Resilience, Resistance

Building a Resilient and Ecologically Engaged Citizenry. Cross River State is generally seen as a green state, with some of the last tracts of pristine rain forests – some of which have been preserved through community forest management efforts. Some of us believe that what the State needs is an economy creatively built on her bio-economic endowment. Such an approach would release the creative potentials of the citizens in an inclusive manner with inbuilt resilience. The rich soils and biodiversity of the State have however become a compelling pull for plantation or monoculture developers. Their incursions have put pressure on the local communities, especially the forest dependent ones. The incursions also have grave implications for national and global efforts to tackle global warming.

The suggestion that plantations are forests has been rejected by our peoples who insist that forests are biodiversity hotspots and that there can be no mono-cultures without the destruction of biodiversity. Biodiversity erosion degrades the resilience of communities at many levels – ecological, spiritual, economic, social and cultural. Biodiversity destruction can come from many actions including land use changes arising from conversion of forests into plantations as well as from infrastructural projects.

The controversies surrounding the Superhighway project idea have been consistently on rather basic premises. While some ask to know what would be exported at the Sea Port where the highway is to begin, others ask to know if the imported goods would terminate at Katsina Ala or where else they would go and how. These questions skirt the issue of the prime reasons offered for the Superhighway project – the urgent need to open up the State to investors and for development. The clouds over the project have been sustained by the lack of adequate public consultations on the routing of the highway, its necessity, its finance and viability and the trade-offs with regard to the massive community displacements and biodiversity destruction that would accompany it. Non governmental organisations (NGOs) like GREENCODE and Peace Point Action (PPA) have proposed that a railway system would be more cost effective in conveying goods from the seaport to the hinterland, besides having less impact on the environment.

These concerns have led communities and other citizens to demand a transparent Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) process. That process has been unexpectedly tortuous for the Cross River State government (CRSG) because consultants engaged to help prepare the documents could not know, as pointed out by Rainforest Resource and Development Centre (RRDC), that there are no Chinese alligators, blue monkeys or even dams that would be found on the proposed Superhighway route. The versions so far seen appear to be cut-and-paste documents with scant relevance to the localities to be traversed by the Superhighway.

The CRSG has struggled to listen to public complaints and has reversed itself on the astonishing move it had made to grab 10km on either side of the proposed superhighway in order to create what had been described as a “development corridor”. That land uptake would have grabbed 25 percent of the landmass of the state and displaced up to 180 communities in the process.  Secondly, the CRSG is said to have realigned the superhighway so that it doesn’t traverse forest reserves. The problem with this is that with the route still falls within the fringes of forest buffer zones, the threats of illegal logging and opportunistic poaching remain very high.

Unfortunately, the CRSG has not been able to build the confidence of the public on the gains that the changes could have brought. This situation arises from the fact that while renouncing its initial edict to grab 10km on either side of the Superhighway, as well as sending out signals that the routing has been reconsidered, there have been threats and ultimatums made to the effect that the CRSG would proceed with the project even if the requirements of the law are not met; that they would consider revoking the ownership of the Cross River National Park. Moreover, the new routing of the proposed realignment of the Superhighway is still a conjecture as the revised map is not in the public view. The only maps that are accessible are those produced by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). This speaks volumes about the preparedness of the State for the prosecution of this project in a way that addresses the concerns of the people and the unassailable need to protect our ecological heritage.

Today we are gathered here in Akpabuyo for a diagnostic Community Dialogue on the state of the local environment. We will examine issues including threats to our biodiversity and livelihoods. We will also examine what steps can be taken to preserve and enhance local livelihoods especially under the canopy of our reconnecting with nature, discussing re-source democracy and examining how to promote positive changes in the communities while minimising those with negative impacts. The purpose of our engagement today is to facilitate a process of distilling existing knowledge and bringing out action points that would build an ecologically engaged, resilient and proactive citizenry.

Our series of dialogues cover many ecological zones and have been supported by hosting communities, SGP-GEF of the United Nations Development Programme, Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung and Grassroots International. We thank leaders of Akpabuyo Community for making our dialogue today possible. We are also grateful to all the civil society groups and the media that are with us on this ecological journey.

We are only as resilient as our environment is. Let the dialogue continue.


Welcome words by Nnimmo Bassey, Director of Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF), at the Community Diagnostic Dialogue on the theme Building Resilience for Resistance held at Akpabuyo, Cross River State on 30th May 2017

We Have a Right to Safe Food

Safe Food is a Human Right. Should science not be in the public interest and in service of society? The answer to that is obvious and it is a YES. Science has to be in the interest of society. Is all science in the interest of society? Again, this question attracts an easy answer and that answer is NO.

Must a people utilize a technology based on unproven or mythic promises? Indeed, must we use a technology simply because it exists or because we can acquire it? Does domesticating a technology, such as modern agricultural biotechnology, make its utility inevitable? Do nations shy away from utilising the technology that produces atomic bombs merely for lack of access to the technology or for reasons of safety and survival of humankind? Where does public participation begin and where does it end with regard to decisions that are matters of life and death?

If we are malnourished what must be done? Can food aid solve the challenge of food shortages in the North East when the root causes fester and lurk under every shrub or clump? Why are fisher folks in our Niger Delta creeks depending on imported frozen fish?

How much do we know of the GMO beans that will soon be unleashed on Nigerians? And what does the public know of GMO cassava experimentations/release in Nigeria? What about the approval of GMO cotton that failed in Burkina Faso for commercial release in Nigeria? Burkina Faso’s cotton production is regaining its former productivity since the government decided to jettison the GMO variety and return to planting natural cotton. Why is Nigeria being pushed blindly into a failed venture? We cannot be fooled when we are told that a permit for commercial release and placement in the market is the same as a permit for trials to be conducted.These questions are raised to remind us that there are many issues surrounding the matter of our food and

the challenge of agricultural modern biotechnology that require clarifications and in-depth interrogations.

On 13th November 1996, the World Food Summit hosted by the United Nations, the world affirmed that all humans have a right to access to safe and nutritious food in a manner consistent with the right to adequate food and freedom from hunger. The provisions for the right to life in our constitution and other global covenants speak of the right to food that is safe and nutritious.

As we begin our conversations on the state of biosafety in Nigeria, let us state that the fundamental way to ensure safe, nutritious food is through the promotion and support of food sovereignty. This is the way to ensure sustainable food production. Food sovereignty is the right of peoples to safe and culturally appropriate food produced through methods that are ecologically sound and sustainable. It is critically the right of our peoples to define their own food and agriculture systems. It allows communities to control the way food is produced, traded and eaten. We understand that the best food security can be attained through food sovereignty. Any other understanding of food security leaves open the gates for dumping of inappropriate foods and products with the singular end of filling hungry mouths and stomachs. It essentially erodes a people’s sovereignty and promotes food colonialism.

The media has an enormous responsibility to inform the public about issues that fundamentally affect their safety – especially with regard to the sort of food or things that we eat. It is a sacred duty to lay open basic information and to encourage public participation in policy issues surrounding our food systems. We have a biosafety law, the National Biosafety Management Agency Act 2015, that is not only permissive in favour of the biotech industry, but is adversarial or against the public interest. This is illustrated by the fact that the Act only requires NBMA to hold public consultations at its discretion as in its Section 26(1). We believe that holding public consultations on plans to release genetically modified organisms should be a legal and binding requirement and not left to the whims of the Agency. Section 25(2) of the Act also allows NBMA to decide whether to advertise applications to introduce GMOs in national or local newspapers.

The ‘public enlightenment’ events held by promoters and regulators of biosafety in Nigeria merely suggest that our people are misinformed about the risks that GMOs pose. What our people need is accurate information from all sides of the issues so that they can make informed decisions and demand for or reject risky technologies. Assurances that NBMA will not allow dangerous GMOs into Nigeria are nothing but mere platitudes if the claims are not backed by open, neutral and unstilted adjudications.

How much do we know of the GMO beans that will soon be unleashed on Nigerians? And what does the public know of GMO cassava experimentations/release in Nigeria? What about the approval of GMO cotton that failed in Burkina Faso for commercial release in Nigeria? Burkina Faso’s cotton production is regaining its former productivity since the government decided to jettison the GMO variety and return to planting natural cotton. Why is Nigeria being pushed blindly into a failed venture? We cannot be fooled when we are told that a permit for commercial release and placement in the market is the same as a permit for trials to be conducted.

As the conversations begin, let us all keep in mind that this is a matter of security, cultural heritage, freedom from neo-colonialism and a human right to life. We are talking about food. And food is a human right.

Let the conversations continue.

———————————————-

Welcome words by Nnimmo Bassey, Director of Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF), at a Media Training on Biosafety hosted by HOMEF at Apo Apartments, Abuja on 24 May 2017

Eco-Instigator #15 : Promoting Biosafety in Nigeria

ECO INSTIGATOR 15 coverThe heat is on, as the saying goes. As the forces of environmental harm increase the heat on the planet, ecological defenders are stepping up on mobilisations and vigorously standing up for justice.

One key trending environmental matter in Nigeria in the rst quarter of 2017 was the soot or black carbon that blanketed Port Harcourt. The visible pollution got people talking and government agencies scrambling to check the situation.

Another boiling issue was that of Biosafety or the threats of genetically modied organisms (GMOs) in Nigeria. An innocuous newspaper report relaying the ndings of an ad-hoc committee of the Nigerian Inter-Religious Council (NIREC) set up to advise the body on issues of genetic engineering has led to strenuous rebuttals and disclaimers from public agencies working on Biosafety and GMO issues. We serve you the report, the rebuttals and our own response. This is a matter that requires continuous vigilance and we promise to return to it in Eco-Instigator #16.

Always on the go? Check out the article by Sonali Narang on the need to watch our carbon footprint. And we serve excellent poetry from the pen of one of Nigeria’s acclaimed poets, Amu Nnadi.

Read, think, react, reach us. Until victory!

Read the edition here: ECO INSTIGATOR 15

What We Eat (must not eat us)

IMG_5511What We Eat (must not eat us): The key myths by which citizens are sold the idea of GMOs as being desirable include that they provide the most assured way of feeding the burgeoning population of hungry mouths in the world. The planks on which this highly seductive myth has been erected are quite flimsy. Research has shown that GMOs do not necessarily yield higher than normal crops, making the talk of producing more food by using GMOs simply fatuous. Secondly, over one third of food currently produced in the world today simply gets wasted, while most of the GMOs currently grown in the world end up as animal feed.

The need to interrogate our biosafety has become very pertinent because of the many myths around modern agricultural biotechnology. These myths are being peddled regularly by the industry promoting genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and their team players in public offices. A major plank on which biosafety, and perhaps biosecurity, rests is the precautionary principle[1]. This principle, or approach, is a safeguard against the permission or introduction of products or elements into the environment where there is no scientific consensus that such an introduction would be safe or would not have an adverse impact. In other words, the precautionary principle helps to disallow the use of citizens as guinea pigs in experimental release of products that could harm them. The argument that there is a risk in everything is hollow and an acceptance of that as an excuse to expose citizens to harm is inhuman.

In this engagement on biosafety we hope to share information on the issues of biosafety and GMOs in Nigeria and Africa. The aim is that media practitioners would be able to sift the facts from the myths, and by so doing help the public to require a sense of responsibility from our biosafety regulators, research institutions, political forces and commercial interests behind the risky genetic engineering approach to food production.

The key myths by which citizens are sold the idea of GMOs as being desirable include that they provide the most assured way of feeding the burgeoning population of hungry mouths in the world. The planks on which this highly seductive myth has been erected are quite flimsy. Research has shown that GMOs do not necessarily yield higher than normal crops, making the talk of producing more food by using GMOs simply fatuous. Secondly, over one third of food currently produced in the world today simply gets wasted,[2] while most of the GMOs currently grown in the world end up as animal feed.[3]

Another argument used to sell GMOs is that they require the use of less chemical in terms of pesticides and herbicides because the crops can be engineered to withstand herbicides or to act as pesticides themselves. The emergence of what have been termed super weeds and superbugs have dented that claim as farmers have had to sometimes apply stronger doses of herbicides and pesticides on farms where such weeds or pests emerge. In any case, the herbicide known as Roundup/glyphosate to which crops engineered by Monsanto are resistant, has been said to be a ‘possible’ source for cancer.[4]

Evidence is now mounting that there has been a collusion by biotech companies and regulators in the USA to conceal the fact that glyphosate is indeed a probable human carcinogen. One Environmental Protection Agency official, Marion Copely, in a 2013 email[5] stating the following ways in which glyphosate can cause cancer:

  1. Endocrine disruption
  2. Free radical formation and inhibition of free radical-scavenging enzymes
  3. Genotoxicity — which is key in cancer onset
  4. Inhibition of certain DNA repairing enzymes
  5. Inhibiting the absorption of essential nutrients
  6. Renal and pancreatic damage that may lead to cancer
  7. Destruction of gut bacteria and suppression of the immune system

The official (who has cancer and passed on in 2014) added, “Any one of these mechanisms alone listed can cause tumors, but glyphosate causes all of them simultaneously. It is essentially certain that glyphosate causes cancer. With all of the evidence listed above, the CARC category should be changed to ‘probable human carcinogen.’”[6]

A report published yesterday by Global 2000 shows that between 2012 and 2016, biotech companies sponsored a series of review articles asserting that glyphosate and its commercial formulations are not injurious to health. The Global 2000 report, “buying Science” reveals that the industry-sponsored reviews of glyphosate’s carcinogenicity and genotoxicity (ability to damage DNA) have serious scientific flaws, including assigning greater weight to unpolished studies than peer-reviewed ones. The papers are said to also have introduced irrelevant data in violation of standard guidelines for the evaluation of cancer studies in rodents. Moreover, the reviews also consistently assign greater weight to unpublished industry studies than to studies that were peer-reviewed and published in scientific journals.[7]

The National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA) on 1st May 2016 approved for Monsanto/NABDA to introduce genetically engineered maize varieties that would depend on this cancer-causing weed killer. Responding to objections to the permits and the obnoxious chemical, Monsanto issued a press response claiming that the chemical would not offer any cause for worry if farmers apply them strictly according to the guidelines or labels on the packets.[8] We note that overwhelming evidence show serious health impacts of agro-chemicals on persons working on farms planted with GMOs or living in close proximity to such farms.[9]

We invite journalists to interrogate the fact that GMOs are grown as mono-cultures and consider what this would mean to our agricultural system which is anchored on mix-cropping that promotes diversity and resilience. It also pays for us to look at the woeful performance of GMO cotton in Burkina Faso where the crop is being phased out and the remarkable failure in Makhathini Flats in South Africa where it was showcased as a grand success for small scale farmers in the late 1990s. We should point out that it is the same failed GMO cotton that has been halted in Burkina Faso that has been permitted to be commercially released into Nigeria.

You will hear in this programme how our regulatory agency works in cohort with GMO promoters and where official GMO promoters are interlocked with Monsanto, as for example in the GMO maize application and approval. As one ancient philosopher said, we simply have to believe the evidence of our “eyes” before we jump unto the GMO bandwagon in the pretext that we are doing science, claiming that all is well, when there are deep wells of doubts concerning the technology.

As we speak, GMO products are already on our market shelves. And a plethora of field trails of others are ongoing, including that of GMO beans that may be introduced into the Nigerian markets by 2019, according to the promoters[10]. HOMEF and other critical observers have scrutinized the NBMA Act of 2015 and found critical clauses in it that makes its capacity to protect our environment and health very questionable. We have also proposed how this situation can be remedied: either a total repeal of the act or a drastic review of the questionable provisions.

My task is to declare this training open. I do so now. And I urge you to engage and contest any ideas you are not in agreement with. And do see our publications, including our GMO Factsheet for more information. We should be concerned about what we eat. And we should not be forced to eat what we do not want to eat.

Let the conversations proceed.

Welcome words by Nnimmo Bassey, Director of Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF) at Media Training-Promoting Biosafety in Nigeria held in Benin City , Nigeria, on Friday, 24th March 2017

Notes

[1] http://www.precautionaryprinciple.eu

[2] UNEP. 2016. Food Waste: The Facts. http://www.worldfooddayusa.org/food_waste_the_facts

[3]David Johnson and Siobhan O’Connor. 2015. These Charts Show Every Genetically Modified Food People Already Eat in the US. Time Health.  http://time.com/3840073/gmo-food-charts/

[4] Roundup weedkiller ‘probably’ causes cancer, says WHO study. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/mar/21/roundup-cancer-who-glyphosate-

[5] See report on “Heartbreaking letter from dying EPA scientist begs Monsanto “moles” inside the agency to stop lying about dangers of RoundUp (glyphosate)” at http://www.naturalnews.com/2017-03-15-heartbreaking-letter-from-dying-epa-scientist-begs-monsanto-moles-inside-the-agency-to-stop-lying-about-dangers-of-roundup-glyphosate.html

[6] Vicki Batts. March 23, 2017. Thousands of people now have non-Hodgin’s Lymphoma due to glyphosate (Roundup) exposure, warns legal firm that’s suing Monsanto. http://www.naturalnews.com/2017-03-23-thousands-of-people-now-have-non-hodgkins-lymphoma-due-to-glyphosate-roundup-exposure-warns-legal-firm-thats-suing-monsanto.html

[7] GM Watch. 23 March 2017. New report shows glyphosate producers are “buying science.” http://gmwatch.org/news/latest-news/17518

[8] Ben Ezeamalu. June 11, 2016. Monsanto responds to PREMIUM TIMES’ report, says own modified crops ‘safe.’ http://www.premiumtimesng.com/news/more-news/205109-monsanto-responds-premium-times-report-says-modified-crops-safe.html

[9] Paul Koberstein. June 16, 2014. GMO companies are dousing Hawaiian island with toxic pesticides. http://grist.org/business-technology/gmo-companies-are-dousing-hawaiian-island-with-toxic-pesticides/

[10] Zakariyya Adaramola. November 29, 2016. Nigeria to get GM beans in commercial quantities by 2019- NABDA. https://www.dailytrust.com.ng/news/health/nigeria-to-get-gm-beans-in-commercial-quantity-by-2019-nabda/173748.html

NOT ON OUR PLATES! Nigeria does not need GM food

Not on our Plates!Nigeria does not need GM crops to satisfy its food and agriculture needs. We know exactly what we have to do and the Nigerian National Conference[i] of 2014 raised the caution with regard to then draft National Biosafety Bill. We agree with the concerns raised by the Conference and urge that the NBMA Act should be critically reviewed or repealed.[i]

The few crops commercialized during the past decades were mostly composed only of two traits, and their area of cultivation has been limited to a handful of countries. Over 90% of GM crops concentrated mostly in five countries– USA, Brazil, Argentina, India, and Canada, with the USA accounting for 40 per cent of all GM global area.[i]

In any case, after two decades of GM crops commercialization, up to 95% of the staple crops which have been commercialized are insect resistant or herbicide tolerant. The push for the introduction of these type of GM staple crops has been led either directly by the big biotech corporations that developed the product or their subsidiaries.

None of these traits, however, provide any benefit to the consumer, and none of them as of today has managed to win the heart of the majority of the consumers. For instance, even in the US, the cradle of GM crops, a poll conducted by the New York Times in 2013 concluded that three-quarters of Americans expressed concern about genetically modified organisms in their food, with most of them worried about the effects on people’s health.[ii] In The reality of such scepticism has forced the biotech industry to desperately seek to widen its market into Africa. The claim that Europe is influencing Africans to reject GMOs is grossly erroneous.[iii]

Download here and read the full Not on Our Plates…

[i] Alessandro Sorrentino, et al. October 2016. “Regulatory Policy and Economic Implications of GMO in Agriculture: A review.” See at https://www.aur.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/SORRENTINO_BRANCA_-Food-governance_GMO.pdf

[ii] Allison Kopicki. July 27, 2013. Strong Support for Labeling Modified Foods. New York Times  https://www.nytimes.com/by/allison-kopicki

[iii] http://www.newvision.co.ug/new_vision/news/1339024/european-union-policies-detrimental-africa

NIREC and the trouble with Nigeria’s GMO Twins

thumb_img_0764_1024NIREC and the trouble with Nigeria’s GMO Twins: Recently there was a news report that the National Inter-Religious Council (NIREC) cautioned the Nigerian government with regard to permitting Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) foods into Nigeria. That significant report may have escaped many Nigerians. However, the strident denial by the directors general of National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA) and National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA) that they were not members of the NIREC committee on GMOs helped to bring up the report again. Both officials are right to say that they were not members of the NIREC committee because they were not. I was a member, so I can testify to that. They were invited to share information and respond to questions on GMOs with the committee set up by NIREC. And the director of NBMA did while NABDA was represented by Dr Rose Gidado, an assistant director of the agency. A disclaimer published by Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology, Nigeria (OFAB) on behalf of NABDA opens with these words: “On the Daily Trust publication below (NIREC cautions FG against GMOs), the OFAB Nigeria Coordinator, Dr. Rose Gidado whose name appeared as part of the Committee wishes to state that she was called to answer questions at the Committee meeting but was never part of the Meeting not to talk of being part of the approval process of the final report that was produced.” She met with the committee as a representative of NABDA.

They apparently do not want Nigerians to hear the other side of the story – about the impacts of GMOs and agro-toxics on the environment, humans and biodiversity. One of the chiefs literally dragged the other out of the studio with the NTA officials pleading with them to stay and participate in the programme, to no avail. That display of disdain to criticism must have shocked the staff of NTA and signified very clearly the sort of leadership we have on biosafety issues in Nigeria.

A preliminary comment that is of important at this point is that these two agencies operate like conjoined twins. And that may be so because NBMA is purportedly the brainchild of NABDA. No, that is not my imagination. It is alarming because the NABDA as the name implies is a biotechnology research, development and promotion agency. Their job is to ensure that GMOs are placed on the dining tables of Nigerians whether we want them or not.

The fact of one being the brainchild of the other was revealed at one of the sittings of the committee. The inseparable nature of the two agencies was also illustrated before my eyes in the studios of the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA) where their two heads were invited to the Good Morning Show to which I was, unfortunately, also invited. They would not consider sharing the precious space with someone who would speak against their positions. They apparently do not want Nigerians to hear the other side of the story – about the impacts of GMOs and agro-toxics on the environment, humans and biodiversity. One of the chiefs literally dragged the other out of the studio with the NTA officials pleading with them to stay and participate in the programme, to no avail. That display of disdain to criticism must have shocked the staff of NTA and signified very clearly the sort of leadership we have on biosafety issues in Nigeria.

NABDA and NABMA work hand-in-hand in a manner that is unacceptable. A true regulator would be an impartial umpire on biosafety and GMO issues. In his rebuttal to the news report that erroneously stated that the two biotech leaders were part of NIREC, the head of NBMA stated that he was assuring Nigerians that his agency will supervise the safe deployment of GMOs in Nigeria. First, he takes the introduction of GMOs into Nigeria as a given. Why would a biosafety regulator consider himself as a supervisor of GMOs? Can we tolerate a referee, in a soccer match, who celebrates whenever one side scores a goal? Secondly, when he talks about the introduction of GMOs he used a militaristic terminology, deployment, probably signifying that the battle lines are drawn against Nigerians who are suspicious of any GMO hemlock.

The committee, made up of seasoned academics and religious leaders, raised questions over GMOs and did not recommend it as a way forward for Nigeria.

However, when NABDA blames the NIREC committee of bias and in another breath claims that the NIREC committee endorses GMOs, that is a figment of the agency’s imagination. It simply is not true. The committee, made up of seasoned academics and religious leaders, raised questions over GMOs and did not recommend it as a way forward for Nigeria. With the attitude of brooking no dissent, it was curious to hear the chief of NABDA accuse the NIREC committee of bias, because, according to her, the committee did not have GMO promoters on it.

thumb_img_0761_1024-2The committee was at pains explaining to the two agencies that, in carrying out their work, they must understand that the critical baseline is the interest of Nigerians and our environment and not that of any commercial or political interest– no matter how powerful. The two agencies could not convince the expert committee that they had enough tools to adequately carry out their tasks. Among other things, the committee also saw that NABDA was functioning more as a GMO advocacy agency rather than engaging in useful research, while the Biosafety Management Act itself requires urgent radical review.

As Soot Blankets Port Harcourt

carbon-coated

Soot & Sole:  twitter pix from @GreatOgoni

 

Dark clouds over Port Harcourt. The air in parts of Port Harcourt has been darkened by soot over the past few months, raising a cloud of concerns about the attendant health impacts. Citizens in parts of Port Harcourt, Nigeria, are getting worried about the air they breathe. To put it another way, many citizens are afraid to breathe. And that can be deadly.

Soot is a general term that covers pollutants derived from incomplete or inefficient burning of fossil fuels or biomass (plants or plant-based materials used as source of energy). The major sources of soot include fuels like diesel used in transport and in electricity generators. For the Niger Delta, the sources include the aforementioned and include others such as: gas flares, illegal refineries, the burning of illegal refineries and crude oil, burning of oil spills by incompetent contractors and the burning of sundry wastes. Bush burning can also be a source of soot in our environment.

The burning of illegal, or bush refineries, by the Join Military Task Force (JTF), the incendiary acts that have been raised as banners of victory over oil theft, is one source that must be halted immediately. The bush refineries are basic and flimsy contraptions that can easily be dismantled and safely disposed of. The same goes for wooden barges arrested with stolen crude. Dropping grenades on those toxic wares and sending smoke signals above the creeks may be seen as acts of bravado, but they have serious health impacts on the environment and citizens in the area. The JTF, working with the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) and the oil majors, should set up recovery centres were recovered stolen crude are logged, stored and safely disposed of by the original owners or as agreed. The disposal methods could include sending such crude to the refineries or by exporting them if the quality is not compromised by the process of rough handling.

A variety of soot is one called black carbon. We have also heard of black snow arising from carbon particulates that accumulated in the Himalayas, for instance, and is said to aid the rapid melting of snow by reason of the heat they trap. Dramatic carbon pollution in the winter of 1952 led to the death of about 4000 persons within five days.

The current situation of soot blanketing the skyline of parts of Port Harcourt is deeply troubling and requires urgent actions from relevant government agencies as well as research institutes. In particular, the National Environmental Standards and Regulations Enforcement Agency (NESREA), Nigerian National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency (NOSDRA), Directorate of Petroleum Resources (DPR) and, in general, the Federal and State Ministries of Environment and those of Health should step up to tackle the emergency situation.

When reports of gathering soot came up a couple of months ago, sources at NESREA confirmed that the soot originated from hydrocarbon or oil-sector related sources. That conclusion rules out bush burning as a possible source. For those that have noticed the thick black smoke belching continuously from the Port Harcourt refineries, those sources are very strong suspects. And then, the bush refineries and the bombing of those rickety refineries by the JTF remain strong contenders. These should all be investigated. The scenario has raised the urgent need for air quality measurement and control in Nigeria. Within accurate measurement of levels of exposure, causal links may not solid and culprits may wriggle out and avoid accountability and responsibility.

It is the duty of our regulatory agencies to pin-point the source of this menace, enforce a cessation of the obnoxious acts and penalise the culprits. We know that the conflicting boundary lines governing the duties of these agencies may complicate the processes for addressing this issue, but joint meetings should overcome territorial defences in the face of the risks our people are exposed to.

This is a serious situation and government cannot afford to remain silent on it. The health impacts of soot and black carbon are well documented and are known to include effects on our respiratory system and bloodstreams. They can trigger cardiovascular diseases such as asthma, chronic cough, sinusitis, bronchitis and colds. The fine particles can also have carcinogenic effects. They can also negatively affect the development of the lungs in children. Life expectancy in the Niger Delta is already precariously low, the effect of soot and black carbon will push those low figures through the bottom.

We should also mention here that Ekpan community at Warri, Delta State, has been suffering extensive pollutions from black carbon emanating from the petrochemical plant located there. The community is more or less heavily coated with soot continually and residents often have to keep their windows shut in futile to keep out the deadly stuff. When the community petitioned the National Assembly over the situation, an order was issued that the plant should be shut down until it was adequately serviced and fitted with devices that would halt the noxious emissions. It does not appear that the order was adhered to as the community is still reeling under the weight of black carbon whenever the machines come alive.

Residents of Port Harcourt, Ekpan and the Niger Delta as a whole deserve a breath of air that is fresh and devoid of soot and black carbon.