Oil Field Monologues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Emerging Technologies and the Politics of Hunger

The number of persons in the world that go to bed hungry hovers around 700 million. The hungry equally fall under the same category as the malnourished besides those whose plates may be loaded with unsuitable foods.  COVID-19 is also said to have put about a third of food and farming livelihoods at risk. Interestingly small farmers, herders, and fishers who account for about 70 percent of the global food supply are also among the most vulnerable to food insecurity. There are also estimates that a shocking 3 billion people or more cannot afford a healthy diet in the world today. And such persons are found in all parts of the world.

Hunger is not a neutral phenomenon and can be triggered by a number of factors, including being used as a weapon during wars and as a political tool through hunger strikes. Generally, people are not hungry due to lack of food, but more on account of lack of access to food, poverty and violent conflicts among other factors.

The politics of food and hunger require that we examine why hunger persists in a world where about a third of available foods either go to the waste bin or get spoilt while in storage. The situation where some people are forced to eat foods that are unsuitable, inappropriate and non-aligned to their bests interests or culture needs to the interrogated.   

Hunger is a critical matter for policy making because it concerns everyone as everyone needs food for survival and as a right. Hunger can debase a person’s dignity and wilfully starving anyone is a crime, an infringement on their right to life. The spectre of a national or global population bursting the charts can raise fears of hunger and force decisions that overlook food quality but rather focus on quantity. Indeed, talks of food security sometimes appear to be a call for anything that can fill the belly in the name of food. Hunger is a powerful tool often used to subvert arguments for ecological agriculture and support of majority farmers – the small holder farmers. The fear of a projected galloping human population has literally become the vehicle for speculating on foods and for promoting technologies and practices that would otherwise be treated with a healthy dose of scepticism. 

The politics of food shortages have been shown by some analysts to be a system where food supplies are underestimated while future demand is overestimated – all based on doubtful assumptions. While projecting rapid and continuous population growth, policy makers ignore the fact that improved socio-economic conditions would naturally place brakes on such exponential growth. It can be argued that such projections are reflections of the fact that policy makers have no intention of building pro-people policies that cater for the optimal wellbeing of the people. 

It is intriguing that policy makers reject small holder farming despite research outputs showing that the best chance for the world to meet her food needs is not to be found in industrial scale, chemical-intensive agriculture, but in non-polluting agroecological production that cools the planet, does not pollute the environment and revitalizes rural communities. The fact that small holder farming feeds the world was validated by the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development’s (IAASTD) Agriculture at a Crossroads.

Emerging Technologies

Technologies and technofixes receive instant attention in today’s world. This happens in many sectors including that of agriculture and food. Wearing the cloak of being hunger killers, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), gene edited organisms, synthetic biology and intensive use of pesticides are all presented as the solution to hunger in the world. For over two decades GMOs have been touted as providing super yields and being capable of fighting off pests as they act as pesticides without creating a dent on the hunger figures. Meanwhile the system rigidly neglects those feeding the world through farming in cooperation with Nature. 

With the rise of artificial intelligence, big data and rapid technological innovations, the agricultural sector is seeing a rising population of digital networks and data merchants. The argument for the technological pathway echoes what was said of GMOs: to increase yields, slash harvest times, and ultimately reduce costs and environmental impact. This goes beyond genetic manipulation and aims at automated agriculture that would require little assistance from humans. The lure of the promise of precision agriculture where machines would take the supposed drudgery out of farming can be quite attractive to those who don’t see the wider picture of agriculture and foods.

In automated agriculture, systems are being developed that have ability to “monitor, feed, and harvest crops from seed through to sale. Automation combines the use of a wide array of sensors, computers, feeding mechanisms, and everybody’s favorite, robots. Complete automation is a nearly self-sustaining system that can handle all day-to-day activities on the farm. It all but removes the need for human staffing, which can be good or bad depending on how you look at it. One of the core resources of automation is a vast network of sensors.” 

With the ravages of COVID-19 and climate change, technofixes have become indeed so attractive that they have become highly fetishized and irresistible. We are made to believe that resilience and adaptation to the dawning future requires wholesale acceptance of crops generated in laboratories and farms run by artificial intelligence besides appetites and choices molded as we click on social media buttons. At this point we should pay attention to the points made by the ETC Group: Putting food security at the mercy of digital networks and potential data glitches worries governments and food movements alike. So does the plight of farmers (who are forced off the land into ‘smart cities’ and e-commerce villages, or reduced to digital out growers).

Some of the emerging tools, technologies and systems include the following:

Gene-editing, a new technique for altering the genetic make of plants, animals and humans. It is said to be a precise science, but results have been seen already showing that there are unintended outcomes. There are serious ethical concerns about its application, and these must be considered along with the pure scientific exercises.

Synthetic biology has been defined in many different ways. According to the CBD, “the key features of synthetic biology include the “de novo” synthesis of genetic material and an engineering-based approach to develop components, organisms and products. Synthetic biology builds on modern biotechnology methodologies and techniques such as high throughput DNA technologies and bioinformatics.”  It could also involve the redesigning of organisms for desired purposes or to have new abilities it would not have in nature. Synthetic biology has applications in agriculture, medicine and manufacturing.

Nanotechnology involves the manipulation or building of structures at nano or very tiny scale.

Robots like drones which are used to autonomously plant seeds, tend the crops and harvest them. Satellite imaging, weather tracking and possibly geoengineering can come into play. 

3D Food Printing – There are ongoing research on 3D printing of foods so that you can have the food you need with a combination of specifications at the press of a button. These would offer digitalised nutrition and customised food designs.

An History and a Future

From the signing of the National Biosafety Management Agency Act in 2015, things have taken a predictable downward spiral in Nigeria. Indeed, the dangerous slide probably began with the establishment of the National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA) in November 2001 on the strength of a National Biotechnology Policy adopted in April 2001.  Setting up an institution such as NABDA without a regulatory agency in place meant that Nigeria was a playing field for promoters of modern agricultural biotechnology without any oversight over the processes. Probably recognizing that they could not openly pursue their mandate, the agency became a major driver concerning what sort of regulatory agency should be put in place. And when NBMA was finally birthed, NABDA, the topmost official promoter of the technology assured itself a seat on the board of the regulatory agency. It can be said that NBMA is a baby of NADBA. As expected, this agency teamed up with an infamous company to obtain the early approvals for the official entry of GMOs into Nigeria.

Whereas the mandate of NABDA is the “promotion, coordination, and deployment of cutting-edge biotechnology research & development, processes, and products for the socio-economic well-being of the nation.” Its vision shoots first at “food security” before mentioning “job/wealth creation, affordable healthcare delivery, and sustainable environment.” The major campaigns and advocacy of these twin agencies have been on modern agricultural biotechnology or promotion of GMOs which they loudly proclaim as safe as though they were professing a religious doctrine and not a science prevalent with uncertainties and guided by precaution. 

The point we are making is that NBMA was principally set up to legitimize the aspirations of NADBA. The maiden State of Biosafety in Nigeria report issued by Health of Mother Earth Foundation shows how key principles of biosafety, including the Precautionary Principle, have been downplayed. It also shows how public consultation and opinion received scant attention in this crucial sector. HOMEF’s market shelves surveys conducted annually since 2018 show that there are several products with genetically engineered ingredients in our markets for which there are no approvals from the regulatory agency. We also note that there is no clear sync between agencies regulating foods that get to our market shelves and to dining tables. 

Recall that Nigeria was once a frontline state for the liberation of Africa from vestiges of colonialism. The nation has now become the soft entry point of risky technologies, agrochemicals and manifestations of agricultural neocolonialism into the continent. The Bt. cotton variety that failed in Burkina Faso is the same variety approved for cultivation in Nigeria indicating how much thought and rigour goes into the process here.

Dangers Ahead

The modern agricultural biotechnologies we are discussing are mostly the basic varieties involving the transfer of genetic materials from one specie to another to accord certain traits such as to be herbicide tolerance or being pesticidal. Emerging food technologies such as gene editing do not require cross species manipulations but can edit genes in a particular species with the aim of forcing certain traits or even triggering extinction.  Gene editing can readily be weaponized and should be a concern for our national biosecurity.

It is mindboggling for Nigeria to expand the scope of her biosafety regulation to cover gene editing and synthetic biology when the handling of the elementary versions has generated serious doubts and worries. The NBMA Act 2015 was amended in March 2019 to open the way for gene editing and synthetic biology applications by inserting their definitions in the Act. This was followed by Gene Editing Guidelines prepared and adopted by NBMA. The guidelines offer a peculiar process that allows some gene edited products to be approved without going through the rules governing the approval of GMOs if the agency reckons that the product does not contain any recombinant DNA. Meanwhile the Act, as amended, declares that no one would engage in gene editing without the approval of the regulatory agency. We note that the determination that the product has no recombinant DNA will be made by NBMA who would then allow gene editing to proceed unregulated and unhindered. More troubling is the fact that such approvals can be given within 21 days of the application being submitted to the NBMA. This approach of the NBMA if allowed to stand will completely expose Nigeria to grave risk.

Time to Retrace Steps

It is not too late for Nigeria to get out of the biotech hole before it turns into a bottomless pit. The so-called guidelines for gene-editing and extreme GMOs are dangerous and needless – just as the permission of GMOs has always been in Nigeria. We are at a time in this nation when simple mechanical equipment are not maintained; where refineries refine zero barrel of crude oil while guzzling humongous amounts of money; where for a nation of so many millions we barely manage to generate 4000 megawatts of electricity. We are in a nation where research and educational institutions are crying for basic equipment and receive scant attention. We are unfortunately in a nation wracked by corruption and insecurity. The flagship biotech laboratory in the country is in a temporary cabin. We do not need to add risky technologies that clearly pose a security threat to our peoples and environment.

As we have said elsewhere, the purpose of introducing the so-called definitions into the Biosafety Act was to create a crack in the door so as to open Nigeria to vested interest promoting the easy-to-weaponize and extinction-driving gene editing technology. NBMA has again shown itself to be determined to lead Nigeria and Nigerians on a path of no-return. This agency should be called to order. At no time should Nigerians be used as guinea pigs or laboratory rats.

Who is feeding the world? Who is feeding Nigerians? Who will feed us into the future? It is time for us to recognize the facts of our best interests and support agroecology, small holder farmers and provide their basic needs including infrastructure, storage/processing facilities and extension services. It is time to halt and completely overhaul the biosafety architecture in Nigeria and invest resources towards ensuring that our farmers get out of poverty and hunger and do what they have always done and struggle to continue to do.


Presentation at HOMEF’s Biosafety Conference held on 13 April 2021 in Abuja, Nigeria

What’s Wrong with our Food System?

One of the most important lessons of the COVID-19 pandemic is that life is best preserved when beings live in deference to one other. When species are not displaced from their habitats and when humans are not denied their rights to shelter, food and dignity. Lessons learned in the past one year must include that the quality of our food is key to the assurance of not just our health, but also our socio-economic wellbeing. It has been a time when those that have not touched the soil to plant a seed must be ashamed of their negligence and lack of care about where food comes from.

The restrictions and safety protocols that are part of the response to COVID-19 have included some that have hampered the productivity of our farmers. Think of farmers that could not access their farms or those that had no access to farming inputs. And do not forget the fishers who suffered from the same complications. And the herders too, except for those who camp in forests and whose jobs are only tangentially related to being cowboys. We salute our farmers for their solid adaptive capacities.

Policies with provisions guiding farming and food in our nation have generally not been the most progressive. While the colonial and immediate post-colonial era laid more emphasis on cash cropping for export, the current situation was birthed by two factors: the structural adjustment conditionalities of international financial institutions and the corruption that dependence on income from petroleum resources planted in the nation.

One would expect a nation, nay continent, that has been so dastardly exploited to demand for reparations by way of colonial, ecological or climate debt, but no, our leaders still kowtow to the same temples of exploitation, plead for more loans and sink deeper into the mire of hopeless debt.

The truth that small scale farmers are the ones feeding the world and cooling the planet cannot be over emphasized. The fact that the future of food (for humankind) lies in their hands was a key outcome of a multilateral study titled Agriculture at a Crossroads issued by the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development

(IAASTD). Today, nations under the pressure of big agribusiness keep a wilfully blind eye to this fact and ignore our small-scale farmers to our collective detriment. The dominant official doctrine is that only industrial agriculture, another name for plantation or colonial agriculture, can feed the world. Rather than promote technologies and innovations that would support and upscale the agroecological techniques employed by our farmers public structures are busy promoting the very systems that entrust power into the hands of a handful of big agribusinesses and philanthrocapitalists. This has spawned a system where concerns about safety, sustainability and ethical implications are discarded by the preaching of a catechism that insists only safe GMOs are permitted in Nigeria without telling the people which harmful GMOs have been rejected. This has built a system where our farmers are hooked on chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides that are known to harm soils and overall biodiversity on our farms.

Concerning the support for small-scale farmers, we are impressed by the announcement by the Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development that it has commenced the training of 1,110 extension agents in 36 states, including the Federal Capital Territory (FCT). The FAO gives the minimum ration of extension officers to farmers as 1:1000. Sadly, the ratio in Nigeria is about one extension officer to 10,000. Sabo Nanono, the minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, was right when he reportedly said that delivery of agricultural extension is the driver to having practical application of the products of agricultural research.

Recently the National Assembly passed the Plant Variety Protection Bill (2019) by which a Plant Variety Protection Office will be set up in the National Agricultural Seeds Council. According to reports, the Bill was promoted by actorsincluding the Agricultural Transformation in Africa (PIATA), Alliance for the Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), the Rockefeller Foundation, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and USAID.

The Bill’s explanatory memorandum states that it “seeks for the protection of Plant Varieties, to establish a Plant Variety Protection Office for the promotion of increased staple crop productivity for small holder farmers in Nigeria.” This claim is contestable seeing that the Bill actually seeks exclusive rights of investors or inventors to commercialise seeds and other propagating materials as a means of incentivising investments form national and multinational companies. Exclusive rights is another name for patenting. We are totally opposed to the patenting of life. Patenting of life forms is the turf of genetic engineering corporations and the key promoters of the law are all deeply steeped in that sector.

The point is that small scale farmers who actually feed our people are extremely disadvantaged when it comes to supports for food production by a lack of incentives and including by having an abysmal extension agent to farmer ratio. As if that was not bad enough, we now have a Plant Variety Protection bill that does not seek to protect local farmers managed seeds but places seeds firmly in the hands of speculators and promoters of varieties that may erode our biodiversity. 

We strongly believe that this is the time when government should invest massively in supports for small scale farmers by closing the ratio of available extension agents, promoting local seeds varieties, providing storage and processing facilities across the nation, supporting farmers cooperatives and providing infrastructure for ensuring that harvests get to the markets and small-scale farmers earn a decent income from their labour. These are some of the scaffolds for building a food and agricultural system that produces safe, nutritious and culturally appropriate foods for our peoples.

Welcome words by Nnimmo Bassey at HOMEF’s Dialogue with stakeholders on Food System and Food Policy on 24 March 2021 at Abuja, Nigeria

Standing on Living Soils… Looking back from the Future

We have got to a stage in the world where selfishness has been lifted up as national interest. It is a sad platform where inequalities have been hoisted as a virtue. Humans have become so smart that we think machines can replace us, replace relationships, replace agriculture. We even think we can relocate to destinations on asteroids or somewhere else in space! And the truth is that we are diminished by all that.

The Years of Repair challenges us to jump into the future and look at the paths by which we got there. It shows us the power of our imaginations and underscores the fact we can get to our preferred destinations by acknowledging the strength of going together in movements powered by love and solidarity.

Looking back requires that we step forward. Looking back from the past is an uninteresting, unimaginative and unproductive enterprise. Looking back from the future enables us to lay the paving stones that ensure we are not trapped in the quick sands of toxic relation with Nature. It helps us escape the entrapment inherent in the pursuit of primitive accumulation of capital and power.  It helps us show how sterile racism, colonialism and imperialism are. It takes us to the end, restores our faith in humanity, and takes us back penitent and renewed. 

Washing hands should not stop us from seeing each other’s hands and learning from the hands that promote our entangled dreams.

We cannot afford to dream alone. And after a good dream it doesn’t make sense to remain prostrate in dreamland. After a good dream it is time to get up and jump into the struggles to build the dream. 

We learned key lessons from the pandemic … 

Brave smallholder farmers hold the key feeding the world. They are ignored everywhere, never bailed out and never helped even as they point the right way forward as agriculture gets to the crossroads. 

Real farming frames the imaginations of today and tomorrow …

Real farming brings back to life soils killed by agrotoxics.

Real farmers fight against seed laws that criminalize the use of indigenous seeds and stifle knowledge and local wisdom. 

Real farmers halt the erosion of native species that are truly climate smart and reject the promotion of alien species that are truly climate dumb.

Agri without culture is the highway to disease, pandemics and extinctions. 

This mindset tramples on Mother Earth ignores critical creatures such as worms and a variety of pollinators that labour to ensure we stay alive.

Healthy soils produce healthy foods and healthy populations 

Healthy soils produce healthy crops that are strong enough to resist pests 

Trouble is humans operating behind corporate shields are not just the worst pests but are incurable and insatiable predators…

Farmers are essential workers. The time has come to insist that essential works must no longer be discounted and overlooked

Sparks change things. We are the spark needed for the change and transformation that must happen

We truly need to repair relationships 

At personal levels: pay the debt of love

At collective levels: pay the Climate and ecological debts 

The building blocks to the future on the finite planet rejects destructive exploitation of nature, refuses any act that promotes species extinction and trashes the dignity of our peoples.

These building blocks hold corporations accountable for ecocide — whether they are in the extractive or colonial agricultural sectors.

It all boils down to building systems of care and repair to ensure that Mother Earth is not sacrificed and that our peoples are not sacrificed on the altar of capital.

Life Sustaining Soils 

Soil is the skin and flesh of the Earth. It is a source of life. We are sons and daughters of the soil. Earth rootedness holds a key to building global citizenship, securing the commons and propagating love both for humans and for the Earth.

A handful of fertile soil however contains thousands of species, billions of bacteria and other microscopic organisms. 

Each organism in the soil system has a function in the food web with some specialising in the decomposition of matter while others help in the dispersal of dead organic matter. There is a living give-and-take economy beneath our feet that we must bend down to learn.

The linear and extractivist mindset has led to a rapid deteriorating of soils worldwide.

Economies of exploitation that sees labour as disposable and nonessential and continuously looks for ways to replace humans. 

Bad soils and land grabs lead to displacement, forced migration and at times outright violence. We easily forget that there is a loss of knowledge and culture when farmers are displaced to seek livelihoods in cities

Healthy soils are spongy and retain water while poor parched soils are more impervious get easily eroded. Urbanization and cementification of soils… Killing of soils!

In contrast to the barren concrete landscapes, healthy soils are great carbon sink. We can learn to regenerate our lands through simple, inexpensive but tested methods including the 

Farmer-Managed Natural Regeneration (FMNR) and the rebuilding of soils using the indigenous Zai technology as in Burkina Faso

As Gandhi said, “the earth provides enough to satisfy everyone’s needs, but not a few people’s greed”. 

The scare of scarcity — hides the cause of scarcity and hunger. Appropriation of the commons, exclusion and conversion into private properties and for-profit speculators and so-called investors are grabbing millions of hectares of fertile land/soil without any concerns for local populations. Locals turned into outgrows or outright farmyard slaves.

Economies that do not recognize the intrinsic value of Nature and the continuous nurturing contribution of Mother Earth.  These spurn socio-economic injustices. Competition that tramples cooperation and displacement of farmers disconnects millions not just from there farm but from the soil.

The dependence on herbicides and crops genetically engineered to withstand them has led to the rise of super weeds. These super weeds emerge as an attempt by nature to repair the ruptures created by humans. A way of human-proofing biodiversity. We have to come to the realization that one man’s weed may well be another man’s vegetable.

In all, we must never forget that there are consequences to every action. And we must bear in mind that we all have a common duty of care or repair. We have a duty of rebuilding relationships with the soil and with one another.

——-

Above are thoughts from conversations on the Message from the Future (Oxford Real Farming Conference 2021) and on Living Soils (Navdanya International’s Earth University).

An Eye on Biosafety

The natural world is a resilient world. A major way by which this resilience is built and preserved is through diversity. Diversity raises the chances of survival of species if a part of the group is attacked or altered by some freak incidents. Diversity within species sometimes enhance multiple usage due to their colour, texture, smell and taste. For example, there are about 50 maize varieties in the world today, but the most common are the white or yellow ones. Today a number of these varieties are genetically modified to either tolerate certain herbicides or to produce toxins that kill off some pests.

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

What has not been mythical concerning the technology is the fact that it has been pushed relentlessly byphilanthrocapitalists and related business speculators. The narratives that keep the risky and failed technology alive is mostly fetish. People tend to think that technology can solve every problem. More importantly, the push is empowered by neocolonialism and control. Willing warrant chiefs get elevated and integrated into systems where they have ready access to beads, whiskies and gunpowder. 

Failure is wished away and risks and rejected. Two examples. First is that it was in the same year that genetically modified cotton (Bt. Cotton) failed spectacularly in Burkina Faso that Nigeria approved the same variety for release in the country. That permit was issued on a public holiday that also happened to be a Sunday (1 May 2016). By December 2019 the National Biosafety Management Agency had issued 13 permits for various types of GMOs. 

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

The process of subjugation of our agriculture and food systems to corporate interests goes on in various tracks. GMO food products flood our markets without much regulation. HOMEF conducts annual market shelves surveys and finds GMO products in shops and markets across the nation. Most are brought in without any form of authorization by the relevant agency, beyond the NAFDAC numbers on them. 

There was an interesting case of a seizure of over $9m worth of genetically modified maize imported by WACOT from Argentina. After much theatre orchestrated by the NBMA, the Nigeria Customs, the NASS and the Federal Executive Council, the seized maize were ordered to be sent back as they were imported without approval. Within weeks, the importer applied for a permit to import genetically modified maize and was granted a three years license to import GM maize at will.   

Here is how the NBMA explained their about-turn on this matter:

‘NBMA confirmed that WACOT imported GMO maize in December 2017 and explained that it was after the firm had applied and met all regulatory conditions necessary for approval as prescribed by NBMA, which the firm was unable to do at the time its goods were not allowed entry into Nigeria. ‘’The Agency issued some permits and due processes were followed in the course of reviewing the applications and ensuring that all the necessary requirements are met before the permits were granted,’’ she stated.’ The agency also accused HOMEF of making unpatriotic comments concerning the WACOT matter.

The second wave of GMOs have since been released in the world without much regulatory restraints. These are of the gene drive types and already find application in manufacturing. They have been called extinction technologies as they have the capacity of wiping out targeted species within a few generations. An experiment towards wiping out anopheles mosquitoes in Burkina Faso is being attempted. Nigeria is a whistle away with the amendment of the NBMA Act to include gene drives and synthetic biology!

Researchers believe that the new GMOs have the potential to transform our natural world and even how humans relate to it. According to Friends of the Earth USA, “Gene drives force a genetically engineered trait to be expressed in every single generation, driving engineered traits through an entire species to permanently change it or cause it to go extinct.” Needless to say that this technology poses a threat to human safety as they can easily be weaponized or even used to trigger a pandemic.

Welcome words at HOMEF’s Biosafety Roundtable held on 24.11.2020 in Abuja


The Guardians of Neocolonialism

Let us begin by saying that colonialism is not yet history in Africa, or in the world. The global trade architecture has been in place for centuries and has been engineered by transnational corporations and international financial institutions as the chief guardians of neocolonialism and institutionalised thievery. Their interests are assured through the preservation of these mechanisms.

Transnational Corporations (TNCs) grew out of deep colonial roots. They are products of imperial geopolitics whose levers they hold, manipulate and tilt to suit their profit-making propensities. They have succeeded thus far because of careful modes of manipulation, erasure and replacement of imaginations as well as histories. The strength of neocolonialism lies in the perpetuation of coloniality. 

Coloniality, for those not familiar with the concept, has been described as “the living legacy of colonialism in contemporary societies in the form of social discrimination that outlived formal colonialism and became integrated in succeeding social orders.” It talks of “racial, political and social hierarchical orders imposed by European colonialism in Latin America that prescribed value to certain peoples/societies while disenfranchising others.”

In many instances, transnational corporations were the original colonialists, invading territories with their bands of mercenaries and harvesting profits for imperial powers. As their direct rule became expensive and untenable, they handed over political and administrative control to their home governments who then provided the security needed for continued plunder by the corporations. That system continues today and persists under the reign of neocolonialism. And there are many subtle and not so subtle tools that keep the system going. 

Foreign direct investments (FDIs) is one of the key tools of benign neocolonialism. Nations get to compete for foreign investments and in doing so lower regulatory and other bars so as to ensure the ease of doing business. There is even a so-called ease of doing business index! 

The notion of integration into globalised markets and value chains further instigate the watering down of biosafety laws and right to save and use indigenous seeds.

Translational corporations or colonial governments entrenched the idea of plantation production. Plantations thrived under conditions of slavery and extreme exploitation of labour. Today they drive monocultures including through industrial agriculture. The idea goes with the notion of cash cropping which emphasises the idea of food as a commodity and disrupts the relationship of agriculture with nature and culture. Plantations inexorably lead to land grabs, deforestation, starvation and cruelty. They can be said to be centres of dispossession and displacements.

The World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other international financial institutions (IFIs)are the ultimate guardians of neocolonialism. While maintaining humane faces due to their placement in multilateral spaces, they can be vicious and unforgiving in their deals.

The Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) of the 1980s and 1990s stand as clear examples of how to wreck, emasculate and impoverish nations using economic pressures. Those programmes eliminated support for public institutions including in the health, educational, agricultural, manufacturing and other sectors. Nations that were net food exporters suddenly became food importers. Economic conditionalities imposed on the former colonies literally brought them to their knees before their former colonialists. Nations that previously had healthy foreign reserves became so poor they competed to be classified as highly indebted poor countries so as to access some crumbs. Each effort to escape the clutches of the IFIs sucked these nations deeper into the traps of odious debt.

Export Processing Zones grew from way back in history and are still popular in neocolonial states. These are presented as launch pads for development for poor countries whereas they are zones of plunder. One analyststated that “The EPZ is an economic legation for FDI to operate free from the Nigerian tax laws, levies, duties and foreign exchange regulations.”

These are enclaves without links to the rest of the economy and ensure that TNCs enjoy reduced costs, better or dedicated infrastructure and are laws unto themselves. It is not surprising that fossil fuel companies and other extractive sector companies find these zones as the ultimate locations for their insatiable grasps at profit without responsibility or accountability to the nations in which they operate.

Neocolonial Extractivism thrives on irresponsible exploitation of Nature and labour. Indeed, labour is often seen as disposable as was clearly illustrated by the Marikana mines massacre of 2012 in South Africa. All the workers demanded was better wages. 34 miners were cut down. And of course, the army of the unemployed provides a ready pool for replacements. 

With Africa holding 30% of the world’s known mineral reserves, her attractiveness to the exploiters will not fade anytime soon.

We note that corporations strive to exploit the continent even when the value of the resources they seek wanes. Case in point is the widespread search for crude oil and gas in Africa. As oil companies see their fortunes dropping and the world appearing to shift in the direction of renewable energy resources, we learn that these companies are investing in producing more plastics and earning a whopping $400 billion annually. These will thrash the planet and compound the problems associated with the impact of climate change. And, because recycling may not match the mountains of wastes being generated, the polluting nations are looking to use Africa as a continental waste dump.

Recall that in 1991, Lawrence Summers, an economist with the World Bank had declared that many countries in Africa are vastly under polluted.  He also justified why toxic wastes could be dumped in Africa without conscience or consequences. The argument was that the population was dying anyway, as their life expectancy was lower than that of the polluting nations. Here him: “The measurement of the cost of health-impairing pollution depends on the forgone earnings from increased morbidity and mortality …I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that.”

The theft of Africa’s natural resources by TNCs is an open secret. It is believed that about $50 billion has been lost annually over the last 50 years through illicit financial flows. This sum trumps the economic aid the continent receives annually.  While the plunder goes on, the IFIs and multilateral agencies blame the economic situation in Africa on poor governance and corruption. The colonial and neocolonial roots of the challenges are hardly whispered. Consider what the Bank of Ghana said about the share of the wealth that the country receives from the mining sector:

The amount that goes to communities directly impacted by the mining industry is 0.11%, and the government of Ghana received a total of less than 1.7% share of the global returns from its own gold. Clearly, it is not the “corruption” of the government officials that brings Ghana only 1.7% of the gold revenues. When the World Bank and IFIs blame “poor governance” and corruption they are simply wilfully and conveniently overlooking the systemic larceny by the TNCs. They ignore the systemic plunder that has been engineered by colonialism and neocolonialism over the years.

Unfortunately, many of us are sucked into the “governance” debate without recognizing the tragic reality that neoliberal capitalism deepens the extractive-export model in the Global South that continues to lead to displacement, destruction of the environment, new dependencies, and recolonization. If we do not call a spade a spade, we will continue to endure a regime of deflected actions and continue to pace the burden on the poor while carbon slavery, unfair/ undifferentiated responsibilities and ecocide assault the continent.

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Bassey’s Talking points on a webinar hosted by Justiça Ambiental (Friends of the Earth Mozambique), on 16.09.2020, on the theme Transnational Corporations, the World Bank and the Global Trade Architecture: Guardians of neocolonialism?

The Colour Blue is not the Problem with the Blue Economy

The color blue is not the problem with the blue economy. We often hear that sustainable development stands on three legs of social equity, economic viability and environmental protection. The intersection of these three leads to sustainability.  The challenge is that these three are rarely given equal consideration when actions are being taken. A careful consideration of the impacts of alterations or transformations in the environment leads to less degradation and ensures less destruction of habitats. Economic measures aimed at profit accumulation will ride on the exploitation of nature and labour to the detriment of the environment. Measures taken will dress business as usual in the garbs of technological advancement and innovative ideas. Where social inclusion in decision making and implementation is not a cardinal consideration, unethical and immoral decisions may be the outcome. Such decisions may cause divisions in society, entrench inequalities and promote racism and xenophobia. These are issues we have to keep at the back of our minds as we continue.

The world has been engulfed in crises arising from turmoil in the social, economic and environmental spheres. The climate crisis is one of the most challenging problems of our age. Analysts agree that the crisis is a result of a deeply flawed economic model that sees nature as an inexhaustible source of materials including the non-renewable ones like coal, oil and gas. This mindset has led to massive deforestation, and monoculture agriculture leading to nutritional deficiencies. It has generally encouraged over consumption, wastage and the driving of species to extinction. It goes without saying that of the three legs of sustainability, it is the economic one that takes precedent, creates the problems and is at the same time presented as the solution. Some of the economic bandages applied to the multiple crises engulfing the world include the Green Economy and the Blue Economy. If we are not careful the Green New Deal may end up being another of these.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) proposed a response in the form of a Global Green New Deal (GGND) aimed at using the multiple-crises as an opportunity for transformation through placing green investment at the core of stimulus packages, including green investment in regular government budgets and creating public-private green investment funding mechanisms. It also proposed the provision of domestic enabling conditions (fiscal/pricing policy, standards, education and training and global enabling conditions covering trade, intellectual; property rights, overseas development aid, technology transfer and environmental agreements.

UNEP sees the Green Economy as the “process of reconfiguring businesses and infrastructure to deliver better returns on natural, human and economic capital investments, while at the same time reducing greenhouse gas emissions, extracting and using less natural resources, creating less waste and reducing social disparities.” This statement reinforces the exploitative business as usual model that is driving the world towards the precipice. The Green Economy hinges on the commodification of nature.

Applying the mercantilist notion of the Green Economy to the seas, rivers and other water bodies will further erode the seeing of the gifts of nature as things that should be protected, preserved and nurtured from an intergenerational perspective.  This is imperative because over 200 million Africans draw their nutrition from freshwater and ocean fish and over 10 million depend on them for income.

Africa literally floats on water. She is surrounded by water. The Blue Economy covers the use of aquatic species, including those found in the creeks, rivers, lakes, oceans and underground water. It covers fisheries, tourism, transport, energy, bioprospecting, marine biotechnology and underwater mining. These will clearly have serious negative impacts on the integrity of our aquatic ecosystems. 

An African Union official sees the Blue Economy as “Africa’s hidden treasure” and declared that the “potential of oceans, lakes and rivers is unlimited.” He further added that the Blue Economy would move Africa “from an economy of harvests from limited resources to an economy of harvesting unlimited resources if we organize ourselves well. With the exploitation of resources come also sustainable financial means. But to approach this revolution we must completely change our perspective.” This vision raises a lot of red flags. Firstly, there is nothing that is limitless on a finite or limited planet. This idea of unlimited resources is what has gotten us into the current ruinous state, at national as well as global levels. 

We must understand that the Blue Economy is about the exploitation of water bodies. Just like land grabbing is raging across Africa, the Blue Economy will unleash an exacerbated sea grab on the continent. Already, marine resources on our continental shelf are being mindlessly plundered and trashed. The Blue Economy will solidify this trend. Maritime insecurity will intensify, and our artisanal fishers will be at great risk. Deep sea mining will increase the pollution of our water bodies. It is speculated that marine biotechnology can bring Africa up to $5.9 billion by 2022, but in a continent with very lax biosafety regulations this will mean reckless exploitation, contamination of local species and exposure to more risks and harms.

We conclude by iterating that the Blue Economy portends great danger for Africa. Besides the illogic of limitless aquatic resources, the economic template could open our oceans for risky geoengineering experimentations ostensibly to flight global warming. What we need is not cosmetic programmes that lock in the current ruinous track but a completely overhauled economic system built on the picture of a future that is truly socially inclusive, environmentally sustainable and economically just. These are just a few red flags on the Blue Economy.

 

Welcome words at the School of Ecology session on Blue Economy Blues. 10.09.2020


Pandemic Tales

We are happy to share this collection of short stories triggered by the The COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic has exposed global vulnerabilities and challenged individuals and nations to wake up from slumber and take actions that recognize our planetary limits. The responses to the pandemic have revealed a high level of unpreparedness across the world. Lockdowns and other measures crushed the poor and heightened their exposure to the virus. The informal sector, already unsupported, got thrashed by repressive response measures.

Despite the challenges of collapsing state structures and economies, we took this as a time to think and find ways to overcome the miseries presented by the failed systems. We took this as a time to organise, even if we are/were physically isolated.  We reminded ourselves that the virus will not change anything that we (the people) won’t change. In other words, the change that will frame the post pandemic era will come from humans, our relationship with each other and with Nature. The push for change will inevitably revolve around our interpretation of what is happening around us and our resolve to act. This revolves around the narratives that we frame, formulate and allow. Understanding that our lives are framed, powered and guided by stories, we sought the interpretation of the socio-ecological and health crises through the tales in this collection. We welcome you to the trip in the imaginaries.

Download and read A Walk in the Curfew .

The COVID-19 Centre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Pull of the Mangroves and the Sea

Jerri ChidiThere is something about water that draws humans and other living beings. Could it be the fact that up to 60 percent of the human body is made up of water? When people say that water is life, the meaning goes deeper than the fact that water quenches our thirst, refreshes us and generally feeds us. It also refers to the fact that water provides the environment for aquatic species to thrive and generally for a vast variety of fauna and flora.

One of the tree species that gives an unforgettable presence once your eyes lock on them is the mangrove. If you are fisher, the sight of a mangrove forest signifies the abundance of fish. No matter who you are, the stately and entangled stilt roots lining a coastline, with a dense canopy of branches and leaves, are captivating pictures to behold.

The pull of the endless expanse of the sea and the pull of the terrestrial verdant mangrove canopies on the coastline engage in continuous battle of who would hold captive the coastline communities as well as the fishers. This push and pull gives creative impetus to fishers who sing as they row out into the sea and as they row back with their catch to the expectant reception of families and friends. What would life be in a Niger Delta without mangroves?

The generous aesthetics and socio-economic pull of the mangrove environment along the Nigerian coastline got Jerry Chidi, a documentary photographer, to make the journeys along the banks of our major rivers as well as along the Atlantic coast from Badagry to Bakassi over a period of ten years. His output is a testament to focus, tenacity and high crafts from a man who sees photography as medium for awakening of consciousness. He describes his photography as a “medium for inspiration and social awakening… not only to entertain us but to also arouse in us feelings of empathy and deep connection to other beings, places or social issues and ultimately to move us to action.”

Chidi memorialised his photographs in the book, Man and Mangroves – An Environmental Awakening. The book, a catalogue of visuals that demand responses and actions, in 146 photographs, documents the beauty of the mangrove, the foods and the livelihoods they support. Importantly, it shows the severe damage and mindless despoliation that reckless exploitation of the environment has brought about.

Mangroves have roots that grow above the ground and often form intricately tangled forms that only Nature can weave. The roots are not above water for mere aesthetic effects. They are above water because the plants breathe through pores on them. The roots help the trees to breathe because the muddy soils in which they grow are poorly aerated. The trees shoot their roots into the air, literally to avoid suffocation. It is like they hold their breath in high tide and take in as much air as they can in low tide.

The book sets before our eyes incontrovertible evidence of the great ecological devastation and economic ruination visited on the Niger Delta by oil and gas exploitation as well as by the illegal activities of some community persons. The book shows how poverty gets entrenched in a region drowning in wealth. There are sections in the book that show before and after images of the same location and starkly illustrate the sharp deterioration that has occurred in a short span of 3 to 5 years.

Man and Mangroves illustrates the wealth that Nature has bequeathed to coastal communities. The pictures can speak for coastal communities whose mangroves have been devastated for touristic infrastructure or for industrial activities including forms of aquaculture across the tropics. Some of the photos echo the destruction of mangroves in Asia that exposed communities to devastating impacts of cyclones as well as in a place in Brazil which fisherfolks call the Cemetery of Mangroves due to destruction of mangroves there by hydrocarbon pollution and fires.

Mangroves are rightly considered as an important source of life and protector and supporter of coastal towns and communities. They are important place-markers and add to the identity, traditions and cultures of the peoples interacting with them.

Mangroves are trees or shrubs mostly found in tropical regions and which grow in tidal, coastal swamps. They grow in brackish or saltwater marshes and swamps and do well in harsh environments that other plants can hardly tolerate. The point to note here is the fact that although mangroves tolerate brackish or saltwater, they do also grow in freshwater swamps. There are many species of mangroves, but the most common are of the red or white varieties.

The mangrove forests in Nigeria are the largest in Africa and the third largest in the world. While they can be found all the way from the western (Badagry) to eastern (Bakassi) extremities of the Atlantic coastline of Nigeria, 60 percent of them are found in the Niger Delta.

They have roots that grow above the ground and often form intricately tangled forms that only Nature can weave. The roots are not above water for mere aesthetic effects. They are above water because the plants breathe through pores on them. The roots help the trees to breathe because the muddy soils in which they grow are poorly aerated. The trees shoot their roots into the air, literally to avoid suffocation. It is like they hold their breath in high tide and take in as much air as they can in low tide.

This breathing strategy fails when there is an oil spill. The pores through which they breathe get clogged by crude oil and the trees actually begin to suffer from loss of air and some literally suffocate. If trees could talk, they would cry out they can’t breathe! Besides being breathing roots, the stilts also help to stabilize the trees as they get older and bigger and have to contend with fairly unstable soils. The trees provide materials for construction, boat building and fuel. The leaves are medicinal and are also used for livestock feed. They help to cool the planet by serving as efficient carbon sinks.

Many fish species find the tangled mangrove roots as good places to lay their eggs and for the juveniles to thrive in. The mangroves are thus natural nurseries for fisheries. About 75 percent of global fish catch come from mangrove ecosystems. They make up about 4 percent of the vegetation on earth but provide nests for most marine life. Aquatic species found in the Niger Delta mangrove ecosystems include crabs, clams, shellfish, crayfish and shrimps which are caught at low tide. They also include species like the West Africa manatee, sea turtles and pygmy hippopotamus.

It is estimated that for every 0.4 hectare (1 acre) of mangrove forest destroyed there is a loss of about 300 kg of marine harvest. We often say #FishNotOil. Considering the fundamental importance of mangroves, we may also say #MangroveNotOil. Absorbing 2-4 times more carbon than other trees, mangroves certainly help to cool the planet while fossil fuels set the planet on fire. The mangroves are incubators of economies, cultures and overall wellbeing. On the other hand, fossil fuels pollution destroys livelihoods, build despondency and ignite conflicts.

Mangroves are important, indeed vital, for both aquatic species and for humans who depend on them. They reduce the vulnerability of coastlines to sea level rise, hurricanes, cyclones and storms. The loss of mangroves along the Nigerian coast is one reason coastal communities exposed to unrelenting sea waves are losing ground. Coastlines with less disturbed mangrove forests suffer less damage from storms and tsunamis than the coastlines that have been taken over by infrastructure including luxury resorts. In other words, faulty business activities lead to exposure of vulnerable communities to harm.

According to Devinder Sharma in an article, Tsunami, Mangroves and Market Economy, “Mangrove swamps have been nature’s protection for the coastal regions from the large waves, weathering the impact of cyclones, and serving as a nursery for three-fourth of the commercial fish species that spend part of their life cycle in the swamps. Mangroves in any case were one of the world’s most threatened habitats but instead of replanting the mangrove swamps, faulty economic policies only hastened its disappearance.” He writes that mangroves provide double protection at shorelines, with the first layer of red mangroves absorbing shock from waves using their flexible branches and tangled roots.  Adding to this first line of defense is a second layer that is made up of  taller black mangroves that “operate like a wall withstanding much of the sea’s fury.”

Mangrove Book

Seeing that the largest mangrove forest in Africa is in Nigeria, their destruction translates to a major threat to fisheries on the continent and to the economies and wellbeing of coastal communities and fishers. In the words of Professor Olanrewaju Fagbohun, “It is our collective responsibility …to ensure that our presence in the environment does not alter its eco-dynamics. A destabilized mangrove would have dire social and environmental consequences in the short and long run.”

A word of wisdom from Desmond Majekodunmi: protecting our mangroves is a step towards halting the ongoing infanticide and ecocide in the Niger Delta.