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Dossier:

Eco-Crimes: Shell and the Niger Delta

Vast oil-reserves in the Niger-Delta – one of the planet’s most precious wetlands situated at the African West-coast of Nigeria – were discovered in the 1950s, at the end of colonial times, and to this very day contribute to most of the oil wealth of Nigeria.

Throughout the past decades and well into the 2000s, foreign oil-companies showed a dreadful indifference for the well-being and human rights of the locals of this land area, which resulted in a careless and criminal negligence of their pipeline infrastructure, and consequently in an enormously high number of oil-spills.

In line with this despicable lack of concern and delinquent attitude, the hazardous practice of burning around the clock, leaking natural gas has become rampant, thus polluting air quality in many areas to an unbearable extent. The oil conglomerate Shell, by far the biggest player in the Delta and indisputably the main culprit for causing these environmental disasters, never undertook great efforts to attend to the environmental damage it had caused over decades of destruction. Neither has the corrupt military dictatorship of Nigeria who was in place until the 90s and, unsurprisingly, its following rulers in the years to come had too avoided any direct action to redeem this humanitarian and environmental violation. Which begs the question: would the Nigerian governments acted differently had Western companies obliged a humanitarian and ecological standards. Instead, Shell, Agip, Total S. A., Eni and the likes followed the post-colonialist habit of exploit yet another African nation and to unscrupulously collaborate with repressive local military regimes.

Although contamination of soil and water in the Niger-Delta is primarily Shell’s liability, due to its immense political and financial power, the company has managed to successfully and continuously dodge its responsibility and has only admitted to it in small parts and avoided until this very day its moral and legal duty to help the inhabitants of the Niger-Delta clean up their livelihoods; to reverse the tremendous ecological damage in the Delta and to halt the suffering of its people.

By listening to the voices from Nigeria in the following dossier, we hope to raise awareness of a situation in which governments and former perpetrators from the military forces are still powerfully intertwined, making it very difficult to bring justice to the harmed region and its population, and to endow them with the financial means to clean up their precious wetlands. So far it is crystal clear that for the time being Shell is not willing to dedicate itself to clean the Niger-Delta, redeem its historical guilt and help people in the region get out of the impoverishment that was brought upon them by the ongoing destruction of their land throughout the second half of the last century. Yet despite this, the fight for justice and redemption continues to wade through the murky waters and has gained considerable momentum in recent years.  

01.

Fyneface Dumnamene Fyneface: In the footsteps of Ken Saro Wiwa

Having grown up experiencing firsthand the devastating impacts of oil spills in his village, Fyneface Dumnamene Fyneface could no longer keep quiet. He decided to be the voice of millions of ordinary people in Niger Delta who have everyday watched as their land become eclipsed by layers of filthy oil  that  have chocked their very existence. 

Fyneface Dumnamene Fyneface

His cause got a breath of fresh air, with the assassination of Ken Saro Wiwa, an avid environment crusader who his mentor. Now Fyneface gets his hands dirty trying to rid the environment off the toxins, and when he is not, he is sitting with presidents and high profiled global personalities asking them tough questions about their resolve to help the people most affected by the oil business. He talked to Fairplanet about his quest to get justice for the indigenous people, the activities of Youth and Environmental Advocacy Centre Nigeria where he is a director and his campaign to recruit one million youth in his environmental justice journey by the year 2020.

fairplanet: What is your personal experience with the oil spill and the resultant environmental pollution in the Niger Delta?

Dumnamene Fyneface: I have a very in-depth understand of the oil spillage in Niger Delta. I was born here, have lived here and have being working here on these issues over the years. I have heard about oil spills in many communities, bushes and forests in the Niger Delta and have gone to see the spills myself and reported them to the oil multinationals and authorities with the hope that they would act.

When these spills occur, they destroy vast areas of farmland and crops. They spill into water bodies and kill aquatic lives. The air is also heavily polluted further compromising the quality of life of the people. Most of these spills occur as a result of corrosive pipes that were laid since the 1950s when oil exploration activities started in the Niger Delta region and have not been properly maintained or changed over the years. A few of these spills, no doubt also occur as a result of sabotage especially by youth that blow up the pipes to express anger and those who do so to pilfer the crude oil for artisanal refining at subsistence level.

You are a consistent crusader for the rights of the indigenous people living in Niger Delta who bear the brunt of the oil spills. You have done reports, held protests, presented your case to both the President of Nigeria and high profiled international actors. Why does this matter to you so much?

The issues of oil spills, pollution, environmental and human rights of the indigenous people of the Niger Delta are dear to my heart because when spills occur it is the indigenous and local people that suffer. Their livelihoods are destroyed, their farmlands are polluted and the fishermen are made to net oil instead of fish because the water bodies are polluted. It worries me as a crusader belonging to the young generation when I see the same issues that the late environmentalist, Ken Saro-Wiwa advocated for and died for still persisting in Ogoniland and the Niger Delta to date. It matters so much to me because, Niger Delta environment is being killed daily by the activities of oil majors and no longer able to sustain lives. The massive environmental pollution is affecting and cutting short human lives, affecting pregnant women and unborn babies, children are being born with deformities and others are sufferring from strange diseases.

Kenule BeesonKenSaro-Wiwa (10 October 1941 – 10 November 1995)

I have put in my time and resources over the years campaigning and calling for a stop to further pollution of the Niger Delta environment and for the oil companies, Shell in particular, and the Federal Government of Nigeria to cleanup oil polluted sites so that fishing and farming, which are the major income earners for the local people, can thrive again. Thus, I will continue my advocacy till the Ogoniland and other polluted sites are cleaned up and the environment restored.

What exactly does your campaign involve and how easy or hard has it been?

My campaign is multifaceted. I seize every opportunity that I can to talk about environmental and human rights issues especially those that have a direct bearing on the lives of the ordinary people.

Part of my campaign involve visiting secondary schools, colleges and universities on the impacts of oil pollution to our environment and the need for them not to involve themselves in oil theft and artisanal refining that contribute to environmental degradation. My campaigns also involve live appearances on radio and television stations to campaign and create awareness on the worsening situation in Niger Delta.

In 2015, I took my environmental and human rights advocacy campaigns to the international community to paint a picture of the magnitude of the oil spills and the devastating effects they continue having on my people back home.

 I was featured in The Stream programme of Al Jazeera and also appeared on Radio France International. I also took my message to students of San Francisco State University, California and also had the opportunity of presenting my campaign to the 71st Session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York in 2016 where I addressed the President of Nigeria and other world leaders on the environmental and human rights issues in the Niger delta region.

 In 2017, I registered an advocacy platform called Youth and Environmental Advocacy Centre, YEAC, through which I also target to mobilize at least one million youth by the year 2020 to join me in campaigning for environmental, human rights and social justice for the indigenous people of the Niger Delta and Nigeria at large. My campaigns have been both hard and easy. It has been “hard”, yes, because, it requires and involve resources; it has been “easy”, yes, because of the passion and zeal I have to this cause.

Oil companies in the Delta attribute oil spills to third party activities including theft, pipeline vandalism and sabotage by the locals. What do you have to say to this?

The oil companies operating in the Niger Delta region always look for ways of shifting blame from their obvious undoing. They often blame the communities and third party activities in order to avoid paying compensation. In previous cases these oil companies have been forced to accept responsibility after independent audits revealed their culpability. 

A classic case is the oil spill in Bodo Community in Ogoniland between 2008 and 2009. Shell that was responsible for those spills initially denied responsibility but when the community with a team of London lawyers dragged them to a high Court in London, Shell accepted responsibility and opted for an out-of-court settlement in which the company paid 55million British Pounds in compensation with a promise to clean up the oil spill, a project that is currently ongoing in Ogoniland. I am aware and cannot deny the fact that pockets of third party interferences including theft and vandalism do occur especially when the youth are expressing anger over the antagonistic tendencies and the divide-and-rule tactics of the oil companies and government. However, it is on record that the oil companies are responsible for 50 per cent of oil spills with just about 28 per cent attributed to activities of vandals and sabotage. The oil companies are never sincere. They operate with impunity because both the Nigeria laws and institutions are weak and do not have teeth to hold them to account.

Slain environmentalist Ken Saro Wiwa has always inspired your cause. How has his execution over 22 years ago shaped the fight against oil pollution?

The execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa has always greatly inspired the fight against oil pollution and environmental degradation in the Niger Delta region. 22 years down the line, people within and outside the Niger delta region are beginning to understand the message of environmental pollution, human rights of the indigenous people, resource control and environmental justice that Ken Saro-Wiwa zealously championed.

“Apart from those of us who are naturally inspired by Saro-Wiwa, we have seen numerous people including politicians adding their voices in calling for environmental justice.”

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Report on Ogoniland published on August 4, 2011 has vindicated us, Ken Saro-Wiwa and all other Ogoni heroes and their campaigns that Ogoni environment was polluted. The execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa has shaped the campaign positively. The message is spreading and justice is nearer now more than ever. The great man never died in vain, and it is our resolve to honour his cause by doing what he so passionately believed in.

There have been various attempts over the years to roll out the Niger Delta clean up that have never quite taken up. What is the latest and is there hope that the cleanup will eventually take off?

Attempts have been made in the past to begin the cleanup but nothing tangible has taken place. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Report on Ogoniland was released on August 4, 2011 under the previous administration of President Goodluck Jonathan. That administration took some preliminary steps to implement the report. In 2012, the administration hurriedly set up the Hydrocarbon Pollution Restoration project (HYPREP) without a blueprint as they tried to counter a planned protest by the Ogoniland people who were celebrating one year since the release of the report while expressing bitterness at the lack of implementation of the findings.

The said HYPREP achieved very little. The only thing it can boast of ever achieving was erecting signposts at polluted sites and installation of water facilities in some communities for the recommended emergency measures.

The present administration of President Muhamadu Buhari continued from where the former administration stopped with very high hopes of commencement of the cleanup.  It started with a flag-off in 2016, restructuring of HYPREP into Hydrocarbon Pollution Remediation project, the appointment of Board of Trustees, Government Council members as well as a project Coordinator, Dr. Marvin Dekil.

However, despite these promising and latest attempts to carry out the cleanup, the only thing we saw was a newspaper advertorial in mid-2017 for expression of interest for companies that would handle the emergency measures to bid for contracts.

People have lost hope in the oil companies and the government for overhyping the cleanup while paying lip service. Nobody knows when the Niger delta cleanup will eventually take off. Yet oil pollution is becoming catastrophic with each passing day.

You have been working with the Ogoni people, local and international organizations to implement the UNEP report on the clean up. What have you achieved so far?

So far, my work with the Ogoni people, local and international organizations to push for the implementation of the UNEP report has not been in vain despite the fact that we are still miles away in implementing the report. I joined and campaigned for creation of an Ogoni Environmental Restoration Authority as recommended by the UNEP report but HYPREP was instead, created in its place to not only clean up Ogoniland put also handle the clean-up of the larger Niger delta region. When we eventually accepted the Hydrocarbon Pollution Restoration Project in 2012, I joined in advocating for the scraping of the name ‘restoration’ because we couldn’t have restoration and hydrocarbon in the same sentence.

 In response, President Buhari administration restructured the cleanup agency into “Hydrocarbon Pollution Remediation Project”. This was another achievement. My name and contribution features in the story of those who aggressively pushed to have the government institute the first steps to show their commitment to the cleanup. Since the release of the UNEP report, I have worked with other organizations and trained environment monitors to track and report the cleanup activities as recommended in the report. As the Research/project officer of Social Action, a local NGO, I have also written and published several monitoring reports and short update stories about the cleanup exercise and activities around the UNEP Report. Prominent among these reports is “Cleaning in a Vacuum, Still Polluted”, downloadable at www.saction.org.

I have made a vow to make sure that the recommendations of the UNEP report are implemented to the letter and I will stop at nothing until that happens.

Are you satisfied with the pace of the implementation?

No. I am not satisfied because this is the seventh year since the report was released and even the basic recommendations like provision of portable water to the people of Ogoniland still remains a pipe dream. The people of Ogoni especially the people of Nsisioken-Ogale in Eleme local government area where UNEP found Benzene in underground water, 900 times above World Health Organisation (W.H.O.) recommended standards still do not have portable water to drink

 I am not satisfied with the pace of implementation because, seven years after the release of the report that said it would take between 30-35years for the clean up to be completed, nothing has happened and Ogoni people are dying in their numbers daily for living in polluted environment, drinking polluted water and eating crude oil polluted foods. I am not satisfied because, it seems the implementation of the report is being politicized. Government bureaucracies are delaying the implementation speed while lack of funds to HYPREP is compounding the issues with no date of actual implementation of the report at sight. I call on the oil companies and the federal government of Nigeria to fast-track the pace of the implementation and for once show their commitment to the wellbeing of the suffering people.

You have been consistent in arguing that multinational oil companies haven’t done enough to rid Niger Delta off pollution. What would be your idea of corporate accountability in this scenario?

My recommendation to the oil companies would be to adopt international best practices in their operations in the Niger delta region. There are pipelines that were laid in the region in the 1950s. They should be changed. The technology of those pipes and oil equipment are all outdated and expired. The oil companies should also embrace metering technology that is able to tell us what quantity of crude oil was pumped and transported from point A to B. This will enable us to know what quantity of oil is being produced and at what point spills or theft is happening and who is responsible. This will strengthen corporate accountability and restore people’s trust in government and players in the industry.

A situation where oil companies are not accountable and do not publish data of the actual quantity of oil that they pump does not reflect corporate accountability. Finally, oil firms should accept responsibility for the oil spills and stop criminalizing communities in the Niger Delta just to dodge payment of compensation and abdicate their responsibilities.

The call for clean-up has been described by some oil multinationals as a short term solution and sustainable measures like government accountability and taming theft and vandalism should be factored as long term results. What in your opinion should be the long term solution to restoring the Niger Delta ecosystem, protecting the environment and giving the people of the area back their healthy lives?

Cleanup is not a short-term solution, failure to tackle oil spills that lead to environmental pollution is where these multinationals should focus their attention. One of the most sustainable solutions is providing jobs to the many unemployed young people in the delta which would significantly cut down on oil theft and ultimately pollution. As the cleanup is currently being delayed, steps should be taken to get the boys out of the creeks and get them empowered        to stop re-pollution as the cleanup sets in.

Youths and Environmental Advocacy Centre (YEAC) commenced advocacy and activities in the Niger Delta region to get the youth    out of the creeks and end their contributions to new pollution. The event which was held under the auspices of “Niger Delta Ex-artisanal Refiners Forum” in 2017 if replicated to other areas has the potential to address one of the most controversial yet profound problems in the area once and for all.

02.

From Oloibiri to Ogoni: Britain's filthy history in the Niger Delta

In the summer of 2000, I visited Port Harcourt, the capital of Rivers State in the Niger Delta and Africa’s undisputed oil hub, for the first time. I was spending my vacation with a relative, who at that time, was on the payroll of Shell Petroleum Development Corporation, the Nigerian subsidiary of the global giant.

My relative, Oluwaseyi, had recently returned from the Netherlands; having spent a year or so abroad on course posting ― a sort of professional advancement placement for local Shell staff in Nigeria. His beautiful apartment, painted in cheerful creamy colours, reeked of Dutch fragrances and the panoply of European collectibles from the trip filled a whole bedroom. In one part of the bedroom I stayed in, delicate ceramics jostled with an encyclopaedia of cook books for space. It was a farrago of finery. Yet Oluwaseyi lived in one of the gated compounds that dotted the periphery of Port Harcourt, sanitised communities for oil workers and commercial bankers, Nigeria’s small but emerging middle-class.

Without money or a stable salary, you couldn’t afford to live there at all. Occasionally, the entire household would venture out of the gated community for church, shopping or leisure. The East-West is a ring road that circumvents the bustling metropolis and caresses its many shanties as a mother would huddle her child.

One of our favourite destinations is the Shell RA, the grandest of the city’s gated communities. Shell’s residential area is a gilded cage for the corporation’s expatriates and domestic workforce. Manned by armed guards at all times, the RA offers European-style living conditions in the midst of squalor. Whitewashed chalets dot the landscape of the RA like Chinese lanterns in the night sky. The wide avenues were meticulously lined with stately trees and all kinds of ornamental shrubberies. The upscale residences were also fitted with the latest gadgetry and amenities. One would easily think one is in a picturesque Dutch town.

I loved the cool ambience of the RA. I would frequent the beauty salons at the recreational centre, listening to the endless chitchat of petroleum wives. It was a world away from another world ― one of pollution and poverty. The leafy neighbourhoods of the RA is a geographic landmark in the geo-history of Shell in Nigeria.

On the eve of the second world war in 1938, about a quarter of a century after Lord Fredrick Lugard amalgamated the colony of Lagos with the northern and southern protectorates into the modern state called Nigeria, Shell D‘Arcy was granted a concession to prospect for oil throughout the country. The company would strike the black gold 18 years later when petroleum was discovered in a remote village in the eastern Niger Delta.

Two Nigerian communities aptly represent rise and fall of Shell’s empire-building activities in the oil-rich Niger Delta. While Oloibiri is the spot where petroleum was discovered in commercial quantities, Ogoni is the land in which the corruption and collusion of the oil giant became known to the world.

Whereas Oloibiri is now located in present-day Bayelsa, after the state was carved out of the old Rivers State; Ogoni straddles a large area in Rivers State. Nonetheless, both communities bear the horrible scars of Shell’s entry into Nigerian territory.

Oloibiri: The Rise of Shell

Located in Ogbia local government area, one of the 774 subnational divisions of Nigeria, Oloibiri is a relic of the old glory of oil production in the Niger Delta. It was in this small community that oil prospectors from Shell first found petroleum in the whole of West Africa.

Writing in the Vanguard, Nigerian journalists Samuel Oyadongha and Emem Idio describe the current state of the settlement as ‘an abandoned fishing port after the anglers had left with their catch.’ True to the aphorism, Shell is one of the anglers that milked Oloibiri of its resources, leaving the community poorer than when they first arrived. The indigenes of Oloibiri are mostly Ijaws, a minority tribe in Nigeria’s multi-ethnic federation. They farmed their lands and fished from creeks and rivers. Oil palm is the predominant cash crop of the region. With the economic incursion of Shell, petroleum oil soon replaced oil palm as the major produce of Oloibiri ― to the profit of the company but the loss of the community.

Following the first shipment of oil in 1958, Shell began to expand its operations to other areas of the Niger Delta. A kind of Californian gold rush ensued as other key players joined the band wagon when exploration concessions were granted by the government to other foreign entities including Mobil and Elf.

Other major finds were made in the 60s but the early gains were stalled upon the start of the Nigerian Civil War in 1967. The conflict would last some three years. The 70s ushered in a new era: the oil boom. Data from the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) which Nigeria joined in 1971 revealed that the country traded almost $28 billion worth of petroleum products in 2006, exactly half a century after Shell debuted in Oloibiri. Yet the scale of want in the Niger Delta is unfathomable.

“Grinding poverty has robbed the indigenous people of the region of their dignity as farmlands were cleared and converted into oilfields.”

Where hitherto rivers supplied aquatic bounty for fishermen, the creeks have been spoiled by massive oil spills.

Ogoni: The Fall of Shell

My first recollection of the word, Ogoni was in 1994 when my family would watch the news at nine. It was a family traditional to watch the network service of the Nigerian Television Authority. I also recall the word came with a number, 9. In time, I came to understand that the Ogoni Nine were Nigerian citizens that the regime of Abacha had arrested under false accusations of subverting the state. Their leader, Ken Saro-Wiwa, a Right Livelihood Award laureate, would be killed a year later on November 10, 1995.

Several months before that fateful execution, General Sani Abacha, the head of the military junta in charge of the country at that time had taken power for himself in a bloodless coup. Bent on securing his grip on power, Abacha saw Saro-Wiwa’s protest against the environmental degradation of his homeland, Ogoni, as an affront on his ‘quasi-presidential’ authority. Not wanting to lose control of his nascent ascent to the position of head of state, he swiftly had the dissenters tried in a military tribunal.

Shell has been repeatedly accused of colluding with the Nigerian government to deal with the Ogoni situation. Fingers have also been pointed at Shell for the role they played behind closed doors in the trial that sentenced Saro-Wiwa to death, by a legal process widely disparaged as a kangaroo court. It led to the expulsion of Nigeria from the Commonwealth. But the company has consistently denied these claims. Nonetheless, it is widely believed that the protesters were merely collateral damage in Shell’s petroleum operations in the Niger Delta.

“About 30 million people are living in the Niger Delta,” Nnimmo Bassey, another Right Livelihood awardee from Nigeria says in a fairplanet interview. “Ogoniland, which is only a part of the Niger Delta, is 1,000 square kilometers, with about 1 million inhabitants.” Bassey is currently with the Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF), a charitable organisation helped establish in Benin City, Nigeria. He says there is still a lot of ongoing pollution in the Niger Delta and part of his mission is to help in the promised clean-up of the area.

        Nnimmo Bassey

Nicholas Ibekwe, an investigative journalist with Premium Times corroborates Bassey’s statement. In 2017, he spent time in Ogoniland covering the legal battle between members of the community and Shell. His reportage was published as a dossier last May. Speaking of his time in Ogoni, Ibekwe says the people are very angry. He comments on why, “For such a place, the people are poor like most parts of Nigeria.

The degaradation of the land and the drinking water is one big problem. There were plenty of signposts with ‘Do Not Drink! Do Not Fish! Do Not Swim!’” Still not much progress has been made with the widely reported clean-up that the government says is underway.

Nubari Saatah, a native of the area lambastes the Buhari government for its duplicity on the problem. “Government keeps snapping photographs of the clean-up launch but nothing is happening,” Sataah complains.

British Justice or Brutish Justice

The influence of British law in the global system cannot be easily dismissed even after decades of decline following the collapse of the empire.

The legal system of the United Kingdom can be likened to a beautiful piece of ceramics that has been forged in a pre-medieval kiln, polished for many generations and showcased for use by one and all. Despite America’s economic and military, English customs still command international respect in many jurisdictions. For centuries, the Acts of Parliament decided the destiny of nations and peoples. Starting in 1215, six years after the founding of Cambridge University, the Magna Carta established the principle of the rule of law, for the first time.

The Great Charter essentially stripped royalty of their immense powers, stipulating that king and country were subject to the law. The Magna Carta was a revolutionary idea that predates the divine right of kings, a political-religious doctrine that was championed by James VI of Scotland in the 16th and 17th centuries and claims that monarchical authority is of God and thus, can be subject to human oversight. Although the Magna Carta originally contained 63 clauses, only 3 of those clauses remain extant in English law. One of the surviving three clauses reads: “No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the law of the land. To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.”

In the actions of British authorities against King Jaja of Opobo, the first sentenced of this clause was greatly abused. I first read about this royal person as a primary school student. His story was craft as a reading comprehension during English lessons but I would later realise that it transcends mastery of foreign language.

Jaja was a slave that rose to become a sovereign in his own right. He founded and exercised dominion over Opobo, a city-state in an area that is today known as Rivers State in southern Nigeria. His influence eventually put him at cross purposes with Britain imperialism in West Africa. He was thereafter arrested and exiled from his country. He died in 1891. In the actions of British authorities against the Ogoni people, the second sentence of above clause is now being abused. For too long, justice has been denied to the people of Ogoniland and today, the British judiciary is actively participating in that denial.

In February of 2018, a British court dismissed an appeal in the case that the Shell Petroleum Development Company should be tried for oil spills in the United Kingdom rather than in Nigeria where the spillages occurred. Shell has always insisted that most of the spills were cause by saboteurs. Yet Amnesty International claims its researchers have found at least 89 spills which might have been deliberately mislabelled as theft or sabotage. The rights group indicated that of the 89 spills, 46 are from Shell and the remainder are from Eni, the Italian oil giant, currently facing similar prosecution in Milan.

But the shamelessness of the denial of justice pales in contrast to the delay of the Ogoni clean-up project which experts say could take as long as 30 years, almost 8 presidential terms under Nigeria’s current constitution. Despite the delay associated with the clean-up, Nnimmo Bassey of Health of the Earth Foundation (HOMEF) is optimistic about the joint endeavour to restore the Niger Delta to its pristine state. He spoke with fairplanet.

fairplanet: Do you think security might pose a challenge to the Ogoni clean-up project as there have been concerns in recent years about militant local groups blackmailing the government and taking foreigners, especially workers of the oil companies, as hostages?

Nnimmo Bassey: I think with regard to the clean-up, everybody has an agreement, everybody is involved and everybody is anxious for the cleaning to start. Therefore, I don’t see a security problem with regard to the clean-up. There might be some security issues with the government around in the country, but there is nothing really that could stop the clean-up. None. You know, the clean-up has a lot of implications for everybody. There are quite a lot of young people from Ogoni that are currently running a second stage of training to be part of the clean-up. That is very important. The clean-up won’t commence with a workforce coming from elsewhere. That would cause some instability, to put it nicely. In the Shell clean-up that has already started, about ninety percent of the workforce come from Ogoni. This is something that could develop very positively in the long run.

Is it correct that the Ogoni project is a sort of compensatory action by the Nigerian government and the oil companies for the genocide that was committed on the Ogoni people in 1996?

That’s a difficult question. Let’s put it that way: The clean-up is a response to the undeniable fact of evidence-based output of the research carried out by UNEP in the region, showing that the environment is absolutely polluted and the drilling caused that horrific situation. And the clean-up will put on hold that deteriorating situation, which is a big shame for the country and a big threat to the people in Niger-Delta.

Your organization is cooperating with the German-based NGO, One Earth One Ocean. What does that cooperation look like?

One Earth One Ocean is an NGO that provides assistance to the clean-up, and they don’t ask for payment or contracts from the government, rather they’re providing training for the local people, and technology that is good for the environment. I’ve seen a demonstration of it in one of our community training programmes. And everyone believes that, with organisations that bring assistance to the communities and to the people of Nigeria, they should be most welcome. They bring not-for-profit help that is very innovative, and that is something that you rarely see in that part of the world.

Is the Nigerian government satisfied with the fact that foreign NGOs are part of the project? Or would they prefer to have domestic companies doing the job, since there’s so much money involved in a project that could last 30 years or more?

I can’t speak for the government. But I can say Nigerians are happy with help from NGOs. They showed that they are interested in the environment and the people, so they are most welcome; they showed solidarity with the people and the culture, and our people are grateful for that. People are very open here, and as far as I can say the government is not antagonistic to organisations that come to help.

03.

PORT HARCOURT: WHAT HAPPENED TO THE GARDEN CITY?

The capital of oil-rich Rivers state in the Niger Delta is home to roughly 1 million people and the bustling city is fondly called the Garden City. However, in recent time particulate soot from gas flaring has been polluting the city. What are the long-term health and environmental implications of the reckless flaring in major population centres in the country? Will Nigeria be able to meet the set target of ending gas flaring by 2020?

In autumn of 2016, I visited Port Harcourt, again, having once lived briefly during the early years of the millennium. The ‘Garden City’ as the oil-rich metropolis is popularly called, Port Harcourt was named the capital of Rivers State after the end of the Nigerian civil war, as the military sought to combat forces of secession. I was in Port Harcourt on an assignment, covering into the proposed Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) between the European Union and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). Headquartered in the Nigerian capital of Abuja, ECOWAS was unwilling to open its shores to the more competitive market of Europe. Therefore, a stalemate in negotiation ensued between Abuja and Brussels.

I had flown into Port Harcourt hoping to secure an interview with Social Action, one of the most vocal opponent of the trade deal between Brussels and West Africa. The journey from the airport was uneventful but as soon we got to the edge of the city I encountered one of the menace of urban life: vehicular traffic. It had taken 1 hour to fly from Lagos, Nigeria’s premier port and biggest city into Port Harcourt but it took longer to get from the airport to my destination, the Hotel Presidential. Built shortly after independence, the hotel used to be the epitome of luxury ― a place where the polished got their taste buds pampered and every need met but decades of mismanagement has led to shoddy service and crumbling fixtures.

Home to two of Nigeria’s petroleum refineries, Port Harcourt boasts some of the biggest petrochemical industries in the country, being one of Nigeria’s largest industrial centres. The Trans-Amadi Layout was an attempt to attract light and heavy industries into the city but years of poor economic planning made the enterprise an almost futile exercise. In lieu of manufacturing, the city has over the last six decades attracted oil merchants and petroleum prospectors. The tiny settlement that was named after a British colonial administrator in 1912 has since grown into Africa’s energy hub. With almost a daily output of 1.6 million barrels of crude oil, Nigeria is one of the world’s top exporters of petroleum. But this showy statistics often overshadows a shameful one.

Almost 8 billion cubic meters of gas is flared annually according to satellite data, making Nigeria the seventh-largest gas flarer in the world the World Bank says. The ceaseless combustion of fossils pumps billions of CO2 into the atmosphere, especially those of the Niger Delta where most of the country’s oil installations are located. This is the major cause of global warming which scientists say is also connected with climate change. Many climate sceptics dismiss the scientific evidence on climate, even rebuffing internationally academics and Nobel laureates as lunatics living in ivory towers that are detached from reality of ordinary people. But in Port Harcourt, the immanence of soot is enough proof that something about the atmosphere isn’t quite right.

For years, the people of the Garden City have been protesting the menace of soot in the air they breathe. Some citizens have taken to social media to voice their complaints about the pesky problem, all, it appears to no avail. Tunde Bello is a resident of Port Harcourt who has become an accidental environmental activist. He has created a handle, @StopTheSoot on Twitter with which he curates the concerns of the city’s residents on the soot issue. A similar hashtag #StopTheSoot has joined the fray as well. I got to know about the activism of Bello through another denizen. But he says via Twitter direct message (DM), “This is a non-registered, non-political organisation. Answers are basically the views of the generality of the people.”

Tunde Bello

In fairplanet’s first-ever interview via Twitter DM, Tunde Bello explains how Nigerians youths are taking responsibility for the failures of their septuagenarian leaders.

fairplanet: Can you describe the first time you knew something wasn’t right about the air in Port Harcourt?

TUNDE BELLO: In 2016, [I noticed] condensed black particulates on car windscreens, floor tiles and furniture became dusty more than usual and the sky becomes dark without rains. This was seen around the creeks and river and neighbourhoods such as Trans-Amadi, Woji, Elelenwo, Old GRA, Akpajo Eleme, Eagle Island, Iwofe and Abuluoma.

What do you think is responsible for the cause of the black particulates that condenses on cars and properties?

TUNDE BELLO: It is the activities of bunkering, burning of tyres, fumes from the refinery and petrochemical factories and the destruction of seized products by security agents.


The account of Bello has been corroborated by another Twitter handle, @girlharry who tells me she first noticed the problem towards the end of last year. “[I] noticed that my car was covered with grey dust on the way to work. I didn’t think anything of it until I started noticing that my feet were left with black residue whenever I walked barefoot at home. I went on Twitter and found out that a lot of the people in Port Harcourt were experiencing the same thing.”

fairplanet: Is this soot thing a localized problem or it is spread around Rivers State? What part of Port Harcourt is the most affected?

@GIRLHARRY: I’ve lived in Port Harcourt for most of my life. I went away for secondary school and university, but I came back and I work here. I am indoors and in cars a lot. The soot is a Port Harcourt thing. I hear that other areas in Rivers State are not affected. My friend in Bonny does not experience it. I haven’t been to any other places in the State so I can’t confirm or deny.

fairplanet: What do you suppose are the consequences of the soot on people and the PH environs? Have you heard of cases of hospitalization due to the pollution?

@GIRLHARRY: I have not heard of any cases of hospitalisation, but we are all scared about future implications. Inhaling all this black stuff cannot be healthy.

She went further: “I believe the soot is from the refineries. These refineries are operated by the government.”


The refineries she speaks of are those of the Port Harcourt Refining Company (PHRC) which was established in 1965 and the second plant, commissioned in 1989. The company is owned by the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC). Both refineries were state-of-the-art facilities at their founding but years of corruption have stripped them of the resources needed to make them profitable state-operated businesses. There’s been talk for many years of privatising the refineries but each successive government always fails to deliver on that promise. Today, Nigeria imports almost all of the petroleum products used domestically. However, privately owned refineries are been built to reduce over-reliance on foreign imports.

Yet a concern lingers. The Dangote Refinery which is being built in Lekki is very close to affluent neighbours.  Health and environmental concerns have been raised but the project marches on doggedly.

Industrial regions such as eastern China and traffic-clogged cities like Los Angeles, CA are renowned for their peculiar cases of air pollution. Tracking levels of smog or particulate matter (PM) has become a pastime in these places. PM are mixtures of solid particles like dust, dirt, smoke or soot and liquid droplets found in the air. Some particles, such as dust, dirt, soot, or smoke, are large or dark enough to be seen with the naked eye. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says, “Particulate matter contains microscopic solids or liquid droplets that are so small that they can be inhaled and cause serious health problems. Particles less than 10 micrometers in diameter pose the greatest problems, because they can get deep into your lungs, and some may even get into your bloodstream.”

04.

The hidden cost of Shell oil spill in Niger Delta

Decades of oil spillage in Nigeria’s oil rich Niger Delta and the incessant bickering over who should own up to the wanton environmental degradation has taken a toll on Nigeria’s economy, seeing it slid into recession with the delta being classified as one of the most polluted places on earth.

But behind the staggering macro figures is a catastrophic cost largely ignored; that of the disruption of the ways of life of over 30 million of residents living in the delta, 70 per cent of whom live beneath the poverty line, and who have had to contend with diseases, job losses, conflict and death.

Yet as the blame game between government and oil companies persists, so does life for communities deteriorate with no one to turn to. Over 60 years since the first discovery of commercial oil in the area, residents say they have experienced firsthand the curse of oil which has robbed them and their generations the true value of life. From the life’s basic like water which in some areas has been found to contain a cancer causing agent at levels 900 times above Word Health Organization guidelines. Yet this is the water the residents rely on for drinking.  The clean up to give the residents back their clean water and environment UNEP says would take up to 30 years.

Over 80 per cent of the population rely on fishing for livelihood. But in an area that was once teeming with aquatic life, it is now a shell of its former self with numerous polluted estuaries and oily swamps which has robbed them off their livelihoods and reduced them to begging. This has created ripple effects.

“People living in the Niger Delta have to drink, cook with, and wash in polluted water; they eat fish contaminated with oil and other toxins – if they are lucky enough to still be able to find fish; the land they use for farming is being destroyed because of the lack of respect for the ecosystem necessary for their survival; after oil spills the air they breathe reeks of oil and gas and other pollutants; they complain of breathing problems, skin lesions and other health problems, but their concern are not taken seriously and they have almost no information on the impacts of pollution,” reads a section of a report by Amnesty International dubbed Nigeria: Petroleum, pollution and poverty in the Niger Delta.

Idris Okosta a researcher on the impact of oil exploration to the communities in Niger Delta captures the daily suffering of the residents: “There is nothing as heartbreaking as watching men rowing their skiffs for a whole day and only collecting dead fish and shrimps. They have never known any other way of survival apart from fishing. When their children get sick, and they do quite often, they have to walk at least four hours to access the nearest health facility. Even basic infrastructure in an area that supplies the bulk of Nigeria’s fortunes is hard to come by. It is such a shame,” he said.

 The health cost isn’t just on the sick, but on those who tend to them and the amount of time they have to spend to nurse those ailing, time that would be utilized in other economic activities. Women, who bear the greatest brunt of the oil spill, spend on average 8.5 hours a day tending to the sick, who are mostly family, losing out on other income generating activities according to Action Aid. Fish mongers, farmers and traders in the riverine villages have had to close their businesses which has led to diminished incomes. “When they can no longer afford any income what follows is withdrawing their children from school, and then that sets in motion a whole set of other problems,” said Idris.

That avalanche of woes include a growing list of young unemployed youth who are willing to do anything especially on noticing the marginalization of their community members. Oil theft, which has been noted as one of the greatest causes of oil spills, is attributed to the many unemployed youth looking for ways to earn income. This has also birthed a catalogue of militia groups now wrestling to have a share of the oil fortunes, with Niger Delta Avengers, the most dreaded, vowing to drive away all oil companies in the area. “These are young unemployed people who have grown watching government and oil companies exploit their land, impoverishing their people without a care in the world. With nothing else to live for, they have sought to defend their land,” Idris added.

Fyneface Dumnamene Fyneface, a firebrand activist and environmentalist who has been championing for the rights of the Ogoni people, who are among the most affected by the oil spills, agrees with Idris arguing that the youth protest at what they see as outright injustice.

“Theft and vandalism do occur especially when the youth are expressing anger over the antagonistic tendencies and the divide-and-rule tactics of the oil companies and government,” he said.

This pilferage has led to heightened crackdown and a showdown between the militia groups and the military keen on clamping them down. This has seen destruction of social infrastructure including schools and health centers further disadvantaging the communities especially women and children. For a region that houses over 30 million people, one can easily count the number of schools or hospitals according to Idris.

With the oil companies vowing to stay put, the government still counting on the delta to earn more revenue and the militia groups mutating to deadlier forces and promising more terror, the residents continue getting caught in the crossroads, as they pay a premium price for an activity they know little about, one they never enjoy the fruits of, and one that has altered the rest of their lives.

“So long as impunity for abuses of the environment and human rights remains entrenched, so too will the poverty and conflict that has scarred the Niger Delta. Only when there is effective accountability, access to justice and when people are given the information and space needed to participate in decisions that affect their lives, will the human rights tragedy of the Niger Delta begin to end,” the Amnesty International report adds.

05.

Shell at the courts

Yes, here and there Shell had no other choice but to admit it’s misdoings in court. For example, it did so in 2015 in front of a Nigerian court hearing in order to avoid a likely indictment in the U.K.; Shell finally agreed to pay compensations to the community of the town of Bodo in the Nigerian Ogoni-Land, which was utterly devastated by two large oil-spills in 2008 and 2009.  

After Shell had first offered £4,000 in 2011 – yes, you have read it correctly, this is not a typo, a meagre 4,000 pounds – it moved on to £18 million two years later in 2013, facing a claim of £300 million by the plaintiff and finally settled the case for £55 million. £20 million was paid to the community, while the remaining £35 million was distributed among 15,600 fishermen and farmers, divided by the figures it came to 600,000 Naira each, which equals £2,100 per person. In this content it is worth mentioning that 18,000 Naira, equaling to £37, is the minimum wage in Nigeria, and that 70 percent of the population lives under the poverty line.

fairplanet timeline: The Shell-Nigeria Verdict

Although Shell’s compensation only amounted to hardly 20 percent of the prosecuting party’s demands, the payments were welcomed and celebrated by the recipient population as a great relief to their sorrows, which stands as a worrying symbol to the ease with which such a corporation could elevate the people in the Delta from their misery. Shell sustained some other relatively small defeats in Nigerian courts, and among others, in 2009 it had to carry out a reparation of £26 million for an oil-spill it has caused from as long ago as 1970. The corporation also had to settle fine to the family of environmental activist and writer Ken Saro-Wiwa when it admitted that its employees were complicit to the judicial murder of the legendary human-rights advocate and Ogoni leader in 1995, the same year that Ken Saro-Wiwa received the nobel prize for his outstanding contribution.

Coming back to the case of the Bodo community. After the London law firm Leigh & Day succeeded in bringing Shell to justice for its offences in the U.K., the firm took a blow in the beginning of 2017 when the High Court rejected the claims made by the families of about 2,000 fishermen in the Bille kingdom alongside about 40,000 people in the Ogale community in Ogoniland. Their leader, King Okpabi, commented as follows, “Our community is disappointed but not discouraged by this judgment and we are confident that, as in the Netherlands, the court of appeal will see things differently. Royal Dutch Shell makes billions of dollars of profit each year from Nigerian oil, but our communities which host its infrastructure have been left environmentally devastated.” Joe Westby, campaigner on business and human rights at Amnesty International said, “This ruling could mean that the communities will never receive meaningful compensation, and that the oil spills will not be properly cleaned up.” His colleague Sarah Shoraka of campaign group Platform called the ruling “a true outrage.” Furthermore, Chief Temebo, a spokesman for the Council of Chiefs of the Bille kingdom pointed at the problems standing in the way of reaching a point of justice in Nigeria, saying that “If the claim does not continue in the English courts, we have no hope that the environment will ever be cleaned up and the fish will ever return to our waters. Shell will do nothing unless they are ordered to by the English courts.”

Shell has been targeted on a large scale, and not only for its misdeeds in the Niger Delta. A study by Amnesty International has reviewed Shell’s role in the murder of Ken Saro-Wiwa as well as its role in assisting the atrocities and mass-killings against Ogoni villages at the same time and aims to reopen this case in the U.K.. Following the path of other prosecutors, who hold big energy companies liable for their contribution to the damages of climate change, the Dutch environmental organization Milieudefensie, is suing Shell for contributing to approximately 2 percent to global warming and for having been informed about the consequences of fossil energies to our world’s climate for more than 20 years; the intention is to call Shell to a halt of any further exploitation of fossil energy.

Milieudefensie sent a letter to Shell, asking them to stop causing climate change.

Last but not least, Global Witness, some partner organizations and the Nigerian anti-corruption campaigner Dotun Oloko unveiled the scandalous and astronomic amount of a $1.1 billion bribe to secure the rights of Shell and the Italian oil-company Eni to explore a rich oil-field, which started to roll one of the biggest bribery cases in the history against them before a court in Milan, currently underway.

Needless to say how well this money could have been used in order to counteract the languishing health-sector and the famines in some regions of Nigeria – let alone the cleaning of the Delta.

The Battle Raging In Nigeria Over Control Of Oil | VICE on HBO Nigeria may sit atop one of the largest oil reserves in the world, but the majority of the Nigerian people have seen little benefit from the multibillion-dollar industry. The government and global energy companies have been exploiting the resource for years, bringing poverty, pollution, and violence to the Niger Delta. And now the local militias fighting for oil control have made conditions even worse. Caught in the conflict are Nigerian citizens involved in the illegal oil market simply for survival. Oil theft is rampant, and the booming black market has transnational oil and gas consultants concerned about the effects on global oil markets. The government isn't too happy about it either. “All the oil that is sold around here, the government calls illegally refined products,” local oil businessman Don Wizaro told VICE News. And when the Nigerian military raids illegal oil operations, they slash containers, releasing oil into waterways, contaminating what the main source of fishing, agriculture, and drinking water. As the government continues its assault on illegal refineries and barges carrying stolen oil, local militias are retaliating. And one of the most notorious militias is the Niger Delta Avengers. They attack pipelines and infrastructure, significantly affecting both the environment and the economy. VICE correspondent Gianna Toboni heads to the heart of Nigeria's oil production to witness firsthand the fight over the control of oil in the Niger Delta.
06.

Cleaning up the Niger-Delta

Bassey worked tireless to convince the Nigerian government that the oil spills that occurred in the Niger Delta led to a genocide of the people of the Ogoni, an ethnic group living in the Delta. It’s fair to say that without Bassey’s struggle there won’t be a cleaning project like the Ogoni clean-up, which is about to start soon.

fairplanet: What is the current state of affairs in der Niger-Delta right now? Has the Ogoni-Project to clean-up the Niger-Delta already commenced?

Nnimmo Bassey: The situation is that based on a repost of the program issued by the authorities in 2011, there’ve been some kind of effort to get it on the ground, but it wasn’t until August 2016, that the actual administrative architecture for the clean-up project was set up.

By March 2017 the coordination and implementing team was set up and engaged. So it took quite some time to get it going so far. The administrative body that organises the clean-up and channels all the funding provided by the companies that caused all the polluting is called “Hydrocarbons Pollution Remediation Project” (HYPRED) and has started preliminary work. What has been done so far are demonstrations of how the clean-up could be carried out, and also health assistance to the communities that are affected by the crude oil pollution. And I think they are now in the process of commencing an implementation of water supply to the communities. That is actually a kind of emergency action that should have been carried out much earlier.

Nnimmo Bassey, Director, Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF), Photo: Independent

In fact, there are two kinds of clean-up that a taking place in Ogona at the same time. One clean-up is based on a lawsuit against Shell by the Bodo community in Ogona, which was in a court in London against Shell for oil spills that happened in 2008 and 2009. Shell has taken complete responsibility for that oil spill, but they are also required to do a clean-up at the Bodo Creek, which has just started.

But the bigger clean-up, which should take care of all the polluted soil and water has not yet started. What has started are preliminary works, and I think that HYPRED right now is concluding an action plan or master plan, whatever you want to call it, to give an outlook of what will happen in the weeks and months to come. And as soon as that is concluded, I’m sure the clean-up will start very rapidly.

When do you personally expect the clean-up to commence?

The commmencement I expect to happen in one or two months.

What about the security situation on the ground at the moment? There have been quite some concerns in recent years about militant local groups trying to blackmail government and to take foreigners, especially workers of the oil companies, as hostages.

I think with regard to the clean-up, everybody has an agreement, everybody is involved and everybody is anxious for the cleaning to start. Therefore I don’t see a security problem with regard to the clean-up. There might be some security issues with the government around in the country, but there is nothing really that could stop the clean-up. None.

You know, the clean-up has a lot of implications for everybody. There are quite a lot of young people from Ogoni that are currently running a second stage of training to be part of the clean-up, they are exercising hardly. That is very important. The clean-up won’t commence with a workforce coming from elsewhere. That would cause some instability, to put it nicely. In the Shell clean-up that has already started, there are about ninety percent of the workforce coming from Ogoni people. That is something that could develop very positively in the long run.

Is Shell involved in that bigger clean-up as well?

Everybody, every company that was involved in the oil drilling is involved in the cleaning. Shell, Eni and all the others, they are providing the finance for the clean-up.

How many quare kilometers are polluted in total?

Well, that’s a difficult question. You know, the Niger-Delta is very, VERY widespread. About 30 Million people are living in that area. Ogoniland, which is only a part of the delta, is 1.000 square kilometers, with about 1 Million people living in Ogoni. And there is still a lot of ongoing pollution in the Niger-Delta. So, the experiences of the clean-up in Ogoni will show us, what will possibly happen to other parts of the Niger-Delta. The UNEP report estimates tell that it should take about 25 years to clean the water and about 5 years to clean the land. That is 30 years of clean-up in total, and that’s a long time. And that’s why people can not wait to see the cleaning project to start.

Is it correct that the Ogoni-Project is meant as a compensation from the government and from the oil companies for the genocide that was committed on the Ogoni people in 1996?

That’s a difficult question. Let’s put it that way: the clean-up is a response to the undeniable fact of evidence-based output of the research carried out by UNEP in the region, showing that the environment is absolutely polluted and the drilling caused that horrific situation. And the clean-up will put on hold that deteriorating situation, which is a big shame for the country and a big threat to the people in Niger-Delta.

Do you feel supported by the government, either federal or regional, in that situation? 

Well, it’s a difficult situation now. The clean-up is organised by the government, and the state governments look at the people on the ground to make sure that it actually happens. So I think everybody is on the same plate with regard to the prospect having Ogoni and the Niger-Delta cleaned up. The only complaint is that things should happen more quickly.

You and your organization “Friends of the Earth” are cooperating with the german-based NGO “One Earth One Ocean”. What does that cooperation look like?

One Earth One Ocean is an NGO that provides assistance to the clean-up, they don’t ask for payment or contracts from the government, rather they’re providing training for the local people, and technology that is good for the environment, i.e. that is not further polluting. I’ve seen a demonstration of it in one of our community training programmes. And everyone believes that, with many organisations like that, that can bring assistance to the communities and to the people of Nigeria, they should be most welcome. They bring not-for-profit help that is very innovative, and that is something that you rarely see in that part of the world.

Is the Nigerian government happy with NGOs coming from abroad to be part of the project? Or would they prefer to have domestic companies doing the job, since there’s so much money involved in a project that could last 30 years or more?

I can’t speak for the government. But I can say Nigerian people are happy with help from NGOs coming in. They showed that they are interested in the environment and the people, so they are most welcome; they showed solidarity with the people and the culture, and our people are grateful for that. People are very open here, and as far as I can say the government is not antagonistic to organisations that come to help.

Do you see any problems with corruption at the clean-up project?

I’m not a business man, so I can’t talk about this issue. But I’m sure nobody will have to pay any bribes to be part of the Ogoni clean-up. Because all the people want the clean-up to be done profoundly. The clean-up is paid completely by the companies that caused the pollution, and they set up structures to organise and to monitor the process. There’s no room for paying bribes.

07.

"There's hope for the future of the Niger Delta"

Dr. Rüdiger Stöhr is a microbiologist and permanent employee of One Earth One Ocean. He lives in Kiel, Germany. fairplanet spoke with him about the attempts to clean the Niger Delta.

fairplanet: Mr Stöhr, what is the current situation on the ground in the Niger Delta?

Rüdiger Stöhr: When I was in Nigeria for the last time in 2016, the situation had not improved. Many parts of the Niger Delta are severely polluted, str

onger in some places and less in other places; but the damage to nature is just devastating. Oil has been produced there since the early 20th century, the entire Niger Delta is very rich in oil. Today, there are mainly the major foreign oil companies represented there: Shell, Chevron, Agip.

Shell has got a special status in the meantime, because Shell does not drill for oil itself anymore, but manages its infrastructure, ie the pipeline network. And the pipelines are still a major concern. They are frequently damaged, and this is due to the systems getting older and also being inadequately maintained. The damage to the pipes thus often occurs as a result of age or material fatigue. In 2015, there were more than 600 reportable oil spills at Agip alone. It can be assumed that the numbers look similar at the other companies.

In addition, there are regularly attempts to tap the pipelines by Nigerian gangs living there in the jungle. They try to refine the oil themselves, thereby causing massive environmental damage. Everywhere oil is offered on the streets, even distilled to gasoline or diesel in illegal backyard distilleries.

What does the ecosystem look like today?

Local people have to buy their drinking water in plastic bottles because all natural drinking water sources are contaminated. After all, it’s not just oil that gets into the groundwater, but also some refined oil, like diesel. Those sources of drinking water can not be used anymore.
And if the Niger does not carry much water, for instance outside the rainy season, and new pollutions occur, the water quality of the river also drops rapidly.
As far as the flora is concerned, there is no more growth in those places where there has been massive contamination. Around, in the less contaminated areas, jungles grow.

The big problem are the mangroves. In the rainy season, large volumes of water run in waves down the Niger. Much pollution is washed out then, but also a lot of oil is floated into the mangroves. But the mangroves can not stand oil, they die. However, the mangrove forests with their root system along the river are extremely important for the strength of the soil. The result is that the loss of mangroves causes unprecedented land erosion along the river, with soils being washed out.
As far as the fauna is concerned, there used to be elephant herds that migrated through the delta, and all kinds of wildlife, very rich in biodiversity. There is not much left of that today. I can hardly say anything about the fish; except that I wouldn’t dare to eat it. But the locals do, probably due to lack of alternatives.

How do the authorities react to the many problems?

Nigeria is trying to establish an English-style administrative system. As part of that, the chiefs in the local communities will be included in the monitoring and alarm system for oil spills. That’s a good idea. However, not all Chiefs only have the common good in mind. And the Chiefs know, the more devastating the oil spill, the more money corporations have to pay to compensate. Therefore delays in reporting the damage are quite common. When we tried to test our oil absorption material, PURE, on-site, there were also chiefs who wanted to get paid several thousand dollars from us for cleaning a lake in their area. We rejected that. Instead, we held press events and met with district governors and environmental organizations.

You work with, among others, Nnimmo Bassey, winner of the 2010 Right Livelyhood Award, and his organization “Friends of the Earth” (www.foei.org).

Yes, working with Nnimmo Bassey is very important to us. He knows the local conditions, so he is kind of a door opener for us. And since we work with him, we were hardly in situations where we were asked to pay bribes.

In 2016, the government of Nigeria has launched the “Ogoni Project” to clean up the Niger Delta. What is it all about?

There was a genocide in the nineties, or more precisely in 1996, of the Ogoni, the indigenous people of the Niger Delta. Due to the massive pollution people had lost their very basis of life, their farms, their fishing grounds. Members of the Ogoni, who called for resistance, were even executed by the then ruling military regime. Nnimmo Bassey’s commitment then led the later government to recognize this genocide. The Ogoni project, which was later announced, is seen as a government reparation to the Ogoni. The estuarine delta is to be cleaned and the polluted areas converted to farmland or fishing grounds again.

Officially, the project should have started in 2017, but that did not happen because a new militant group came on the scene. They shot ten policemen and attempted to blackmail the government by threatening to launch further attacks. Since the government does not have the means and the ability to counter it with military strength, it has probably arranged some sort of agreement. However, the cleaning project has not started yet, even now, as the situation seems to have calmed down a bit. Many organizations have been on standby since; they have built or rented huge warehouses to store their equipment and wait for the project to start.

And One Earth One Ocean would be part of it as well?

We have been promised by the government that when the cleanings begin, we will be informed. And we will be ready to go.

You will then have a material at hand that is said to be very promising in cleaning oil spills. What is it?

It’s called PURE and it’s a kind of wax-based cotton that can absorb up to 8 times its own weight in oil and pollutants. The big advantage of PURE is that it is recyclable as long as its fibre structure is not compressed too much. The fabric looks a bit like cotton candy, with a large inner surface. It absorbs all substances except for water, i.e. oils, waxes, various chemicals. It does not involve a chemical reaction, it is a purely physical absorption. Then you can wring it out or spin it out with a light centrifuge.

PURE floats on the water, making it ideal for absorbing oil films on the water surface. This is important because an oil film prevents the oxygen permeability of the water surface.
You can pack the fabric in bags, in barriers or hoses, attach them behind or next to one another, and thus erect real barriers on the water to absorb the oil.

What does the strategy of One Earth One Ocean look like once the Ogoni project is getting started?

At the moment nobody can say exactly when it will start. But we will certainly start on a small scale, maybe with a lake or a branch of the river. Later, we will hopefully be able to work on larger areas, and then we will certainly need several tons of the PURE substance.
Our strategy, unlike many others involved, is that we do not want to make money from the purges, but that we involve the local communities in the work. We want to pay the communities to do the cleanings themselves. During a demonstration on site, the responsible chief of one of the villages was totally enthusiastic about the PURE fabric. However, most of the communities do not have the financial means to carry out such cleansing themselves. Therefore, they depend on financial support from outside.

Nnimmo Bassey and we especially address the youth chiefs at our visits, so to speak the leaders of the coming generation. Because among young people, the understanding of environmental issues spreads much more than among the older Chiefs.

So you are optimistic about the future of the Niger Delta?

Sure. But the cleanup will take time, certainly several decades, I would say.

For now it will be important that we get the approval to use PURE. It’s a lengthy process, and a difficult one too. Because the question of what substance will be the official oil binder in the cleaning of the Delta, is a billion dollar question. We can not and do not want to afford the fees and bribes that are currently required. Our strategy therefore looks a little different. With our presentations on the ground, we want to convince local people of the outstanding capabilities of PURE; and then, if enough people ask for the use of PURE, hopefully the government will give us the approval.

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