By Chioma Onuegbu

Environmentalist and Director, Health of Mother Earth Foundation, HOMEF, and member, Steering committee of OilWatch International, Nnimmo Bassey, in this interview, bares his mind on some worrisome environmental challenges faced by oil-producing communities in Akwa Ibom State and Niger Delta in general.

He fielded questions from Vanguard on the sideline at a one -day ‘Coastal Environmental Monitoring, Reporting and Advocacy Training’ and inauguration of a unit of Fishnet Alliance at Uta Ewa, a fishing community in Ikot Abasi Local Government Area of Akwa Ibom State.

Why are you here today in Uta Ewa community?

We are here because we want people to learn about the critical, and major challenges facing everyone who depends on this water body especially the fishers. This is because many times when people talk about problems facing the Niger Delta and coastal communities, they are always focused on what is happening in the big towns like Lagos, Port Harcourt and Warri.

You hardly hear about what is happening in Uta Ewa, Ibeno, Ibaka, Mbo and other places.

So, for us, it is important that everybody’s problem should be heard and known. In the past, we had major oil spills in this area like Bonga platform. And oil spills all the time destroy their fishnets, livelihood, and bring sicknesses and troubles and no much attention is paid to it.

The truth is that unless the communities, particularly the fishermen and fisher women, stand up for themselves, most people will just ignore what is going on here.

What is your message to Nigerians, especially fishing communities regarding protection of the aquatic life and livelihood?

The Nigerian coastline is challenged by a number of factors. Particularly, the Niger Delta coastline is specifically impacted by oil spills and other wastes that are being dumped in the environment.

And this directly affects the fishers because it affects the quality of water, species available, and if nothing is done, fishermen and women are going to lose their livelihoods and that will affect also the availability of food for Nigerians.

So, we have been moving from Bayelsa to Ogoni in Rivers State, Ibeno and now here in Uta Ewa, as well as Mbo.

The objective is to have our fisher folks defend their ecosystem and we do this by, one, monitoring pollution, especially oil spills in the waters, because the fishers are affected by the operations of security forces who are keeping them away from certain parts of the ocean, especially where there are oil platforms.

Oil platform is exclusive region, which is restrictive because they are located where some fish species are endemic.

We are also having the problem of invasion of the coastal line by the NIPA palm, which has replaced the mangrove system.

Mangrove system helps to protect shorelines against coastal erosion, it provides a breeding ground for fish varieties and it also provides where the juvenile, that is the young fish grow.

It is where women pick oysters, periwinkles and the rest. So, the coastal ecosystem is of very high value to not just the fishers but also to our coastal communities.

Is there something that can be done to address this NIPA palm problem?

NIPA palm was introduced by a European in 1906, it is not native to Nigeria.
Somebody brought it thinking that it will decorate the river without knowing that it was going to become a problem.

Maybe he (European) knew, I do not know, but now it is causing a big problem, taking over the mangrove system.

The NIPA palm has become extremely invasive, destroying our ecosystem, changing everything. It has replaced the mangrove. Now, you can only see a few mangrove struggling to survive.

The mangroves hold the soil which are very strong, but the NIPA palm do not do that. So what can be done is to harvest them because it can be harvested.

Government is always looking for contract to award, so they can award contract to harvest the NIPA palm and then plant mangrove seedlings.

Right now, there are a number of communities that are making efforts to raise mangrove nurseries, they are actually planting mangrove, especially where there has been oil pollution onshore.

Where mangrove survives, when they grow, it sends a message that the soil is getting cleaner.

So NIPA palm can be harvested and used to make biofuel, it can be converted and used for furniture-raffia, used for roofing houses in the villages or even in the cities. It really needs intervention, it needs industrial action to harvest them and used for something useful.

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And whereas mangrove will give you periwinkle, oysters, and other sea food, the NIPA palm do not give anything but block the river. NIPA palm are very harmful but the mangrove protects the coast from storms.

Food insecurity has become a source of concern and there are complaints by fishers about species going into extinction. What should be done to ensure fish availability?

I think when we talk about food insecurity, food unavailability, we are always thinking about all the farmers produce, and then we also talk so much about what the herders are doing.

People always forget about the fishermen, not just the fishermen, they forget about the women and men who are selling the fish harvested in our waters.

And if our fisheries collapse, that would mean very significant loss of nutrition because it is from fish, crayfish, oysters and the rest that most of our people have animal protein.

So, it is extremely important that we protect our water bodies whether they are streams, creeks, rivers or oceans.

Right now, the ocean is like a no man’s land and you have illegal fishing, massive unreported fishing from foreign fleets who are coming into our water bodies stealing all the fish and maybe even selling some that they do not want to our fishermen.

When we talk about coastal security, it goes beyond protecting oil facilities, you have to protect the water itself and protect what nature has gifted us as natural resources that we depend on.

We have over seven million fishermen and women in Nigeria, which is a very big number; we ought to even have more considering that the country’s population is growing.

So, if we throw them out of business because we are protecting oil pipelines, what happens?

The oil companies employ just a few thousands of Nigerians and most of them are casual labourers, they are not even full time employees.

But we have over seven million Nigerians working full time, depending on what is in the seas, the rivers, the creeks, so who should be protected more? Who should be first line of concern by government agencies?

As you have heard from the fishermen that they are being harassed up to the waters, some are forced to go to foreign countries. And when they go to Equatorial Guinea or to the Cameroon or some other places, they are also pursued by the coastal security of those countries. So you are home, you are not feeling free to fish, you go to the international waters, you are also harassed, where should our fisher folks go?

Despite advocacy to draw attention of government to the challenges facing the Niger-Delta environment, there seems not to be much positive results in terms of addressing these challenges. What is your take?

It may appear so but that is not really correct. Can you really imagine what would happen if nobody was advocating for changes in the environment, if there were no men defending the Niger Delta today?

You have hundreds of young people who are picking up the message and pushing the messages very hard. Recently, you had Ogoni youths on Eleme Highway demanding that the road should be repaired. People are picking up all kinds of things and campaigning for them because if people do not speak up, there would be no changes at all.

Now the oil companies, for example, are not able to hide their oil spills anymore. Before they will just deny, saying that there is no oil spill, but now once there is oil spill, the fishermen are reporting, the NGOs are reporting, and even the communities are reporting, so things are changing. We have people who are more enlightened, active, and concerned about their environment today. The only thing is the changes may be slow.

How would you react to the refusal of ExxonMobil to pay to Ibeno communities the compensation court recently awarded against the company over oil spillage?

It is very unfortunate, you put the blame on our governments. They have allowed the oil companies to be lawless in Nigeria, to ignore our legal system, which is why our communities are more and more seeking to taking these corporations to court in their home (foreign) country.

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For example, Shell was sued by farmers from Oruma and Ikot Ada-Udo and at the end, the court held that Shell must pay them compensation. This case went on for 13 years, but now, there are negotiations going on.

They are going to pay them the compensations.

In terms of the pollution in Ogoni, there was a case that Gbodo people sued Shell in UK, and got 55 million pounds verdict against Shell, and Shell paid.

The Supreme Court in UK has ruled that whatever Shell subsidiary does in Nigeria or anywhere else, they can be held to account in the UK. They (Shell) respect the law in their home country but in Nigeria they keep ignoring the Law.

They have the money, they have the lawyers they pay and can keep dragging these cases as the plaintiffs die off.

So the blame must be on the Nigeria state. And I think we have a defective legal system guiding the petroleum industry. The oil companies are all working in partnership with the NNPC.

When Shell or Mobil refuse to pay, it is the NNPC that is telling them not to pay because they are all working together.

In fact, NNPC holds the highest share in the Joint Venture arrangement, so we have to also look at who is in the background giving these oil companies the power not to obey the law.

Need for vigilance

That is what is going on but I believe that as more and more suits are filed in foreign courts, they will have nowhere to hide.

And something we should watch out for is the fact that these oil companies are selling off their facilities onshore, ignoring the pollution onshore and moving offshore.

And they are moving offshore because they pay less royalty to government, so that they can get to a place where they cannot pay anything at all and make more profit. And there is less monitoring because nobody is going to monitor them in the high sea.

Even NOSDRA does not have the facilities, they will have to use the oil companies’ facilities to go there.

So they want to now democratize the pollution onshore and ignore responsibility onshore.

This is where the government should wake up and tell them no, you cannot do this, you must be liable for the pollution on land, according to Nigeria’s law.

Even if you want to sell your facilities, you cannot sell your liability, unless the buyer is foolish enough to buy your liability.

Does the advocacy by HOMEF cover areas such as abandoned vessels and can such vessels be cleared?

It is part of our advocacy but we are not really focused directly on that as a major sub-area.

However, today, one of the fishermen brought up the fact that the abandoned wrecked ship cut their fishnets and destroyed their fishing equipment. So, it is something we are going to take up as an outcome of this meeting.

This is a major problem right from Lagos, just like you find car wrecks all over Nigeria’s highways.

You see a lot of cars that could be recycled are just left to rot and cause more problems in our environment.

Yes, that is a very strong point affecting navigation in our waterways. They should be cleared.

Vanguard News Nigeria


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