Fiddling while the Planet Burns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oil, Rot and Divestment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is the conversation we must have.

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

Time for a Peoples’ COP

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Politics of Turbulent Waters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IPCC—Oceans warming faster than expected

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A little help from Nature

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

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

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

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

No Politics with our Seas

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

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

Coastal Communities Under Threat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I will not Eat a Pesticide

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Okavango and the Tragedy of Fossils in Africa

The quest for profit in a predatory economic system has made it possible for humans to wilfully ignore extractivist crimes unfolding in broad daylight. A clear case is the clawing into Namibia’s Okavango Basin in search of hydrocarbon resources by ReconAfrica, a Canadian oil prospecting company. The company has been licensed to explore for hydrocarbons in an area of 13,600 square miles straddling Namibia and Botswana. ReconAfrica could end up fracking for oil and gas in this highly valuable region which is said to hold up to 31 billion barrels of crude oil.

The Okavango Basin is touted as the “largest oil play of the decade.” It is just as well that oil companies describe their finds as “plays” because what they do with these resources is a tragic play that routinely ends up devastating communities and basically irretrievably harming ecosystems. At a time when the world knows that not more than a third of known fossil reserves can still be extracted and burned without surpassing the already alarming 1.5 degrees temperature target of the Paris Agreement, it is shameful that oil companies are still allowed to prospect for more oil, coal, and fossil gas. 

Already, ReconAfrica’s officials claim that they are playing according to rules set by the Namibian government as they go about their exploratory activities. We understand how such rules play out, who reaps the benefits of such rules and who suffers the negative consequences. Experts have already noted that the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report produced by ReconAfrica and accepted by the Namibian government would not pass serious scrutiny and the process was not open to public participation. Public consultation is a critical requirement in any EIA process and where this is lacking the process is null and void. If the Minister of Agriculture of Namibia could say that his ministry was not consulted, why should we think that citizens were consulted?

It is concerning that governments keep on allowing oil companies to arm-twist them into accepting patently false promises of revenue booms and of capacity to avoid ecological harms and to trigger development in affected oil field communities.  When the first commercially viable oil well spurted in 1956 in Nigeria’s Niger Delta, there were wild celebrations of progress arriving in the area that had hitherto suffered hundreds of years of pillage of agricultural natural resources by imperialist and then colonial forces. The first oil exports commenced in 1958 and so far, more than 5,200 wells have been drilled in the region with over 603 being discovery wells. After more than six decades of hydrocarbons exploitation in the Niger Delta, the region now ranks as one of the top ten most polluted places on earth. Water bodies, soils and the air have all been stoked full of harmful pollutants and life expectancy now stands at a dreary 41 years. 

You may say that Nigeria is an odd case. Consider the devastation that Texaco, now Chevron, wreaked in Ecuador where up to 18 billion US gallons (68 billion litres) of toxic waste and 17 million gallons of crude oil was dumped on pristine rainforest soil in an area spanning 4,400 square kilometres or 1,700 square miles.

How about the ongoing massive pollutions in South Sudan and in Sudan? What about the tar sand fields of Canada, the home country of ReconAfrica? What of the burning coal caves in South Africa? In the words of Saul Landau in his collection of essays – A Bush & Botox World – “The quest for corporate profit invalidates concern for the environment.” Besides, these companies also drag vulnerable nations into debt with the false promises of liquidity and hollow credit worthiness.

Namibia’s Minister in charge of mining, Tom Alweendo, interestingly claimed that there was nothing to worry about oil and gas extraction in the Okavango Basin even though the area is a treasure to the people of Namibia and the world. According to the minister, “It’s true the company has an oil and gas exploration license and obtained an environmental clearance certificate to do research drilling. They are not going to do hydraulic fracturing (fracking) – a more invasive method – but a conventional drilling method,” 

The truth is that exploitation of petroleum resources has routinely been accompanied by extreme ecological harms, and in some cases has also been the reason or pretext for violent conflicts and wars. Consider the invasion of Iraq and the destruction of Libya. Think of the unfolding violence in North East Mozambique and the instability in the Lake Chad basin. The handling of wastewater and other toxic wastes from test drill pits already pose serious concerns.  

The massive area earmarked for drilling by ReconAfrica reminds one of a time when Shell had the entire geographic space known as Nigeria as its concession. Okavango basin is home to over 200,000 Namibians and these Africans mostly rely on the Okavango River which brings supplies of fresh water from the forest regions of Angola all year round.  Of course, ReconAfrica will pollute the natural potable water sources of the people and sink water bore holes for them. That is the epitome of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) that has proven to be nothing other than crass irresponsibility elsewhere. 

The Okavango Basin is an area of rich cultural heritage and boasts of several species that make living in this area a unique experience. The permission by the government of Namibia for the commencement of highly polluting and damaging activities in Okavango Basin is a willful denial of the real risk of permitting ecocide on its territory. It is a permit that promises glory but may end up offering genocide. It is a move that denies the existential challenge posed by climate change, the impacts of which Namibia is not a stranger to. It is digging for profit that ignores the fact that adding oil from there to the fossil fuel fires already raging in the world will compound the floods, droughts, desertification, population displacements, and other negative impacts of global warming. 

Okavango is a highly treasured living community in Namibia and Botswana. Why should anyone allow the quest for petrodollars turn this into an arena of death? It is not late for governments of Namibia and Botswana to halt this race for an asset that is bound to get stranded as the world shifts away from fossil fuels. Why permit actions that simply add to climate crimes? It is not too late to pull the plug on this gamble.

——–


Note: Image is a photograph I took of an oil spill in the Niger Delta

Talking About Seeds and Foods

Research has shown that although there are many policies around aspects of agriculture in Nigeria, there is no organizing policy that ties everything together. Officials work on silos and sometimes actively protect their turfs and appear not to care about the systemic implications of their stance. The link between seeds and plant varieties is downplayed while those protecting plant varieties do not worry about the origins of the varieties and the purposes for which anyone may wish to introduce them. Our system overlooks the fact that small scale farmers are highly innovative and grossly underestimates their productivity. People wave off small scale farmers as the key to meeting the food needs of the world, ignoring the fact, for example, that pastoralists in the Sahel region produce 2 to 10 times more animal protein per square kilometre than farmers in Australia and the USA.

Another matter of serious concern is a bill that has been passed by the National Assembly and which may get signed into law. We believe that if signed into law, this Bill will spell disaster for our agriculture and farming systems. We are referring to the Plant Variety protection (PVP) Bill. The bill aligns with the International Convention for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV), a patent driven system formulated without the participation of African countries and designed by “countries where agriculture is a business rather than a way of life.” Such countries have a tiny fraction of the population involved in agriculture which is of the industrial type. 

Once in place, farmers will be criminalised if they duplicate or share seeds registered under this law. Proponents of the bill tout the roaring success of UPOV and often cite Vietnam as a country where UPOV brought about dramatic increases in farmers’ productivity. A UPOV paper published in 2017 claimed that there were annual yield increases in rice, maize and sweet potato attributable to developments in plant-breeding activities to the tune of 1.7%, 2.1%, and 3.1%, in the 10 years after Vietnam became a member of UPOV. The paper also claimed that 74 million people could be fed with the additional sweet potatoes produced and portrayed those increases as being connected to Vietnam’s membership of UPOV. A recent study has now revealed that not a single application for plant variety protection (PVP) had been filed with Vietnam’s Plant Variety Protection Office (PVPO) for sweet potatoes – the crop reported with the highest yield increase in the UPOV paper. High yields have also been recorded for cassava without any application for plant variety protection.

Although the proponents of this bill insist that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) will not creep into the food system as part of the new plants varieties, there are some worrisome provisions in it. Clause 9 establishes a PVP Advisory Committee which includes known GMO promoters such as the National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA) and the biosafety regulatory agency, NBMA. The bill makes no space for civil society representation and none for smallholder farmers except where it mentions “the registered farmers’ association.” Saying “the” rather than “a” suggests that the registered farmers’ association is already known to the drafters of this Bill. 

The PVP bill Clause 13 (2) says “The grant of the breeder’s right shall not be subject to any further or different conditions…” In other words, this act locks breeders’ rights in concrete. It could preclude the development of appropriate laws and policies to decriminalize farmers’ seed systems and farmers’ rights and is grossly inequitable. It also restricts Nigerian farmers rights more heavily than the laws of Brazil, Argentina, China, South Africa, etc. 

Another interesting provision isClause 19(7) which states that if a member of a international organisation protects a variety and brings an application by itself or in partnership with another organisation, the Registrar will register such an application unless he considers the denomination unsuitable for Nigeria. Note that this clause places national sovereignty and ecological integrity of the nation in the hands of the Registrar. Clause 29 (5-6) of the bill appears to be a backdoor for GMOs to be registered. It states that any variety that can be seen as unique varieties would be registered and protected.

We have taken time to talk about the PVP Bill because it is already on the President’s table and could be signed into law at any time. This is the time for the bill to be withdrawn and returned to the drawing board for real public consultations and inclusion of the views of small-scale farmers who risk being criminalised through this piece of legislation. Nigeria needs an omnibus law that covers plants, animals, and fishes. Rather than approaching food in silos, promoting the interest of seed oligarchs and speculators, we should be looking at how to create spaces for the celebration of traditional ecological knowledge and technologies and at how to amplify our traditional diets and cuisine. We should look for ways to encourage research into these as a sure pathway to secure our food systems for now and for the future.

We should never forget that food is a human right, and no one should be subject to the indignity of chronic hunger and malnutrition. Our composite farms offer foods needed for balanced nutritious diets rather than what plantation monocultures or green deserts offer. This is the time to build a food policy anchored on agroecology. It is time to support our farmers with adequate extension services, infrastructure, finance, and market access.

Some of the identified problems would not exist if the gap between policy making and the people were closed. The collapse of the local government structures and the limited concern of state governments to the fortunes of small holder farmers compound the problem. This gap is accentuated by the fact that small scale farmers are not consulted in policy making processes. As the research commissioned by HOMEF has shown, government should ensure that food policies are coherent, implementable and that they address the challenges in the food sector. We stress again that farmers, consumers, and other stakeholders in the food sector should fully participate in decision and policy making in this regard.


These were my talking points at HOMEF’s Food Policy Dialogue on 06 May 2021



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