Not an African COP

Countries that have been on the receiving end of  climate change have to carefully examine the narratives driving the conversations and negotiations at the Conference of Parties (COP) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). This is important because for years the debates have regressed from demanding real actions to defending lifestyles and dominant geopolitical power positions. Although the COP is presented as a democratic space it has always been clear that it is actually a space for imperial and indeed colonial domination. 

Calling COP27 that will be held in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, an African COP is simply a tale that has a tail aimed at presenting the false notion that this is an opportunity to solve the ravages of climate change on the continent and other vulnerable nations and territories. That this will not be so should be clear. This will be the fifth COP to be held on the African continent — it has been held once in Kenya, twice in Morocco and once in South Africa. Indeed, around the time it was held in Durban, South Africa, storms battered the region leaving stark warnings and tales of woes. Since then cyclones on the South Eastern seaboard of the continent have inched up the latitudes and snuffed the lives out of thousands of Africans. Locust invasions of virtually biblical proportions have stripped dreams of robust harvests and left desolate, hungry populations in the east and horn of Africa. 

Yet, none of the COPs has shifted grounds to take real climate actions, especially recognizing the fact that the now chic notions of carbon capture or even carbon removal must be approached from the sensible understanding that continual extraction and burning of fossil fuels are counterproductive and injurious to the planet, the people and other beings. 

Rather than taking the glaring global heating pathways as real threats to life, and leaving fossil fuels in the ground, the world is locking itself on the path of voluntary emissions reductions and weakly whispering a commitment to “phase down”  the continued use of coal. Whatever that means. 

How can Sharm El Sheikh (SES) be an African COP when Africans ravaged by floods, droughts, receding coastlines and forests are unaware that political leaders and technocrats are toying with their fate under the shadows of the pyramids. How can this be an African COP if the victims of climate change are not at the negotiation tables, and are debarred from defending their life-giving forests and ocean and have no access to the tourist haven where decision makers will be ensconced for two weeks in November 2022 to perpetuate the rituals of carbon trading and hoist distant flags pointing at when their grandchildren will attain net zero carbon emissions. 

The COP has transformed itself into a platform for avoidance of actions and the appropriation of ideas and ideals of indigenous peoples of the world who have been fighting for the respect of the rights of Mother Earth with a clear understanding that to do otherwise spells doom for humans and other species on this Blue Planet. This is why at the COP there will be cheeky proclamations of nature based solutions that do nothing but market the gifts of Nature.

Corporate profit interests, political and military dominance have perpetuated the myths that the climate debacle can be solved with mathematical formulae while certain lifestyles and investments are secured by destructive activities including irresponsible extraction, consumption and wars. 

The coming COP will probably throw down some corn and coins in the guise of climate finance and the payment for loss and damage caused by ongoing climate inaction and false solutions, but will studiously avoid historical harms that have virtually exhausted the carbon budget. Even the net zero and other colourations of carbon offsetting will be couched in languages that permit Europe to throttle Africa with pipelines of discontent as the continent is forced to meet the fossil fuels shortages arising from the Russian war on Ukraine. While the industrialized nations test their bloody war machinery in Ukraine, the fangs of the fossil fuel companies are being sunk into the necks of Okavango in Namibia and Botswana; Saloum Delta of Sénégal and the Virunga forests of Democratic Republic of Congo. Rather than halting the predatory moves in these World Heritage sites, new pipelines of discontent are being planned to suck gas from the Niger Delta for delivery to Europe through Morocco and Algeria. Others are planned to convey heavy crude from the Lake Albert region of Uganda to an export terminal at Tanzania. While it is yet inconceivable for rich nations to take climate action,multinational forces are set in battle array to defend the gas pipelines and other investments in the killing fields of Cabo Delgado, Mozambique. 

COP27 could have been an African COP if African leaders and others from vulnerable, exploited and exposed regions were not marching into traps that dangle shinny mirrors that present polluting activities as development and hold up ruinous tipping points as desirable destinations.  It could have been an African COP if our leaders were going there to demand Climate Justice and insist on the payment of a climate debt for historical and current harms. The value of this debt can be approximated to about 2 trillion dollars that the industrialized nations spend on warfare and armament annually. Clearly, the problem has never been one of a shortage of cash.

It could be an African COP if the marketization of Nature, including through diverse forms of carbon trading are denounced and rejected. It could be an African COP if the gathering agrees that investment should be in agroecology with support for the majority of farmers, rather than industrial, colonial or plantation agriculture that depends on fossil fuels, promotes risky technologies and continues to devastate the environment, displace communities and feed climate change. 

It could be an African COP if binding emissions cuts return to the negotiations and polluting nations agree to do their fair share on the basis of Common But Differentiated Responsibilities (CBDR) rather than the so-called Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) that so far have not dented more than 2 gigatonnes of the 27 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent needed to keep temperature increase to not more than 1.5℃ above preindustrial levels as per the Paris Agreement of 2015. 

It would be an African COP if the Paris Agreement is overturned and a new upper temperature target of well below 1.5℃is set with a clear understanding that 1.5℃ global average means 2.2℃ for Africa and that such a temperature scenario will utterly cook the continent.

Biosafety in Shambles

We cannot afford to keep gambling with our biosafety. To do so is to set ourselves up for intergenerational consequences; needless to mention the current crises that are being exacerbated. Genetic modification and other new technologies including gene editing and synthetic biology which are applied in agriculture require critical evaluation for their implication not just on human/animal health but also on ecosystems and on the rights of our people.

Biosafety encompasses the actions, systems and policies that protect humans and environments from exposure to harmful biological agents. In agriculture, it involves the precautions taken to control the cultivation and distribution of genetically modified (GM) crops and products. 

Nigeria is a key actor when it comes to GMOs Biosafety. She signed the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety in May 2000 and ratified it in October 2003 in commitment to Global Biodiversity Management. However, questions remain over the implementation of the principles of biosafety, of the continuous assessment of the implications of products of genetically modified organisms on the people/environment and on the level of awareness of the public on the subject.

The Nigerian Biosafety Management Agency Act came into force on 18th April 2015 in the last days of the administration of President Goodluck Jonathan. That Act mandated the setting up of the National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA) saddled with the responsibility “for providing regulatory framework, institutional and administrative mechanism for safety measures in the application of modern biotechnology in Nigeria with the view to preventing any adverse effect on human health, animals, plants and environment.”  

Since then, a plethora of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) products have been approved for release in the country. According to our report on the State of Biosafety in Nigeria, as of November 2020, the NBMA had issued nineteen permits for introduction of GMOs into the country – eight (8) for field trials, nine (9) for direct use as food and/or feed processing and two (2) for commercial release. GM Cowpea (beans) and GM Cotton were approved for market placement in 2019.  

In this year 2022, 2 permits have been issued: one for field trial of genetically modified potato and the other for commercial release of the HB4 wheat. 

These products are approved with very little public knowledge and where rigorous assessments are done and objections made by concerned organisations/individuals, they are neglected. This NBMA so far has acted more like a promoter of GMOs rather than as a regulator.

One case of focus today will be the genetically modified wheat (HB4 Wheat) approved in July 2022. Approval was granted to the applicant (Trigall Genetics S.A.) in merely a month after the application was received. No risk assessment document is available on the website of NBMA or the Biosafety Clearing House as of 25 July 2022.

Although it is claimed that the application is for commercialization and not for cultivation of the wheat, there is no guarantee that the GM event will not get into the hands of local farmers and contaminate indigenous varieties. The applicant states that “in the unlikely case of accidental release, risk to humans, animals and the environment are similar to the ones produced by conventional wheat.” This doesn’t make sense as they also say that the “traits found in the GM wheat event are not available in non-GM form of the crop.” 

 The HB4 Wheat was engineered to tolerate glufosinate ammonium which is known to be more toxic than glyphosate. There are thousands of cases in the USA over cancers resulting from the use of glyphosate. Residues of glufosinate in the wheat event poses a direct threat to human and animal health. In the likely event that this wheat is planted by farmers soil and water will be contaminated from intensive use of the glufosinate chemical. Although the wheat is self-fertile, it can cross-pollinate at a rate of up to 14% meaning that the HB4 genes will spread to and contaminate other wheat varieties.

These concerns with the HB4 wheat are common to the several other GM products approved for use in the country. Some GMOs are modified to act as pesticides (e.g the Bt Cowpea approved for commercial release in 2019 and already being distributed to farmers). We may have already started eating a pesticide in the name of beans. GMOs have economical (e.g loss of farmers’ rights to save, reuse and exchange seed), environmental (erosion of biodiversity, loss of indigenous varieties, advent of super pest/superweeds, toxicity of water, soil degradation) and health (immune system disorders, liver and kidney problems, cancers) implications that we cannot keep a blind eye to.

The right to safe and nutritious food is a universal right. GMOs challenge that right with the creation of novel organisms, dependence on toxic chemicals and abridgement of the rights of farmers to preserve and share seeds and to stay free from contamination by genetically engineered seeds.

The NBMA Act 2015 which mandated the setup of the Agency has several fundamental flaws that make it impossible to protect the interests of the public and avert the negative implications of GMOs on our health, economy, and environment. The gaps include lack of access to information, no provision for adequate stakeholder engagement or consultation and participation, defective provision for liability and redress, subjective decision-making, and skewed provisions for appeals and reviews. The law is uses slack terms such as “may” rather than “shall” therefore bestowing enormous discretionary power on the Agency. These loopholes create room for abuse of administrative powers and make allowance for gross injustice against the people of Nigeria and the environment.

Today as we discuss the issues surrounding GMOs biosafety, we hope you will focus particularly on the NBMA Act and see if the Agency as constituted is wired to serve the best biosafety interests of Nigeria or if it should be fundamentally reviewed. We hope that you, as legal experts, consider if there are issues of conflict of interest in a setting such as that of NBMA where board members such as National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA) are promoters of the risky technology and are also applicants that have benefited from the very first application to have come before the Agency. 

We hope that you will examine the implications of GMOs and advise whether they obstruct avenues for safety, justice, fairness, probity, and equity in our collective struggle for a food regime that ensures that we are not turned into guinea pigs by those pushing to colonize our food systems and expose us to avoidable risks.


Welcome words at the Workshop with Judiciary Officials on GMOs and Biosafety in Nigeria held on 4thAugust 2022 at Abuja

The Ikarama Paradox

There are communities in the Niger Delta that would compete to have the dubious notoriety of being the oil spills capital of the world due to the regularity of oil spill incidents they experience. Ikarama community in Yenagoa Local Government Area of Bayelsa State is one of such communities. A major community in the Okordia clan, it is also well known for her location on a road that forks off the East- West Highway at Zarama where the highway crosses the Taylor Creek. Travelers on this highway regularly must squeeze their way through the colourful, massive and boisterous Zarama market that emerges at this intersection on Fridays. It is a day when traders and farmers in communities within the region bring their wares and produce for sale to buyers who come from far and near to buy yams, plantains and bananas, cassava products, vegetables, meat, seafood, and an assortment of imported goods. The market is so massive that and speaks out on the highway that it literally takes up one wing of the bridge that straddles the Taylor Creek at this point. The colourful umbrellas under which business is transacted here is a sight to behold. But it doesn’t give any hint of the oil pollution that swirls in the swamps and creeks beyond.

Before the advent of oil exploitation activities at Ikarama it was a community that was fertile both for fishing and for farming. It’s location in the Bayelsa National Forest marked it out as a custodian of a rich biodiversity. The benevolence of nature has been brutally threatened by oil over the past decades. 

When oil spill is mentioned within Okordia clan in Yenagoa local government area of Bayelsa State, Ikarama and neighbouring communities including Kalaba readily come to the mind of anyone familiar with the history of oil spill incidents in that axis of the Niger Delta. Ikarama community is host to Shell’s Okordia manifold, oil wells and pipelines owned and operated by the Nigerian Agip Oil Company (NAOC).

Reports of oil spill incidents are as numerous as they are disturbing. At a visit to an area impacted by oil spills in the community way back in 2014, it was amazing to see that those who pretended to have cleaned up the spill had merely turned the soil over to cover up, not clean up, the pollution. The grass over the area shone from the stubborn oily sheen that refused to be hidden and the fumes in the air was so thick residents whose houses were close by had to relocated for safety reasons. I was accompanied on that visit by Alagoa Morris, the ace monitor of the despoliation of the Niger Delta environment and Jay Naidoo, an African elder, activist and politician, who was the founding Secretary General of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), and later a minister in the government of President Nelson Mandela of South Africa. Naidoo went on to reference the ecocide in Ikarama in his excellent book, Change: Organising Tomorrow Today. 

Naidoo was shocked by what he saw at Ikarama, Rumuekpe and Ogoni. He wrote in his book that rather than paralyzing him, what he saw made him determine to do something to help restore the land to the rightful owners, the people who work with their bare hands and only take from nature what she yields to them. He continues in that struggle to this day by organizing and by mentoring young people as a key knowledge holder on our continent.

My last visit here may have been in 2014, but I have studiously followed the pollution trajectory here from way back to in 2007. And that is why I am returning to Ikarama today, 8 years after. 

A major incident occurred in February 2018 when a resident was hit by the pungent smell of crude oil, and the sound of spraying liquid, on his way to farm. That spill was traced by the Joint Inspection Visit (JIV) to have resulted from what is termed “third party interference.” The response to this incident was brutal as officials of the Civil Defense Corps descended on the community in the wee hours of one morning, shot a youth in the hand and on both legs, and arrested and took away a lady in lieu of her husband, a logger, who was away in the forest at that time.

Mr Udoki Orukori, the arrested woman’s husband told reporters then that he did not know where his wife had been taken to. “I was informed it was Civil Defense (that arrested her). For now I don’t have money, so there is no access for me to go after her.” Mr Orukori’s extreme exposure and helplessness illustrates the state of affairs of community people all over the Niger Delta who have to confront multiple security forces in the murky waters of the region and in the murkier business of securing oil and gas facilities.

Before the February 2018 incident, the last observed spill in the community was recorded two years earlier and that one was attributed to Shell’s equipment failure. From that month the incidents of spills resumed with the regularity of a tom tom beat of a festival drum.

There was another major oil spill here in the evening of 11th June 2018 at Shell’s Okordia Manifold. That spill spread to neighbouring Kalaba community. The cleanup of the spill was slow and ineffective and over subsequent months the swamps remained heavily impacted with ensuing floods further compounding its impact and spread. 

Although both Shell and ENI have a fair share of spills here, most of the pollution incidents have occurred from facilities of SPDC, notably from the Adibawa/Okodia delivery line, Okodia/Rumuekpe pipeline and Okordia Manifold. And most of the oil spills have occurred close to residential buildings, farms and farmlands raiding serious concerns about locating oil extraction facilities and activities within communities. 

Expectedly, community persons have been experiencing diminishing returns from their fishing and farming endeavours, besides the onerous health impact of living in a highly toxic environment. 

Chief (Mrs) Ayibakuro Warder, a community woman in Ikarama, told environmental monitors in August 2021, ‘’Our crops don’t do well again, particularly the cassava and plantains. They die off after planting and we must replant repeatedly. Tuber plants like cassava and yams no longer yield like in the past. The yams rot away before harvest. We feel this could be because of crude oil in the environment as oil spill impacted sites are not properly cleaned up and remediated. We have not been experiencing this before now. Sometimes, in some areas of our farmlands, as we till the soil we see crude oil. That is what we are contending with and, as fisher folks and farmers, this is a threat to our means of livelihood and health.’’

The story has not changed. When Benjamin Warder tried to construct fishponds in March 2021 and again in April 2022 he was greeted by crude oil oozing from the swamp. According to Mr Warder:

“In March 2021 I brought an excavator to prepare a fishpond for me. What I saw was quite unfortunate. I saw crude oil coming out from the ground. I raised alarm by informing the Environmental Rights Action/ Friends of the Earth Nigeria’s Alagoa Morris. Thereafter NOSDRA, Shell and ERA came and some spots in this environment were dug. And it was very glaring that crude oil was coming out from the ground. As a community person, I felt that since even the multinational oil company had come here to witness crude oil coming out from the ground, they would come back to carry out soil tests in the entire environment and carry out proper remediation of the environment. But unfortunately, since August last year till now, nothing has been seen or heard about it from SPDC [Shell Petroleum Development Company]. That notwithstanding, I decided to try and invest again this year and brought an excavator on 26th April 2022. And you know the heavy cost of bringing a Swamp buggy down here from Yenagoa; it is expensive. And when we excavated this time, what we saw was worse than the one of 2021.”

The depth of the environmental destruction at Ikarama and adjoining communities is so extensive that it cannot continue to be covered up or ignored. The people have borne the burden of irresponsible environmental despoliation by oil companies and other entities, and this must be stopped. First the oil companies must change their horrendous habit of not adequately monitoring and securing their pipelines, and their futile efforts at covering up or underreporting oil spills.  They must review and adequately clean up and restore the environment wherever oil spills have occurred over the years. The UNEP report on the assessment of Ogoni environment clearly exposed the false claims of cleanups by the oil majors. 

This is the time for government and the oil majors to take immediate steps to commence an environmental and health audit of Ikarama and the entire Niger Delta and commence a thorough cleanup of the entire region. Funds for this endeavour should be deposited in a dedicated account for this purpose. No entity must be allowed to divest without first making reparations for their ecological transgressions. Anything less is to deny the people their right to live and flourish in their land. Remaining deprived, neglected, and poisoned in an environment that nature has so well-endowed is a paradox that Ikarama must be spared.

Reject Seed Colonialism in Africa

It has often been said that one of the ways to colonize a people is by dismantling or subverting their culture. This pathway is also effective for building dependency and disrupting the systems that organically secures the health of the populations. In terms of agricultural and food systems, the disruption is most effective when staple crops are targeted, appropriated through patenting and presented as mere merchandize. Food is fast becoming an instrument of control and power.

Science has been used as a cloak for the introduction of foods of dubious value and quality. The quest to solve perceived problems through artificial means introduces new problems, some of which can be intractable. Today we see unrelenting forces seeking to control our food and agricultural systems with attendant disregard for indigenous knowledge, natural cycles, biodiversity, and livelihoods of communities. 

We are concerned that food is being seen as a mere commodity or a mechanical or chemical product from a factory or laboratory. Truth is that eating is beyond swallowing food to satiate hunger; food has deep cultural and spiritual anchors with special significance in many religious observances. 

Food supply across Africa depends largely on the maintenance of a healthy and thriving biodiversity. Our farmers save, reproduce, and share seeds, understanding that these seeds encapsulate life. These communities engage in mixed cropping and harvest a mix of fruits, tubers and vegetables that yield foods that are rich and healthy, providing needed nutrition and building defenses against illnesses. They have a strong link to what is presented as food and harvests are never mechanical exercises. Moreover, many of our farmers do not see food production as mere business or for profit.

These practices are being threatened by the genetic modification of seeds particularly those that make up our staple foods.

Today we are speaking of the genetically engineered cowpea, popularly known as beans in Nigeria, and drawing attention to the fact that the insecticidal beans can also kill non-target organisms and that even the target pests can develop resistance. In the same vein, when crops are genetically engineered to withstand herbicides, we cannot ignore the fact that they kill other plants and microbial life and not only the so-called weeds. These modifications interfere with the webs of life in ecosystems, and this has intergenerational consequences. 

Although the promoters of the Bt cowpea claim that it will translate to improved food security in Nigeria due to availability of much higher amounts of cowpea, one concern that cannot be overlooked is that this GM variety will utterly contaminate natural varieties through cross pollination. This means that even where a farmer chooses not to grow the GM variety, the preferred natural variety will be contaminated. Thus, rather than promote food security, Nigeria/Africa is stepping into an era of uncertainty, of gross unpredictability and instability of food supply and resultant food insecurity.

The genetically engineered beans (recently approved for commercial release in Nigeria despite objections by HOMEF and several other stakeholders) is modified with the transgene Cry1Ab which has not been approved anywhere else in the world. Most of these genetically engineered events are prepared overseas and brought for testing in Africa and yet we boast that we are adequately equipped and innovative. The genetically engineered cowpea is originally a Monsanto product brought to Africa on supposedly humanitarian grounds. We insist that Africans must not be used as testing ground for novel and risky technologies.

Promoters of these risky technologies fight against strict liability clauses in national Biosafety laws. This has been experienced in Nigeria, in Zambia and in Uganda and so on. In Uganda a clause in their genetic engineering regulatory law was inserted to ensure that producers of GMOs will be held accountable for any harm that may come from cultivation or consumption of their products at any time, even if such effects manifest years later. Since then, GMO promoters and producers scientists have branded President Museveni and the Ugandan parliament as being anti-science. 

There are attempts to overlook the Precautionary Principle which is the bedrock of biosafety regulation. Simply put, the precautionary principle advice that where there are doubts regarding human, animal or environmental safety, we should hold the breaks. Good genetic engineering science must not leave room for doubt and when harms manifest, the producers should be held strictly liable. 

The speed with which Nigeria is permitting GMOs is highly suspicious and offers no assurance that the government is concerned about food safety, the preservation of our biodiversity or the rights of our indigenous peoples. Neighboring and other African countries should beware.

As you are already aware, this press conference is a platform for exposing the grave risks our food and agricultural systems face through the introduction of genetically modified beans. Besides the environmental and health risks, our people’s right to choose what variety to plant and what food to eat is absolutely breached by the introduction of the genetically engineered beans, a staple and critical source of protein for our peoples. The right of choice is eliminated because our food systems do not allow for labelling. This right is fundamental, and our people should not be ambushed to eat any risky material. We call on farmers to reject Bt Cowpea seeds and continue to protect our food system.

My welcome words at the International Press Conference on Bt Cowpea held on 7th March 2022 via Zoom

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.

What After Oil

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

16 September 2021

Politics of Turbulent Waters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IPCC—Oceans warming faster than expected

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A little help from Nature

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

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

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

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

No Politics with our Seas

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

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

Stilt Roots and Power

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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