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Soil, not oil is not just an empty slogan but a statement of truth which the world must act upon. Oil is a wasting resource. It has wasted many lives and is now threatening the entire planet.

We are living in a rapidly changing world. The changes that we are witnessing have not come about by accident; they have been carefully orchestrated and the price has been dire. Today, a handful of corporations and entities control the global supply of food, water and other resources. They operate without any sense of responsibility and the space for people to seek redress is becoming continually more constricted.

Among them are oil companies that refuse to heed the call to address global warming at source by allowing 80 per cent of known fossil fuels reserves to remain in the ground. Often, these companies deny that global warming exists. When they do admit that it is a reality, they present a path for action which includes destructive mechanisms like carbon capture and storage, genetically modified crops, geo-engineering, and carbon trading schemes such as Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (REDD). These ‘false solutions’ allow polluters to continue with their activities, marginalizing vulnerable people and poor communities even further by destroying their lands and livelihoods. Wars are waged, nations destroyed, and people massacred all for the purpose of securing access to oil and other finite resources, which are used to fuel unsustainable lifestyles elsewhere. It is no wonder we see a sudden spike in interest in the planets of other galaxies.


There are few places where oil extraction has been as destructive as in the Niger Delta. A 2011 UNEP assessment of Ogoniland revealed levels of pollution caused by the activities of Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC) and the Nigerian National Petroleum Company (NNPC). The study found that all the water bodies are polluted, and in over 40 locations tested, the soil is polluted with hydrocarbons up to a depth of 5 metres. In some places the water is contaminated with the carcinogen benzene, at levels 900 times above World Health Organisation standards. Weekends in Ogoniland are marked by carnivals of funerals for people in their twenties and thirties. With life expectancy standing at about 41 years, the clean-up of land and water in Ogoniland is expected to require another 30 years.

We visited Ogoniland and paid tribute to Right Livelihood laureate and environmental activist, Ken Saro Wiwa, on the 20th annual anniversary of his execution. There, we saw the immense pollution at Goi, a deserted and forgotten village. The people there had been severely impacted by oil pollution. We also visited Erema in Egi, Rivers State, sharing ideas on environmental monitoring and the value of soils. The main request from communities at Egi was for the Federal Government to enlist the help of the United Nations Environment Programme in conducting a forensic audit of their environment similar to the 2011 audit for Ogoniland. The people of Egi simply want their soil back in its normal state, but they also clearly see the soil issue as one of human rights. They are right; the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights declares that all Africans shall have the right to a safe and satisfactory environment in which to develop. The Egi people want both the audit and clean-up of their environment to be undertaken expeditiously and not left to gather dust on some remote shelf as has been the case with the Ogoni environmental assessment, four years after its submission.


It has been estimated that, with rising global warming and shrinking water resources, violence in Africa may increase by 54 per cent by 2030. Lake Chad is a major example of what looms ahead. The lake has diminished in size to less than 5 per cent of its 1960 levels. The lake shrunk from 22,772 square kilometres in size to 15,4000 square kilometres between 1966 and 1973. By 1994, according to satellite images, the lake was only 1,756 square kilometres. The presence of invasive species in the remaining half of the further compounds the problem. This has led to the displacement of farmers, fisher folk and pastoralists that depend on it for their livelihoods. Although many factors contributed to its shrinkage, it is reported that climate change and extreme droughts contributed at least 50 per cent. If this is so, then ecological degradation and climate change may also be major factors in the rising insecurity in Nigeria, including the scourge of Boko Haram, as analysed in the manifesto ‘Terra Viva, Our Soil, Our commons, our future.’ Caring for the earth is the best antidote to the rise of insecurity, violence and terrorism.

Smallholder farmers hold the key to feeding the world as well as cooling the planet; agro-ecological food production enriches the soil rather than destroying it as industrial agriculture does. We cannot afford to be drawn into a system that promotes genetically engineered seeds and chemical fertilisers. While these costly inputs make super-profits for giant corporations, they destroy our soils and trap farmers in dependency and debt. With over 300,000 farmers suicides already recorded in India, the harmful nature of this agricultural model is no longer in doubt.

The pressure on Africa to adopt uniform seed laws such as those promoted under the African Regional Intellectual Property Organization (ARIPO) is aimed at the seed colonization of Africa. The same goes with the promotion of GMOs through weak biosafety bills such as the one signed into law in Nigeria during the last week of the previous presidency. The unrelenting attack on our staple foods, including cassava, cowpea (beans), corn and banana must be halted. The planting of genetically modified cotton in Burkina Faso was held up as a great success, yielding bumper harvests and enriching farmers. Recently Burkina Faso stopped planting Bt. Cotton. Will Nigeria walk into the GMO trap with her eyes open?

Soil, not oil is not just an empty slogan but a statement of truth which we must act upon. Oil is a wasting resource. It has wasted many lives and is now threatening the entire planet. The oil economy is subject to political manipulation, as we have seen with the current price crash and deep shocks that have impacted our country. Our call today is that we must recover our sovereignty over our political structures, over our resources, over our food systems and over our lives. Soil, not oil. The soil is our life and our true wealth.

* Nnimmo Bassey is a renowned environmental activist, poet and architect, and is the former chair of Friends of the Earth International. He is currently the director of Health of Mother Earth Foundation and has campaigned for several years on the impacts of oil extraction in the Niger Delta.

* Vandana Shiva, a physicist, philosopher, feminist, activist and author, has dedicated her life to defending small farmers’ rights and the rights of people to forests, biodiversity, water, seeds and land. Her organization, Navdanya, which means “nine seeds,” has been actively involved in rejuvenating indigenous culture and knowledge, and setting up seed banks across India, training farmers in sustainable agriculture and seed sovereignty.

Both Bassey and Shiva were separately awarded the Right Livelihood Award, also known as the “alternative Nobel Prize” for their work.



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