Imagining a Future with Hope

At Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF), we always aim to understand the events unfolding around us by examining their roots and varied manifestations. Our fundamental position is that the crises the world faces are fathered by the broken relationships between humans, other beings, and our Mother Earth. Another way to see it is that we have lost connection with our duty of care to our mother and other relatives. This disruption did not emerge from the blue. It has been carefully sculpted on the building blocks of dispossession, accumulation, and discounting of everything other than our selves. Whereas we are social beings, we have grown apart, enthroned individualism and decomposed communities. 

Scarcity of solidarity, generosity, kindness, love and respect has led to the eruption of xenophobic nationalism, erection of walls between communities and regions, and high levels of sociology-ecological disconnections. The fetishisation of capital has twisted our imaginations and placed humans on a race for expropriation and displacement of peoples and other species.

Destruction of the resilience of ecosystems has directly affected our cultures, spirituality, local economies, and sense of progress. Thus, we see destruction hailed as progress. This is exemplified by the stream of new weapons of destruction being manufactured and tested on communities, territories, and nations through needless wars.

Clashes between species through habitat invasion and destruction lead to unexpected pandemics and will spur more—unless we act now to arrest ongoing ecological misbehaviours and ecocide. 

Disruption of the cycles of Nature is anchored on the neocolonial ideas of taking control of Nature and seeking to make her more efficient through genetic manipulation and geoengineering, to mention two. The quest to appropriate and commodify Nature has given rise to concepts like climate smart agriculture which some have described as climate stupid agriculture. It has given rise to concepts that say the current polluting production and consumption modes can be continued while measures are produced to capture the carbon (or pollution) and store it in some reservoirs. By a sleight of hand, intergenerational responsibilities are blatantly ignored. 

Slavery, colonialism, and imperialism built the notions of sacrificial zones while the controlling powers suffered least harm in their sacred zones. This gave rise to plantation agriculture and reckless mining promoting production for export and hardly for the territories from where these activities took place. It gave rise to discounting of labour and of Nature. These have added up to create the climate crises which is being toyed with by the application of false solutions based on carbon trading—solutions that never touch on the root cause of the crisis which has been universally accepted to be the burning of fossil fuels. With fossil fuels corporations in the corridors of multilateral negotiations, talking about real solutions to climate change, for example, has been tabooed.  

Today, we are inescapably gripped in a polycrisis that can only be resolved through radical surgery. Although this surgical process will be radical, it is rather simple and needs modest thought processes that are in line with Nature. It requires humility to agree that technofixes are often not silver bullets. They create more problems as they shun the complexities in our ecosystem which we do not fully understand. For example, seeing forests as mere carbon sinks can lead to the displacement of human communities and could permit habitat destruction through land use changes.  A notion such as the one that sees plantations as forests leads to the creation of monocultures and ignores the complex communities of beings that live and interact in true forests.

We can tackle the hydra-headed crisis will be through clear analysis and cultural production. By using cultural production, we touch the fundamental impulses drawn from our contexts and help us to recover our memory in the fight for our humanity. The loss of memory of our place in the galaxy of other beings is a measure of the loss of mind. We simply must recover our being beings. 

At HOMEF we use our Ikike or knowledge platforms to provide a good basis for participatory generating and sharing of knowledge. At the grassroots levels we host diagnostic Community Dialogues and Environmental Monitoring Trainingsessions. Our Schools of Ecology and Sustain-Ability Academies offer spaces for critical interrogation of complex sociology-ecological ideas and serve as platforms for engagements with policy makers, students, academics, and the public. The generation and sharing of knowledge 

Bearing in mind that the root of the climate crisis is capitalism manifesting through the exploitation, consumption, and waste of natural resources, we have a duty to fight these vices. Through the building of solidarity, we can construct cooperation and forge a future that is both liveable and enjoyable. The seeds for these are embedded in our cultural notions of Eti Uwem, or good living, which elevates communality, dignity, and respect for all beings at its core. In Southern Africa, the interconnectedness of our humanity is captured by Ubuntu. We will benefit from studying traditions and cultures in Africa and, by studying these subsisting concepts of well-being that are not predicated on growth, accumulation, or dispossession. This way, the wisdom from Africa will contribute to a more complete understanding and resolution of the polycrisis. 

Cultural production allows us to fight for these humane ethics through stories, songs, sculptures, poetry, drama, and dance. We can enjoy the process of building a hopeful future. We are calling for a revolution that can be televised and is enjoyable.

Seeing Red with the Blue Economy

One of the biggest errors anybody can make is to see the ocean as limitless. Without a doubt, nothing on Earth is limitless. We live in a limited, blue planet, a tiny ball floating in the sea of galaxies loaded with larger planets and non-planets. The notion that the ocean is limitless has attracted dreams of the extension of extractivism, grabbing of territories and resources and limitless wealth to offset the human tendency for excessive consumption without intergenerational responsibility.  On a smaller scale we see people using rivers as drainage channels into which sewage and untreated industrial effluence may be dumped. 

With very lax policing of our ocean, we can be sure that there is a high likelihood that official delineation of economic zones in our maritime areas will see reckless activities that would not only ruin local economies but damage our aquatic ecosystems beyond remedy. This prognosis is because 90 per cent of the pollution in the Gulf of Guinea emanates from the Niger Delta.

This grim reality calls for the strict protection of our waters by checking the industrial activities onshore and offshore. With some international oil companies divesting and moving into deep waters after 64 years of ruinous onshore exploitation of oil and gas, it does not require a seer to see that their activities away from the watchful eyes of community eco-defenders will be atrocious. Sadly, the pollution will get to citizens through sea foods and the delivery of pollutants by the waves to the shorelines. 

It should be alarming that by relying on satellite images alone, researchers identified 18,063 oil slicks in the period 2002-2012 covered by the images, mostly caused by spills from shipping vessels and offshore drilling platforms.

More reason to worry is the fact that economic activities envisioned within the blue economy prism include seabed extractive activities including the extraction of oil, gas, and other minerals. Other activities include marine biotechnology and bioprospecting which will pose particularly difficult regulatory oversight, seeing that basic modern agricultural biotechnology is poorly regulated in our nation. 

The concept of blue economy has been built on the back of the green economy. As we all know, the green economy concept gives the impression of ecological care while it is mostly about the marketization of Nature. The green economy is majorly about imputing monetary values on the cycles of Nature, on the “services” that Mother Earth provides for her children — humans, other creatures, and elements. One key caution on this is that we must not presume that lineal economic growth is desirable or that it inevitably yields well-being. As we noted in our publication, Blue Economy Blues, it is a settled fact that economic growth does not necessarily indicate a good measure of human well-being. There are cases where economies are said to be enjoying roaring growth whereas the rate of poverty in such societies was on the rise. As we cautioned, “Building a Blue Economy for the purpose of economic growth may actually be running off the mark.” 

We are focusing on the Blue Economy, Divestments, and the End of the Fossil Age at this School of Ecology (SoE) with the aim of building understanding around the issues and at the same time advancing our proposal for a people-to-policy approach as regards our aquatic resources. We aim to promote a reflection on our socio-cultural approaches to the use of our water bodies by which we ensured the well-being of our peoples while defending the integrity of the ecosystems. We are doing this against the backdrop of the projections that the fossil fuels age is running to an end whether we are ready or not and whether we like it or not. The meaning of the end of the fossil fuels civilization is that Nigeria must assiduously prepare for the imminent transition. That plan must include a setting aside of resources to clean up the entire Niger Delta as well as other coastline communities.

Without a plan, and a redefinition of development and progress, we may end up in a cemetery of junk technologies and bequeath to our children stranded assets in equally stranded communities. A mindless implementation of a Blue Economy may birth sea grab, beyond the coastal land grab and make ocean-dependent communities see red.

Waving off Climate Action in the Heatwaves

Climate change is a result of human activities with reference to production, movement, and consumption of goods. A whole lot of these goods are products of transformation of natural resources, not to meet the basic needs of humans but to aid the drive for dispossession, accumulation, power, and despoliation. 

Climate change is the outcome of fractured socioeconomic systems. If this is accepted, it should be expected that it is within human capacity to act in ways that would stem the tide, mitigate the impacts, and build resilience. Rather than do this, we are seeing a rise of arguments claiming that market forces can solve the climate polycrisis. Market environmentalism cannot solve problems created by the failure of markets.

The unholy wedlock between fossil fuel industries and governments has locked societies on the fossil pathway and made it seem like dependence on dirty energy is both inevitable and unavoidable. In Nigeria and other African countries, we hear top political leaders insisting that moving away from fossil fuels will spell economic doom, intensive energy deficits and a reign of poverty. It is not hard to see how false these arguments are. The average Nigerian has been plunged into excruciating poverty and massive energy deficit despite 64 years of fossil fuel extraction and exports. Politicians cannot convince anyone that two more decades of destructive extraction and pollution would suddenly turn the horrible indices around.

This School of Ecology on Propelling the Energy Transition aimed to achieve what the name says, force change from bad or dirty to good or renewable energy. With our partners in Latin America, Southeast Asia, and Africa, we believe that there are lessons that can be learned from available wisdom and applied to fundamentally tip the scales away from polluting and harmful activities. We are actively learning from indigenous wisdom which largely encourage living within planetary limits, in harmony with Nature. Our youths can pick up the wisdom of the elders, process and adapt them in innovative ways to bring about the needed change.

The indications from multilateral actions prompted by the Paris Agreement of the UNFCCC are tilting more towards the perpetuation of polluting activities and then embarking on carbon removal from the atmosphere, or at pollution sources — to buy time by delaying climate action while offloading the impacts on the youths and children.

The school denounced the intergenerational crimes connected to insistence on energy forms that harm humanity and the Planet. You have heard of ongoing moves towards divestment which the Niger Delta Convergence Manifesto aptly characterizes as criminal flight, a move to profit from avoiding responsibilities for current and historical ecocide. Still in Africa, there is a push for exploitation of oil in the Okavango Basin in Namibia/Botswana, and insistence on drilling in Virunga (DRC) and in the Saloum Delta in Sénégal. We are already seeing the fires in Cabo Delgado in Mozambique and the resistance in South Africa. All these at a time when investment should be in clean energy modes. 

To worsen the situation, the European Union is displaying an unwillingness to be weaned from fossil fuels as the gas taps from Russia gets constricted on account of the war with Ukraine. Suddenly all eyes are on Africa and our leaders are purring like spoilt cats as they jump at the coming reign of fossil colonialism. 

The raging heatwaves in Europe and the USA provide enough warning signals that all regions are prone to freak weather events.  With the intensification of climate impacts by way of heatwaves, floods, droughts, and wildfires around the world, it would be expected that emergency measures would be taken globally to tackle the crisis. The NDCs, the heart of the Paris Agreement, is failing to cut emissions at levels necessary to tackle the unfolding global heating just as was foreseen by critical analysts. As politicians willfully avoid climate action what will bring about a respite is a global and organized citizens action in the line of what is already emerging.   

Together we scan the horizon, map dirty energy hotspots, challenge communities and promote the use of indigenous as well as empirical knowledge to influence policy and action. Therefore, we believe in robust grassroots engagements through discussions, and consciously learning from the wise in intergenerational dialogues.

To propel the needed energy transition does not begin or end with opposing continued burning of fossil fuels.  We must propose alternatives that would democratize access to clean energy to all and especially to communities in sacrificial or marginalized zones. Building and sharing knowledge on the socio-economic and climate justice dimensions of the climate catastrophe is the strength of this push. Organizing and building community owned and controlled clean energy systems are the keyways forward. This demands that citizens must consistently resist expansion of fossil fuel fields and denounce the presentation of fossil gas a bridge fuel.

Some words by Nnimmo Bassey at the School of Ecology on Propelling the Energy Transition on 13 July 2022. Updated 19 July 2022.

Waking from the Fossil Nightmare

The Niger Delta is a territory under siege. This siege did not begin today. It didn’t begin yesterday. The siege has been on prominent from before the 15th Century.

The siege has disrupted our ways of living, our communities, our cultures, and our spirituality. It has brought drastic fissures in our relationship with Nature and other beings. This assaulted our routine patterns of living in harmony with nature, our philosophical underpinnings of ubuntueti-uwem and other norms by which communities were built on the platforms of cooperation and solidarity rather than on violence, dispossession, undue accumulation, and wastefulness. 

This disruption has eroded our resilience, harmed our health or broken our biodiversity. Today we breath poisoned air, fish and drink polluted waters and grow foods on toxic soils. 

We must not forget that we were once organized, productive, and progressive nationalities with moralities and communalities that paralleled or excelled their counterparts elsewhere. At that time farming yielded bountiful harvests, and fishing was a great joy before the downward spiral . Today, with broken local economies and environments our story has become an unending struggle for survival. 

History may have been banished from our curriculum, but no one should banish them from our schools of life. They provide markers and memories of where we have been; what we have built; what we fought for, won, or lost. History provides us with more than mere scaffolds for the construction of our future. It gives us the energy needed to confront oppression, degradation, humiliations, and sundry manifestations of ecological racism.

We remind ourselves that leaders of the Niger Delta were not pushovers when the shove came from brutal precolonial and colonial adventurers. We recall the fact that the battle for the control of trade between our peoples and European markets brought much violence against our people. It led to cruel military invasions and horrendous pillage, with the razing of Akassa in 1895 standing out as one of the reprehensible landmarks on the march to colonialism.  The smoke of that assault was still rising when the Royal Niger Company (Unilever) sold Nigeria to the British crown for £865,000 (Eight Hundred and sixty-five thousand pounds sterling in 1899. 

That Akassa massacre was over palm oil. One hundred years later, in 1995, the bloodletting continued with the judicial murder of Ogoni leaders in a bid to continue reckless exploitation of crude oil, without any concern about the environment or the people. 

Oil spills, blowouts, gas flares, and the criminalisation of a people

Today oil spills have become routine occurrence and responses have remained slow or inadequate. Gas flaring continues and deadlines come and roll by while the people and environment continue to be gassed with no respite in sight. Several well blowouts have been recorded over the decades, including Texaco’s (Chevron) Funiwa -5 well blowout of January 1980 which spilled 400,000 barrels of crude and another blowout and rig fire at the same field in January 2012. In recent months we have been witnesses to the AITEO well blowout at Nembe in November 2021 with an estimated 300,000 barrels of crude oil dumped into the environment and the explosion and sinking of an aged and unlicensed floating, storage and production vessel (FSPO Trinity) off the coast of Ondo State in February 2022. One largely ignored well blowout is the one at the Ororo-1 field. This well blow out occurred in April 2020 and has been burning and spilling crude non-stop for over two years now. In which other region in Nigeria or in the world would a disaster of this magnitude be ignored for two solid year and counting? 

The criminalization of the people of the Niger Delta has been something of concern to many. Transnational oil companies and public agencies continually plead “sabotage’ or third-party activities as the cause of every oil spill. They never pause to ask how these so-called sabotages occur despite the high militarization of the region.  The oil companies and related public agencies have sung this refrain so much that it has become a tattered fig leaf. Now the situation has expanded with horrendous pollution through artisanal refining in the region. We dare say that this deviant economic activity may have been encouraged by corporations and their cohorts as a mean of offloading pollution resulting from their irresponsible environmental behaviours. It has also arisen as individuals and groups ape the Special Economic Zones concept that officially creates enclaves of economic activities with least control on the guise of promoting national economies.

The Niger Delta Alternatives Convergence

The Niger Delta Alternatives Convergence (NDAC) has been convoked as an inclusive platform for the individuals, civil society groups, political players, community groups, women, ethnic nationalities, and business to come together to address the nagging problems that continue to plague the region. The NDAC is a conference that yields spaces for the interrogation of the outputs of research, community dialogues and the search for alternative resource management pathways as well as examination of laws governing mining and petroleum sectors in Nigeria. The space for engagements of this nature has been often rigged against our communities, but this is a peoples-driven engagement designed to ensure that the communities are heard. It builds on other convening that has been led by many highly respected groups in the region over the years with the aim of extricating the region from the paths of retrogression.

The convergence also aims to produce an inclusive Niger Delta Manifesto for socio-ecological justice highlighting needed alternatives for transformation and social mobilizations for re-source justice. It is hoped that NDAC will provoke a platform for convergence of communities in the region to galvanize action for needed changes for resource access including through demands for legislative changes, debates on the Petroleum Industry Bill, and for critical attainment of re-source democracy – defined as the right of a people to live in harmony with Nature and to retain a right to use, or not use, the gifts of Nature.

Bandages over Festering Sores

We recognize that huge sums of money have been allocated to alleviate the dastard harms caused by petroleum resource exploitation in the region. Such efforts include various Memoranda of Understanding with communities by oil companies, 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) of  1976, the Oil Mineral Producing Areas Development Commission (OMPADEC) of 1992, the Petroleum Trust Fund (PTF) established in 1995,  Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) set up in 2000 and the Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs created in 2009. 

These efforts have been characterized by the throwing of money at the problems without a participatory and due consultation with our peoples. Little wonder the outcome has been reigns of corruption and manifestations of abject failure. They have been nothing short of bandages aimed at covering festering wounds without dealing with the fundamental malaise that over six decades of reckless oil and gas exploitation has inflicted on the people and the environment. 

Life After Oil

Considering that the world is moving from fossil fuels and that Nigeria is struggling unsuccessfully to meet her OPEC allowed production quota; considering that oil theft continues apace, oil spills, gas flares and dumping of toxic wastes and sundry ecological destruction continue unabated, we risk not just being left behind by the world, we risk remaining mortally wounded and utterly stranded if we do not brace up insist on urgent transition from this destructive activity, demand and insist on a clean-up of the entire region. Tomorrow will be too late. This is the time to examine and check-mate the moves by transnational companies to divest from their ancient infrastructure, drying wells, polluted fields and sneak away to enjoy their loot. 

We cannot say this too often, but it is time for us to accept that without a healthy environment we cannot be a healthy people. 64 years of oil extraction has brought untold misery and cut life abysmally low in this region. Things cannot continue this way. We have demands and resolves in the proposed Niger Delta Manifesto shared to delegates. Let’s all rise to be counted, demand that politicians declare their environmental plans before they gain our votes; let us demand real climate action including a halt to gas flaring and a restoration of our ecosystems. Let us demand action to stall the washing away of our communities. After 64 years of a nightmare, it is time to wake up, it is time to demand socio-ecological justice. We are not calling for charity, we are calling for justice.

I thank the Chairman of this Convergence, His Excellency, Obong Victor Attah, a man with demonstrated impeccable leadership and wisdom. I thank our keynote speaker, Prof G. G. Darah for what promises to be a rousing call for action based on knowledge. I thank all our academic, activist and community comrades who will take the podium in this Convergence.

I welcome you all, brothers, and sisters.

Welcome words by Nnimmo Bassey, Director, Health of Mother Earth Foundation at NDAC 2022 held at Watbridge Hotel, Uyo, Akwa Ibom State, Nigeria on 23 June 2020.

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.

Accelerating Climate Action by Design 

The theme for the World Habitat Day 2021, Accelerating Urban Action for a Carbon-free World, is a strong call on architects and all practitioners involved in the design and actualisation of the built environment and related services to be conscious of the fact that climate change is an existential threat to all living beings on Earth and is thus a fundamental design problem of our time.

It is often stated that cities are responsible for some 70 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions with transport, buildings, energy, and waste management accounting for the bulk of urban greenhouse gas emissions.[ii] The process of building, delivery and their utilisation are hugely responsible for global warming by reason of the energy needed to extract and process building materials and the energy needed to maintain habitable temperatures as well as general maintenance of the structures. The main culprits here, as you may suspect, include the emissions related to cement production and the burning of fossil fuels for energy production. In the USA, buildings consume some 40 percent of energy annually, and they are responsible for nearly half of the carbon dioxide (CO2) emission in the country.[iii] High impact building materials include concrete, steel, wood, and insulation materials.

The theme for this year’s World Habitat Day highlights carbon-neutrality. With the upcoming COP26[iv] of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the world has been regaled with a vision of a “net-zero” carbon future. While making supreme effort not to jump into the carbon-neutral or net-zero arguments at this point, it is pertinent to state that the concepts require considerable unpacking as they centre on needed climate action and are embedded in the theme of the Day. 

Why Do We Need a Carbon-Free World?

The question is whether a carbon-free world is possible. If the answer is in the negative, what is the significance of considering the possibility at all? What message do we seek to convey when we prescribe the desirability of aiming for, or having a carbon-free world? A simple answer to these questions would be that we cannot have a carbon-free world but can try to end or considerably reduce the emission of carbon to  a concentration level that is tolerable.  

Carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere have risen since the start of the industrial era from an annual average of 280 parts per million (ppm) in the late 1700s to 410 ppm in 2019.That is a hefty 46 percent increase.[v] The level that is said to be tolerable is 350 ppm. Besides carbon dioxide, other gases of concern in the atmosphere are methane and nitrous oxides. Ozone is also a greenhouse gas but is found mostly in the stratosphere and is useful in absorbing and preventing harmful ultraviolet radiation from the sun from reaching the earth. 

Global warming occurs due to increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Heat comes from the sun in short waves, but when bounced off the earth they go up in short and long waves. Whereas the short waves pass through the atmosphere without resistance, the greenhouse gases trap some of the long waves trying to exit the atmosphere. Scientists estimate that without the greenhouse effect the earth would be as cold as minus 18 degrees Celsius.  What this tells us is that we do need greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, otherwise we would freeze. The trouble is that when the concentration of the greenhouse gases gets higher than they ought to be, we set the stage to be roasted.

Climate Impacts 

Nigeria is severely impacted by climate change. The impacts include floods, droughts, increased heat, and water stress. There is persistent land loss due to coastal erosion in the South and due to desertification in the North. Coastal erosion is accompanied by salinisation of freshwater systems, thereby exacerbating species loss. Deforestation is a major contributor to global warming and it impacts on food production. Unbridled flaring of associated gas poses threats to the climate, environmental/human health, and agricultural production.  Oil spillages equally add to the crisis through the dumping of the highly volatile hydrocarbon products into the environment. 

While desertification and water stress, including the shrinkage of Lake Chad affect at least 11 states in Northern Nigeria, gully erosion is a great menace in the Southeast and South South regions. Lake Chad has shrunk from a size of over 25,000 square kilometres in the 1960s to a mere 2,500 square kilometres, breeding the attendant social upheavals in the area.

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

Southern Africa and some other parts of Africa warm at two times the global rate[vii] and the Southern Africa region experienced two massive cyclones in March and April 2019 and in 2021 leading to a loss of over 1000 lives and wreaking about $2billion worth of infrastructure. Having so many strong cyclones in a short space of time is a record. The intensity and upward reach of the cyclones on the Southeastern coastline also broke the records. Cyclones Idai and Kenneth impacted close to 3 million persons. Some researchers tie the cyclones to the warming of the Indian Ocean. If this is true, we can expect more cyclones as well as the devastation of marine ecosystems in the region as the IPCC report (2021) indicates that the warming here is higher than in other parts of the world.

Will the Climate Summit Turn the Tide?

In November 2021, the world will gather in Glasgow to take stock of what has happened since the Paris Agreement of 2015. The Agreement consolidated the voluntary approach to tackling climate change which was first introduced at COP15 held in Copenhagen in 2009. The key aspect of the Agreement is that nations would voluntarily suggest what amount of emissions reduction they would make as their contribution to tackling the climate crisis. This is what is known as the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). Bear in mind that the Agreement also settemperature targets at 1.5 degrees Celsius or well below 2.0 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. By the latest submission of countries to the UNFCCC, an aggregation and analysis of NDCs show that global temperature would rise by up to 2.7 degrees Celsius if that is the best the nations can do.[viii] We remind ourselves that prior to COP15, industrialised nations were required to adhere to legally binding emissions reduction targets under the Kyoto Protocol. That requirement was based on the foundational justice principle of Common But Differentiated Responsibilities (CBDR). Today, rather than mandatory emissions reduction, what is expected is legally binding reporting requirements. What a parody. 

The voluntary emissions reduction regime is already pointing at catastrophic global warming considering the freak weather events being experienced at the present 1.1 degrees Celsius level. Moreover, as earlier noted, parts of Africa warm at double the global average, meaning that if the global temperature lurches upward to a 2.7C scenario, Africa will be literally uninhabitable. 

An important part of the Paris Agreement is the Article 6 which seeks to establish a policy foundation for a carbon emissions trading system, that allows polluters to buy the license to continue polluting from less polluting nations. The fossil fuels industry and partner nations love this article because it would require nothing but a monetary exchange for their climate sins. The point is this: the polluters have the cash, and the vulnerable nations need the cash, but the Planet will suffer. Science informs that the world cannot afford to open new fossil fuel mines or fields. This sector is responsible for 80 percent of all carbon dioxide pumped into the atmosphere since the industrial revolution. Rather than halt the extraction of the climate harming fuels, the industry is set to invest more funds for new oil and gas projects.[ix]

Net Zero Is Not Zero

Now, let us look at carbon neutrality, net zero and their kind. A statement issued by Oilwatch Latin America offers a good analysis of the idea behind the Net Zero concept that has become so popular across the world. Countries, regions, and corporations are offering to achieve Net Zero by 2050. Two things should be of concern here. First is that net-zero does not mean zero emissions. Secondly, 2050 may seem to be a distant date, but even if the proposed action were to be a true solution, the world cannot wait for 2050 considering current catastrophic floods, fires, cyclones, and hurricanes.

The extraction, burning and industrial use of fossil fuels constitute the main cause of the climate crisis. Since 1830, and at an exponential rate of increase during the last two decades, the planet has warmed due to greenhouse gas emissions. Just 100 energy corporations are responsible for 71% of the emissions generated since 1988. Policies focused on monitoring and counting carbon dioxide (CO2) molecules are part of the problem, insofar as they are used to divert attention from the central issue: the continuing exploitation of coal, oil and gas under an energy-hungry, petro-dependent economic model. 

Carbon accounting – the basis of most official climate policies – is all about moving molecules around, creating false equivalences, erasing emissions with a “click”, and hiding responsibilities, to carry on business as usual while covering up the roots of the climate crisis. The focus is on inventorying emissions and percentages to be reduced (or rather, to be permitted) and using the numbers to claim that transfers of CO2 into the atmosphere can be “compensated for” by supposed future transfers out of it. 

Quantifying CO2 emissions is the smokescreen that allows the governments of the global North to continue to finance the fossil industry to the tune of trillions of dollars, even after the signing of the 2015 Paris Agreement. Pretending that addressing climate change is a matter of measuring and managing CO2 molecules is a way of privileging the market and subjecting traditional communities to violations of the rights of humans and nature, while at the same time making global warming worse. 

Examples of this farce include proposals for “carbon neutrality” or “net zero emissions”, which, by assuming falsely that emissions generated in the fossil extraction chain can be offset by the carbon fixed by natural processes or geoengineering, will only exacerbate global warming. Other examples include the Clean Development Mechanism, Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation Plus (REDD+), Nature-Based Solutions, “climate-smart” agriculture and livestock-raising, and Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS). Although such proposals are usually presented as conservation programs, they are in fact part of a speculative business model that that has nothing to do with constructive responses to climate crisis.[x]

What Can Architects Do?

Architects and related designers have huge roles to play in climate-proofing our planet. Climate change does not merely threaten the planet. It threatens living beings who inhabit the planet – humans and millions of others beings. The problem is that the crisis is triggered by human beings and systems designed and built by us. These systems include socio-political, economic, and other systems. It is important that architects understand these systems in order to design and deliver the built environment differently. 

So, what can we do as architects? Sea level rise is already on track to continue, and this places most of Southern Nigeria at risk of going under water due to the region’s low-lying nature and the fact that the geographic Niger Delta is a naturally subsiding zone. The immediate response here must include the use of flexible construction materials and designs that are ecologically conscious. Architects must pay more attention to the immediate and larger urban landscape in which their creations sit.

As architects we are often deeply concerned about form and efficient spatiality. We work to consciously ensure that our built spaces consume as little cooling, lighting, ventilation, and maintenance costs as necessary. As good as these are, considering the threat of climate change, we should also be concerned about what is called the embodied energy or the sum of energy required to produce goods and services. Embodied energy includes the energy utilised in mining the needed raw materials. In the building sector this also includes the construction and replacement/demolition of our buildings- quarrying, cement production, smelting steel, baking of the bricks, transportation of materials to site and their installation, dismantling and carting away. Did we say carting away? Let’s say suitably disposing of the materials.

Hoping that this conversation will continue beyond the symposium, let us share some issues to ponder on.

  • Raise awareness on the risks associated with current levels of overconsumption that is pushing beyond planetary limits leading to dramatic biodiversity loss and climate change.
  • We must re-examine our romance with certain climate harming building materials such as concrete and steel.
  • Reduce wasteful use of materials.
  • Work with other professionals to promote the greening of our urban areas, set aside spaces for urban farming and avoid the cementification of spaces.
  • Get involved in design for mass transit and other modes that encourage rapid transition from dependence on fossil fuels 
  • Integrate designs that are self-sufficient in terms of energy needs such as by using solar power, etc.
  • Design for circular use of resources and promote the recycling of wastes.
  • Design and build multi-use spaces that are flexible and durable at the same time. Encourage upgrading of existing buildings and retrofit for energy efficiency.
  • Encourage vehicular free zones in our urban areas and encourage open meeting spaces rather that exclusive boxed up spaces.
  • Take a closer look at our traditional architecture in terms of design, materials, craftsmanship and theory and encourage more organic approaches.
  • In terms of theory, we should see buildings as living things who have birth, midlife, and terminal points.
  • Be environmentally friendly with regards to materials and energy demands. 
  • Avoid the aping of postcard architecture and design respectful and culturally sensitive spaces. 

By Way of Conclusion

You have heard the saying that we first shape our buildings and then the buildings shape us. This perspective should encourage and challenge architects to generate designs that not only respond to current climate challenges but lay the pathways to provoke continued robust imaginaries and actions for upcoming generations.

Permit me to pause with a quote that urges us to consciously ensure that our narratives capture the story of our lives told by us and dipped in our experiences:

 “…If there is any hope for the world at all, it does not live in climate change conference rooms or in cities with tall buildings. It lives low to the ground, with its arms around the people who go to battle every day to protect their forests, their mountains and their rivers because they know that the forests, the mountains and the rivers protect them. The first step toward re-imagining a world gone terribly wrong would be to stop the annihilation of those who have a different imagination – an imagination that is outside capitalism as well as communism. An imagination which has an altogether different understanding of what constitutes happiness and fulfilment.”[xi]

End Notes


[i] Principal Partner, Base Consult and Director, Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF

[ii] World Habitat Day. https://urbanoctober.unhabitat.org/whd

[iii] Ned Cramer (2017). The Climate is Changing. So Must Architecture. https://www.architectmagazine.com/design/editorial/the-climate-is-changing-so-must-architecture_o

[iv] 26th meeting of the Conference of Parties to the UNFCCC

[v] EPA. Climate Change Indicators: Atmospheric Concentrations of Greenhouse Gases. https://www.epa.gov/climate-indicators/climate-change-indicators-atmospheric-concentrations-greenhouse-gases

[vi] https://reliefweb.int/report/world/2019-natural-disasters-claim-more-1200-lives-across-east-and-southern-africa

[vii] IPCC. Impacts of 1.5°C of Global Warming on Natural and Human Systems. https://www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/sites/2/2019/06/SR15_Chapter3_Low_Res.pdf 

[viii] UNFCCC. (2021). Full NDC Synthesis Report: Some Progress, but Still a Big Concern. https://unfccc.int/news/full-ndc-synthesis-report-some-progress-but-still-a-big-concern

[ix] Nnimmo Bassey (2016). Ambition, Selfishness and Climate Action in Oil Politics- Echoes of Ecological Wars, Daraja Press.

[x] Oilwatch Latin America. (October 2021). The Climate Debate is not About CO2 Molecules. https://www.oilwatch.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/10/Statement_OWLA.CO2_EN.pdf

[xi] Arundhati Roy. 2013. Decolonize the Consumerist Wasteland: Re-imagining a World Beyond Capitalism and Communism. Accessed at https://www.commondreams.org/view/2013/02/19

A paper by Arc Nnimmo Bassey[i], FNIA, MFR, at the World Habitat Day celebration of the Nigerian Institute of Architects (NIA), Akwa Ibom State chapter on 4 October 2021.

What After Oil

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

16 September 2021

Politics of Turbulent Waters

The fact that Africa can be completely circumnavigated has advantages and disadvantages. One of the advantages is that the continent can be accessed by sea from any direction. This means that the seas can be a ready tool for wrapping up the continent and promoting regional integration and cooperation. We would be stating the obvious when we say that this spatial disposition has also made the continent prone to exploitation and assault. This position made it easy for Africans to be uprooted and relocated through slavery and this central location of the continent equally made it open to adventurers and colonizers. It is also noteworthy that key terrestrial infrastructure on the continent either begin or end at the shorelines.

The sea means a lot to Africa and her littoral states. The mineral resources and aquatic diversity have attracted entities with interest in legal activities and others with illegal intentions. With the world literally scrapping the bottom of the natural resource pot, there is a scramble for the sea and one way to sell the idea of limitless resources and opportunities has been to dream up the Blue Economy concept. In the publication, Blue Economy Blues, HOMEF stated:

To understand the Blue Economy, one needs to look at the concept that inspired its creation. That concept is that of the Green Economy. The Green Economy is another top-down concept that jars the organic relationship of humans with their physical environment as it essentially deconstructs that relationship and builds up on a philosophy that distances humans and other species from the environment and presents that environment as a thing to be manipulated, transformed, and exploited in a way that delivers gains along subsisting unequal power alignments.

African political leaders, including those at the African Union, are enamoured to the Blue Economy concept particularly when considering what can be done in the areas of fisheries, aquaculture, tourism, transport, shipbuilding, energy, bioprospecting, and underwater mining and related activities. The oceans and lakes simply appear to be spatially limitless and endowed with limitless resources. The truth is that these notions aren’t true.  African waters are among some of the most overfished waters, and this is often not for consumption in the continent. 

Our fisheries provide nutrition to about 200 million Africans and employment for over 35 million coastal fishers.Nevertheless, about 25 percent of fish catches in African waters are by non-African countries, according to an FAO report.

West African waters that have been among the most fecund have seen shrunken fish populations due to overfishing, illegal fishing and climate change. These illegal fishing activities are often carried out by large foreign industrial trawlers that travel over long distances with the help of harmful subsidies. It is said that about 65% of all reported illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing takes place in the waters of Gulf of Guinea.

The rush to exploit our oceans has manifested in criminal activities including sea piracy, waste dumping (oil spills) and stealing of fishes. Shockingly, 95% of all kidnappings at sea is said to happen in the Gulf of Guinea

Their catches are said to end up being used to feed livestock in Europe and the USA.  According to reports, these trawlers come from China, Russia and countries in the European Union. They catch more fish in one day than what an artisanal fisher would catch in a year. These unregulated and illegal activities largely go unreported. 

IPCC—Oceans warming faster than expected

Warming oceans lead to reduced fish populations and catches as fish migrate to cooler waters and away from equatorial latitudes. Ocean warming has been fingered as triggering more violent cyclones such as cyclone Idai, Kenneth, and Loise on the southeastern seaboard of Africa. The warming has also led to the destruction of coral reefs off the coast of East Africa. This clearly has impacts on fish stocks.

The sixth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) affirmed that 1.5C temperature rise above preindustrial levels may be reached by 2050 due to the continued dumping of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. If drastic emissions cuts are not embarked on, the world is on track to overshoot the Paris Agreement targets thereby literally frying Africa and cooking our oceans. This will make nonsense of any notion of the Blue Economy, except that the oceans could become arenas for geoengineering experimentations aimed at sucking carbon out of the atmosphere or for some form of solar radiation management by pumping sea water into the clouds.

With temperatures rising and polar icecaps melting, the IPCC report assures that sea level rise stays on a steady course. The floods are coming. Submergence of coastal communities and cities will go from being a threat to becoming stark reality. We are already seeing deadly floods on virtually every continent. With sea level rise comes loss of coastal land and infrastructure, as well as loss of freshwater systems through salinization. For a continent that often suffers water stress and has the spectre of water conflicts hanging like the sword of Damocles, real action must be taken to counter climate change. 

One key action that must be taken is the outlawing of new oil or gas fields in our oceans and other aquatic ecosystems. The oil rigs and FSPOs (Floating Productions Storage & Offloading) cut off fishing grounds and engender human rights abuses by security forces who expose fishers to extreme danger just to ensure an expansive off-limits cordon ostensibly to protect oil company installations.

It is equally a time to halt the building of petrochemical refineries and other polluting industries (such as the one at Lekki Free Zone at Lagos) on seashores as they are sure to pollute the waters, poison the biodiversity and negatively impact the food chain. A phosphate factory at Kpeme, Togo, for example, pumps its  wastes into the Atlantic Ocean, literally fertilizing the continental shelf to death. Nutrient pollution can have devastating impacts on public health, aquatic ecosystems, and the overall economy. 

Blue economy sails on the highway of pervasive market fundamentalism that seeks to shrink public involvement in productive endeavours and yield the space for the private enterprises. Market fundamentalism blinds policy makers to the fact that the so-called efficient and profitable private sectors depend on subsidies and securities provided by the public sector. One only needs to think of the bailouts of financial institutions during economic meltdowns, and the elimination of risks by pharmaceutical companies in the race for COVID-19 vaccines. These are, of course, justified by overriding public interests.

The drive to support industries such as those producing plastics, and our love for disposable products, permit highly polluting materials such as plastics to be unleashed into our environment thereby causing great harm to our oceans and aquatic creatures. It has been said that there would be more plastics than fish (by weight) in the oceans by 2050.

Reports indicate that the production of plastics increased twentyfold since 1964 and reached 311 million tonnes in 2014. This quantity is expected to double again over the next 20 years and almost quadruple by 2050. It should be noted that the volume of petroleum resources needed to make plastics has been increasing steadily, and despite the highly visible pollution impacts the demands keep rising with only about 5% of plastics being effectively recycled and 40% ending up in landfill. 30% of the plastics end up in sensitive ecosystems such as the world’s oceans.

Already there is a plastic flotilla or a Great Plastic Patch in the Pacific Ocean that is euphemistically called the 8th continent. The patch is “three times the size of France and is the world’s biggest ocean waste repository, with 1.8 billion pieces of floating plastic which kill thousands of marine animals each year.” Sadly, those plastics will require hundreds of years to degrade if left floating out there.

The politics of economic development and market fundamentalism, allow what would ordinarily be unthinkable to happen. A drop of crude oil contaminates 25 litres of water making it unsuitable for drinking. Imagine how much water was polluted by Shell’s 40,000 barrels Bonga Oil spill of December 2011 or Exxon’s Idoho platform spill of similar volume in 1998. Shell’s Forcados terminal spill of 1979 dumped 570,000 barrels of crude oil into the estuary and creeks, while Chevron (then known as Texaco) released 400,000 barrels of crude oil in the Funiwa incident of 1980. Add to these the Ozoro-1 oil well blowout off the coast of Ondo State in April 2020 that has remained a crime scene more than a year after.

A little help from Nature

Once upon a time, our turbulent seas were embraced by verdant mangroves on our coastlines. Today the mangrove forests have been deforested for energy or to make way for infrastructure or urbanisation.  These forests are key components of a viable Gulf of Guinea. Without them the region has no answer to rampaging waves and sea level rise. The spawning ground for fish species and nurseries for the juveniles gets eroded and lost as mangroves get depleted. Oil pollution turns the mangrove forests into dead zones. Their deforestation opens up space for invasive nipa palms introduced to the Niger Delta in 1906 by a horticultural adventurer.

The call for restoration of mangrove forests must be supported and acted upon. This can be done in cooperation with community groups that are raising nurseries and demonstrating their efficacy through pilot efforts. Support by government can bring these efforts to scale and impact. Alternative energy sources also need to be provided for communities that depend on mangroves for fuelwood.

Protecting selected freshwater and marine ecosystems could be a way of securing thriving biodiversity in our oceans, seas, lakes, and rivers. However, such areas must be delineated with close attention to indigenous knowledge and the cultural protection norms of communities that depend on them for their livelihoods.  Top-down approaches to establishing protected areas end up dislocating communities, harming their economies, and eroding their cultures, spirituality, and dignity. Some of such areas are simply demarcated for officially sanctioned land and sea grabbing. They can, and have been, used as tools of oppression and exploitation. 

In an article titled “Protected areas must promote and respect rights of small-scale fishers, not dispossess them,” Sibongiseni Gwebani stated, “The concept of protecting an identified fishing area, designating marine spatial territory and linking this to specific regulations has a long history in South Africa. These have been influenced by the apartheid spatial planning legislation introduced in the 1960s. Large proportions of coastal land were forcibly cleared for either forestry or marine conservation by using racial segregation laws. The histories of all of the major marine protected areas in South Africa are shaped by racially based removals through land and seascape during the 1970s and 1980s.”

No Politics with our Seas

The statistics rolled out during Health of Mother Earth Foundation’s (HOMEF) School of Ecology on the Politics of the Sea, show a very disturbing situation in the Gulf of Guinea. The gulf has become one of the most dangerous maritime areas in the world. He informed that 90% of sea based environmental pollution footprint in the Gulf of Guinea takes place in Nigerian waters. The region is very laxly policed and is a zone of plunder with hundreds of thousands of stolen crude oil moving unhindered.

When we gaze at the ocean, creek, or river, let us think about life below the surface, not as an SDG goal, but as creatures that have rights to live and thrive as children of Mother Earth. Let us see our water bodies as arenas of life and remind ourselves that we are just a tiny fraction of the biomass of living beings on earth. The seas offer us a canvass for learning positive politics of life rather than scrambling to grab and trash whatever we can lay our hands on.

Coastal Communities Under Threat

Climate change and variability in Nigeria is starkly illustrated in the northern and southern regions of Nigeria by desertification and coastal erosion respectively. This is so because attention is often focussed on these phenomena in the North and in the South. The implication of this is that the extent of climate impacts in the region between the north and south is often underreported. These emblematic phenomena do not however tell the full story of environmental changes in the impacted communities in Nigeria’s northern region and in the coastal communities.

It should be noted that within regions, as among nations, climate impacts are unevenly distributed due to differential exposure to certain physical and socio-economic factors. Other factors that affect the distribution of impacts include community structure and organisation, risk perceptions, economic systems, and available resources.  

Nigeria’s 850 kilometres coastline is notably challenged by activities of oil industry in the Niger Delta and the mammoth refinery being constructed at Lagos. Deforestation is another key factor as the shoreline protection provided by mangrove forests is rapidly being lost. Canalisation and sand filling for infrastructural and urban development are other major factors. 

The attention paid to coastal communities also varies depending on whether such areas are urban or rural. The flooding and projected impacts of the refinery on Lagos, a mega city, attracts global attention, while smaller towns such as Ibeno and communities such as Uta Ewua, Ibaka or Ago Iwoye hardly get a mention.

Coastline communities depend on aquatic ecosystem resources to secure their livelihoods and maintain their cultures. A distortion of this environment brings about both subtle and direct impacts on the social, cultural, and economic lives of the people. Canalisation, for instance, and sea level rise, bring in salt water from the sea, thus contaminating freshwater sources. This brings about the stressful contradiction of living on water and yet having none to drink. Besides the pressure on potable water, the intrusion of salt water also alters the diversity of aquatic and terrestrial species in the territories. 

The threats of sea level rise to the Niger Delta are compounded by the fact that the region is naturally subsiding. This means that the net sea level rise here is higher than in other parts of Nigeria’s coastline owing to the unique combination of factors.

We often hear of the description of some ecosystems as being fragile. That fragility is not attributed to such areas because of an inherent weakness in the ecosystem but to camouflage the harm visited on them by corporations and individuals. Perhaps we should speak of sensitive ecosystems rather than fragile ones. In this sense, sensitivity places a duty of care and respect on humans and institutions led by them.

The fact that hydrocarbon pollution on the coastal communities of the Niger Delta is not restricted to communities that host oil company facilities is well known. When an oil spill occurs at an offshore rig or at a Floating Production Storage and Offloading (FPSO) vessel, the extent of the spread of the pollution cannot be predicted and can only be determined after the  act? Mobil offshore oil spill in 2012 off the Ibeno coastline spread as far as 32 kilometres from its source, devastating fisheries in the area. Multiple oil spills in the area in 2012 and 2013 led to the coating of the entire Akwa Ibom State coastline with crude sludge. 

Other incidents include the rupturing at the Forcados terminal of Shell Nigeria Production and Exploration Company(simply known as Shell) in 1979 where 570,000 barrels were emptied into the estuary and adjoining creeks. Chevron (then Texaco) had a major spill in 1980 at Funiwa, where 400,000 barrels of crude oil were emptied into coastal waters, and which destroyed 340 hectares of mangrove forests. Mobil also had 40,000 barrels spilling in January 1998 at their Idoho offshore platform. That spill affected at least 22 coastal communities.

One major offshore oil spill recorded in Nigeria is the Bonga oil spill of 11 December 2011 at Shell’s Oil Mining Lease 118 located 120 kilometres offshore. The oil company reported that 40,000 barrels were spilled, but the significance of this spill goes beyond the volume of oil spilled. It is significant because the oil company, Shell, claimed that it pumped the 40,000 barrels into the Atlantic Ocean in error, thinking they were pumping the oil into a tanker, MV Northia. An investigation of the incident found that the pumping of the crude oil into the ocean was because of an equipment failure at the FPSO. The oil spill spread over a large extent of the coastline. It was reported to have impacted 168,000 persons in 350 communities in Delta and Bayelsa States alone. 

Following the Bonga oil spill, the National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency (NOSDRA) slammed a fine of $1.8 billion on Shell “as compensation for the damages done to natural resources and consequential loss of income by the affected shoreline communities.” NOSDRA also fined Shell another $1.8 billion as punitive damages. Shell refused to pay the fine and instead brought a case in 2016 to a Nigerian federal court challenging NOSDRA’s power to impose any fine on it. Two years down the road, the court dismissed the suit filed by Shell and found that NOSDRA was right to impose a fine of $3.6 billion on the offending oil company. That fine is yet to be paid by the oil major. While Shell and NOSDRA engage in their tug of war, the communities are left high and dry, suffering the impacts of the oil spill, and getting a signal that succour may not come after future incidences. The Artisanal Fishermen Association of Nigeria (ARFAN) continues to urge Shell to pay the fine imposed on it by the Nigerian government.

Of the 7 million artisanal fishers in Nigeria, 80% are found in the Niger Delta. These fishers produce about 9 million tonnes of fish locally, meeting only a fraction of the fish needs of Nigeria. Interestingly, some of the offshore oil fields are named after animal and fish species, probably to preserve the memory of species destroyed by oil company activities for posterity. An oil field is named after bonga fish, and another is named ebok or monkey. A lot of monkey business obviously goes on at those locations.

With the recalcitrant attitude of the polluting oil companies operating in Nigeria, coastal communities cannot depend on them in the struggle to maintain their aquatic ecosystems and defend their livelihoods. While communities are forced to live with these companies in their territories and off their coasts, they must take steps to protect their environment, livelihoods, culture, and overall dignity. Some of the necessary steps include a mapping of their ecological resources and preparing a matrix of what they had before and what have been lost due to multiple factors. Communities must equip themselves with knowledge on how to monitor their ecosystems as well as how to organise and advocate for the changes they wish to see.

Groups such as Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF), the FishNet Alliance and others work to learn from the existential struggles of vulnerable coastal communities and to support efforts to expose ecocide and end destructive extraction, overfishing and other harmful activities. We recognise that healthy aquatic ecosystems ensure the security of communities when their knowledge and conservation norms are respected. Community wisdom provides essential platforms for protecting shorelines from the ravages of raging waves, protect aquatic species and promote the wellbeing of the peoples. Efforts of communities to hold to account, individuals and corporations who wilfully inflict harms on their ecosystems must be adequately supported.

Talking points at HOMEF’s Coastal Community Fishers Dialogue/Training at Uta Ewua, Akwa Ibom State, Nigeria

Stilt Roots and Power

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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