. In all, there were about a dozen laureates at the conference.

While we drank from the springs of wisdom from the laureates such as Shiva and Sivarasksa, highlights of the days included the vibrant participation of youths who shared the spaces equally with the more elderly participants. It was a delight to hear the young folks, who came mostly from Thailand, Vietnam, Bhutan and Myanmar, lay out what they felt was the way to spread system changing ideals around the world. They especially insisted that the voices of the youths must not only be raised but must be heard. They suggested a system of continuous learning, including what they termed Travelling Universities through which youths could cross pollinate and share ideas with colleagues from around the world. Warning: this article drifts into the recesses of my mind and is not totally a report of that conference.

The place of the arts in protests and activism cropped up frequently and their preponderance during mass actions was noted. I thought on the awakening of the streets as critical spaces for seeding progressive ideas and wondered whether the protests proffer real solutions and if the root causes of global problems can be unearthed on the streets. But then, it has always held true to me that saying NO, and rejecting  a wrong is a solution in its own right.

The intensity of street marches and actions in recent years could make us wonder whether the world is at a tipping point or on the verge of a revolutionary moment. How could these actions counter the ambiguous, amoral, conscienceless and flippant political leadership in the world today? If we speak of reclaiming power, have we interrogated the very concept of power? Has the nature of power and its dynamics changed over time? Are the streets arenas for deeper things than building excitement and offering spectacle?

How do we tackle the forces of exploitation in the world today? Has the idea of democracy become a mere illusion in the world today? With the increasingly nationalistic and petty responses to issues, has the sense of citizenship changed over time? More questions. Considering that the street is not uniform across the world, how widespread can disruptive activism be practised and to what end?

In private conversations, the youths wished to know if it can be said that something is a Green New Deal when it is built on the same extractivist, polluting and unjust paradigms that created the problems it seeks to solve. Seeing the rush to introduce extinction genetic engineering, the youths wondered if technologies, including those pushed by “the poison cartel,” have made it impossible for humans to see and relate to Nature. The poison cartel, for those who do not know, promote genetic engineering, practice toxic agriculture and basically steal seeds from farmers and the poor.

Of all the questions that emerged and floated around, one took a huge corner of my mind and set up its tent there. In this age of rising individualism, is our experience dependent on, or validated by how people respond to our experiences? Huh? A lot of people post materials on social media platforms primarily to see how many people would like or share what they have posted. The more the likes, the more the sense of validation of the person that posted or shared the material. How real is this?

The streets. Do they give us space in which the quality of our disagreement with the status quo can be made sensible or is the street a marketplace for a cacophony of noises? The idea of making sense of disagreements lead to the recollection that the Occupy Movement always had moments for teach-ins to ensure that participants did not see the actions as mere spectacle but keep in mind the reasons why they were protesting and what outcomes they sought.

Breakfree2
There were many outputs from the conference, including a stress on  building actionable knowledge and promotion of intergenerational learning. The point was also made that as we struggle to build a just future, we must look into the far past and project the future without being restricted by the present. The future will be self-reinforcing and diverse. It will be built on a mix of ancient and contemporary wisdom with a concrete understanding that we are related to all species.
Connecting Activism and Academia

Ogoni Clean-Up and the Business of Pollution

Eleme 1Will Ogoni be Cleaned? Recent news making the rounds is that the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) and their oil company partners, Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC), Total Exploration and Production of Nigeria (TEPNG) and Nigerian Agip Oil Company (NAOC), have “disbursed” a total of $360 on the clean-up of the Ogoniland. This claim is reported to have been made by the Chief Operating Officer for Upstream of the NNPC at an hearing on the clean-up at the Nigerian National Assembly on Monday, 17 February 2020.

Even before this announcement at the National Assembly dusts have been raised over how that colossal sum could have been spent on the Ogoni clean-up without corresponding results. Some usually respectable voices have been raised alleging massive corruption in the ways and manner the Hydrocarbons Pollution Remediation Project (HYPREP) is handling the contracts. In fact, one report claimed that “it was unfortunate that an overwhelming $350million, an estimated NGN128,000,000,000 (One hundred and twenty eight billion Naira) meant for the cleanup has been largely misappropriated due to the massive corruption in HYPREP.”

While this article cannot respond to the charges of corrupt practices, it is important to deal with the delicate issues of perception and acrimony that presentations of this sort can generate. Let us refresh our memories about the funding architecture of the Ogoni clean-up exercise. Following the UNEP report of 2011, it was decided that a total of $1 billion should be contributed towards the clean-up of Ogoniland by the entities that polluted the area. Out of this sum, 90% is to be contributed at the ratio of Joint Venture holdings by the polluting partners while the balance 10% of the funds would come from a rather nebulous cohort including the refineries.

There is no doubt that the clean-up could be faster than it has been. There is also no doubt that certain emergency measures could, and must, be undertaken. There is no reason why anyone in Ogoni should be drinking contaminated water after a report, from no less an agency like UNEP, has clearly confirmed the fact of such contamination.

Citizens have a right to be emotive over the clean-up exercise because this is a matter of life or death for the present generation and for generations yet unborn. Pollution is an intergenerational crime. Indeed, some places in the Niger Delta will require several lifetimes to recover because the harms that have been inflicted can best be described as ecocide.

The misrepresentation of facts and figures and continuous infighting for whatever reasons continue to generate bad energy over the entire efforts and raises the question as to whether Ogoni will ever be cleansed. And, by extension, will the Niger Delta ever be cleaned?

One of the problems with the clean-up is that some people see it as merely a business opportunity rather than as a duty to ensure that this intergenerational crime is redressed. Indeed, the clean-up of the entire Niger Delta could possible provide employment form a large proportion of Nigeria’s unemployed youths if they are suitably trained and drawn into a comprehensive clean-up corp. In fact, the squabbles over the Ogoni clean-up contracts is a huge distraction at a time when we should be clamouring for an audit of all places in the Niger Delta (and elsewhere) with hydrocarbon pollution.

Chasing after an extremely difficult and complex clean-up without adequate technical and financial capacity is actually a disservice to our communities and peoples. We have seen the poor clean-up exercises carried out at locations where new spills occur. And the fact that it took UNEP to expose the lie in oil company claims that they had remediated polluted places in Ogoniland. The poor efforts at covering rather than remediating pollutions at places like K-Dere and others were all exposed by the UNEP report. A pursuit of the clean-up as “jobs for the boys” or where jobs are given out based on a sense of entitlement or as political patronage cannot portend anything good.

The nature, depth and complexity of the pollution of Ogoni requires the application of best skills and safe technologies from any part of the world. The exercise should be pursued as an ecological emergency where the fact that a company has not previously operated in Nigeria should be a secondary stumbling block. Some of us are convinced that this is the approach that is needed as the clean-up moves to more complicated lots.

If HYPREP stands firm on the quality of project delivery, as we believe they should, and if jobs are let on the basis of local capacities only, the outcome may be massive delays as jobs that should be completed quickly will have to be redone repeatedly to meet set milestones and indicators. We have seen this in simple construction projects given out to less than competent contractors. The outcomes have been shoddy deliveries, delays and abandonment of sites. Neither HYPREP nor the Ogoni people can afford that scenario.

Back to the matter of cash. When the NNPC chief announced that the polluters had disbursed $360 million the impression people get is that HYPREP had spent the cash. Few understand that the funds contributed or paid by the polluters are held by an Ogoni Trust Fund and not directly in HYPREP’s accounts. The NNPC chief may not have told the world exactly when they disbursed the 2019 tranche of the funds to the Ogoni Trust Fund. If the sums were paid at the end of the year or at the beginning of 2020 how could anyone think or believe that the money has been spent or spirited away in the clean-up process?

The misrepresentation of facts and figures and continuous infighting for whatever reasons continue to generate bad energy over the entire efforts and raises the question as to whether Ogoni will ever be cleansed. And, by extension, will the Niger Delta ever be cleaned?

IMG_6950

 

 

 

GMOs, Herbicides – Ambush in the Night

Moi moi
Moi moi wrapped in leaves, not plastics!

The tide of GMOs and deadly herbicides creeps on unsuspected consumers as they are literally being ambushed in the night. Twenty countries, including Togo and Malawi, have placed a ban on the use of glyphosate containing herbicides based on health and environmental concerns. Togo recently joined the ranks of countries that have banned the herbicides after two years of intense debates. According to that country’s minister of Agriculture, the such herbicides already in the country must be used up or destroyed within 12 months.

While we regret that the ban ought to have meant an immediate halt to the use of the herbicides, we believe there is a lesson to be learned here by Nigerian authorities. Glyphosate, as an active ingredient in herbicides such as Monsanto’s Roundup Ready which is widely used as a weed killer around the world, have been named a cancer-causing agent. Thousands of plaintiffs have sued the makers of these herbicides due to impacts suffered through exposure to them. Probably the most well-known case is that of Dewayne Johnson who was awarded US$289 million that was later reduced to US$78million for harms suffered.

In many of the cases, the key arguments include that the manufacturers of the harmful herbicides did not adequately warn consumers and users of the associated cancer risks. Concerns raised in Nigeria as NBMA opened the avalanche of GMO approvals was initially met with the explanation from Monsanto that the chemicals are safe if used according to specifications. It can readily be seen that the caveat was given with the knowledge that the average Nigerian farmer is not likely to read the fine letters on the packages or to wear space suits before spraying their farms with the poisons.

While Togo has declared a total ban of herbicides with glyphosate, such herbicides are quite commonplace in Nigeria. They are freely sold and some even have certification from NAFDAC.

Nigerians should worry because certain crops approved in Nigeria are genetically engineered for the application of the cancer-causing herbicides.

Ministers of Agriculture appear to be stepping up to the challenge concerning the threats posed by harmful chemicals and the genetically engineered crops necessitating their production. The position of the Togolese minister and the government on these glyphosate-based chemicals must be applauded. The position will not only protect farmers who are bound to be directly exposed to the chemicals but will also protect consumers who would eat crops with the residues of the chemicals.

The other minister that stepped the plate is that of Ghana. With a bold headline, “National well-being wins over foreign interests as gov’t ditches GMOs, a report announced that the government of Ghana, through the Minister of Food and Agriculture announced the terminating of imposition of GMOs on farmers in the country. The minister was paraphrased to have said that “the nation has capable scientists who could use traditional breeding methods to produce high yielding varieties and disease resistant plants for cultivation by farmers and no need for GMOs in the next 100 years in Ghana.”

The Ghanaian groups rejected the use of their people as guinea pigs in an unnecessary experimentation. Today they will probably rest easy that the Nigerian government has taken the lead in using her citizens as guinea pigs for this sad experiment.

Peasant farmers and civil society groups responded to the declaration by urging institutions, persons and groups “benefiting from proceeds from Monsanto to promote GMO in Ghana to rather join Ghanaian scientists and farmers to promote the local seed industry”

While Ghanaians celebrated the “defeat” of GMOs in their country, a major civil society group in the country, Food Sovereignty Ghana, cautioned that the battle is not yet over. They hinged this position on the fact that government is still defending the impending release of Bt cowpea, GM rice and Bt cotton in court. The next hearing on the case comes up on 30 January 2020. Food Sovereignty Ghana and others had sued the government of Ghana represented by the Ministry of Environment, Science, Technology and Innovation, the Ministry of Food and Agriculture, the National Biosafety Authority and the Attorney-General’s Department to stop the commercial release of these crops.

When the case against the release of the genetically engineered cowpea (beans) first went to court in Ghana in 2015, no country in the world had authorized the release of the variety for human consumption. The promoters of the GM beans declare that they cannot be visually distinguished from their natural counterpart and point to this as a mark of substantial equivalence. It is not rocket science to know that things may look alike without being the same. They may indeed have special genetic characteristics that makes their patentable as unique, as the situation with the GM beans is. Promises of labelling is trash when we consider our socio-cultural context, especially in terms of processing, storage, marketing and consumption of local foods. Selling the idea of labeling GM beans and other local crops can be compared to accepting to be ambushed in the night (apologies to Bob Marley).

The Ghanaian groups rejected the use of their people as guinea pigs in an unnecessary experimentation. Today they will probably rest easy that the Nigerian government has taken the lead in using her citizens as guinea pigs for this sad experiment.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fires, Missiles and Climate Change

fires2These days no one can ignore the sad stories of Fires, Missiles and Climate Change. Watching a video of a cyclist offering water to a koala on highway in Australia, then helping it up a tree on the side of the highway was so touching. The animal turned around and waved back as the man turned to leave. Other photos of people helping scared animals have been posted on social media and they all indicate the basic human instinct of love for all species, human and non-human. There are various estimates of the number of animals that have perished in the inferno in Australia. We will never know the exact figure because some species may never have been known to humans. However, we are told that up to 500 million animals and birds may have perished. Some of the species may even be pushed to extinction.

There are loses of trees and plant varieties besides the animals and birds. We have seen posts of valiant efforts to protect gum trees by my friend Cam Walker of Friends of the Earth, Melbourne. On 4 January 2020, Walker made this Facebook post of the stress of defending the trees: “I am trying to sleep but I’m so wired. We were fighting the fire at Dinner Plain today. It was a monster. It sounded like a jet engine as it came up the hill and we were ordered to evacuate. I was gutted, more than I can say. We waited 2 hours at Mt. Hotham and were given the OK to go back in. I expected we would find the place burnt to the ground. Some of the fire was horrendously hot, but lots of old snow gums survived. And the village of Dinner Plain was completely unburnt. It felt like an absolute miracle.”

It has been tragic for so many animals. Photos of burnt sheep and other animals trapped in the raging fires are so heart wrenching. Even so, I could not but think of people setting fire on bushes in Nigeria so as to scare, kill and eat escaping rabbits, rodents and other animals. No matter what love Nigerians may have for game, it is doubtful that anyone would celebrate the sort of wildfires that have ravaged Australia in recent weeks.

In the 19th Century, some camels were introduced into Australia, from India and Afghanistan, for the purpose of using them for transportation and in construction. They were thereafter released into the wild. Today, there are 1.2 million camels in the country, and they are wreaking havoc on some communities, breaking fences and seeking water from taps, troughs and air conditioners. Reports have it that 10,000 of these camels will be shot from helicopters and the carcases may be left to dry off before they are either burned or buried. They are being slaughtered because they drink too much water.

Think of how easy leaders of nations can set these off to annihilate populations of innocent people. Think of the horrors of human suffering orchestrated by war. Then ask yourself: all that to what ends? Think about how these funds could be spent on cultural exchanges and on building solidarity across the world, sharing love and shedding less tears. Then ask yourself: why not?

Due to its rather remote location, Australia has had to import other animals into their country. Camels were imported for their utility, but rabbits were said to have been imported to bring a touch of home to the territory. We are told that Thomas Austin imported 24 rabbits from England to Victoria, Australia in the 1850s on the justification that “the introduction of a few rabbits could do little harm and might provide a touch of home, in addition to a spot of hunting.” In less than one hundred years, the rabbit population had risen to an estimated 10 billion. The population was eventually reduced to 100 million by biological control through the introduction of the virus-disease, myxomatosis. That was after trapping, shooting, poisoning and fencing had failed. In fact, from 1901 a rabbit proof fence was built and by 1905 stretched 1,166 kilometres from Point Ann on the south coast through Cunderdin to stem the advancement of the spreading rabbits. There are currently about 200 million rabbits in that country, although a chunk of that must have been killed by the fires.

Some species are also exported to other countries from Australia. What readily comes to mind here is some species of the water guzzling eucalyptus trees. And you can throw in the kangaroo. Rabbits, camels and trees are all visible and efforts can be made to check their spread. When genetically modified or even gene drive organisms are released into the environment, they cannot be identified by physical observation and checking their spread is virtually impossible. This is one reason why we must not allow open, or surreptitious, introduction of those artificial varieties whose impacts on humans and on the environment are not fully understood at this time.

Fires in Australia remind us all of how catastrophic climate change can get if real action is not urgently taken. The threat of droughts and extreme heat will not disappear on its own if we keep digging and burning fossil fuels. Another lesson is that we all share Planet Earth and there is no immediate ways of escaping to another planet. Both polluting and vulnerable nations are in this boat together.

As we write this, the world is watching as threats of escalated conflict between the USA and Iran fills the air. The human cost of war cannot be computed in monetary terms. The vast expenditure on armaments is quite horrendous when climate deniers and polluting nations shrink away from financing climate action and paying for current and historically inflicted loss and damage. Think of the cost of one military drone and the accompanying missile. Think of how easy leaders of nations can set these off to annihilate populations of innocent people. Think of the horrors of human suffering orchestrated by war. Then ask yourself: all that to what ends? Think about how these funds could be spent on cultural exchanges and on building solidarity across the world, sharing love and shedding less tears. Then ask yourself: why not?

 

Climate Change Cooked Africa (in 2019)

Solitary tree, Kano
Solitary Tree @ Dawakin Tofa, Kano. photo by Babawale Obayanju (www.tellthatstory.com.ng

2019 was a year of extreme weather events spread across the world. Sweltering heat hit much of the world. Raging wildfires were recorded in Brazil, Bolivia, Australia and the United States of America. Massive floods ravaged even cities like Venice, famed to be able to handle floods.

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

Southern Africa warmed at two times the global rate and experienced two massive cyclones in March and April leading to a loss of over 1000 lives. Having two cyclones in one season was a record. The intensity and upward reach of the cyclones on the South Eastern coastline also broke the records. Cyclones Idai and Kenneth impacted close to 3 million persons. Some researchers tie the cyclones to the warming of the Indian Ocean. If this is true, we can expect more cyclones as well as the devastation of marine ecosystems in the region.

If parts of Africa warm at double the global average, it means that if the global 1.5 degrees Celsius target of the Paris Agreement is achieved, we can expect a 3 degrees scenario in Africa. And, if the “well below” 2 degrees Celsius temperature increase above preindustrial level is the result of lack of ambition, Africa will be cooked at over 4 degrees Celsius. We note also that the global lack of ambition or readiness to seriously tackle global warming and the aggregation of the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) already points at over 3 degrees Celsius temperature rise – sentencing pasts of Africa to a calamitous roasting.

Southern Africa warmed at two times the global rate and experienced two massive cyclones in March and April leading to a loss of over 1000 lives. Having two cyclones in one season was a record. The intensity and upward reach of the cyclones on the South Eastern coastline also broke the records.

Within the year, the continent experienced a high level of climate induced refugees and migrations. Some of these refugees are internally displaced while many, seeking to escape the clutches of the disaster, lost their lives in the Sahara Desert or in the Mediterranean Sea.

The shrinkage of Lake Chad and the attendant social upheavals are already very well known. From a size of over 25,000 square kilometres in the 1960s, the lake measures a mere 2,500 square kilometres today. What caught the attention of the world towards the end of 2019 is the shrinkage of Victoria Falls to mere trickles due to disastrous droughts in the region.

In addition to the floods, droughts, deforestation, food shortages, violence complicates and escalates the problems. Floods displaced hundreds of thousands in Somalia within the year. It is known that disasters happen when hazards meet vulnerability.  Things cannot get worse than when you live in an unstable society, with violence knocking on the door and then climate change steps in.

In the same year, Nigerians, though warned of impending floods, could do nothing to stem the tide when they arrived. Storms and cyclones brought deadly floods that hit Angola, Namibia, Uganda, South Africa, Burundi, Rwanda, Madagascar, Democratic Republic of Congo and Congo-Brazzaville. More than half a million people were affected by floods in Ethiopia and in South Sudan. According to reports, entire communities were submerged by floods, destroying basic services, markets and farms. Floods between August and October affected more than 420,000 people in Sudan with 78 people dead and 49,500 homes destroyed.

There are genuine reasons for anger at the inability of the multilateral system to address the climate challenge in a serious manner. Things have gone so bad it has taken the rising of kids to call out dithering adults before they could even come up with fictive false solutions. Vulnerable nations, including those in Africa were forced into a deadlock over Article 6 of the Paris Agreement. That article is the sword that fossil fuel interest groups foisted on the Planet.

The Article 6 promotes approaches that will help governments to implement their NDCs through voluntary international cooperation. The Article seeks to establish a policy foundation for a carbon emissions trading system, that allows polluters to buy the license to continue polluting from less polluting nations. The fossil fuels industry and partner nations love this article because it would require nothing but a monetary exchange for their climate sins. The point is this: the polluters have the cash and the vulnerable could receive the cash, but the Planet will suffer. The first step is to halt extracting and burning new fossil fuels. Next step is a planned systemic change. The alternative will be a chaotic change for those that may survive!

Science informs that the world cannot afford to open new fossil fuel mines or fields. This sector is responsible for 80 percent of all carbon dioxide pumped into the atmosphere since the industrial revolution. Rather than halt the extraction of the climate harming fuels, the industry is set to invest US$ 1.4 trillion in new oil and gas projects between 2020 and 2024. It is estimated that this will yield 50 percent more fossil fuels by 2030 and would drive the world to a 2 degrees Celsius temperature rise.

A combination of factors places African nations in a tight corner and requires critical examination of the route forward. First is the fact that while African nations have contributed little to the depletion of the carbon budget, and have been quite ambitious in the NDCs, they are trapped in the catch-up narrative where they make the futile dash to be like the rich, industrialised and polluting nations. They push is for serious climate mitigation actions while ensuring high economic growth and development. Considering that economic growth and development in the current capitalistic and neoliberal framework propel climate change, it should be obvious that that is the wrong way forward.

2020 presents us opportunity to look back, hopefully not in anger. It presents us a moment to interrogate the notion of development and growth in a finite world. It also gives us a moment to deliberate on means of halting fossil fuels proliferation and how to secure a just cooperative future for our peoples. Oilwatch International has proposed that a group of Annex 0 nations be created in the UNFCCC as a means of promoting real climate action. Countries like Belize, Costa Rica, France, New Zealand can already be grouped here as they have halted fossil fuels extraction. Ogoniland can also be recognised as a community that has taken this action within Nigeria. A fossil fuels non-proliferation treaty has been proposed for the halting of a disaster that is more likely to happen than what triggered the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.

2019 was a year that sounded a loud alarm. We chose to play hard of hearing. A quarter of a million Australians called attention to the disastrous fires ravaging that nation and petitioned for a halt of the elaborate fireworks to herald 2020. Their government responded that the fireworks had already been paid for and must continue. They did. A perfect example of how we are comfortable with “the normal”, no matter the circumstances or the consequences. The alarms have gone off everywhere. 2020 is the moment for reflection and action. Shall we wake up?

 

 

 

Don’t Call Me at 9 O’clock

2020
Design by Chaz Maviyane-Davies

Don’t Call Me at 9 O’clock. Once upon a time, there were very few television stations in operation in Nigeria, and they only operated for a few hours a day. In those days most stations came on in the afternoon and went off at about midnight. The stations would open with a hissing sound which was followed by the national anthem before the presenters popped up to give a rundown of the programme of the day. Watching TV was a big deal as not every family had one. It was not unusual to see kids peeping through the window into their neighbour’s homes to snatch a few minutes of their favourite programmes.

In the 1990s many states in Nigeria had television stations, but they were obliged to join the national station at 9:00pm for the network news. That was prime time and it was a standard routine for some of us to watch at least the headlines. Watching the news was important if you wished to keep abreast of the thinking of the military dictatorships that held sway at that time. The radio was also useful, but in the tumultuous days of pro-democracy agitations, it was wiser to tune to foreign stations to confirm the reason for the commotion on your streets rather than tune to the local stations. It was that bad.

So, for over twenty years it has become a tradition in my family that we dedicate 9:00-10:00pm as a time for coming together. This has meant keeping the phones aside and not watching television. Although this has become a family tradition, we have thought it wise to regularly remind ourselves of the origins of this routine.

As twisted as some of the official media had become in those days, they provided fairly good sources of information if you learned the art of paying attention to what was not said. On one occasion watching a special broadcast by a military governor following a major uprising in my city gave some of us an inkling as to who the jackboots were targeting for arrest, assault and incarceration.  And we took some preventive measures that were partially successful, at least for a while. But that is a story for another day.

At a point, using the publicly owned mass media for propaganda to promote self-succession or transformation became the standard fair, especially in the regime of General Sani Abachi. There were advertisements extolling “who the cap fit.” Although the general was known to always spot a beret, he was getting itchy to switch over to a taller hat. The national network news at 9:00pm became so cluttered with officially sanctioned alternative news that there was little room to actually get to know what the real situation in the country was. It was at that time that my family decided that having that news hour as our family time was more productive than opening ourselves to servings of officially fabricated fake news.

So, for over twenty years it has become a tradition in my family that we dedicate 9:00-10:00pm as a time for coming together. This has meant keeping the phones aside and not watching television. Although this has become a family tradition, we have thought it wise to regularly remind ourselves of the origins of this routine.

It has been so bad in recent days that a presidential spokesman even justified the presence of a cabal in Aso Rock, claiming that this was simply equivalent to having a kitchen cabinet. Unfortunately, a cabal cannot be equated to a “kitchen cabinet” in the Nigerian context. It is a much more sinister construct, speaking of a clique that works assiduously to subvert public interests while ensuring the rule of personal or sectional interests.

In recent times, the travails of Omoyele Sowore, Col Sambo Dasuki (retd), Sheik Zakzaky, Agba Jalingo, Jones Abri, and some judges arrested in peculiar manners, and for sundry reasons, have raised a number of questions on the state of the democratic space in Nigeria.  The brushes of these Nigerians with the law, judicial processes and security agencies have led many to ask questions about the direction suggested by the drift. One of the key indicators that things are not well has been the role of the judiciary in protecting the human rights of citizens and then the obedience of court orders by security agents and actions and statements from the executive arm of government. An alarming apogee was reached when Sowore was wrestled down in the hallowed chambers of justice and whisked away into another round of detention while he had been released on bail.

The assault of Sowore rightly drew national and global condemnation, thanks to the wide sharing of the sordid spectacle through social media. We should note here that because President Buhari appears to be a man of few words, his spokespersons have resorted to speak even when silence would be more salutary. The unsavoury courthouse incident was presented as being essential for national security and other nations were told to mind their business. The Department of State Services (DSS) came up with the story that the incident was stage-managed and that Sowore was actually wrestled down, and rough-handled, by his supporters to give the security outfit a bad name. What they could not deny was that they were the ones that took him back into custody.

It has been so bad in recent days that a presidential spokesman even justified the presence of a cabal in Aso Rock, claiming that this was simply equivalent to having a kitchen cabinet. Unfortunately, a cabal cannot be equated to a “kitchen cabinet” in the Nigerian context. It is a much more sinister construct, speaking of a clique that works assiduously to subvert public interests while ensuring the rule of personal or sectional interests.

In all, we can say that the brashness displayed by the security forces, sections of the judiciary and the executive are very troubling indeed and needs to be checked before things deteriorate further. The spokespersons of the president and the governors should probably use this holiday season to have a retreat, to retool and to be reminded that abusive and unrestrained language cannot be the hallmark of governance or diplomacy.

So, Sowore was released from incarceration on Tuesday 24 December 2019 on the directive of the Attorney General to the DSS to let him regain his liberty. The same Attorney general had stated on Monday 16 December 2019 that he could not ask the DSS to release Sowore. Femi Falana, Sowore’s lawyer, had on the previous Friday asked the Attorney General to seek the release of his client since he had taken over the case from the DSS.

It came as a surprise that a few days later, he did not only ask the DSS to release Sowore but cited Section 150 (1) of the Nigerian constitution to back up his directive. It was a long, tortuous road to obeying court orders, especially when the case of Colonel Dasuki is also taken into account. Will that constitutional provision now be routinely respected or is what has transpired a fluke?

Bailed

At 9.00pm on Tuesday 24 December 2019 I tuned into the Network News to see if the release of Sowore and Col Dasuki, the most significant events of the day, would make the headlines. They did. Does that mean that things have changed significantly? Is it time to adjust the family tradition? Should I begin to take calls at 9:00pm? Whatever is the case, have an eventful New Year.