Flicker Of Hope For Environmental Justice In Ogoniland
• The Ogoni hold their breathe as they await the commencement of the clean-up of their land that was ordered by President Buhari
After years of resilient, and incontrovertibly torturous resistance against the despoliation of their ecosystem by oil companies, Ogoni appears to be on the path to attaining environmental justice, as the federal government moves to implement the United Nations Environment Programme report on Ogoniland.
For decades, indigenous people of Ogoni, who have lived under the yoke of environmental degradation that has adversely affected their health, drinking water, farming, hunting and fishing, which are vital aspects of their lives and identity, are finally heaving a sigh of relief by the prospect of having their community cleaned up by government and oil companies, which the United Nations Environmental Programmes (UNEP) said will take up to 30 years to restore.
Ogoni’s initiative to get environmental justice began with the alliance of grassroots environmental activists such as Ken Saro-Wiwa, Ledum Mitee together with a few academics such as Professor Ben Naanen among others, who, under the auspices of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), outlined in the Ogoni Bill of Rights the need to guarantee their right of protection of Ogoni environment and ecology, as they began to demand an end to the unjust and non-sustainable environmental and development policies of the oil companies operating in Ogoni land.
After an uphill battle trying to convince government that the reckless activities of the oil companies, including Shell Petroleum Company and the Nigeria National Petroleum Company (NNPC) among others, have negatively impacted their lives, MOSOP decided to join the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organisations (UNPO), which turned out to be a veritable platform for the internationalisation of the Ogonis’ quest to protect their environment and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.
Their approach of nonviolent resistance attracted the United Nations’ attention, as it sent its special rapporteur to Nigeria in 1999, whose report recommended an environmental audit of Ogoniland. Thereafter, the Nigerian government, in adherence to the United Nation’s demand for environmental audit, evoked the polluters pay principle, which compelled Shell to cough out $9.5million for a detailed study of the Ogoni environment. The outcome is what today is popularly referred to as the UNEP Report on Ogoniland.
And though the report was presented to former President Goodluck Jonathan, who also hails from neigbouring Bayelsa State, on August 4, 2011, but for inexplicable reasons, he didn’t implement the recommendations contained in the UNEP report, despite the fact that his administration set up the Hydrocarbon Pollution Restoration Programme (HYPREP), which for close to two years now have not paid its staff salaries.
Expectedly, the inability of Jonathan’s administration to implement the UNEP report was a blow to the Ogonis, they are, however, delighted by President Muhammadu Buhari’s directive for the commencement of the clean up of the contaminated community.
When The Guardian visited threatened Eleme communities, which include Nisisioken Ogale, now known as the “Cancer Alley” by some environmentalists because UNEP had reported that families have, for years, been drinking from wells that are contaminated with benzene— a known carcinogen at levels over 900 times above World Health Organisation guidelines and Ebubu, there was palpable expectation for the remediation and restoration of the environment.
The king of Ebubu-Eleme, George Osarobo Osaro, told The Guardian that communities started complaining of unbearable oil spill that was destroying their farmlands, streams, leading to unusual headaches, asthma and other respiratory problems, as far back as 1970s, but no one paid attention to their plights.
“When I was younger, the soil fertility here was high. I remember that I was born at the same time Shell came to this region. Then, there was high yield of crops, but suddenly, the land started losing its fertility. After making so much effort to go to the farm or for fishing, at the end of the day you return with nothing because of the extent of the damage that has been done to our soil,” he said.
He explained that prior to the UNEP report, growing health concerns raised by the residents had spurred the University of Port Harcourt to conduct a research between 1995 and 1997, which revealed extensive damage to the ecosystem. Yet, nothing was done to address the environmental crisis caused by oil exploitation activities. According to him, the people of Elele, who for years have been drinking contaminated water, were not surprised by UNEP findings, which revealed extensive corporate environmental recklessness that had gone unchecked for too long
“We thank God that the Buhari administration is now giving it attention and taking a step forward by announcing that the federal government will put action in place to see that the clean up recommended by UNEP commences, as soon as possible. In fact, we all received that announcement with high hope and joy. As the leader and one that has also been a part of the struggle, I feel delighted and I eagerly look forward to the commencement of the clean up exercise,” he said.
Osaro regretted that HYPREP, set up by President Jonathan failed to even provide potable water, despite the UNEP report’s stern warning that contamination in Eleme warrants emergency action ahead of all other remediation efforts. He explained that the Rivers State government tried to ameliorate the people’s suffering by supplying potable water with trucks, which also ceased after a while. Since then, the people had returned to drinking contaminated water till date. Evidences of abandoned water tanks installed by Daewoo and Rivers State government abound all over the communities.
“We have been battling with this problem. As the people cannot afford water from vendors, majority has been living on the polluted water. Just because we adopted a non-violent approach in our struggle, we have suffered so much. And even as I speak to you, nothing has been done with regards to our request for compensation. We believe that the government will address the issue of economic empowerment of our people after the clean up exercise,” he said.
Samuel Oguru, a former member of the old Rivers State House of Assembly, recalled that the concentration of environmentally destructive facilities in Eleme communities by Shell, which had over 20 oilfields in the area, created the environmental crisis facing the people today. Beginning from late 1950s, Shell had dug very large pits, where the waste from oil production was dumped.
“Industrials waste and chemicals, including spillover of oil that was being drilled, are dumped and all of these have combined to degrade the soil quality. Soil exploitation takes place mostly on virgin land. This land was the last reserved by the people for farming. It is, therefore, not surprising that we started experiencing low agricultural production over the time. And though we complained, but we did not get any response from government or Shell, which adopted the divide and rule tactics in dealing with community agitations. It is this strategy that caused Shell’s problem. What stops Shell from providing people with good water? Their residential staff drink good water, but the people in whose land oil is found drink contaminated water,” he lamented.
In Oguru’s view, Ogonis’ agitation stems from social deprivation. He explained that the objective of the people’s resistance was primarily to raise awareness of, and to protest against, incessant pollution of their land. According to him, the aim is to fight for justice and equitable access to their natural resources, including clean air and water, as well as all the good things that would enhance their living standard.
“Initially, there was no bore hole in this community. It was the discovery of oil on Ochani stream, from where people sourced their drinking water that led to the drilling of bore hole. Since then, the vibrant aquatic life has been destroyed and the stream water became undrinkable till date. Drinking water from that stream or well is akin to deliberately committing suicide, but some of our people have resigned to fate and have continued to drink it. Initially, the agitations were not against the exploitation, but the misinterpretation of this by Shell and government led us to where we are today. People just had to organise themselves and demand for their rights through non-violent struggle,” he explained.
Oguru, who described Eleme as fundamentally for peasants, where the people’s major source of livelihood is farming and fishing, expressed optimism that if the clean up is properly conducted, it will restore the soil nutrients destroyed by chemicals that have seeped into the aquifers.
“If the soil is properly cleaned, the people will return to their occupation of farming. Agriculture is a huge industry. It will also encourage government’s support for agriculture, leading to youth employment. We are tired of idle youths that are just wasting away. If they are engaged in meaningful ventures, they will not be involved in crime. When you abandon the youths, they seek vengeance from the society” he said.
Reacting to the directives for the commencement of the clean up exercise, former MOSOP Provisional Council Chairman, Professor Ben Naanen, who hails from Bodo, one of the worst affected community, told The Guardian that Ogoni people appreciate the federal government’s commitment to restore the environment and create employment opportunities in the area.
Naanen would like to see the establishment of a social component that can take care of the livelihood and sustainable development issues in Ogoni. He observed that the clean up exercise would definitely create jobs, however limited it may be.
According to him, when the environment is eventually remediated and restored, the traditional means of livelihood, including fishing and farming, will begin to flourish again.
“When you destroy the environment of the local economy, you have eventually destroyed the livelihood. But once you restore the environment, the traditional livelihood will begin to spring up once more. So, we expect that the clean up will create some opportunities in the area of jobs and local businesses. Also the sustainable development aspect of it, which was built into the programme, will create more opportunities, as well as restore the environment, which will rejuvenate the traditional economy of the people. So, we expect that these three key areas will impact on the people economically,” he said.
In K-Dere, a lot of the people are excited by the prospect of finally attaining environmental justice after years of bitter struggle to defend their environment through a collective commitment to non-violent resistance, which has been repeatedly put to the test by the government through its coercive security agencies.
MOSOP spokesperson, Bari-ara Kpalap, who is from K-Dere, said the general feeling of the people is that their land will eventually be cleaned up and they can begin to use it for farming and fishing again.
The scale of environmental degradation in K-Dere is extensive, as incessant oil spill has depleted the soil quality, leading to the community facing declining agricultural harvest. The creek is also badly polluted, to the extent that fishermen from the community have resorted to travelling hundreds of nautical miles into the Atlantic to have a good catch, because their own water is no longer suitable for such.
Although there is illegal bunkering in K-Dere, but it is very minimal. Kpalap believed it is the duty of the state and security agents to prevent this, as they have the power to do so.
Kpalap said the move to tackle the problem of environmental contamination is as a result of the Ogonis’ interface with the government and the latter’s commitment towards implementing the UNEP report. To corroborate this, he recalled that Ogoni people had advocated for the scrapping of HYPREP or alternatively, for it to be reformed. As mark of its commitment, he said the government has reformed HYPREP to include a governing council, a board of trustee and a project management secretariat. He believed these structures would enhance the effectiveness of HYPREP and the implementation exercise.
“With these steps, it appears to me that government is committed to a comprehensive implementation of the UNEP report on Ogoniland. But the package should also include some socio-economic component, which would help in the training of people to acquire skills, which enable them become self-employed. This would also enhance their economic wellbeing. It would generate employment in the agricultural sector, which is the mainstay of the local economy. It would go beyond just feeding the family to large-scale commercial ventures, which means those engaged in farming can contribute their quota to community development,” he said.
Kpalap noted that while Ogoni people have, through a collective resolve, made “environmental justice” a national discourse and challenged the myth that Nigerians are not concerned about environmental issues, the government on its part must look at the environmental laws of the country, particularly the areas that are weak with a view to reforming and enforcing these laws in such a way that it will become extremely unprofitable for multinational oil companies to engage in environmental terrorism.
“The reason why the situation has gotten so bad is because government has failed to enforce environmental laws and so, the oil companies have had a field day in their reckless activities. If the laws are reviewed and effectively enforced and are able to put the companies in check, I believe the situation will not reoccur again. For instance, take the gas flaring law that says companies should pay an insignificant fine. But if government should review the law to make it tougher for the oil companies, they will find an alternative to gas flaring. The environmental laws need to be reviewed,” he said.
era town has many flow stations, 12 oilfields and pipelines that crisscross every nook and cranny of the community. The King, Mene Magnus Adumene, said the community is happy by the government’s renewed commitment to resolve Ogonis’ demand for environmental justice and economic inclusiveness in the Nigerian state.
He, however, advised against the politicisation of the clean up exercise. He observed that though UNEP said it would take between 25 to 30 years to restore the environment, a lot of tangible progress that will result in the socio-economical wellbeing of the people could still be achieved within the next four to eight years of the present administration.
“The proper thing should be done. There are people that have been agitating that government should give them the clean up job. But many of these people don’t have the interest of Ogoni at heart. Most of them are only after their selfish interest and not to better the lot of Ogoni people. Our people want compensation. The government should provide standard water for Ogoni people. Job creation is also key. If the government is consistent for 30 years, this will create jobs for the youths and women. We have qualified people to do the clean up job. Our people need economic empowerment,” he said.
As Bera is predominantly a farming and fishing community, the king explained that the environmental degradation by oil companies, means that crops are no longer yielding quality harvest. He recalled that several years ago, farmers in Bera never used fertilisers, without which they cannot get good harvest now. In his opinion, if government ensures that the clean up exercise conforms to global best practices, Ogoni farmers will soon be reaping bountiful harvest.
“In the past, we were not buying fish. We were into trade by barter, but these days, fish is so expensive, because our people no longer fish in our river. Around here, there is nowhere to get fish, as our fisher men are now have to sail to the ocean close to Cameroon to fish. Today, the water that comes out from boreholes is contaminated with oil. But it was not like that in 2001, when I drilled a borehole. But by 2006, I started observing that there was oil on the water. So, we cannot use the water again. I spend a lot of money to buy bottled water. There are people still drinking water from the well. It is God that has been preserving our people. A lot of people here have died of cancer because of lack of proper care. Even those that find their way to the hospital, might not have money to buy the drugs for treatment,” he said.
At Korokoro community, the people narrated the pain oil has inflicted on their land, and accessibility to potable water four years after the UNEP report.
A youth leader, who pleaded anonymity, said the community has since stopped fetching water from the borehole provided by the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) after it was discovered that it contained traces of oil, which is believed to have been the cause of someone’s death.
On his part, MOSOP president, Legborsi Saro Pyagbara, lauded President Buhari for taking the initiative to end what he described as an environmental nightmare foisted on the Ogoni community by oil companies. He described the Ogoni and the rest of the Niger Delta people as endangered and whose predicament had been elucidated by the UNEP Report on the Environmental Assessment of Ogoniland, which showed the poisoning of Ogoni water sources through oil pollution and deadly chemicals.
“MOSOP appeals to President Buhari to act with a new sense of urgency and in a new generosity of spirit and fairness, particularly to muster the political will to declare a state of emergency on the Ogoni Environment (water crisis) and set up the machinery for the full implementation of the UNEP Report on Ogoniland. These are urgently needed to decelerate the current expansion of pollution and restoration of land and biodiversity in the Ogoni area,” he said.
Similarly, the Council of Ogoni Traditional Rulers (COTRA) at the end of its one-day conference held at the Peace and Freedom Centre, Bori and attended by over 150 traditional rulers drawn from across Ogoni villages, towns and communities, applauded the federal government for the wide ranging actions taken to fast-track implementation of the UNEP Report on Ogoniland.
A statement signed by Chairman of COTRA, Mene Suanu T.Y. Baridam, appealed to the President Buhari and the Federal Government to ensure the full implementation of the report in accordance with the recommendations contained in it. The chiefs consequently called on all traditional rulers to work for peace and security of their respective communities to enhance progress, stability and the general wellbeing of their people.
The President of KAGOTE, an Ogoni socio-cultural organization, Dr. Peter Medee, said finance would not be an encumbrance to the clean up exercise. He explained that in one of the group’s several engagements with Shell, the company had announced its readiness to provide $1billion for the implementation of the UNEP Report. According to him, every interested party is determined to kick start the implementation of the report and have only been waiting for the government to provide the institutional framework.
An independent scientific assessment by UNEP had shown that pollution from over 50 years of oil operations in Ogoni has penetrated further and deeper than many had thought. The assessment, which is unprecedented and which took over a 14-month period to carry out, had UNEP team examining more than 200 locations, and surveyed 122 kilometres of pipeline rights of way, while reviewing more than 5,000 medical records.
UNEP said detailed soil and groundwater contamination investigations were conducted at 69 sites, which ranged in size from 1,300 square metres (Barabeedom-K.dere, Gokana local government area (LGA) to 79 hectares in Ajeokpori-Akpajo, Eleme Local government area of Rivers State. Altogether, more than 4,000 samples were analysed, including water taken from 142 groundwater, as well as monitoring wells drilled specifically for the study and soil extracted from 780 boreholes.
UNEP said its key findings revealed that in at least 10 Ogoni communities, drinking water was contaminated with high levels of hydrocarbons. For instance, in a community at Nisisioken Ogale, it was discovered that families had been drinking water from wells that is contaminated with benzene- a known carcinogen-at levels over 900 times above World Health Organization guidelines. The site where this was discovered is close to an NNPC pipeline.
While the report provides clear operational recommendations for addressing the widespread oil pollution across Ogoniland, UNEP recommends that the contamination in Nisisioken Ogale warrants emergency action ahead of all other remediation efforts. While some on-the-ground results could be immediate, overall the report estimates that countering and cleaning up the pollution and catalysing a sustainable recovery of Ogoniland could take 25 to 30 years.
The then UN Under-Secretary General and UNEP Executive Director, Achim Steiner, said Ogoni clean up would require the deployment of modern technology to clean up contaminated land and water, improved environmental monitoring and regulation and collaborative action between the government, the Ogoni people and the oil industry.
“It is UNEP’s hope that the findings would break the decades of deadlock in the region and provide the foundation upon which trust can be built and action undertaken to remedy the multiple health and sustainable development issues facing people in Ogoniland. In addition, it offers a blueprint for how the oil industry and public regulatory authorities might operate more responsibly in Africa and beyond at a time of increasing production and exploration across many parts of the Continent, |” Steiner said.
UNEP observed that control and maintenance of oilfield infrastructure in Ogoniland has been and remains inadequate: Shell’s own procedures have not been applied, creating public health and safety issues. It added that the impact of oil on mangrove vegetation has been disastrous. Oil pollution in many intertidal creeks has left mangroves-nurseries for fish and natural pollution filters denuded of leaves and stems with roots coated in a layer of bitumen-type substance sometimes one centimetre or more thick.
The report recommended the establishment of three new institutions in Nigeria to support a comprehensive environmental restoration exercise.
UNEP also proposed that Ogoniland Environmental Restoration Authority should oversee implementation of the study’s recommendations, as well as set up a Transition Phase, which UNEP suggests should begin as soon as possible. The Authority’s activities should be funded by an Environmental Restoration Fund for Ogoniland, to be set up with an initial capital injection of US$1 billion contributed by the oil industry and the government, to cover the first five years of the cleanup project.
Government was requested to set up an Integrated Contaminated Soil Management Centre, to be built in Ogoniland and supported by potential hundreds of mini treatment centres, which would treat contaminated soil and provide hundreds of job opportunities. The report also recommends the creation of a Centre of Excellence in Environmental Restoration in Ogoniland to promote learning and to benefit other communities impacted by oil contamination in the Niger Delta and elsewhere in the world.