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.

———————————-

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


Don’t Muddy Our Waters

AtollLamusFreshwater and Marine Ecosystems in the the Gulf of Guinea and the Congo Basin face a lot of challenges and this year’s World Oceans Day offers us a good anchor for reflection. The theme of this year’s World Oceans Day is Innovation for a Sustainable Ocean. Innovation resonates readily because it speaks of new ideas, methods and ways of doing or using something. It speaks also of products and exploitation. Like most concepts, innovation is not value neutral. This calls for a careful consideration of what uptakes may arise from innovative ocean use. The theme aligns with SDG 14 – Life Below Water. Targets of this SDG include reducing marine pollution including those from land-based activities. It also targets the management and protection of marine and coastal ecosystems in ways that do not yield negative impacts.

The Atlantic coastline of the Niger Delta and its network of rivers and creeks is notorious for being heavily impacted by oil spills, produced water and chemical wastes. The oceans have become huge sewage dumps for polluting industries. While floating plastic “continents” have caught global attention, oil spills frequently get pushed to the bottom of the sea with fractions evaporating into the atmosphere, avoiding notice until bits float to the coastline or are picked up by fishers struggling to make a living in the polluted seas. Spectacular offshore oil spills here include Shell’s 40,000 barrels Bonga oil spill of 2011 and the one from a Texaco (Chevron) offshore station in 1980 that released 400,000 barrels into the ocean. It is estimated that about 1 million barrels of crude oil are dumped into the Niger Delta environment annually. According to the National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency (NOSDRA) Nigeria has an average of five (5) oil spills daily and has had 1,300 oil spills in the last two years.

Besides oil production, other industries are serious threats to the oceans. The phosphate factory at Kpeme, Togo, pumps industrial waste directly into the Atlantic coast, turning the water green for up to 1.5 kilometres into sea and rendering the area a dead zone for fisheries. Phosphate factories equally pollute the Atlantic Ocean with heavy metals at El Jadida-Safi coastal zone in Morocco.

Our freshwater ecosystems are under threat because of the offhanded manner they are treated. Rivers and lagoons get contaminated by industrial effluent and offshore extractive industries simply load the ocean with wastes and are not accountable to anyone. In sum, it is tragic that our rivers, creeks, lakes and seas are often seen as waste dumps.

The story does not end there. Considering the energy deficit in Africa, energy projects get many excited. Consider the grand Inga hydropower project in Democratic Republic of Congo. While being touted as an infrastructural development that will power and light up Africa, the local people believe the main beneficiaries will be the extractive industries in the region. They believe that there will be major disruptions of the freshwater ecosystem and that they will be left to suffer the negative impacts of such an infrastructural development on the world’s deepest river and the second longest in Africa.

The Inga III Dam to be located at the mouth of the Congo River is attracting finance from China and from the African Development Bank (AfDB). While we like to see the AfDB support and finance energy projects on the continent, they should be circumspect about funding projects that would have huge negative repercussions for Africa’s biodiversity and her peoples, just as they did by withdrawing support for the Coal Power plant at Lamu, Kenya. The decision showed the bank’s consideration for public opinion as well as the adverse climate change realities the power plant would contribute to. The bank cannot do any less with regard to the Inga III Dam project considering the dire impacts it would have as we hear from grassroots activists opposed to the project.

Rather than allow the World Ocean Day to be another opening for talk shops we are determined to make it a day of deep reflections from a people’s perspective on the state of our marine and freshwater ecosystems with a view to outlining concrete steps towards protecting them. One of our key recommendations is that it is time for the creation or expansion of protected Freshwater and Marine Areas in the Gulf of Guinea, the Congo Basin and in other inland lakes and rivers.

Health of Mother Earth Foundation has just issued a Policy Paper calling for the creation of Marine and Freshwater protected areas in Nigeria. The paper is adaptable for other countries in the Gulf of Guinea and Congo Basin. It states “There is need to develop institutional framework and an all-inclusive marine protected areas policy to protect the marine ecosystem against destructive and extinctive practices. Although there are no official gazettes of Freshwater or Marine Protected Areas in Nigeria, community people through cultural and local knowledge have led and managed the creation of protected areas, protection of some aquatic animal species and even scheduling of fishing periods.” The issue of recognizing indigenous knowledge and practices is central to the call. We insist that protected areas must not deprive local populations of access to ecosystem resources. Any such protected areas must have provisions that are gender sensitive and socially inclusive.

We are also concerned that innovation in the oceans may herald the upscaling of plans to implement the Blue Economy concept which we see as an aquatic version of the Green Economy. The concern here is that just as the Green Economy epitomises the commodification of Nature, the literal placing of Nature on the market shelf, the Blue Economy will lead to partitioning and grabbing of our aquatic ecosystems with the attendant rise of extractive activities such as deep sea mining, marine biotechnology and bioprospecting.

It is time to raise the capacity of our fishers to monitor aquatic ecosystems, share knowledge, map threatened and valuable species, network with other fishers within and across borders. Water is life is not a mere slogan. It is declaration that must be fought for. Many see water as a resource that is limitless, conveniently forgetting that only three (3) percent of Earth’s water is freshwater and only 1.2 percent can be used as drinking water while the rest are inaccessible in ice caps, permafrost or way down in the ground. Thinking about that should be sobering.

 

*Welcome words by Nnimmo Bassey at the Freshwater Ecosystem Convergence/webinar on 08 June 2020.

We Must Breathe Again

Social distances widen

graphics by Chaz Maviyane-Davies

As physical distances shrink

We saw this didn’t you

As the knees of the murderous cops

Dug into the neck and body of George Floyd

I can’t breathe!

As the fires flash

As the bullets fly

As murderous dogs

And never-heard-off-weapons of destruction are unleashed

From the white-washed-house of weapons of hate

They must hear our shouts

I can’t breathe!

Flights of fancy, flags of disgust dock the orbits above our heads 

As citizens black and white, yellow and red

And others far and near  

Kneel in solidarity 

Against racism

Against slavery

Against colonialism 

Against imperialism 

Declaring

I can’t breathe!

Until the philosophy 
Which hold one race superior and another
Inferior
Is finally
And permanently
Discredited
And abandoned
Everywhere is war
Me say

I can’t breathe!

Fists in the air

We kneel in solidarity 

A collective push for international solidarity 

And declare: never again

Will the virus of hate and racism

Take away the breath of our people

We must breathe again!

The Irony of Growth

 

The rage of the Covid-19 pandemic has been as astonishing as any epic disaster can be. What startles some of us more is the unabashed projection that millions of Africans will die, probably as soon as the pandemic ends at the current epicentres. How come some of these analysts speak with so much certainty and do not suggest that they are merely projecting from indices that only they know? My deep hope is that their projections do not get validated. I know you might say that this is about science and not a matter of what our wish may be. But, what will the power brokers of this world do if the pandemic never takes root in Africa or in more places in the global south?

While the pandemic persists and we are on lockdown across the world, we have time to look at the world and the power plays at work. So many lives have been snuffed out. So many health workers have been exposed. The poor have been herded into ramshackle shacks, in stadia and some open fields since they could not say their homelessness or flimsy shacks back home were any better. The stratifications in societies are laid bare for all to see and to feel.

One thing that is stark at this time is the fact that disasters offer opportunities for profit. Whereas this should be a moment for a rethink of systems of production, distribution and consumption, the battle cry appears to be on how to bail out sectors that are most implicated in persisting socio-economic and climate crises in the world. Workers get laid off while corporate executives receive hefty pay cheques.

At a time when the social wellbeing of the majority of the people ought to be the concern of everyone, the focus is on how to cushion the inconveniences of the 1 percent. In the current paradigm, economic growth trumps the social wellbeing of the people; growth at any cost, even if workers are to be discounted and hurled away in body bags.

The pandemic has revealed the spirit of solidarity in cities and nations. Citizens journalists have brought us heart-warming videos of neighbours joyfully banging pans or singing together from isolated balconies. We have seen free donations of supplies to help health workers and to bridge the food shortage gap for persons trapped without cash or access to food.

We have also seen individuals, despots and autocrats using the pandemic as a cover for racism, xenophobia and abuse. Politicians have used the emergency as an excuse to shut national borders as though the coronavirus could be stopped by a wall or by the border police for that matter. Myopia can be a disease as dangerous as Covid-19.

The pandemic has given a reprieve or a sabbath of rest to Mother Earth. The skies are clear and quiet. Water ways are cleaner in some countries. Wildlife is free to go wild in many places. We must not allow the message that the lockdown could help show the direction of climate action to be buried by those profiting from dirty energy.

International financial institutions and governments persist in assessing the state of national and global economies by the discredited Gross Domestic Product (GDP) measure. When a defective measure such as the GDP is used in gauging the state of any economy, it is easy to see that actions to improve on such economies are bound to be defective. The GDP has been largely weaponized over the years to beat less powerful nations into line. It has been used by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) as a measuring rod or diagnostic tool by which they prescribe and enforce unpalatable, unhelpful and ruinous policies. Today nations are wincing as the drop in GDP stares them in the face.

Actions to shore up GDPs can be a measure of the deftness of statisticians. It is a cloak that covers the raw wounds of consciences of corporate and political leaders. It is amazing that with so much destruction in the world, global GDP is not rising. Has it stopped taking destructions as domestic products?

The impact of the pandemic on the crude oil market should wake us up to the power of the fossil fuel sector over politicians and political sectors. Imagine the fact that the production cost of a barrel of crude in Nigeria is about 30 dollars whereas in some other countries the cost is as low as 5 dollars. What is unique about the Niger Delta that makes oil production so expensive here? This is a pertinent question considering that the region has earned a place as one of the top ten most polluted places on earth, thanks to free reign of ecological corruption, corporate irresponsibility and environmental racism.

The pandemic has given a reprieve or a sabbath of rest to Mother Earth. The skies are clear and quiet. Water ways are cleaner in some countries. Wildlife is free to go wild in many places. We must not allow the message that the lockdown could help show the direction for climate action to be buried by those profiting from dirty energy. The bailout being contemplated for banks and corporate entities could very well be aimed at reshaping the power sector from fossil dependence to a renewable energy system. Let’s bail out the peoples for once and not focus on the drivers of the multiple crises in the world.

It is time to decouple the interests of corporate CEOs from those of political leaders even though they appear to be mutually reinforcing, just as in some cases the “pandemic and corruption are mutually reinforcing and inclusive,” to quote a post by Jaiye Gaskia on Facebook.

 

 

The Virus Will Not Change Anything We Won’t Change

24F6F9CF-069E-41E4-AA98-CDC61885D841A key fact we have to face is that the coronavirus will not change anything we won’t change. 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.

There were tales of woe as hapless citizens got trapped at the land border between Bayelsa State and Rivers State in Nigeria. They were not trapped because the bridge straddling the Orashi River had collapsed but because the State Governments had shut off the states from the rest of Nigeria in a bid to halt the penetration of coronavirus. The scenario played out at other border communities and may get messier as interstate travel is halted across Nigeria.

One media report informed that “following the enforcement order on border closure in Delta State, hundreds of travellers in and out of the state were stranded at the Asaba and Onitsha ends of the River Niger bridge. Similarly, commuters and travellers were reportedly barred at Agbor, Koko junction and Patani borders from entering or leaving the state. Heavy duty trucks, buses and cars stretched over two kilometres on the busy Onitsha-Benin expressway as they were stopped by security agents from entering or leaving the state.”

With Lagos, Ogun State and the Federal Capital Territory (Abuja) entering a total lockdown and Ekiti State capping their restriction of movements with a curfew, the situation requires that we examine if these measures on their own can stem the tide of the pandemic. Shutting down the borders of states in the Niger Delta may well be a futile exercise considering the fact that some of them can be easily accessed by boats from different directions. In fact, the only points at which enforcement of shut-ins, or even shut ups, can be enforced would be at places where oil and gas pipelines cross the creeks or rivers. Such points are manned by the military and other security forces who exert virtually all their energy on securing pipelines and intimidating the locals.

Many commentators have made the point that total lockdowns in societies with a high proportion of citizens subsisting in the informal economic sector could be suicidal. We are talking of about 70 percent of Nigerians doing informal work and earning incomes on the go and often going for days with nothing coming in. The 70 per cent we refer to gives us an idea of the size of the problem, irrespective of what bogus population (200 million) figure the nation bandies about – at the behest of international financial institutions and other manipulators of economic and political indices.

This is no time to panic. The pandemic is exposing the depth of inequalities in our society, including by showing who gets access to being tested and who has no possibility of being tested and who dies without even being noted in the statistics. Now is the time for citizens to be many steps ahead of panicky governments.  

Although these compatriots are the ones driving the country’s economy, providing services for the middle class and the affluent, they hardly enjoy significant official services. They are the ones whose children attend public schools where learning is often under shade trees or on broken floors.  They are the ones whose informal settlements are brutally destroyed or simply walled off as recently happened to residents of Monkey Village in Lagos. They are the ones who sleep under the bridges or in uncompleted buildings and yet wake up every day working to keep the wheels of the economy moving. They are the ones readily sacrificed without any compunction.

Similar situations are playing out in other nations, notably India where millions of citizens are embarking on treks over hundreds of kilometres as they struggle to get back to their villages. These citizens, characterised as migrant workers although they never left the borders of their country, are heading to their home villages because, as is the case in Nigeria, that is where they are sure of social and economic support from the traditional systems.

This pandemic is a multi-faceted disaster, no doubt. However, disasters and emergencies have provided the cover for the powerful to dispossess the poor of their lands, farms, rivers, creeks and other resources. Responses to the pandemic may not (yet) generate physical dispossessions, but they are already propelling finances from the public purse into the wallets of corporations and their chief executive officers. Megalomaniacs in power will see opportunities to assume unbridled power and by so doing shake what remains of the slim spaces for public participation in governance.

This is no time to panic. The pandemic is exposing the depth of inequalities in our society, including by showing who gets access to being tested and who has no possibility of being tested and who dies without even being noted in the statistics. Now is the time for citizens to be many steps ahead of panicky governments.

Despite the challenges of collapsing state structures and economies, this is no time to panic. It is time to think and overcome the miseries fabricated by the system. It is time to organise, even if we are physically isolated.  As an activist reminded me recently, the virus will not change anything that we the people won’t change.

It is time to reflect on how to push for systemic changes to steer away from the pathways that led the world into the present cul de sac. It is time to forge new ways of organizing and bridging distances created by geographic separations. Already humans are forced to forego the luxuries and material things they thought they could not do without. This is what ought to be done without waiting for a virus to force us into line. We have to halt over-consumption and the rabid assault of our ecosystems. We have to rethink wellbeing and our relationship with Nature. It is time to halt warfare, including the use of biological weapons. We all deserve a breath of fresh air and should already be fashioning a positive post coronavirus era that is free of fossil fuels.

Not all borders are marked and closing marked and manned borders will obviously not end the pandemic. The brutalization of citizens and destruction of goods and foods in the name of enforcing regulations will only increase the pains of already helpless citizens. Security task forces may harass and hound citizens who break curfews or lockdowns, but the virus moves both by day and by night. Coronavirus respects no curfew or borders.

Despite the challenges of collapsing state structures and economies, this is no time to panic. It is time to think and overcome the miseries fabricated by the system. It is time to organise, even if we are physically isolated.  As an activist reminded me recently, the virus will not change anything that we the people won’t change.

Technofixes and the State of Our Biosafety

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


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

Facing Coronavirus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ogoni Clean-Up and the Business of Pollution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_6950

 

 

 

GMOs, Herbicides – Ambush in the Night

Moi moi
Moi moi wrapped in leaves, not plastics!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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