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The environmentalist, Nnimmo Bassey, deplores the Green Revolution in Africa and oil spills in the Niger Delta region. He does not underestimate the work to be done to educate people on the need to stop those who wish to destroy the environment and to redefine new concepts of development

Zahra Moloo interviews Nnimmo Bassey co-founder of Environmental Rights Action (ERA), a Nigerian advocacy NGO, also known as Friends of the Earth Nigeria. Bassey has been involved in the struggle against oil exploitation in the Niger Delta. In 2010 he was awarded the Right Livelihood award.

NNIMO: I’m Nnimmo Bassey. I direct Health of Mother Earth Foundation in Nigeria, which is an ecological think tank. I also coordinate Oil Watch International, which is a global South resistance network. I am a poet, writer and architect.

AMANDLA: You trained as an architect?

N: Yes.

A: How did you start working on issues of oil extraction?

N: Well, oil in Nigeria is as old as I am. And the problem is not getting any better. Although I am getting better as I get older! [Laughs">. I am joking. I started out life as a human rights activist, after graduation from university. Because in those days Nigeria was under military rule. The military ruled Nigeria for over thirty years and that really affected the political structure of the country. So in those days, we had serious human rights abuses. The human rights community was more concerned with fighting for better prison conditions, generally fighting for the rights of the people. I was more concerned about the environmental aspect, especially what was going on in the oil fields with corporations like Shell, Chevron, Exxon, Agip, polluting the environment regularly in the Niger Delta and the community people having their livelihoods destroyed. I grew up also at the time of the Nigerian civil war. Nigeria fought a civil war with Biafra and actually, my village was on the war front all through the war with Nigerian soldiers living in my village and Biafran soldiers living in the next village. They were just playing games with each other, but of course we couldn’t stay. We had to leave in the early stages of the war. I left with my parents. I was a very little lad then. But before we left the village, I really saw human wickedness: innocent people killed, dead bodies everywhere, children abandoned by their parents. Sometimes I still remember voices I heard then. So when I see a situation when people are oppressed or denied their rights, I get really offended.

A: Can you give me more of an idea of the scale of the destruction that these different companies have caused in the Niger Delta?

N: Yes, actually, it’s better seen than described but I will try. We have, on average, one oil spill a day in the Niger Delta. In fact, if you remember the Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989, or thereabouts, we have an equivalent of that scale of spill every year in the Niger Delta. It’s really complicated because whereas the Exxon spill, or the Gulf of Mexico spill, or the BP spill – had serious efforts to clean up the spill. In Nigeria you don’t have that kind of serious efforts to clean up. If you visit the Delta today, you can see – there’s a location called Ebubu Ejama. There was an oil spill there in 1970. That oil spill is still visible, is still there, it has not been cleaned. What the oil company has done is to build a fence around it and to station the military to protect that spill. But the spills, there are thousands. There are some communities that you can visit and you would find the creeks and the streams coated with crude oil and yet people have to drink that water. The clearest example is the case of Ogoniland where the United Nations Environment Programme issued a report three years ago that stated that all the water bodies in Ogoniland are contaminated. All the water bodies. When you have people living in such a toxic environment, it’s not surprising that life expectancy is really very low. So it’s a very desperate situation. But that is still better than other parts of the Niger Delta. Because oil extraction stopped in Ogoniland in 1993 when Shell was expelled by the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni people.

One of the things that’s really troubling about the Niger Delta is that the corporations are very good at twisting the stories. They bring foreign journalists and local journalists on what are called pollution tours of the Delta. They fly them in helicopters, pointing out places where pollutions are occurring, claiming they are not the cause of the pollution and that it’s the local communities that are causing the pollution.

A: In the course of your work, how have you advocated for communities living in these areas? You’ve mentioned that there have been no clean ups at all?

N: No, no clean-ups. They would tell you they have cleaned up, of course. And they can show you certificates, signed certificates that they have cleaned up. But these certificates of clean up are not worth anything.

There are many ways we work with communities. I think the most effective thing we do is sharing knowledge with them, so that they know the tools available, the laws, relating to oil operations in the country and how they can use those tools to defend the environment, to stop further harm. So we support communities to litigate against both the state and the corporations. We work with them on the dangers…- I mean in terms of physical dangers from crude oil spills and gas flares. Because sometimes it gets to a point where communities trying to find a place in the sector want contracts to clean up oil spills. Meanwhile the local contractors do not have sufficient skills to do that, they don’t have the equipment. We try to tell the community people, “Don’t go for these kind of jobs.” You should insist that the environment is cleaned up properly when there’s a spill.

The other thing we do is connect communities. We connect communities so that they share skills, they share stories, they strengthen themselves. We organize exchanges between countries in Africa.

A: For example when you talk about sharing legal knowledge with communities, is this really effective in a place like Nigeria where the judicial process is very difficult. It’s very difficult to get any form of justice through those means?

If we look at the difficulties and how hard it is to get what we want, then we would just give up. There would be no need to be an activist. I was about to mention this earlier; in 2005, we got a judgment against gas flaring and that was most unexpected. And the judge declared that “Look, it’s against the constitutional rights of the communities for you to flare this gas and harm them. You should do a plan to stop it and actually stop it.” They didn’t stop. Til now, they are still flaring the gas in that community, but the corporation was jolted to know that there could be a ruling against them. So that was significant. Recently, also we worked with four communities in the Niger Delta to sue Shell at the Hague. A decision was reached and three of the cases were thrown out by the court in the Hague, but over one case, Shell was held accountable. And so this kind of thing puts them on the spot, it helps communities to know at least there’s somewhere they could go for justice, no matter how long drawn out it may be, no matter how unsatisfactory it may be.

A: As well as oil, you’ve worked on quite a few other things – GMOs, food sovereignty issues. Can you tell me about that side of things - you have the extraction issue, but you also have this whole move toward basically making profit from each and every resource you can find. So can you tell me about the work you have done on food sovereignty, on GMOs?

N: Yes, my first engagement on food issues really was around 2002 when Zambia had some food shortage in one region and they needed assistance. And the international community was offering them GMO corn, and Zambia said that unless the corn is milled, they would not accept it. This was a big political battle. And there were talks about “How could Zambia, a hungry nation be demanding what kind of food they want as food aid. Don’t they know that people are dying? How could they be wasting time when people are dying of hunger and starvation!” There was so much pressure because if they send you whole grain GMO, some grains are going to germinate and grow in your country. And so you’re going to get contamination and that’s why Zambia insisted that the corn should be milled. At the end of the day, Zambia did not take the food aid. Before all that they were able to overcome the food shortage because there was food in other parts of Zambia. And that’s the best way to handle food shortages because there’s always food somewhere in the region. And it will be the kind of food that the people know already, something they are used to, more beneficial for them rather than someone bringing them strange things that people don’t eat and changing the diet and changing the culture of the people. So that kind of politics brought me into engaging on food issues. Sometimes it’s not just that the food is not there, there are other factors that stop people from having food, maybe poor infrastructure, political barriers, and also the interests of some people to supply food aid because food aid is big business, it’s not aid, it’s not free, it’s not a gift. It’s only in an emergency, when there’s war or something catastrophic that you could get food for free.

The issue of genetic engineering is a very big issue in Africa because Africa appears to be the last frontier. The biotech industry is not able to penetrate Europe as much as they would want to, and even in the United States, it’s spread in the US by ambush, by getting people not to know what they are eating. In Africa, because we have smallholder farms, where seventy percent of the population is engaged in small-scale farming, it could be a big market for the biotech industry. It’s not been so easy for them, because they are used to selling to big commercial farms. So they’ve been at pains trying to prove that small-scale farmers can also benefit from this kind of technology that requires mechanization, all kinds of chemical inputs that these small-scale farmers don’t have the resources to sustain. But again the claims of GMO exponents is that GMOs yield higher, that they require less labour to cultivate, that they require less chemicals. That has been proven to be wrong. Every year they are using more chemicals, more and more chemicals. They don’t necessarily yield better. I remember the time the biotech industry produced the golden rice that was meant to have enhanced levels of Vitamin A. Independent scientists proved that you needed to eat 5 kilograms of that rice a day – nobody eats five kilograms of rice a day! – to have the equivalent of Vitamin A that you can obtain just by eating two carrots. That’s not the way to manipulate people and tell lies about what your products can produce. In Nigeria they are doing field testing of genetically modified cassava. Once any of these varieties are released into the environment, you simply cannot withdraw them because they don’t look any different. People think that whenever any thing is called GMO its going to be very big and look so fabulous! But that is not necessarily true, it’s just part of the myth.

A: We have all these different things taking place in different parts of the continent. You have the drive towards GMOs, you have increasingly more interest in extractive industries by multinational corporations in oil, in gas, in mining, and then you also see these kind of market-based solutions to environmental problems, which is itself a profit-making enterprise. For instance, we have things like the Green Revolution and AGRA, Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa. How do you think that people around the continent can organize to fight against the extractive industries, but also not to buy into this very neoliberal discourse of trying to fight environmental problems through profit making initiatives? What can be done on these two fronts?

N: [Laughs"> It’s actually a complicated problem! The attack on the continent is actually a new wave of colonization. There’s ecological colonization, extractive colonization. Our countries, our governments are falling into the trap of believing that anything called ‘direct foreign investment’ is very good. And so they relax all the laws, they remove the taxes – they do anything to attract anyone who wants to invest. They sell our lands, and then of course this neoliberal market environmentalism where you see forests as carbon sinks. And governments distancing themselves from the people. So this must eventually have political repercussions.

One I think we need to step up political organizing in our countries to ensure that politicians working with predators would be kept away from office as much as possible or dropped when they stand next for elections. But it’s a slow process to get people to understand intricacies of how all these things come together.

A: But how do you get people to understand that? Let’s say for example, the way something like AGRA sells itself is always using this language of small farmers, providing them with resources. They use this discourse of the small farmer – how can people understand that this does not have the meaning that it appears to?

N: It’s actually very difficult, especially with the kinds of arguments that AGRA puts forward because they speak all the right language. They would not admit that they want to introduce GMOs or anything like that. It’s not easy for those that believe their narrative to change their minds. But it’s something that, as I said, it’s a long struggle. Inevitably, the truth always comes out. And we hope that it just doesn’t get too late. It’s like people have seen how bad the Niger Delta has turned out. But they think they can do it better in their country. Imagine what is going on in Uganda. Oil is being drilled on the shores of Lake Albert. Lake Albert is one of the headwaters of River Nile. The challenge is, when is all this going to get to a cataclysmic end? When are people going to wake up and find they don’t have any land, their lands have all been sold? When are we going to find that minerals, no matter what, don’t benefit those who live where it’s being mined? The struggle is holistic, we just have to look at it from every perspective and re-build a sense of productivity that believes in the inherent ability of people to build our own economy. We have to redefine what is the pathway to progress. Where do we want to go? So we have a lot of work to do.

* Zahra Moloo is a freelance multimedia journalist and documentary film producer from Nairobi, Kenya. Much of her work focuses on investigating the extractive industries in Africa. You can find her work at interview first appeared on Amandla, a Montreal-based weekly community radio show focusing on news and analyses on Africa:

Audio interview is available">here



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