The Pull of the Mangroves and the Sea

Jerri ChidiThere is something about water that draws humans and other living beings. Could it be the fact that up to 60 percent of the human body is made up of water? When people say that water is life, the meaning goes deeper than the fact that water quenches our thirst, refreshes us and generally feeds us. It also refers to the fact that water provides the environment for aquatic species to thrive and generally for a vast variety of fauna and flora.

One of the tree species that gives an unforgettable presence once your eyes lock on them is the mangrove. If you are fisher, the sight of a mangrove forest signifies the abundance of fish. No matter who you are, the stately and entangled stilt roots lining a coastline, with a dense canopy of branches and leaves, are captivating pictures to behold.

The pull of the endless expanse of the sea and the pull of the terrestrial verdant mangrove canopies on the coastline engage in continuous battle of who would hold captive the coastline communities as well as the fishers. This push and pull gives creative impetus to fishers who sing as they row out into the sea and as they row back with their catch to the expectant reception of families and friends. What would life be in a Niger Delta without mangroves?

The generous aesthetics and socio-economic pull of the mangrove environment along the Nigerian coastline got Jerry Chidi, a documentary photographer, to make the journeys along the banks of our major rivers as well as along the Atlantic coast from Badagry to Bakassi over a period of ten years. His output is a testament to focus, tenacity and high crafts from a man who sees photography as medium for awakening of consciousness. He describes his photography as a “medium for inspiration and social awakening… not only to entertain us but to also arouse in us feelings of empathy and deep connection to other beings, places or social issues and ultimately to move us to action.”

Chidi memorialised his photographs in the book, Man and Mangroves – An Environmental Awakening. The book, a catalogue of visuals that demand responses and actions, in 146 photographs, documents the beauty of the mangrove, the foods and the livelihoods they support. Importantly, it shows the severe damage and mindless despoliation that reckless exploitation of the environment has brought about.

Mangroves have roots that grow above the ground and often form intricately tangled forms that only Nature can weave. The roots are not above water for mere aesthetic effects. They are above water because the plants breathe through pores on them. The roots help the trees to breathe because the muddy soils in which they grow are poorly aerated. The trees shoot their roots into the air, literally to avoid suffocation. It is like they hold their breath in high tide and take in as much air as they can in low tide.

The book sets before our eyes incontrovertible evidence of the great ecological devastation and economic ruination visited on the Niger Delta by oil and gas exploitation as well as by the illegal activities of some community persons. The book shows how poverty gets entrenched in a region drowning in wealth. There are sections in the book that show before and after images of the same location and starkly illustrate the sharp deterioration that has occurred in a short span of 3 to 5 years.

Man and Mangroves illustrates the wealth that Nature has bequeathed to coastal communities. The pictures can speak for coastal communities whose mangroves have been devastated for touristic infrastructure or for industrial activities including forms of aquaculture across the tropics. Some of the photos echo the destruction of mangroves in Asia that exposed communities to devastating impacts of cyclones as well as in a place in Brazil which fisherfolks call the Cemetery of Mangroves due to destruction of mangroves there by hydrocarbon pollution and fires.

Mangroves are rightly considered as an important source of life and protector and supporter of coastal towns and communities. They are important place-markers and add to the identity, traditions and cultures of the peoples interacting with them.

Mangroves are trees or shrubs mostly found in tropical regions and which grow in tidal, coastal swamps. They grow in brackish or saltwater marshes and swamps and do well in harsh environments that other plants can hardly tolerate. The point to note here is the fact that although mangroves tolerate brackish or saltwater, they do also grow in freshwater swamps. There are many species of mangroves, but the most common are of the red or white varieties.

The mangrove forests in Nigeria are the largest in Africa and the third largest in the world. While they can be found all the way from the western (Badagry) to eastern (Bakassi) extremities of the Atlantic coastline of Nigeria, 60 percent of them are found in the Niger Delta.

They have roots that grow above the ground and often form intricately tangled forms that only Nature can weave. The roots are not above water for mere aesthetic effects. They are above water because the plants breathe through pores on them. The roots help the trees to breathe because the muddy soils in which they grow are poorly aerated. The trees shoot their roots into the air, literally to avoid suffocation. It is like they hold their breath in high tide and take in as much air as they can in low tide.

This breathing strategy fails when there is an oil spill. The pores through which they breathe get clogged by crude oil and the trees actually begin to suffer from loss of air and some literally suffocate. If trees could talk, they would cry out they can’t breathe! Besides being breathing roots, the stilts also help to stabilize the trees as they get older and bigger and have to contend with fairly unstable soils. The trees provide materials for construction, boat building and fuel. The leaves are medicinal and are also used for livestock feed. They help to cool the planet by serving as efficient carbon sinks.

Many fish species find the tangled mangrove roots as good places to lay their eggs and for the juveniles to thrive in. The mangroves are thus natural nurseries for fisheries. About 75 percent of global fish catch come from mangrove ecosystems. They make up about 4 percent of the vegetation on earth but provide nests for most marine life. Aquatic species found in the Niger Delta mangrove ecosystems include crabs, clams, shellfish, crayfish and shrimps which are caught at low tide. They also include species like the West Africa manatee, sea turtles and pygmy hippopotamus.

It is estimated that for every 0.4 hectare (1 acre) of mangrove forest destroyed there is a loss of about 300 kg of marine harvest. We often say #FishNotOil. Considering the fundamental importance of mangroves, we may also say #MangroveNotOil. Absorbing 2-4 times more carbon than other trees, mangroves certainly help to cool the planet while fossil fuels set the planet on fire. The mangroves are incubators of economies, cultures and overall wellbeing. On the other hand, fossil fuels pollution destroys livelihoods, build despondency and ignite conflicts.

Mangroves are important, indeed vital, for both aquatic species and for humans who depend on them. They reduce the vulnerability of coastlines to sea level rise, hurricanes, cyclones and storms. The loss of mangroves along the Nigerian coast is one reason coastal communities exposed to unrelenting sea waves are losing ground. Coastlines with less disturbed mangrove forests suffer less damage from storms and tsunamis than the coastlines that have been taken over by infrastructure including luxury resorts. In other words, faulty business activities lead to exposure of vulnerable communities to harm.

According to Devinder Sharma in an article, Tsunami, Mangroves and Market Economy, “Mangrove swamps have been nature’s protection for the coastal regions from the large waves, weathering the impact of cyclones, and serving as a nursery for three-fourth of the commercial fish species that spend part of their life cycle in the swamps. Mangroves in any case were one of the world’s most threatened habitats but instead of replanting the mangrove swamps, faulty economic policies only hastened its disappearance.” He writes that mangroves provide double protection at shorelines, with the first layer of red mangroves absorbing shock from waves using their flexible branches and tangled roots.  Adding to this first line of defense is a second layer that is made up of  taller black mangroves that “operate like a wall withstanding much of the sea’s fury.”

Mangrove Book

Seeing that the largest mangrove forest in Africa is in Nigeria, their destruction translates to a major threat to fisheries on the continent and to the economies and wellbeing of coastal communities and fishers. In the words of Professor Olanrewaju Fagbohun, “It is our collective responsibility …to ensure that our presence in the environment does not alter its eco-dynamics. A destabilized mangrove would have dire social and environmental consequences in the short and long run.”

A word of wisdom from Desmond Majekodunmi: protecting our mangroves is a step towards halting the ongoing infanticide and ecocide in the Niger Delta.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Alternative Power for Power Alternatives

IMG_2381 2We need alternative power scenarios to achieve needed power alternatives. The word power has many synonyms. Some of these are influence, authority, control and dominance. The term has interesting definitions in politics, military, religion, electrical, sports, law and mathematics. In physics it refers to energy produced by means such as electrical or mechanical ones in order to operate a device. Electric power can come from a variety of sources including solar power, fossil, nuclear systems, steam, thermal power, waves and hydro power. When a nation considers or uses a variety of these sources for secondary energy production, this is referred to as an energy mix.

We learn something about power when we consider its meaning beyond that of mechanically getting something moved from one point to another or getting a device to produce something. In social science and politics, power is defined as the capacity to influence the actions, beliefs, or conduct of others by an individual. We will return in a moment to examine the importance of power in the socio-political context.

The Tussle over Dams

A tussle continues between Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt over Ethiopia’s Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile. While Ethiopia wishes to become a net exporter of electric power, Egypt worries that the dam will constrict its share of the river if it is filled up too quickly. Sudan on the other hand could benefit from cheaper electricity from the power project but could also suffer catastrophic flooding if the dam fails. Tensions are running high as recent talks by the three countries did not yield a deal.

Meanwhile a mammoth Grand Inga hydropower project with a generation capacity of 40 GW is proposed to be built on the Congo River in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Conceived as the largest dam in the world, the scheme would be realized in three phases. Inga 3 with a capacity of 4.8 GW of power was originally announced in 2013 with the support of the World Bank at an estimated $14 billion price tag. The World bank withdrew in 2016 and a redesigned Inga 3 now has Chinese interests and is planned to produce 10 GW of power. Some of that power may head to Nigeria. Inga dams 1 and 2 built under the Mobutu regime in 1972 and 1982 had installed capacity of 2,132 MW and are said to have never produced more than 40 percent of their capacity. Although up to 90 percent of DRC’s population do not have access to electricity, this scheme is planned to mostly supply mining companies in the country as well as industrial establishments and urban centres in South Africa.

Governments Trapped in Crude

The oil price slump driven by the coronavirus pandemic may be easing, but confidence in the resource is not building up as fast as the crude oil dependent African nations would wish. Reports indicate that although “massive oil and gas discoveries have been made in Africa this century — from Ghana to Mozambique — the prospects of similar ones in the future look bleak” because operators are not investing as enthusiastically as expected. It is indeed believed that low oil prices have forced drillers to cut down on risky frontiers and that oil rigs are disappearing from Africa at a rapid pace.

While the rigs may be shifting away, the fossil industry has a peculiar hold on financial speculators or shareholders. Oil companies shore up their value by showing how much oil reserves they have. That way investors can peep into the distant future and see their investments secured in the oily soup. Consider the Mozambique LNG project operated by TOTAL. The company is sealing a deal to finance the project through the monetization of the reserves in the deepwater Area 1 of that country.

There is no shortage of huge fossil fuel projects in Africa. There is the $20 billion Ogidigben Gas Revolution Industrial Park (GRIP) owned by the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC); the $13.5 billion Etan & Zabazaba Oil Fields offshore Nigeria owned by Eni and Shell; the $12 billion Namibe Refinery Complex in Angola with two Russian investors holding 75 percent shares; and the $11 billion Dangote Refinery and Polypropylene Plant at Lekki Free Trade Zone, Lagos.

Oil dependency has spelt a big challenge for African governments and this has been heightened by the pandemic. According to  International Monetary Fund’s data, the breakeven prices for some African countries are as follows: Nigeria – $144 per barrel, Algeria – $109 per barrel, Libya – $100 per barrel, and Angola – $55 per barrel. With such high baselines and with oil prices currently below $50 per barrel, combined with the fact that the world is gradually shifting from this energy sources, it is clear that countries dependent on crude oil revenues are in for prolonged financial stress except they wake up from slumber and diversify their economies. In response to the revenue debacle, Nigeria has applied for about $7 billion in emergency loans as of April 2020. For how long can we go on this way?

Should Africa’s Energy Needs trump Climate Change concerns?

There is no doubt that Africa needs electric power and a whole lot of it. According to the African Development Bank(AfDB), “Over 640 million Africans have no access to energy, corresponding to an electricity access rate for African countries at just over 40 percent, the lowest in the world.”

With this level of power deficit on the continent, the obvious response is that the gap must be closed. Some have said that this gap must be closed “by any means possible.” By the way, when Frantz Fanon penned those terms, and when Malcom X used them at the founding rally of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), they obviously did not have self-harming connotations in their minds.

Electric power by any means suggests burning of more oil, gas and coal and use of nuclear power or big dams. These will generate the needed power, but what would it do to the climate? Africa is already one of the most vulnerable regions in the world, with temperatures rising more rapidly than the global average in some places. Extreme floods, cyclones, droughts and even locust invasions have grave implications for the continent.

At a recent webinar, a participant asked this question, “Is it fair not to allow countries in the global South to adopt the destructive pattern that built the global North?” This appeared to be in sync with a statement made by Gabriel Obiang Lima, the minister of Mines and Hydrocarbons in  Equatorial Guinea: “Under no circumstances are we going to be apologizing, …Anybody out of the continent saying we should not develop those [oil and gas] fields, that is criminal…”

Alternative socio-political power scenarios inspire the pursuit of power and energy alternatives. It is time for the intensification of community dialogues and the convening of peoples’ assemblies to determine what constitutes development and progress as well as to what ends Nature must be transformed. There is a critical need to disconnect our dreams and plans from the narratives of climate deniers and scenarios that lock us into interests of extractive corporations and politicians seduced by revenue sources that discount both the people and ecological costs.

The question is whether Africa’s need for electricity trumps our climate change challenge. Some analysts argue that as much as climate concerns are real, switching away from fossil fuels dependence will be misguided. We need to debate “development” and what being developed means.

Oilwatch International has been demanding that fossils be kept in the ground for over two decades now. This started before #KeepItInTheGround became a popular hashtag. Oilwatch is basically a global South network focusing on halting the expansion of destructive fossil fuel activities in the global South. The network recognises the need for power, but it also recognises the right of our peoples to life and dignity.

Alternative Power for attainment of Power Alternatives

Let us return to the question of power in the socio-political lens. We remind ourselves that it talks about the capacity to influence the actions, beliefs, or conduct of others. It is in this space that we can see possibility of drawing the line between drowning and dying with lights on or living and thriving with lights on. With the right political power, we can agree on, and deliver the right electric power.

Africa may resist the shift from fossil fuels on the basis of the argument that it is unjust for those who have benefited from the use of fossil power to now demand that Africa shuts down her few fossil power plants and plunges into darkness, bearing the brunt of climate action while the rich polluting nations and oil companies enjoy the spoils of their exploitation with no responsibility for historical recklessness and even crimes. The middle ground for this would be that the global North immediately shifts from polluting fossil energy while the global South engages in a managed decline, weaning off and shifting to cleaner energy in a gradual mode.

The point is that for this demand to be made in a convincing manner, Africa must have leaders with a climate justice mindset. The dominant neoliberal mindset that pursues projects and climate finance rather than the payment of climate debt will not do. A mindset that accepts the commodification of nature and false solutions such as carbon colonialism and slavery, that sees the continent as a huge carbon sink or data mine will not do.

We need a climate justice mindset that drives the political will to draw an immediate and long-term plan to power Africa from the abundant renewable resources she has, ensuring that these do not come with green land grabs and diverse dispossessions of poor communities and peoples. We need a new mindset to build alternative power structures that would birth continent-wide distributed renewable energy micro-grids managed by communities and associations and not shylock private companies.

We need an alternative power structure, one that is people driven, that builds power with the knowledge that you do not have to extract and use a resource simply because you have it. A system that understands that you don’t have to exploit a resource simply because it has a financial value while ignoring the values of liberty, dignity, solidarity and intergenerational equity. It is a good time also to define and debate development. Where has the current mode taken the world?

Alternative socio-political power scenarios inspire the pursuit of power and energy alternatives. It is time for the intensification of community dialogues and the convening of peoples’ assemblies to determine what constitutes development and progress as well as to what ends Nature must be transformed. There is a critical need to disconnect our dreams and plans from the narratives of climate deniers and scenarios that lock us into interests of extractive corporations and politicians seduced by revenue sources that discount both the people and ecological costs.

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Presentation at Health of Mother Earth Foundation’s Climate Change and Power Alternatives Dialogue/Webinar on 22 June 2020

 

The Virus Will Not Change Anything We Won’t Change

24F6F9CF-069E-41E4-AA98-CDC61885D841A key fact we have to face is that the coronavirus will not change anything we won’t change. The change that will frame the post pandemic era will come from humans, our relationship with each other and with Nature. The push for change will inevitably revolve around our interpretation of what is happening around us.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I see the Invisible (Staying Closer Apart)

I see the invisible

I see the invisible 

I hear the inaudible

And I feel the intangible

I’m everywhere in no time

Floating on memories of strained futures

Aloft on lofty hopes

Sliding on rugged dreams in truncated nights

 I see the invisible 

I hear the inaudible

And I feel the intangible

Ears on the ground we tremble

At the departing footsteps of

Departed elders at marketplaces

 I see the invisible 

I hear the inaudible

And I feel the intangible

Eyes on the past we see the future

Cluttered by discarded viruses and their angry relatives

Hands glued to our sides social distances narrow to a kilometer apart

I see the invisible 

I hear the inaudible

And I feel the intangible

We have never been closer now we are apart

Finally, nature’s tiny beings shake sleep away

We are relatives and can have a good day

If we don’t scoff and cough in each other’s face

 

NB at RallyNnimmo Bassey

19 March 2020

Facing Coronavirus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Petroleum’s Fatal Seduction

PollutionThe world has been fatally seduced by petroleum. Multiple oil spills continue unabated in the oilfields of the Niger Delta. While the oil companies claim that they have bettered their sense of responsibility by detecting and remediating oil spill sites, these largely remain tales for the gullible. For communities whose soil, water and air have been assaulted for decades, hopes of having a safe environment, as suggested in the Objectives of State in Chapter 2 of Nigeria’s 1999 Constitution, or as clearly stipulated in Article 24 of the African Charter for People and Human rights, remain but pipedreams.

It has often been said that provisions of Chapter 2 of the Nigerian Constitution 1999 – whether amended or non-amended versions are not justiciable. The cavalier treatment of the environment in the constitution underscores the lack of consideration of the fact that the state of the environment directly impacts on the quality of life of our peoples. One would expect that in a society where the majority of citizens live on and derive their livelihoods directly from the environment, environmental rights would be expressly justiciable.

Sadly, in instances where officials have thought of taking actions to improve on the quality of the environment, the attention has been on the draconian locking down of states from 7 to 10 am on the last Saturdays of every month. That so-called Environmental Sanitation is a relic of the dark days of military rule when the State could easily avoid its duty and foists the burden on hapless citizens.

The cavalier treatment of environmental concerns has seen the dramatic trashing of the Nigerian environment and the related destitution of the people. The filth around us is so pervasive it takes wilful blindness for anyone to avoid seeing them. Plastics dumped everywhere. Trash thrown out of windows of exotic cars. Makes you cringe.

The state of the creeks and swamps has been emblematised by the Ogoni environment. However, that in fact is like more than half the story not being told. Reports emerging from Bayelsa State are very worrisome. One case is the gas/condensate leakage that is suspected to have happened due to third party interference on a pipeline operated by the Nigerian Agip Oil Company (NAOC) on 28th July 2019 in the Taylor Creek at Kalaba Community in Yenagoa Local Government. A field report by Alagoa Morris and Akpotu Ziworitin of Environmental Rights Action informs that the spill has remained unattended for 7 incredible months after the fact of the pollution. The spill persists unattended as we write this.

Overall, the petroleum civilisation has seduced humanity to think that there are no viable alternatives to crude oil and its many derivatives. Feeding this myth means accommodating unconscionable ecological degradation, including climate change, as a minor price to pay. 

The report quotes an official of the community as saying, “The situation is posing threat to lives, as people pass through that area to their farms and lakes. We are urging Agip to come and do something; by clamping and clear the environment of crude oil so that our lives and livelihood would be protected. Right now, they are not protected. The leadership of the community has reported to several authorities concerning the spill. But even at that, there has been no communication so far in respect of this spill. I don’t know the intentions of Agip; whether to crucify us through this process or to suffer us through this process.”

Obviously, extreme pollution is not limited to Nigeria. Oil fields and locations of toxic industrial installations are more or less crime scenes. Crimes against Nature and against communities and individuals. They are locations of environmental racism as well as other forms of irresponsible exploitation. It is time that nations pay attention to how the South African Environmental Protection Agency captured the essence of environmental justice in these words – “no group of people should bear a disproportionate share of the negative environmental consequences resulting from industrial, governmental and commercial operations or policies.”

The Environmental Protection Agency of the USA defines environmental justice as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies.” Citizens have to collectively push for the operationalization of these and similar policies. At present we see that in many countries these declarations are little more than mere platitudes.

One country that can be said to have impacts comparable to Nigeria in intensity of pollution, if not size, is South Sudan. According to reports, the country currently produces about 166,000 barrels of crude oil per day compared to the production level of about 350,000 barrels per day in 2013 – before civil war broke out. Although the country has just signed another peace agreement, the pollution continues, just like it did in Nigeria after our government declared amnesty for militant agitators in the Niger Delta.

Politicians are addicted to extractivism. They do anything to keep oil and gas flowing through pipelines. It matters little what happens to the environment or to the people as long as sufficient quantity of hydrocarbon courses through the pipes to draw in the quantum of petrodollars required for their political projects. If it were not for this attitude, an environmental emergency would have long been declared over the incredible pollution and decimation of the Niger Delta.

The oil flows when the Earth bleeds. Those words from a poem I penned tells half the story of pain. The oil flows as the people bleed. Polluted creeks, swamps and lands are accepted as normal. Birth defects, cancers, premature death and all kinds of anomalies reign in the fields from where oil companies and their cohorts drill billions of petrodollars.

Overall, the petroleum civilisation has seduced humanity to think that there are no viable alternatives to crude oil and its many derivatives. Feeding this myth means accommodating unconscionable ecological degradation, including climate change, as a minor price to pay. However, all is not lost. The petroleum civilisation will have an end. And that end is near. It is for humans to decide if we want an orderly transition or a haphazard and cataclysmic one. The end is inevitable. Like any other addiction, the first step out is to make a decision to quit and to see the horrors in the oil fields as well as the impacts of global warming as challenges that need to be tackled head on.

 

 

Ogoni Clean-Up and the Business of Pollution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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GMOs, Herbicides – Ambush in the Night

Moi moi
Moi moi wrapped in leaves, not plastics!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

Walk Back from GM Beans

Not on our Plates!

Nigerians are not ready for GM Beans or any GMO for that matter. The commercialisation of genetically modified (GM) beans has been celebrated by the purveyors and promoters of the artificial variety. The Pod Borer-Resistant Cowpea (PBR-Cowpea) also known as Vigna unguiculata is modified to express the Cry1Ab protein expected to “confer protection from certain lepidopteran insect pests of cowpea, principally the pod borer (Maruca vitrata Fabricius).” Although the insecticidal beans has been advertised as the first genetically modified (GM) crop to be released into the Nigerian environment, and for consumption, it is actually the second crop. The first crop was GM cotton whose application for commercial release was approved by the NBMA in 2016.

Most people see cotton as a crop whose use is only in textiles. However, the truth is that cotton seeds are used in making cotton cakes as well as cotton oil. Cotton is eaten by our peoples in one form or the other. We are emphasizing this because some GMO promoters tend to wave off complaints on possible health impacts of the crop on the false claim that it would not enter our food chain.

Seeing the promoters of GM beans celebrate through press conferences, announcements and meetings is quite understandable. The approval for confined field trial of the variety was first granted in 2009, six years before Nigeria had a biosafety law. Another application for same purpose was approved in 2018. After spending over a decade working on the variety and having a system that authorizes its release into the environment and unto our food bowls, any scientist should be proud of the achievement. But the duration of an experiment does not suggest that the product is needed.

In assessing the application for release of the variety into the environment and market, the National Biosafety Committee decided that the beans was more or less the same as the natural counterpart. They also claimed that “The characteristics and factors affecting survival, multiplication, gene expression and dissemination are not different from those of the unmodified counterpart.” They further claimed that “Interactions with the environment are not different from those of the conventional counterpart, except in the insect resistance trait for which the product was modified.” They also claimed that the GM beans is substantially equivalent to the natural variety. In fact, the only queries on the GM beans application are basically on typographical errors.

A section of the report of the recommendation document speaks to the socio-economic considerations regarding the GM beans. This is what they said: “The introduction of the Bt Cowpea will not stop the continued use of unmodified farmer preferred varieties by any farmer who chooses to do so. The use of the Bt cowpea will increase farmers’ wealth from increased yield and reduce Farmer investment in pesticides, it will reduce environmental pollution by the insecticides due to reduced amount of total insecticide sprayed, it will reduce farmers’ health challenges from insecticide exposure. Introduction of Bt Cowpea will translate to improved food security in the entire country due to availability of much higher amounts of cowpea. This will also translate to higher incomes due to export of the commodity, because less residual insecticide means higher acceptability of Nigerian cowpea in the international market.”

There are a number of contentious ascertains in the above quote. First of all, this GM variety will likely contaminate natural varieties through cross pollination, although beans are usually self-multiplied. There is a possibility that even where a farmer chooses not to grow the GM variety, the preferred natural variety could be contaminated. The release of the GM variety thus poses a threat to the preservation of natural species. A loss of natural varieties would mean that rather than promote food security, Nigeria could be stepping into an era of uncertainty, of unpredictability and food supply instability.

The declaration also claims that farmers will earn more income because the beans would have “less residual insecticide” and would thus be more accepted in the international market are questionable. Apart from the fact that the GM beans is actually an insecticide, it is very doubtful that there will be much international market for genetically modified beans, unless their identity will not be declared in such markets.

Although the Nigerian Biosafety Act requires labelling of genetically modified organisms, we have said repeatedly that our socio-cultural and food systems do not lend themselves to labeling. This is obvious with the way our foods are prepared, packaged, presented, served and eaten. It means that regulating our food systems must take our context into consideration and much more care should be taken than may be necessary elsewhere. We are in a situation where the NBMA and the GMO promoters are ambushing both the farmers and the consumers through the release of these needless varieties into our environment and food system.

It is important to note that there are natural innovative strategies to solve the problem of pests including the Push and Pull method and biological control which have proven effective. The rush to adopt a technology immersed in so much controversy and linked to health, environmental as well as economic problems is unnecessary and ultimately unhelpful.

We have had reasons to warn that the NBMA’s process for GMO approval is stacked against contrary opinions and objections. This position has been strengthened by the Recommendation reports posted by the agency on the website of the Biosafety Clearing House (BCH). Two of the reports relate to applications from the Institute of Agricultural Research (IAR), Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. One is for GM Beans, while the other is for “confined field trial of maize genetically modified for resistance to stem borer insect and for drought tolerance.” The NBC members that signed the recommendation document for the GM maize application include vested interests represented by prominent and frontline promoters of GMOs in Nigeria. We cannot expect rigorous evaluation and assessment of applications when the promoter is saddled with the task of such assessments.

Considering the above, it is imperative that the risky beans are recalled before it is too late. It is never wrong to retrace your steps when you find that you are on the wrong track. No matter how far you may have gone.

When Pain Speaks

Gas flare by Igbuzor
Gas Flare in the Niger Delta. Photo credit: O. Igbuzor

The colonisation of the Nature persists in its raw form and tends to be intensified as time goes by. The intensification of the colonisation of Nature increases as resources that humans have learned to transform for the preservation of current civilisations run out. The dearth of resources to be exploited should have been obvious to humans since we live on a finite planet. The race for what can still be reached has thrown up situations where governments are not necessarily defined by political ideologies but by their stance towards dependency on revenue and materials from extractive activities and on corporate forces that support their electoral needs.

The range of political leadership we see in the world today tends to be birthed by alignment of perception of populations on which leadership promises to bring back the good old days. The factor of nostalgia has sometimes been spiced with a promise to bring about change. Common in all situations is the fact that the voters do not question the past that they desire and do not interrogate the promised change. The result has been that the disappointing reality sets in very quickly when the promises turn to dust.

The thought pattern that offers Nature as something to be exploited has become so ingrained that we only wake up to ask questions when the environment is thoroughly degraded and where damage can no longer be compensated for. The heavy loss and damage tied to the extractivist model has gone so deep that financial compensation cannot sufficiently pay for the harms. This shows clearly that the remedies must be sought on the altar of justice. Humans need to seek a reconciliation with Nature of which we are an integral part. One pathway towards this reconciliation is through the acceptance of ecocide as a crime punishable under national and international laws. The acceptance of ecocide as a crime will greatly incentivize good behaviour by ecological devourers.

The abandonment of social responsibilities by governments is one of the reasons for the spate of protests going on in the world today. And it does appear that the protests will continue until governments wake up to the fact that they are elected to govern and not to babysit corporations and otherswho profiteer from the misery of citizens.

Reconciliation with Nature will take both physical and cultural actions. It will require an acceptance that carrying out so-called corporate social responsibility acts are blatantly hypocritical when the harm done is irreversible. Beautiful concepts like benefit sharing should be seen as drawing in victims as accessories to crimes when the ecological harms done in the process of resource exploitation cannot be remedied. Talks of good governance and transparency stand out as scaffolds for continued irresponsible exploitation in many cases when it is known that the baseline for assessing transparency is not in existence in the first place.

The cultural actions that require immediate consideration have to do with our mindsets. For too long, policies have been based on ideas formulated to ensure that the oppressive and exploitative systems persist. We accept concepts such as green or blue economies without question. Some policy makers even swear that the blue economy is Africa’s chance to enter the development train. We do not even pause to question the origins of the concept of development and the classification of nations as developed, developing or underdeveloped. So unthinking have we been that there was a time nations competed to be classified as poor and highly indebted nations so as to qualify for loans and prescriptions that would actually ensure their poverty.

And, have you considered the concepts of cash cropping as a major means of foreign exchange earning by governments? Where did the idea that you can literally cultivate crops for cash and not for food take root in our psyches? Think about that.

The pursuit and accumulation of cash has become the reason for living by many. Those who are not able to raise enough cash to cover more than their daily needs are seen as poor and as failures. Humans have accepted the notion that collective organisation provided by government should only be for the purpose of propping up corporate interests and the powerful forces behind them. People readily mouth the falsehood that governments have no business in business and extend that to mean that citizens must pay for everything. Allowing citizens to swim or sink has become the creed and this further opens the scope for exploitation of the helpless.

Governments pursue revenue generation and do all they can to ensure the enlargement of the space for ease of doing business. You don’t hear of ease of survival for citizens of nations. No, there are no measures for that. We speak up against child labour, but we have normalized poverty and force kids to work in order to support parents whose labour cannot pay their bills. So we have children buried in mines for hours, digging up metals that end up adorning the rich and the powerful. We see artisanal miners breaking their backs and getting buried in unsafe mine pits across the African continent. And, then we point our fingers to accuse these struggling citizens with notions that poverty drives ecological degradation. No one asks to unearth the roots of the calamitous circumstances that we live in and the extent to which the planet has been wreaked.

The abandonment of social responsibilities by governments is one of the reasons for the spate of protests going on in the world today. And it does appear that the protests will continue until governments wake up to the fact that they are elected to govern and not to babysit corporations and otherswho profiteer from the misery of citizens. And we should add here that laws like the proposed Hate Speech bill in Nigeria cannot stem the tide of pains that must be voiced.