- The Niger Delta has endured extensive pollution and risks to human and environmental health in the past half-century due to oil production; an estimated 9-13 million barrels of oil were spilled across the region between 1958 and 2020.
- Simultaneously, the effects of climate change, flooding, decreased rainfall and increased temperatures have hindered food production across Nigeria amid a population spike.
- In this context, Mongabay interviewed Nnimmo Bassey, executive director of the Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF) following the inaugural Africa Climate Summit in Nairobi.
- “Climate change is a life or death matter and should not be seen as an opportunity for politicking or for economic speculation,” Bassey says.
The discovery of crude oil in commercial quantities in Nigeria has substantially increased environmental problems across major oil exploration states in the past half-century, particularly in the Niger Delta region.
Within this period, environmental health risks linked to both population increase and the expansion of the oil industry have increased dramatically — from water and air pollution to oil spills, poor solid waste management, poverty, deforestation, desertification, wind and coastal erosion, flooding and land degradation and more. These issues have eroded food security and biodiversity across major cities and the Niger Delta.
This zone is a vast, densely populated, low-lying region through which the waters of the Niger River drain into the Gulf of Guinea, stretching across nine southern coastal states. Ironically, while the Niger Delta hosts the majority of the oil wells and fossil fuel companies, which are instrumental to the region’s economic development, its environment has also experienced extensive degradation and pollution, which has sparked both local and international concerns, as many environmentalists often describe the region as a global example of “ecocide.”
Residents across the region face respiratory problems due to black soot pollution hovering across the atmosphere. Frequent oil spills due to vandalism orchestrated by oil thieves and a lack of pipeline maintenance have contaminated major rivers and rendered expansive farmlands unproductive. This has rattled livelihoods and made access to good drinking water almost impossible. The region’s excessive pollution has also made fishing activities across riverine communities in part of the Niger Delta extremely difficult.
Between 1958 and 2010, an estimated 9-13 million barrels of oil were spilled across the Niger Delta — and that’s a conservative estimate. As a recent report by the Bayelsa State Oil and Environmental Commission puts it, “This would mean that the Niger Delta has suffered the equivalent of a major oil spill, on the scale of the Exxon Valdez disaster … every single year for 50 years.” According to the report, just five major international oil companies — Shell, Eni (Agip), Chevron, Total and ExxonMobil — have accounted for the vast majority of oil production in the Delta as well as 90% of spills in recent years.
Meanwhile, the negative impacts of climate change and weather variations have been evident in almost all parts of Nigeria within the last decade, particularly recent floods across several regions. Likewise, subsequent declines in rainfall in the northeastern and southern regions and temperature increases nationwide are reflected in low agricultural productivity across major food-producing states amid a significant population spike in the last 10 years.
In light of all this, Mongabay recently interviewed Nnimmo Bassey, director of the Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF), an ecological think tank advocating for socioecological justice and food sovereignty in Nigeria.
The conversation below took place following the inaugural Africa Climate Summit Sept. 4-6 in Nairobi, where African leaders adopted a new climate pact, which calls for a just multilateral development finance architecture to liberate Africa’s economies from “odious debt and onerous barriers to necessary financial resources.” This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Mongabay: Why did you become a climate activist? What experiences early in life led you to do this?
Nnimmo Bassey: The route to my becoming a climate activist is long and variegated, but every rung of the ladder has a common denominator. That underpinning factor is justice. My activist life began as a regular commentator and humorist on sociopolitical issues. From there, I was drawn into the human rights community in the days of military dictatorship in Nigeria. While campaigning for human rights, it became clear that without environmental rights, one cannot enjoy the right to life. This reality became starker with the massive ecological and human rights abuses visited on oil field communities in the Niger Delta.
Note that the causes of the injustices around us are basically systemic — a system that is virtually cannibal in nature and elevates profit above human lives and planetary balance. Campaigning against the dastard pollution of the Niger Delta by oil companies and the accompanying repression of the peoples and communities naturally led to critical analysis of what could be done to ameliorate the situation. This was when we placed our finger on climate change as an issue that was not much spoken about in our contexts.
One of the major climate change issues we campaigned against was routine gas flaring — the criminal venting of gas associated with crude oil extraction. Another aspect was the campaign tagged “Leave the Oil in the Soil,” which was started 30 years ago under the auspices of Oilwatch International. The fact that climate change poses existential threats to our people, and the fact that it was caused by polluting rich nations and corporations, elevated the justice aspect of the campaign.
We must give credit to Ken Saro-Wiwa, who laid the foundation for radical environmental justice campaigning in Nigeria through his struggles to stop the despoliation of the Ogoni environment. He was murdered by the state, but the seeds he sowed continue to grow.
Mongabay: What is your biggest message to your country? To the world?
Nnimmo Bassey: The message to Nigeria and the world concerning climate change is the same. Climate change is a life or death matter and should not be seen as an opportunity for politicking or for economic speculation.
Since 2009, there has been some level of seriousness about seeing climate change as a just issue, which requires those that have done the most to create the problem to also do the most in tackling it. Since that watershed year, at COP15, the issue of voluntary climate action was enthroned. The justice principle that underpinned the UNFCCC, known as “common but differentiated responsibilities” (CBDR) was virtually jettisoned. That principle requires that although we face a common problem, the weight of our responsibility differs.
The Paris Agreement consolidated the shift toward voluntary emissions reduction through what is now called “nationally determined contributions” (NDCs). It has been demonstrated year after year that if nations faithfully implant their NDCs, they will still overshoot the temperature targets set by the Paris Agreement. Nations must mark this fact and stop playing politics with climate change. The concept of voluntary NDCs is a bitter joke.
Mongabay: What were the biggest messages you heard from leaders here at the summit, and what are your reactions?
Nnimmo Bassey: The biggest messages we heard from the climate summit were very disturbing. Going by the first draft declaration, we could read the minds of the governments revealing that they either do not understand the vital issues around climate change or they were simply playing along the paths beaten by the polluters with the hope of receiving some tokens for being ‘good boys.’ The speeches and ultimate declaration of the African Climate Summit barely escaped living up to its billing as a carbon stock exchange. It is loaded with platitudes pandering to worn ideas of the carbon market, green growth and false solutions. The speeches were mostly about making Africa a continental carbon sink with the hope of gaining carbon credits.
We heard of claims that the continent has huge areas of uncultivated land. These were all indicators that African leaders are welcoming green colonialism. We are particularly shocked that despite the declaration acknowledging that 60% of the population are small-scale farmers, very little is said about supporting them and nothing is said of enhancing the practice of agroecology, which is a real climate solution.
Mongabay: Many leaders are promising action. How can people trust them?
Nnimmo Bassey: The promises raised more alarm than hope. The best promise one would have expected to hear would be one of urgent winding down from fossil fuels dependency and an acceleration of investment in renewable energy systems. What is evident on the continent is a concerted assault on pristine ecosystems. Sadly, these are also either nature reserves or World Heritage Sites, namely, the Saloum Delta in Sénégal, the Okavango Delta in Namibia, Lake Albert region in Uganda, the Virunga Park in Democratic Republic of the Congo and of course the Niger Delta.
Leaders claim they need the fossil fuel resources to fight the energy poverty in the continent. Nice idea. However, the truth is that most of the infrastructure associated with these extractive activities is for the exportation of crude oil and fossil gas. My conclusion is that whatever they said cannot be construed as being primarily in the interest of the people.
Mongabay: What were your perceptions after the summit concluded? Do you think the newly adopted Nairobi pact would influence more climate action in Africa?
Nnimmo Bassey: The declaration will influence some action. There will likely be improvements in efforts to have more renewable energy in the energy mix. However, it is more likely that we will see more of what is termed as climate action under the UNFCCC but are actually false solutions. This will happen with leaders permitting land and forest grabs through carbon trading deals. Such deals will allow polluting nations and corporations to exchange forests, peatlands designated as carbon sinks. That will allow polluters to carry on with business as usual on the notion that their pollution is being offset in Africa by our trees and lands. They may even sell segments of our aquatic ecosystems on the basis of similar false arguments. So, sadly, we can experience a burst of activities by carbon speculators hawking all sorts of carbon instruments. This is the bitter cynicism of market environmentalism.
Mongabay: What do you think are the most effective forms of activism? What specifically do you do to get your message out?
Nnimmo Bassey: The most effective form of activism is one that addresses the root causes of the problem. It is activism based on knowledge and fully embedded in the context of the challenge. My activism cuts across the local to the national, regional and global levels. This requires a capacity and readiness to acquire requisite knowledge for such work. It means learning from our communities and not assuming to have superior knowledge. We create the space for the people to speak up for themselves. We ensure that our messages are predicated on facts accompanied by real stories about real people. This is what gives life to our messages. Back to your question, effective forms of activism include those in which the activist stays in the background while the people lead.
Mongabay: How do you think your work as an activist will affect the upcoming COP28? And afterward?
Nnimmo Bassey: Our work can only have enduring impact in the context of climate justice movements. It will be foolhardy for any individual or group to think that their work will have a resounding impact on COP28. To start with, what are the prospects of COP28 being a success? What would such success look like? The best that will come out of COP28 will be a further implementation of the Paris Agreement including adoption of mechanisms for operationalizing “loss and damage.”
The rich countries have a tendency to see climate finance as charity, except when extended as loans or other mechanisms that allow them to recoup their finances. There has been an unwillingness to put adequate funds in the climate finance system. Seeing that neither the $10 billion nor $100 billion targets set by the COP15 or 21 have been met, it will be a miracle to see much good come from the loss and damage equation unless it is treated as climate reparations, as payment made for extreme and irreparable climate harms, the root cause of which is the broken market system, neocolonialism and various forms of exploitative geopolitics. Even the struggle by the World Bank to handle the finances should raise very red flags knowing the bank’s antecedents.
So, COP28 for us will provide a space for meeting and networking with civil society groups and progressive leaders from around the world. It will be a space for demanding payment of climate debt and for a recognition of ecocide as a crime in league with genocide, crimes against humanity and other unusual crimes. COP28 will be a moment for sharing strategies, learning from each other and feeding all of them to future work.
Mongabay: Are you well-known among the population at home?
Nnimmo Bassey: Being known is not my aim as an activist. I actively work to be invisible in my work.
Mongabay: What do you want people to know about you beyond what they see in the media and on social media of your activism?
Nnimmo Bassey: My presence on social media is mostly about sharing environmental news that I believe people should be aware of. Occasionally I share information on new books as well as fragments of poetry. Those should give indications about what is important to me. Other than that, I am just your everyday neighbor.
Banner image: Nnimmo Bassey and the team at the spill site at Eteo community in Ogoni, Rivers State. Image courtesy of Nnimmo Bassey.