In minutes I suffocate in the fumes of the gas flare rising from below the line of trees. It’s a huge ball of fire spewing its toxic elements into atmosphere. The noise and the heat are unbearable. I feel my chest tightening. I struggle to breathe. I feel dizzy and intoxicated. I am in the village of Rumuekpe in Rivers State, Nigeria.
“How do people live in these neighboring communities,” I ask?
“We have no choice,” say the activists accompanying me “These are our ancestral lands. We have nowhere to go. Our children suffer respiratory problems, skin rashes and eye irritations.”
Medical specialists say that the flaring, which spews out a poisonous mixture of carbon dioxide and sulphur gases, has a massive negative health impact leading to bronchitis, silicosis, sulphur poisoning of the blood, and cardiac complications. Extreme long-term exposure can predispose one to, or cause, skin cancer. The nitrogen and sulphur oxides also mix with atmospheric moisture to send down acid rains, devastating agriculture yields.
The activists continue, “There are laws against gas flaring. It is technically illegal in Nigeria since 1984. But the government grants exemptions to oil companies burning natural gas during oil extraction. There is no political will to enforce these deadlines. Fines are nominal and the international oil companies usually buy off state officials. Profit, not health of our people or their development, is paramount in the Niger Delta.”
I bear witness to this reality.
Nnimmo Bassey, executive director of Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF), an ecological think tank, and former director of Environmental Rights Action (ERA), the Nigerian chapter of Friends of the Earth International, is accompanying me. He says gas flaring releases “nitrogen oxides and other substances such as benzene, toluene [and] xylene … which are known to cause cancers.” The report says these pollutants can affect communities within 30km of the flare. There are over 200 such continuous flares burning across the Niger Delta.”
He adds, “And it has a huge destructive impact on agriculture, due to acid rain.”
Scientists describe the Niger Delta as “one of the world’s most severely petroleum-impacted ecosystems.” Their report noted that the Delta is “one of the 10 most important wetlands and marine ecosystems in the world. Millions of people depend upon the Delta’s natural resources for survival, including the poor in many other West African countries who rely on the migratory fish from the Delta.” Of the near 27 million people living in the Niger Delta, an estimated 75 percent rely on the environment for their livelihood, often farming and fishing for market or subsistence living. Royall Dutch Shell Nigeria’s operations in the Delta have led to the deep impoverishment of the Ogoni people and surrounding communities in the Delta.
We meet with Chief Eric Doo, from the Ogoniland community of Goi. Previously a flourishing and vibrant community, with a bakery, fish ponds and agricultural livelihoods, it is now a haunted ghost village. A thick layer of crude covers the devastated terrain.
Photo: Village of Goi (Jay Naidoo)
“The fish have died. The ground water is toxic. Our cassava and yams are full of crude. This is Shell. This is their legacy, and our Hell. They have murdered our communities, killed our way of life. We have been here for generations; the remains of our ancestors now lay in this oil-soaked wastelands. And still they refuse to acknowledge what they have done. They use the law courts, the police and corrupt public officials against us.”
He adds with a sense of desperation:
“It’s been 10 years since the oil spill. All we want is for them to apologize; to say sorry for the damage they have caused. They are one of the richest companies in the world. Surely they can compensate us for our losses, help us rehabilitate our lands and recover from this disaster.”
What I saw was, Shell, a global company that “green washes” itself in the global media as a responsible company, at war with communities like Goi. They will stop at nothing to avoid liability. All that remains of the sensitive habitats here for birds and other wildlife are a toxic funeral pyres of crude soaked wood. The dreams of this community lay in shatters; the broken promises of Shell now a distant memory.
I find a group of young people bathing in the river, shimmering with a layer of crude, and ask: “These waters are toxic. Why are you swimming here?”
“We have nowhere else to go. This is where we have always swum and had fun.” I ask about how they feel. “We are angry at Shell. They have made us poor, we cannot use our lands for planting. We are fishing communities, but the fish are gone because of the pollution. If they do not work with our communities we will fight them.”
Photo: Kids in the village of Goi swimming in the toxic crude filled waters (Jay Naidoo)
An estimated 1.5 million tons of oil has spilled in the Niger Delta ecosystem over the past 50 years. Many of the oil spills can be attributable to poorly maintained infrastructure such as aging pipelines.
What I saw in the areas I went to is cleanup of oil spills is often superficial; crude that is burned off and for weeks pollutes neighboring villages with dangerous chemical fumes. It was little more than turning the land so that the oil remains just beneath the surface of the soil. A week after visiting another polluted community, Ikarama in Bayelsa State of Nigeria, news reach me that the crude oil pool there has been set on fire and the community people are choking in toxic fumes.
United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), in 2011, presented its report of the assessment of Ogoni environment to the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, Goodluck Jonathan. The report completely confirmed the claims of the Ogoni people that “… neglectful environmental pollution laws and sub-standard inspection techniques of the Federal authorities have led to the complete degradation of the Ogoni environment, turning our homeland into an ecological disaster.”
The report found that, without exception, all the water bodies in Ogoni was polluted by the activities of oil companies – Shell Petroleum Development Company (Shell) and the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC). Indeed, the report stated that some of what the people took as potable water had carcinogens, such as benzene, up to 900 times above World Health Organization standards. The report also revealed that at some places in Ogoniland, the soil is polluted with hydrocarbons to a depth of five meters.
According to Nnimmo Bassey, “UNEP says that a total cleanup of Ogoni land will take a life time or about thirty years at the least. How is that a lifetime? Well, life expectancy in the Niger Delta stands at approximately forty-one years.”
My mind drifts back to November 10, 1995 and the execution of internationally acclaimed environmental and human rights activist Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other Ogoni leaders. Nineteen years later I see little public benefits that the people of the Niger Delta enjoy. I visit the first oil well, drilled in Olobiri in 1956. It boasts a huge signboard announcing a museum and an Institute of Peace and Justice. There is neither and the sign is overgrown with vegetation.
Another dream of progress deferred.
All that is seen of the vast oil wealth is the monstrous palaces of militants, bought off in the governments Amnesty Programme and those of local political officials.
“We suffer in silence. Shell comes here and divides our communities. They accuse us of sabotage because it releases them of any responsibility for the oil spills. We have a right to life. We want the people of South Africa to know what they have done here. You must not trust them,” says a resident in Ikarama community.
I have seen the scarred landscape, the trellis of oil pipelines and see a chess board of intrigue, conspiracy and violence. I wonder if this would be tolerated in Amsterdam, Paris or New York?
I reflect on the proposed approvals for drilling for shale gas in the Karoo and ask myself why should we believe either Shell or our Government? I think we better have a more robust public debate before we just approve drilling in this sensitive ecosystem. The people of the Niger Delta are testimony to serial broken promises of our political and economic elites. DM
You can take part in our Twitter conversation on Saturday, 22 February, at #NigerDelta.
Stephen Hawking held a party for time travellers. He sent the invitation out the day after. Nobody attended.