- Southern Nigeria’s vast Niger Delta boasts Africa’s most extensive mangrove forests — and some of the world’s largest fossil fuel reserves.
- Efforts to extract oil and gas have resulted in numerous oil spills, which have damaged the region’s biodiversity, as well as the livelihoods of coastal communities.
- Niger Delta mangroves are also affected by logging, farming and urban expansion, and are being replaced by invasive nipa palm.
- Research suggests Niger Delta’s mangroves could be gone within 50 years at the current rate of loss.
BODO, Nigeria — Christian Kpandei is a man of many memories. Still, the vital incidents of his life, like the death of his childhood hero, environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, grow blurry and remote as time wears on. One series of events, however, with its decade-old vestiges, has remained as clear as the sunrise at dawn.
Twice, in 2008 and again in 2009, a pipeline owned by Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria (SPDC) ruptured, releasing more than 600,000 barrels of crude oil into Bodo Creek in the Ogoniland region of southern Nigeria. In a report, Amnesty International said the spills had a “catastrophic impact” on the area, home to vast mangrove forests and rich ancient wetlands.
“It is just the kind of feeling one has when he loses a job. I was shocked. For three days, I couldn’t speak a word to anyone,” Kpandei told Mongabay. “People came from far and near to bear witness to the catastrophe … Oil floated on the surface of the water.”
Kpandei lost 0.4 hectares (1 acre) of his fish-farming operation, his tilapia killed by the spill. He said the mangrove forest, normally lush and green, turned grayish-yellow, and recounted how even gentle gusts of the sunset breeze would litter the mangrove coastline with leaves fallen from withering branches.
“It was humanly unacceptable. About 2,000 acres [800 hectares] of land, originally covered by dense mangrove forest, all died. Today, the whole place looks like a football field,” Kpandei adds, his forehead wrinkling with concern.
In 2015, Kpandei was among a group of 15,000 impacted fishers who were awarded $84 million in damages after a joint lawsuit against SPDC in a U.K. court. But Kpandei said this one-off triumph neither repairs nor reverses the fallout of losing the region’s mangrove forest. Even now, standing at the water’s edge, he points at fishers in their empty canoes returning from unsuccessful expeditions, describing it as a wicked, ongoing trend spawned by the spills.
A thirst for oil
As it is around Bodo, biodiversity is rich in the rest of the Niger Delta. Stretched across more than 100,000 square kilometers (39,000 square miles) and nine Nigerian states, the region harbors rivers and estuaries, fertile soil, valuable plants, fisheries, and mineral resources, including limestone and gold. It also hosts Africa’s largest mangrove forest ecosystem, which is dominated by a rainbow of mangrove tree species, including red (Rhizophora racemosa), white (Laguncularia racemosa) and black (Avicennia germinans). The region is also home to some 30 million people.
Of the delta’s diverse resources, it’s the oil and gas deposits that are most attractive to the Nigerian state and extractive corporations, as it was for British colonizers a century ago. Nigeria reportedly has 206 trillion cubic feet of natural gas reserves, and the world’s 10th-largest reserve of crude oil, amounting to around 25 billion barrels. Oil contributed 7.24% of Nigeria’s GDP in 2021, and oil exports continues to dominate the country’s foreign exchange earnings.
Growing evidence, however, suggests that the pursuit of oil is at the heart of irreversible ecosystem damage affecting people and mangroves alike. In the past decade alone, there were more than 8,636 oil spill incidents, which released a combined 385,909 barrels of oil into the surrounding environment, according to data from Nigeria’s National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency (NOSDRA).
The ongoing spills, regulatory agencies say, are a result of leaks from old and unserviced pipelines, as well as artisanal oil refining operations. Significant leaks also come from oil “bunkering,” a form of oil theft in which pipelines are punctured and oil illicitly diverted to unauthorized destinations. This diverted crude, known as “dirty fuel,” is refined and sold in Nigeria’s booming black market.
“The mangrove forests of the Niger Delta are among the most degraded in the world,” said Nenibarini Zabbey, professor of biomonitoring and restoration ecology at the University of Port Harcourt’s Department of Fisheries. “Communities are being washed away … [adult] fishes and juveniles have lost their homes.”
Oil spills affect both animal and plant communities. When released into bodies of water, oil can disperse across a vast area, aided by tides and storms. As oil is less dense than water, it floats on the surface, where it forms a barrier through which oxygen can’t diffuse. Mangrove trees “breathe” through pores called lenticels; but if oil coats their bark, this process is stymied, effectively choking the tree. Exposure to crude oil can also kill mangrove seedlings and seeds.
Oil isn’t the only threat to Nigeria’s mangroves. There’s also unregulated logging — particularly for firewood — farming and fishing, as well as dredging activities, pollution, and the expansion of urban centers.
As with the rest of Nigeria, the region is experiencing massive population growth and a rising unemployment rate. According to Itam Itam, youth leader of the Iwuochang community in the southern Nigerian state of Akwa Ibom, without alternatives for livelihoods, people have increasingly turned to mangroves as a means of survival. But even this option appears to be becoming more difficult as mangrove resources dwindle.
“Life is difficult for young people here. Fishing is no longer lucrative and the mangroves are gone,” Itam said. He added that the loss of the mangroves has drastically shrunk livelihood opportunities in the region, fueling crimes ranging from piracy to kidnapping-for-ransom to militancy.
A nemesis called nipa
Nipa palms (Nypa frutican) arrived in the delta with a good reputation and hopeful mission in the early 1900s. The thatch-like plant, native to southern Asia and Oceania, has a strong, extensive root system and was introduced to Nigeria by colonists to control coastal erosion.
The flowering stalk of the nipa palm is also juicy and edible, as are its bunchy nuts. The petals of its flowers can be brewed into a tasty tea. Residents use its leaves to make umbrellas, carriages, roof thatch, sun hats, baskets and mats. Birds nest in its branches, while fish, periwinkles and shrimp breed in the mud and water below.
However, there are drawbacks to nipa palm in Nigeria. The species has spread quickly and is considered invasive, and locals say there are fewer fish and mollusks in areas where native mangrove trees have been replaced by nipa palm.
A study published in 2020 in the journal Remote Sensing found the Niger Delta’s mangrove cover decreased by 12% between 2007 and 2017. Nipa palms, in turn, increased by 694%. The study’s authors write that their findings indicate the mangrove forest of the Niger Delta is in “grave danger.”
According to Zabbey, disturbance events like oil spills allow nipa palms to spread throughout the delta. In most soil types, even polluted soils, research shows nipa seedlings perform better than mangrove seedlings, giving the former a competitive edge in disturbed environments in the Niger Delta.
“If the native mangroves are undisturbed, it is pretty difficult for nipa to creep into the habitat,” Zabbey told Mongabay. “But nipa often take advantage of the degradation.”
Research suggests that because of the ability of nipa palms to outcompete native mangrove trees, Niger Delta mangrove forests might entirely disappear within the next 50 years at the current rate of loss.
Among researchers, there’s no consensus on how to handle the nipa situation. Some recommend eradicating them by chemical poisoning. Others suggest mechanical and manual means. But Zabbey, who also heads the Centre for Environment, Human Rights and Development (CEHRD), a research- and advocacy-centered NGO, said Nigeria should follow the example of countries that have adapted to the spread and use of nipa palms.
Nigeria lost around 70 km2 (27 mi2) of its mangrove forests between 2007 and 2016, amounting to about 1%, according to monitoring platform Global Mangrove Watch. Since then, they’ve only been whittled away further, with satellite data from the University of Maryland visualized on Global Forest Watch (GFW) showing tree cover loss infiltrating ever-deeper into its remaining mangroves, which are concentrated in the Niger Delta region.
The Niger Delta isn’t the only place where mangroves are in trouble. Worldwide, some 2,200 km2 (849 mi2) of mangrove forests were lost between 2007 and 2016, according to Global Mangrove Watch.
“Mangroves globally are in decline and they are threatened and there are some analyses that project that they might disappear by the end of the century,” said Elias Symeonakis, a researcher specializing in remote sensing at Manchester Metropolitan University in the U.K. “[It] is alarming,” he added.
As mangroves vanish, so too do the ecosystem services they provide. From flood, storm and erosion control, to acting as nurseries for fish populations, mangroves help feed and safeguard coastal communities. And by capturing and storing atmospheric carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, mangrove forests also play an outsize role in controlling global warming.
Studies suggest that mangrove forests and coastal wetlands can store carbon at a rate that is 10 times higher than terrestrial forests and have the capacity to store five times more carbon per hectare than tropical forests. But if a mangrove is destroyed, carbon stored in the soil is released back into the atmosphere to further compound the global climate crisis.
Niger Delta communities are already feeling the pinch, with residents reporting increasing incidences of heat waves, erosion, wind storms, poor harvest, acid rain, and floods.
“Storms this year blew out a lot of roofs and destroyed many houses [in Bodo],” Kpandei told Mongabay. “It has never happened in the past. It is a thing of serious concern. We are facing a serious heat wave. The seabirds no longer migrate to our creeks. Our lives are changing and we are not happy.”
Restoring the delta
For many, the waiting game is on. But a few have turned their anxiety into action, launching projects to restore the delta’s degraded mangroves. In Yaatah River state, a women-led community initiative is replanting depleted mangrove swamps and forests. The seedlings are grown and planted by volunteers who sometimes receive small stipends from external funders attracted by the project. CEHRD, the rights and development NGO that Zabbey runs, has also been conducting community mangrove education, advocacy and restoration activities since 1999.
In 2017, the Nigerian government launched a $1 billion cleanup project aimed at restoring around 1,000 hectares (2,500 acres) of oil-polluted mangroves in the Ogoniland region of the Niger Delta. The cleanup initiative followed the recommendations of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), after a 2011 environmental assessment of Ogoniland found evidence of “extensive” pollution of the region.
So far, the initiative has generated mixed responses. In addition to delays, the Hydrocarbon Pollution Remediation Project (HYPREP), the agency that heads the rehabilitation of the contaminated and polluted sites of Ogoni communities, has been accused of fraud. Critics have also called out what they say is a lack of transparency and accountability, according to multiple reports in local media. Christian Kpandei, who has closely followed the cleanup, said the program is concerned more about building a fake “good image” than lasting change.
More than five years ago, the Tropical Research Conservation Center (TRCC), an NGO that facilitates Indigenous conservation efforts and sustainable agriculture in rural communities in Akwa Ibom, introduced its mangrove regeneration initiative to dozens of shoreline communities. The TRCC provides the seedlings and technical training, in addition to stipends for volunteers.
“We are engaging with more communities,” TRCC director Ikponke Nkanta told Mongabay. “Our goal is to plant 1 million seedlings per year across states in the Niger Delta. But inadequate funding is slowing our ambition at the moment.”
Urau Essien Etuk, a small shoreline village in the southern state of Akwa Ibom, is one of the communities participating in this project. There, community chief Godwin George is working with Indigenous residents to restore mangroves in their region.
In late April, after the sun had lost the fervency of the hot season, George rallied his people for the day’s mangrove-planting exercise. Gathered at the water’s edge with their shovels, headpans and more than 400 red mangrove tree seedlings, their chattering grew quiet as George relayed his instructions.
“We load two boats today,” he said. ”You all have to be fast so that the reversing tides don’t catch up with us.” In unison, they began to move the seedlings, grown in small, sand-filled nylon bags, into the wooden canoes.
Half an hour later, the two canoes were ready to set sail, each full of seedlings. With the sails balanced, the crews oscillated between moments of silent concentration and bouts of chatting and laughter. Standing on the deck of one of the canoes, Chief George rowed gently with a long bamboo paddle.
After 20 minutes of plying through the contours of the twisted waterway and between thick stands of mangrove, the canoes came to a halt. This portion was chosen because its natural tree cover was unusually sparse. After offloading the seedlings into basins, bowls and pans, the group went to work carefully planting the seedlings. After an hour and a half, the more than 300 seedlings had been settled carefully in their new home.
George said that, together with the TRCC and residents of other communities, he has planted more than 100,000 seedlings in the surrounding mangrove. “We wanted our children to see these mangroves intact,” he said. “In the same manner our ancestors had preserved it.”
Numbere, A. O. (2018). Mangrove species distribution and composition, adaptive strategies and ecosystem services in the Niger River Delta, Nigeria. Mangrove Ecosystem Ecology and Function. doi:10.5772/intechopen.79028
Nwobi, C., Williams, M., & Mitchard, E. T. (2020). Rapid mangrove forest loss and nipa palm (Nypa fruticans) expansion in the Niger Delta, 2007–2017. Remote Sensing, 12(14), 2344. doi:10.3390/rs12142344
Numbere, A. O. (2019). Effect of soil types on growth, survival and abundance of mangrove (Rhizophora racemosa) and nypa palm (Nypa fruticans) seedlings in the Niger delta, Nigeria. American Journal of Environmental Sciences, 15(2), 55-63. doi:10.3844/ajessp.2019.55.63
Numbere, A. O. (2018). Impact of invasive nypa palm (Nypa fruticans) on mangroves in coastal areas of the Niger Delta region, Nigeria. Impacts of Invasive Species on Coastal Environments, 425-454. doi:10.1007/978-3-319-91382-7_13
Gundlach, E. R., McArthur, A., Iroakasi, O., Bonte, M., Giadom, F. D., Shekwolo, P., & Visigah, K. (2021). Cleanup and restoration of 1000-ha of oiled mangroves, Bodo, eastern Niger Delta, Nigeria. International Oil Spill Conference Proceedings, 2021(1). doi:10.7901/2169-3358-2021.1.688932
Banner image: A community member carries mangrove seedlings to be planted. Image by Orji Sunday for Mongabay.
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