Beyond Fossil Fuels

Beyond Fossil Fuels – OILWATCH AFRICA’s LAMU DECLARATION Oilwatch Africa network members, Lamu community representatives, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), community-based organisations (CBOs) met in Lamu Kenya, on 7th and 8th August, 2018 at a conference on the theme: Beyond Fossil Fuels. The conference considered the politics of fossil fuel extractions, the impacts of fossil fuels on the continent and the strategy to unlock Africa’s power using alternatives to fossil fuels energy systems that are environmentally friendly and socially just.

The participants of the conference considered also the implications of the proposed LAPSET project (Coal power plant, deep Sea Port and Oil extraction) by the Kenyan Government on the socio-economic lives of the people of Lamu, including the impacts of these project on their culture, agriculture, fisheries and livelihoods of the people. After listening to the Save Lamu movement experiences, the conference noted that Lamu is an example of similar dirty energy and mega projects being pursued on the continent without full consultations with the people and without their free prior informed consent.

The conference analysed:

  1. Africa’s energy needs and the politics of a just transition;
  2. The challenges that fossil fuels funding in African countries, including the issues of debt and the resolution of disputes under a jurisdiction different from the involved country;
  3. The way Africa should go about renewable energy in relation to land tenure and land use;
  4. The political corruption and abuse of political power as a major problem faced by the people
  5. The destruction of livelihoods and local economies by the polluting activities of fossil fuels industries
  6. The issues of land grabbing, displacements and the marginalisation of communities in Africa due to fossil fuel industry activities among others

The conference declared:

  1. Full support for the demands of the Save Lamu movement;
  2. Opposition to the use of public funds to subsidize fossil fuels;
  3. That land tenure systems on the continent must respect community ownership as dictated by culture and tradition
  4. Communities must give their free prior informed consents for projects proposed for their territories while retaining their right to say NO
  5. That governments should urgently transit to renewable energy for all, owned and controlled by people
  6. African governments must urgently diversify national economies away from dependence on fossil fuels, exploitation of peoples and the destruction of the gifts of nature.

This declaration was issued on the 7th of August, 2018 in Lamu, Kenya

Participants at the meeting were drawn from Ghana, Kenya, Mozambique, Nigeria, South Africa, South Sudan, Swaziland, Togo and Uganda.

 

 

 

Re-Connecting to Mother Earth

VerdantThinking about re-connecting to Mother Earth brings up one of my fondest memories of my late father. Those were moments moments when we stood at the back of our home and gazed at the verdant valley rolling off our garden and on to the sculpted hills that fade off as far as our eyes could see. Those were the moments he told me stories of life. The stories close to his heart. And each time we stood there he told me the same stories. Although I grew weary of hearing the same tales over and over again, I always looked forward to those precious, private moments. Today, older and hopefully wiser, I understand the power of looking across valleys and over hills.

Memories. Life. Hope.

There was a time when I got really agitated and angry if anyone responded with the phrase “no problem” when asked “everything okay?” The phrase, “no problem”, indicated to me that the respondent was not attentive to the objective realities around him/her. My emotions have been so moderated that I can stomach that response these days. I would only extend it: “no problem that cannot be overcome.”

Some of the problems confronting humankind today have been constructed by our greed, naivety and indifference. Humankind has arisen as a unique species when it comes to exploitation without responsibility and appropriation of the gifts of Nature without appreciation. Commodification of Nature has not ended in the transformation of the physical elements around us to the marketing of intangibles and things only grasped by imagination. Think of the fact that our major medium of exchange is the imaginary promissory material called money, for which individuals compete, kill and destroy. Is it not surprising that many people measure their worth by this weightless imaginary means of exchange?

The assault on Mother Earth has tested her patience. She was here before humans arrived. She will be here after we have left. How shameful that we could imagine that we own Mother Earth or a piece of her!

Market Environmentalism and Loss of Memory

The commodification of Nature has been built on the false notion that Nature can only be protected or defended if it has a monetary value. This extremely contentious idea has become mainstream in neoliberal thinking and drives policy discussions in official bilateral and multilateral spaces. Not surprisingly, serious harm has resulted from the market environmentalism and the loss of sense of the intrinsic value of Nature. These harms have not only arisen from the unrestrained exploitation of Nature without thought being given to the repercussions, it has permitted the crimes of ecocide and even genocide as tolerable inevitabilities.

It is this thinking that made a Chief Economist of the World Bank to write that Africa is under polluted and that it made economic sense to ramp up pollution on the continent. In his words,

“…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. I’ve always thought that under-populated countries in Africa are vastly under-polluted.”

We see in this position that the market dogma can permit the twisting of logic and the willful poisoning of whole populations without compunction. In this statement, Africa is not only presented as nothing but a waste dump, she is also presented in a narrative that permits abuse.  Here we refer to the notion of some African countries being under-populated. Although most African countries are actually under-populated, the popular narrative, and one that permits aggressive birth control proposals for the continent, is that Africa is overpopulated and is plagued by a threatening youth population bulge.

The logic of being under-polluted gives a good explanation of why international oil companies operating in the communities of the Niger Delta, Nigeria, can maintain an uninterrupted oil spilling and gas flaring for sixty years. As we speak, there are ongoing oil spills and unquenched gas furnaces raging in the communities. Raised as totems of development, the activities of oil companies have rendered the environment hostile to human survival. Oil activities have not only instituted militarization of the region and the attendant human rights abuses, the installation and transportation of extractive facilities have led to severe habitat loss and fragmentation occasioning the decline in biodiversity as well as threat to sustainable livelihoods of rural communities according to Prof. J. Ekpere in a foreword to HOMEF’s Report. Fragmentation of habitats in some communities come through the laying of oil and gas pipelines. In coastal communities, fresh water systems have been experiencing salinization due to canals constructed to allow movement of equipment inland. The result of turning fresh water brackish is a severe loss of biodiversity as well as loss of access to potable Water.

With water, soil and air assaulted with toxic elements, it is no surprise that human life expectancy has dropped precipitously to a mere 41 years in the region.

On the other hand, the idea that Africa is over populated is hinged on to encourage manipulation of plant genetic material in ways that are harmful to human health as well as the environment. Products of agricultural biotechnology are accompanied with heavy doses of toxic chemicals which degrade soils and run off to pollute water sources.  This technology which is portrayed as the silver bullet to agricultural challenges puts livelihoods of millions of small scale farmers at risk while it favours a large-scale farming system that is driven by the profit motive and thrives on market monopoly.

Meanings and Actions

In a foreword to a report by Health of Mother Earth Foundation(HOMEF), Beyond Oil – Re-imagining Development in the Niger Delta, Alberto Acosta reminds us that, “serious environmental damage caused in the name of ‘modernity’, development and progress, the bastardization of concepts such as “sustainable development”, the persistence of false solutions such as the “green economy”, make it necessary to look no longer at alternative developments, but rather at “alternatives to development” and indeed alternatives to capitalist society. Such limitations should not lead to catastrophic conclusions. In various parts of the world, and in the Niger Delta itself, there are communities that re-imagine their lives over and over again.

“They have understood that they cannot follow the mantra of development and progress imposed by colonial and neocolonial invasions, whether military or conceptual. And from these readings many communities give concrete answers honed from their own daily life in response to their demands of life. Breaking with the false promises of oil, people’s alternatives emerge in this region of Africa, such as training, learning and re-learning programs; breeding poultry and chickens; integrated sustainable farms; community microcredit schemes; economic diversification programs; banana plantations without chemicals or transgenics; fish farms; own telecommunication and transport systems; communal farms to produce rice; use of renewable resources …”

Latching on the African philosophical concept of Ubuntu, Acosta points out that the needed alternatives are practical and hold the promise of “a decent life for many communities but, in addition, they are projected into the future, because they possess a strategic horizon of action. These alternatives are based on an ethical position: an assumption that a human being must not only take care of him or herself, but others as well. A person is understood to become a person by looking through the eyes of others; thus, human beings have to act with the consciousness of being interconnected with the rest of humanity and other living beings. Such a way of life involves caring directly for the environment and working for life in harmony with Mother Earth.”

It is dangerous to assume that simply because we speak to one another we have a common understanding of the terms and concepts that we use. It is rather the interrogation of terms such as modernity, development, progress, sustainable development and green economy that reveals whether we are on the same track or if indeed we are heading in divergent directions.

Things labeled modern are superficially seen as superior to things that are labeled primitive. Can this position be routinely correct? It cannot be assumed that simply because weapons of mass destruction are modern then they are superior to weapons of war that date back to thousands of years. Neither can we say that the fossil fuel dependent automobile is superior to a bicycle, outside the concept of speed. Even then, is moving faster an ideal if one is headed in the wrong direction?

Green is a Colour

Concepts such as carbon trading, green economy and even clean coal so readily capture attention. An oil company like Shell publishes an annual Sustainability Report. How sustainable is the extremely polluting extraction of oil and gas? Consider that other mining companies and governments project ideas of sustainable mining. How can extraction be sustainable. Extraction by definition is subtraction, a taking away, a hacking away at Mother Earth. In the same vein, sustainable development as a concept is an oxymoron. It is only when there is an agreed definition of development, including a base line that shows what is developed, underdeveloped or developing, that we can say if what is so defined is realistic in a finite world and if the conditions that led to that state of affairs can be replicated.

Green economy evokes an image of life, but in reality it places life on the chopping block. Built on the concept of commodifying Nature or keeping tabs of natural capital, it places value on so-called environmental services, including the job done by rivers and even the value of pollination by bees. It is doubtful that anyone can gauge the true value of the gifts of Nature in a way that would produce an equal ecological exchange.

By creative or selective accounting, efforts to internalize environmental costs in the price of commodities has not gained traction. This willful amnesia ensures that vulnerable workers, communities, territories and nations bear the hidden costs of extraction and production while the oligarchs smile to the bank with their bounties.

 There is a global rejection of subsidies doled out to fossil fuel industries. We applaud the need the remove those subsidies, but that is not going far enough. When shall relief come to the communities/territories that are subsidizing the cost of extraction by bearing the brunt of environmental costs? When will Mother Earth enjoy a relief from these unending despoliations? When, indeed will the call to Keep it in the Ground become a binding rule and not just a slogan mouthed by the polluters and their supporting neoliberal institutions? When, indeed, will we demand an end to pollution and not merely demand that polluters pay?

The Measure of Progress

After the lecture

After the Lecture

What development or progress birth well being? Efforts have been made to measure development and progress through a variety of indexes including the notorious Gross Domestic Product (GDP) which has been described as Gross Domestic Problem (Lorenzo Fioramonti, 2013). It has been shown by many analysts that the GDP of a nation has no correlation to the state of well being of the citizens. Yet other indices include Measure of Economic Welfare (MEW), Total Income System of Accounts (TISA), Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare, Physical Quality of Life Index (PQLI), Human Suffering Index (HSI) and Ecological Footprint.

Writing on the quest for statistical measure of economic performance, Joseph Stiglitz said, “Just as a firm needs to measure the depreciation of its capital, so too, our national accounts need to reflect the depletion of natural resources and the degradation of our environment. Statistical frameworks are intended to summarize what is going on in our complex society in a few easily interpretable numbers. It should have been obvious that one couldn’t reduce everything to a single number, GDP. The report by the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress will, one hopes, lead to a better understanding of the uses, and abuses, of that statistic.”

Some politicians and statisticians are stuck with the GDP because it offers flattering pictures of their economies. As a compilation that is built mainly on imagination and sleight of hand, the GDP stubbornly marches on despite the arrival of other measures such as Human Development Index (HDI) and the Gross Happiness Index (GHI) that are closer to reality and do indicate a correlation to reality and the hopes of citizens.

Consider how Nigeria became Africa’s largest economy in 2014. Nigeria’s GDP was said to have grown by 6.81 percent in the third quarter of 2013. But this and other optimistic GDP projections mask the lived reality of ordinary citizens on the ground as evidenced even in official statistics. For example, a joint study conducted by the World Bank (WB) and the Nigerian Bureau of Statistics (NBS) on poverty in Nigeria. A blog on the report opens with an oblique statement that “The World Bank and the Nigerian Bureau of Statistics (NBS) have recently completed an in-depth analysis of Nigeria’s last set of household survey statistics, which were compiled in 2010 but until recently were not fully understood”. Why did it take the WB and the NBS so long to get to the point of comprehending the real situation? The stumbling block obviously is the stark contradiction between the huge growth rates in the nation and the “stubbornly high” poverty rates.

Reporting on the sudden jump of the Nigerian economy, the Economist (8th April 2014) tackled “How Nigeria’s economy grew by 89% overnight.” It explained that the base year for previous computations was 1999, but the government decided to change that base to 2010. The opening paragraph of the report makes a clear statement about GDPs. Here: “ON SATURDAY, April 5th, South Africa was Africa’s largest economy. The IMF put its GDP at $354 billion last year, well ahead of its closest rival for the crown, Nigeria. By Sunday afternoon that had changed. Nigeria’s statistician-general announced that his country’s GDP for 2013 had been revised from 42.4 trillion naira to 80.2 trillion naira ($509 billion). The estimated income of the average Nigerian went from less than $1,500 a year to $2,688 in a trice. How can an economy grow by almost 90% overnight?”

Waging War with GDP

The GDP as an economic measure goes back to the 1600s and has its roots in war efforts. It began when a physician of the British army, William Petty, was asked to conduct a systematic survey of the country’s wealth in order to aid in the redistribution of land among the soldiers. In order to position both land and labour for taxation, Petty tried to place market value on them. In the process, Petty got to increase his financial assets significantly.  He acquired land from soldiers cheaply in lieu of salary and as such lands were declared “unprofitable.”

During the great depression of 1929 and 1941, it was found that market forces could not stabilize the economy quickly enough.  The then president of USA needed a means of stimulating the economy and statistician Simon Kuznets started to work on the conceptualization and measurement of national income in 1932. His aim was to condense all economic production by individuals, companies and the government into a single number. The method developed by Kuznets finally came together during the Second World War (1939-1945) and the GNP was used a main scorecard for the design and implementation of national economic policy. The GNP accounts turned to be a powerful instrument used to estimate militarization costs and to calculate the speed at which the economy needed to grow in order to ‘pay for war’. Instructively, the government aimed to get citizens to increase consumption in order to be able to pay for the ammunitions used in war. It should be noted that Kuznets reportedly had reservations on the GDP right from the start. See Has GDP Outgrown its Use? 

How could war or use of hard drugs be counted as activities that add to human welfare?

In the words of Lorenzo Fioramonti, “GDP was designed as a war device. That war did not end in 1945 but has continued ever since. It turned into an endless war against social equilibria, natural environments and non- renewable resources, in which consumers become the new foot soldiers; ultimately, a war against our own future on this planet”.

Humility and Defiance: Looking across that Valley

Sulak sculpted

Memorable: Visiting Sulak Sivaraksa (RLA1995) with Hans van Willenswaard

Saying No to mining and Yes to life is not a decision taken lightly. It is an inescapable objective reality when one has seen and experienced widespread ecocide in communities and territories that happen to harbour the gifts of Nature. Humans have no doubt developed tools through the transformation of Nature. However, the shift into a throwaway system of production where obsolescence is inbuilt, so as to promote inordinate consumption, is indefensible. The sure way to living well is by respecting Mother Earth and ensuring that our actions do not impede her right to maintain her cycles.

Standing on the lips of the valley behind my father’s house, it becomes clear that living well is possible for individuals, communities and the larger society. Living well happens when we are at peace with ourselves and with other beings and see them as our relatives. Living well happens when solidarity trumps competition and reckless wars. Living well occurs when we do not compete about whose car or house is bigger. Not even about who has the larger or more destructive nuclear button.

As my mind’s eyes wander beyond the horizons, it becomes clearer that well-being is not a private affair. It may begin as a personal quest but is only actualized in our connectedness. It is consummated in the commons, in our collectives, in our cooperations and in our undying trust that we can recover our memory. A recovered memory reminds us that the Earth does not belong to us, but that we are children of the Earth. Calling ourselves sons and daughters of the soil states a deep truth. As Vandana Shiva stated, we are the soil!

We are stewards bequeathed with gifts that have generational responsibilities. It is time to see the gifts of Mother Earth as re-sources perpetually calling on us to re-connect to her.  True reconnection provokes healing and at the same time eliminates divisive instincts, and the dispositions that promote exploitation, domination and destruction.

The complex ecosystems around and within us yearn for an understanding of the intricate connections in the webs of life. Living with this consciousness and practice is Ubuntu, true liberation, true healing of both self, society and Mother Earth. We are individuals, yet we are community. This reality calls for both humility and defiance. Humility to accept that the tiniest being, even those invisible to our naked eyes, and the most complex ones need each other. Defiance by the essential need to oppose irresponsible exploitation of the gifts of Nature, ecocide and war.

The power that will tilt the ecological balance in favour of the health of Mother Earth, respecting the rights of Nature, will come through broad based mass movements joining forces, building common understanding and forging global solidarity of peoples.

In conclusion

We are at a crossroads. The Chinese saying advises that to get out of a hole you have to stop digging. Now is the time to make the transition to a post extractivist world. Extractivism has had its day and has driven many species to extinction. It has yielded what may euphemistically be termed a plastic civilization. Now is the time to move to the back of our homes and take a long gaze at the remains of what we have not yet destroyed.

It is time to gaze at the valleys and hills and re-connect and re-encounter Nature as a critical priority that cannot be postponed.  We simply have to terminate models that situates humans as external to Nature. We are children of Mother Earth and it is time to wake up, regain our memory and return home. For healing to begin and be sustained we have to put a halt to the harms.

poetry time

Connecting the heart through poetry

Fishers of the World Unite!

IMG_3917 2Fishers Unite! It is abnormal for a fisher or fishing community to depend on imported fish for protein. It is an unhappy situation when an experienced fisherman returns from a fishing trip with only flotsam or other debris, including plastics, in the nets. Unfortunately, this is the reality facing fishers in much of the Niger Delta and in other regions where extractive businesses have heavily polluted our creeks, rivers and seas.

The case of fishers toiling for hours, even days, and returning home empty handed and hungry due to the destruction of aquatic ecosystems by oil spills, is similar to the sad experience of farmers whose lands have been damaged by these oil spills, waste dumps and mining wastes.

The ecological balance and health of our marine ecosystems have been heavily impacted by unmitigated pollution emanating from oil, gas and mineral exploration and other extraction activities.

Seismic activities disorient or even lead to the death of aquatic lives, including whales. In the heat of oil exploration in the offshore of Ghana, whales died and were washed onshore. In fact, 30 whales died and were washed to the shorelines of Ghana between 2011 and 2017. Although some people dispute the link between the recorded deaths and oil exploration activities, the spike in such incidents since the intensification of oil exploration and exploitation requires clear explanations.

We note that the undisputed causal links to similar experiences have been established by researchers elsewhere. For example, it is a usual experience to find fish, crabs and other aquatic life forms floating in oil coated waters whenever oil spills or oil-related fires breakout in our creeks.

Over 6.5 million Nigerians are engaged in the fishing business. This includes the fishers and the fish processors. When others in the value chain – involved in fish transportation, net fabrication and repair, boat building, outboard engines maintenance and cold storage operation – are considered, it is clear that this is a sector that requires support and protection.

The employment level in the fishing sector clearly trumps that of the oil and gas sector. While the petroleum sector may contribute in higher amounts to the national purse, the fishing sector directly impacts the lives of more individuals, families and communities than the oil sector. Indeed, if fishers are adequately protected and supported with necessary value addition avenues, fish could reasonably be expected to provide a more sustainable source of revenue and foods than the petroleum sector currently does.

We also bear in mind that millions of Nigerians and beyond depend on fish for 35 percent of their protein needs. This reality underscores the critical need to consider the overall health of our citizens in the management of harmful activities in our water bodies. There is over 12.5 million-hectare of inland water in Nigeria and with this the country can produce over 350,000 metric tonnes of fish yearly. Over 80 percent of the fish in our markets are caught by artisanal fishers. With a huge proportion of our population depending on fish for animal protein, this is an area that requires careful ecological and economic attention.

These considerations become even more urgent when we bear in mind that in a few decades, crude oil will be abandoned as an energy resource. When the need for crude oil fades away, as it soon will, our creeks, rivers and seas will not suddenly become clean or healthy again. The pollution that is being currently condoned is an inter-generational crime that requires to be halted and accounted for.

If our fishers should tell tales of what they see, of what their experiences are, in the struggle to make a living and to provide healthy foods for our teeming population, our hearts would be broken.

The questions are: why is the current state of affairs permitted in our waters? Why are our creeks, rivers and seas polluted with impunity and no one is held to account? Why are our fishers left to struggle to no avail with no compensations paid for fishing gears which are destroyed by oil spills, for loss of fishing grounds and for harms from divers factors?

Now is the time to stem the tide of destruction. Now is the time to use our tongue to count our teeth. Now is the time for fishers to unite and stand against pollution. It is time to demand a halt to extraction activities in our waters. It is time for fishers to say that our streams, rivers and seas are not waste dump sites or channels for disposal of toxic effluents. It is time for fishers to unite and loudly remind the world that our best interest is served by fish, not oil.

The FishNet Alliance provides the avenue for fishers to come together and forge a common front to protect our marine ecosystems, livelihoods and to build resilient economies and a sustainable and just future. Is this something we can do? This is our challenge. This is why we must come together, from community to community, from shore to shore and paddle together, united in the good fight for safe waters devoid of deadly pollution.

Let the conversations continue…

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Welcome words by Nnimmo Bassey, Director, Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF) at FishNet Community Dialogue at Mbo, Akwa Ibom State, Nigeria, on 19 June 2018

 

 

 

In the Belly of the Plastic Whale

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Inside the Plastic Whale

Inside the Belly of the Plastic Whale. It was a surreal feeling for me to literally step into the belly of a whale in December 2017. It was an unforgettable experience, to say the least. One could not but imagine what would have been the fate of biblical Jonah if he had found himself in the belly of a whale like the one I encountered.

My encounter was with a Cuvier’s beaked whale. An adult male Cuvier’s beaked whale can weigh up to 3000 kilogrammes and measure 5-7 metres in length. These whales usually have just two visible teeth at the tip of their short beak. Lacking much in terms of teeth, they feed by suction. They hunt by echolocation and can be injured or confused by noises generated by humans, including noise from seismic exploration for fossil fuel resources.

Encountering them is not easy, so Jonah would probably not have been given a hike by this specie. Why? They live where there is no light, at about 2000 metres way down in the ocean. Plus, they feed on fish, crustaceans and mostly deep-sea squid. This appetite for squid may be one of the key problems that modern man now poses to these deep-sea creatures.

Scientists suspect that the Cuvier’s beaked whales get attracted to floating plastics, mistaking them for squids or ingest them while hunting for other species that may seek hiding places in floating plastics materials. Plastics in the seas are a huge threat to the Cuvier whales and other sea creatures.

Ending a Plastic Civilisation

The World Environment Day 2018 presents a challenge and an instigation. The theme, Beat Plastic Pollution, challenges us to take action and the notion that plastics pollution can be beaten should inspire actions. The World Oceans Day equally urges action against plastic pollution.

Beating plastics pollution is a huge challenge when we consider the perverse culture of current disposable economy. Fifty percent of plastics in use are disposable or single-use type. Globally, we buy one million plastic bottles every minute and use up to 5 trillion plastic bags every year. The least anyone can do is to pause and think before grabbing that plastic bottle of so-called soft drinks. We should learn to refuse plastics and not just aim to reduce, reuse or recycle them. It is time to tackle this menace at source. Packaging is said to account for 40 percent of all plastics in use. It is time to terminate this plastic civilisation.

Tissue papers decompose in 2 to 4 weeks. Cigarettes decompose in 5 years. The plastic cups in which coffee is served at cafes and fast food shops float around for 50 years. Plastic bottles will swirl about for 450 years. And, wait for it, the plastic in baby diapers will equally hang around for 450 years – long after the babies who wore them would have become ancestors.

Sadly, many folks think that the story of their plastic bags or wraps end once they toss them into the trash bin. In a bid to appear hygienic, we cover or wrap foods with plastics – in both restaurants and homes. However, plastics out of sight is not plastics out of life. Tons of these materials end up in the gutters, rivers and the oceans. 15 tons of plastics are said to end up in the ocean every minute with more than 8 million tons being dumped into the oceans every year. An incredible 1 million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals lose their lives to plastic pollution every year

Reports by Ocean Conservancy, suggest that there will be more plastics than fish in the oceans by 2050. Already, plastics have been found in over 60 percent of all seabirds and in all sea turtles species that mistake plastic for food. We must beat plastics, for our survival and for the survival of other species. We need fish, not plastics.

Floating on the waves

Plastics from one whale

All these plastics from the belly of one whale

It is interesting when we consider how long it takes for some of the plastics that end up in the oceans to decompose. Tissue papers decompose in 2 to 4 weeks. Cigarettes decompose in 5 years. The plastic cups in which coffee is served at cafes and fast food shops float around for 50 years. Plastic bottles will swirl about for 450 years. And, wait for it, the plastic in baby diapers will equally hang around for 450 years – long after the babies who wore them would have become ancestors. Even the balloons that are used as decorative items – when released to float around for a few minutes or hours, end up taking years to degrade in the oceans and water ways.

The Cuvier whale at Bergen

Unfortunate ending for this Cuvier’s beaked whale

And, so, there was I in the belly of the Plastic Whale Museum, a museum set up at the University of Bergen, Norway, to serve as a poignant reminder of the harm that plastics pose to our oceans and to marine life in particular. This museum hosts displays of the plastics recovered from the belly of the whale that was stranded on the Sotra Island, west of Bergen, on 28th January 2017. The whale had more than 30 plastic bags and a large quantity of microplastics in its belly.

I was in the Plastic Whale Museum at the invitation of Rafto Foundation for Human Rights to discuss plastics, oil pollution and the threats to our communities as well as to marine ecosystems, the plastic backdrop was a haunting reminder of the harm that we are doing to our environment. When we eat fish that feeds on plastics, it is reasonable to say that we are actually eating plastics.

On that day, I ended my talk with a rendition of my poem, We Thought it Was Oil, but It Was Blood. Perhaps I should have changed that to read We Thought it Was Fish, but It Was Plastic. We simply have to beat plastic pollution.

 

 

*This blog was written to mark the World Environment Day and the World Oceans Day 2018

 

Talanoa Dialogues in Climate Negotiations

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The innovative Talanoa Dialogues in Climate Negotiations took place on Sunday 6 May 2018 in Bonn, sandwiched between the first and second weeks of the climate negotiations.  After the dialogue everyone was somewhat upbeat about how useful the experience was. Indeed, a delegate said that the Talanoa Dialogue (TD) offered representatives of countries the space to sit without tables and national flags, speak like humans and not as parties (to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change – UNFCCC). Another delegate said that the TD was an inclusive and open process creating a new space for international diplomacy. Some said the process should continue beyond COP24.

The TD was a facilitative dialogue proposed by the Fijian President of COP23 to reflect the ‘Pacific spirit’ of sharing stories, problem solving and wise decision-making for the collective good. The Dialogue encouraged parties to speak freely to each other on three questions about the global climate crisis: Where are we? Where do we want to go? How do we get there?

Parties and non-state actors including businesses, youths, indigenous peoples, labour, women, and other civil society organisations gathered in three spaces for storytelling, echoing the Pacific processes for building empathy, conflict resolution and building consensus.

At the report back session from the Dialogue on Tuesday 8 May, the leader of the Nigerian delegation, Dr Peter Tarfa, stated that the TD had a positive outcome and that Nigeria will plan to replicate it at the national level. He stressed that the answer to the question of How do we get there can only be fashioned on trust and transparency.

A Dream Dialogue

On the whole, the fact remained that the dialogue aimed to prepare the hearts of the parties to the hard tasks of negotiations – to bring everyone to the point of hearing one another and understanding that we can only go far when we walk together. It reminds us of the saying by Martin Luther King Jnr that “It may be true that the law cannot change the heart but it can restrain the heartless.” Hopefully the TD could soften some hearts.

While moderating a side event that took place before the TD, Meenakshi Raman of Third World Network, spoke the mind of many observers with regard to the blind side of the TD. She pointed out that a critical question was not on the table and that is how did we get here? That is the question that some parties are unwilling to talk about. It has to do with historical responsibility, with the core principles of the climate convention – that of equity and the common but differentiated responsibility and respective capacities.

Meenakshi Rama further stated that “Asking this question will point to historical emissions responsible for global warming. However, historical responsibility seems like a dirty word that is not being allowed to be mentioned in this space. We cannot ignore the historical perspective.”

The first week of the negotiations had already raised concerns among some delegates with regard to aspects of the Paris Agreement such as:  loss and damage, climate finance and the levels of ambition among the industrialised nations. Discussions on the matter of finance were testy as parties looked at how to identify information to be provided by Parties in accordance with Article 9.5. The Article provides that developed countries “shall biennially communicate indicative quantitative and qualitative information” related to the provision and mobilisation of financial resources “including as available, projected levels of public financial resources” to be provided to developing countries.

Talanoa

The Wake of the Dialogue

The report back session from the TD had plenty of bright as well as poignantly dark spots. The bright spots were the many stories of hope, trust, readiness to offer political support and commitment to be fair and to comply. It was also said that indigenous peoples and their knowledge would not be ignored. It was also interesting to hear the presentation of the TD as a storification of the Paris Agreement, with an emphasis on the fact that the story has just started. That makes a lot of sense when it is considered that most of what is being negotiated will only come into effect in 2020, two years down the stormy road.

The dark sports of the Dialogue etched in running conclusions from the various rapporteurs who brought word back from the dialogues. The dialogue on where we are complained that too much attention was paid to technicalities and too little to human values. However, it could actually be said that since voluntary emissions reduction pledges took the place of required emissions reduction based on science, technicalities are actually taking the back seat, except if we are talking of technicalities of semantics.

The TD brought up over 700 stories, but there were running threads in the summaries that should catch our attention. The first was that by 2050 the world should have negative or zero emissions achieved through technologies and forests as carbon sinks. Negative emissions through technologies and forests as carbon sinks imply carrying on with polluting technologies and merely ‘eliminating’ the pollution through sinks. It also suggests that forest dependent communities would be compelled to bear the burden of climate action and get dislocated from Nature’s gifts to them. The second statement said that the question of how do we get there will be answered by technology which was presented as the ultimate solution to tackle global warming.

If those are the takeaways from the Talanoa Dialogue, and if the technologies include geoengineering and the like, it does appear that the stories from the grassroots and from the streets are yet to be heard.

Ogoni Clean-Up: An Engagement in Social Engineering

AvisittoOgale,GoiandBodoRiversstate(129of182)Ogoni Clean up – An Engagement in Social Engineering , a step towards reclaiming our future. Pollution is the number one killer in the world today. It is deadlier than the wars in the world today, than smoking, malnutrition and others. This was the finding published by one of the world’s most respected medical journals, on October 19, 2017. The research looked into air and water pollution, among others.[1]

We all know that the Niger Delta is classified among the top ten most polluted places in the world. And we all know some of the key findings of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report on the assessment of the Ogoni environment. All water bodies are polluted with hydrocarbons, soils polluted to a depth of 5 metres at a number of places and benzene is found at levels 900 times above World Health Organisation standards[2]. We all know that the Niger Delta has the lowest life expectancy level in Nigeria. This is why the clamour for a clean-up of the region has been a long-drawn struggle.

The history of the struggle for the clean-up of Ogoni environment is that of the struggle for environmental, socio-economic and political justice. This struggle picked steam in the late 1980s and peaked in the early and mid 1990s. The enterprise can be characterized as a struggle for the right to live in dignity, pursue self-actualization and build a future for upcoming generations. The bedrock was the demand for justice. This was captured through well-articulated demands for the remediation of the damaged Ogoni environment. With cautious and robustly peaceful organising, the demands were catalogued in a carefully crafted Ogoni Bill of Rights (OBR) of 1990.[3]

The Bill noted that although crude oil had been extracted from Ogoniland from 1958, its inhabitants had received NOTHING in return. Articles 15-18 of the OBR illustrate some of the complaints of the people:

  • That the search for oil has caused severe land and food shortages in Ogoni— one of the most densely populated areas of Africa (average: 1,500 per square mile; national average: 300 per square mile.)
  • That neglectful environmental pollution laws and sub-standard inspection techniques of the Federal authorities have led to the complete degradation of the Ogoni environment, turning our homeland into an ecological disaster.
  • That the Ogoni people lack education, health and other social facilities.
  • That it is intolerable that one of the richest areas of Nigeria should wallow in abject poverty and destitution.

This Bill of Rights was the precursor to the Kaiama Declaration of the Ijaws, lkwerre Rescue Charter, Aklaka Declaration for the Egi, the Urhobo Economic Summit, Oron Bill of Rights and other demands of peoples’ organisations in the Niger Delta. It became an organising document for the Ogoni people and also eventually inspired other ethnic nationalities in the Niger Delta to produce similar charters as a peaceful way of prodding the government into dialogue and action.[4]

Although the OBR has never been directly addressed by government, the detailed assessment of the Ogoni environment that culminated in the release of the now famous United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report on 4 August 2011 can be said to be a response to some of the demands of the OBR. We note at this point that before the report was released information leaked out that the bulk of the blame for the pollution of Ogoni had been placed on the people. This led to a flurry of protests and by the time the report was eventually released the blame for the massive environmental destruction was more acceptably situated. It could not have been otherwise because the payment for the study was made on the basis of the polluter-pays principle by the lead international oil company (Shell Petroleum Development Company – SPDC) that operated in the area.

RESILIENT AND SUCCESSFUL STRUGGLES

Community organising succeeds where the people have identifiable goals that address their needs or issues. The resilience of a struggle is assured when the people and their leaders have a clear strategy, are able to adapt to unfolding situations, and are willing to change tactics as may be necessary without repudiating the core of what brought them together. This flexibility is possible when the people have a shared understanding of what their collective objectives are and what sacrifices may need to be made to attain the targets. The Ogoni struggle, through the leadership of the Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People (MOSOP) has been an exemplary case study for other nationalities to learn from.

Understanding the depth of the crisis and determining to speak truth to power was aptly captured in one of the last poems, Silence Would be Treason, that Ken Saro-Wiwa wrote while in prison:

But while the land is ravaged

And our pure air poisoned

When streams choke with pollution

Silence would be treason[5]

As we consider the Ogoni clean-up today, we bear in mind that Ogoni has become a global metaphor for resilient community organizing against impunity. Saro-Wiwa foresaw this when he wrote in his prison memoir, A Month and A Day:

In virtually every nation state there are several ‘Ogonis’—despairing and disappearing people suffering the yoke of political marginalisation, economic strangulation and environmental degradation, or a combination of these, unable to lift a finger to save themselves. What is their future?[6]

The global component of the Ogoni situation has important implications for those who see it as a local struggle. It also has implications for those whose geographies are outside the limits of Ogoni. Those within must understand that their success charts the path that would lead to the clean-up of other regions. For those looking in from the outside, the stakes are no less because of the interconnectedness of our environment.

The Ogoni Environment is not isolated from the wider Niger Delta environment. Polluted ground water or polluted air does not obey political or traditional or cultural boundaries. When one part is cleaned up there is the urgent necessity to step to the next spot. Seeing everyplace as  discrete and separate would only lead to living in a fool’s paradise believing that the land is clean whereas pollution from elsewhere would be doing its deadly job, unseen, unnoticed except in the festival of funerals that would persist.

OIL DAMAGE NARRATIVES

There was a time when the oil companies operating in the Niger Delta could not boldly claim that the hydrocarbons pollution in the area is caused by local peoples. There was copious evidence of the ill-maintained pipelines and flow stations. Oil spills from equipment failure were the norm. Poorly handled toxic wastes and produced water could not be hidden. And, of course, gas flares continue to stick their sooty fingers in the air as criminal giant cigarettes. The oil companies laboured in vain to shift blames. Reports from communities, the media and environmental justice campaigners continued to pile up evidence of the guilt of the oil companies.

The tide began to change with the rise of violent militancy in the oil fields. Oil infrastructure became targets and the pollution that emanated from the conflicts could neither be hidden nor denied. In fact, the explosions were marked as badges of achievement by the groups that carried out the attacks. Violent militancy achieved aspects of their objectives: gaining attention of the governments that are demonstrably more interested in pipelines and petrodollars than in the peoples and their environment. The militarization of the Niger Delta rather than bring peace is contributory to the insecurity of lives and infrastructure in the region.

And so the environment suffered and new sources of pollution became entrenched in the region. Oil companies found a plank on which to hang blames for the pervading environmental degradation. They also found excuse in their operational locations being “inaccessible” due to insecurity and with that oil spills could go unchecked for any length of time.

The Amnesty Programme in its first and second coming helped to curtail deliberate tampering with oil facilities. But, a non-violent but equally deadly version of interferences crept in by way of what is generally called illegal refineries, but which we prefer to call bush refineries.

The bush refineries are incredibly polluting. The operators either do not know how toxic the environment in which they work is or they simply do not care. Obviously, the refineries meet the need for petroleum products in zone of perpetual shortages and high costs. Obviously, the operators have economic gains from the enterprise. However, what does it profit a person to make piles of money and not live to enjoy it? What does it benefit a person to accumulate wealth and pollution and sentence entire communities and future generations to death?

Today, when anyone thinks of the pollution of the Niger Delta, decades of incontrovertible pollution by oil companies are now forgotten and all fingers are pointed at thebush refineries.

It is so bad that even when the Port Harcourt refinery continually belches smoke into the atmosphere, fingers are pointed at the bush refineries as the cause of the soot in the atmosphere. The burning, bombing and strafing of bush refineries’ drums and barges of refined or unrefined petroleum products by security forces are accepted as signs of operational successes. We tend to think that pollution does not matter. How wrong can we get!

All the oil companies have to do today to ensure the narrative is shifted away from them is to take some journalists on their choppers for pollution tours, picking out the awful patches destroyed by bush refiners.Who would not do that? The fact that industrial scale oil theft has been going on for decades is hardly spoken of these days because of the visible and graphic horrors of the bush refineries.

DEADLY IMPACTS

The Niger Delta is so scarred, so polluted today that what we have on our hand is an environmental emergency, no less. Our air, water and land are all polluted. We plant crops and end up with poisoned harvests. We cast our nets and hurl in poisoned fish, when we see any. We breathe and our nostrils are blackened by soot. Our rivers, streams, creeks and ponds are clearly polluted, yet we drink the waters for lack of choice. All these have deadly impacts.

Oil pollution[7]causes habitat loses, biodiversity degradation, loss of livelihoods and loss of lives.

The heavy metals extracted along with crude oil include cadmium, lead, mercury, arsenic, copper, iron, barium and many others. These have serious risks to human health and wildlife. Health risks include abdominal pains, kidney diseases, nervous problems, bronchitis, fragility of bones, prostate and lung cancer. They can also cause brain malformations as well as pregnancy and birth complications.

Mercury canrapidly penetrate and accumulate in the food chain.  Acute poisoning produces gastroenteritis,inflammation of the gums, vomiting and irritation of the skin with dermatitis which can turn into ulcers.

The  flared associated gases cause a cocktail of dangerous health impacts including conjunctivitis, bronchitis, asthma, diarrhoea, headaches, confusion, paralysis and others. Of course, we know of the acid rain that occurs when sulphur and nitrous oxides mix with moisture in the atmosphere.

Poorly handled produced water contaminates creeks, rivers, lakes, aquifers and other water sources.  This causes the salination of these waters, soil and associated biodiversity. Salts and metals present can include cyanide which can cause immediate death if ingested. Cyanide in low doses can lead to intense headaches, sour taste, and loss of smell and taste, dizziness, vomiting, difficulty in breathing, anxiety, convulsions, loss of consciousness. In chronic intoxication it can produce goitre.

Clearly, it is extremely unsafe for untrained and unprotected persons to go near crude oil spills and materials used in the extraction processes. Seeing our people literally swim in crude oil and fire in the bush refineries is absolutely appalling.

CLEANING UP TODAY FOR TOMORROW

The Ogoni clean-up exercise is an intergenerational investment.

For the short time he was alive and in office, Thomas Sankara of Burkina Faso understood that a people that cannot feed themselves are not truly free. He also saw the direct link between environmental sanity and social justice. In analysis of the work of this great son of Africa, Amber Murrey states:

Liberation is incomplete when people hunger daily. Environmental protection and sustainability were therefore crucial to Sankara’s strategic thinking. Today, the continent faces serious environmental and climatic challenges that affect food production, access to water and public health. These challenges include water pollution, deforestation, soil erosion, droughts, floods, desertification, insect infestation, and wetland degradation. Environment protection is inextricably linked to social security, poverty eradication, and health.[8]

The clean-up process has many components and many actors. While the Hydrocarbon Pollution Remediation Project (HYPREP) and other levels of government have various roles to play, there are also the contractors, consultants and the community leaders and people. We have individual responsibilities as well as collective responsibilities. The federal government and its agencies have responsibilities and so do the State and Local governments. The clean-up is a complex social engineering project that goes beyond the technicalities that we will soon be seeing with machines, chemicals and diverse equipments. We refer to this exercise as social engineering because apart from remediation the environment we have to decolonize our thinking and relationships. All these require some work.

First, we have to understand that the clean-up is primarily for the sake of our children and future generations. If this fails we could as well look forward to a future in which the Niger Delta will be a museum with no inhabitants because not just the people, but the ecological systems would all be dead. This places a moral burden on all of us. On policy makers, on leaders and on us the people.

Successful social engineering calls for the spirit of sacrifice. The clean-up will produce new skill sets, new jobs and massive employment that would stretch for several years if we get this first steps right. Again, we emphasize that this will require sacrifice. If anyone approaches this sacred task of building an environment for future generations with the aim of profiteering, thievery or self aggrandizement, you can be sure that the entire scheme will ship wreck.

No contractor should cut corners. No individual or company should trigger new pollutions. As my friend, Inemo Semiama, says, “you cannot successfully mop the floor with the tap running.”

WISDOM

This epic social engineering will require the wisdom of our peoples. It will require local knowledge. The youths must embrace the spirit of sacrifice for it is the way to build the moral authority that will be needed to question activities and actions that may occur in the process of the clean-up implementation. These could include the calls for transparency, for ensuring the availability of funds and for insisting that delivered jobs match specifications, expectations and set milestones.

This effort will also demand and require collective wisdom through popular consultations. The Ogonis have the critical advantage that makes this possible because of the existence of the mass organ, MOSOP – with its youth, women and other arms. Working organically together, there will be no shortage of diversity of wisdom to tackle even the most intractable problems.

Ogoni is a laboratory, a classroom. A careful implementation of this massive social engineering programme will illustrate how the oppressed can escape from being put down by the wielders of privilege and power.

GOING FORWARD

Halting production never halted pollution. Those responsible must continue to bear the responsibility. Those instigating new sources of pollution must halt such acts for the sake of our children, our tomorrow and for the sake of other beings with which we share the planet.  We cannot build a liveable tomorrow on a polluted today.

Our slogan as the exercise takes roots should be: A Clean Ogoni: Zero Tolerance for Old and New Pollution.

We have a right to claim what belongs to us as ours. However, taking steps that end up killing us or destroying our environment for the sake of expressing our right of ownership is both a false reasoning and a false economic move. When we do things that compound our problems we are simply playing into the hands of the forces of exploitation.

This is our opportunity to reclaim our humanity. It is time to reclaim our dignity. It is time for all of us in the Niger Delta, nay, Nigeria to stand together in solidarity. There is no part of this nation that is not crying for environmental remediation. From the polluted creeks of the Niger Delta to the contaminated lagoons of Lagos and the rivers in the north, to the Sambisa Forest polluted with military armaments and erosion ravaged lands of the east, we are united by our ecological challenges.

The clean-up is a positive alternative vision. It is time for vigilance based on knowledge. Not a time for complacency. Not a time to be silent. It is time to hold government and its agencies, oil companies and our leaders accountable. It is time to demand accountability and responsibility of ourselves.

The clean-up is an opportunity to build and consolidate environmental justice. Together we can leverage the opportunity. It is a path we must walk together and not alone. As the African proverb says, you may go fast by going alone, but you can only go far by going together. We are that intertwined and interconnected.

Notes

[1]See the Lancet report at http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs310/en/

[2]Nsisioken, Ogale

[3]“MOSOP (1990) Ogoni Bill of Rights. https://www.mosop.org.ng/publications/35-documents/496-the-ogoni-bill-of-rights

[4]Nnimmo Bassey (2016) Oil Politics – Echoes of Ecological Wars, Daraja Press

[5]Ken Saro-Wiwa (2017) Silence Would Be Treason – Last Writings Of Ken Saro-Wiwa. Íde Corley, Helen Fallon, Laurence Cox, eds. Daraja Press

[6]Ken Saro-Wiwa. (2015) A Month and a Day and Letters Oxford: Ayebia Clark Publishing Limited, 2005 page 123

[7]For more on health impacts of crude oil, gas flares, etc. see HOMEF’s Community Guide to Environmental Monitoringat http://www.homef.org/publication/community-guide-environmental-monitoring-and-reporting

[8]Amber Murrey, ed (2018) A Certain Amount of Madness- The Life, Politics and Legacies of Thomas Sankara. London: Pluto press.

——

Speaking notes by Nnimmo Bassey, Director, Health of Mother Earth Foundation used at the Stakeholders’ Dialogue on Building Trust and Common Ground for a Successful Clean-Up held on 3rdMay 2018 at Port Harcourt, Nigeria

 

Eco-Instigator #19— Climate, Biosafety, Conflicts and more!

Eco-Instigator #19 coverWe bring you the March edition of our Eco-Instigator for 2018. The global environmental pollution is increasing and same heightened by the unholy wedlock between polluting industries and the supposed regulators. Activists from around the globe continue to work tirelessly for environmental and climate justice even as we prepare for a global “power shift” for climate action and activism.

In this edition, we bring you report from the UNFCCC COP23 which held in Bonn last November on the outcome of the Talanoa dialogue especially for the African stakeholders. We also serve you report from the maiden event of our FishNet Alliance in Lome, Togo.

Download and read this issue Eco-Instigator #19 X

Share your thoughts. Send articles, photos, poems, songs and/or reports of ecological challenges. We like to hear from you. Reach us at editor@homef.org and home@homef.org.