Following our arrival in the commercial capital of Lagos, our delegation travelled to the first leg of our journey, Port Harcourt, River State. While the British colonist first exploited this region for slaves, and later, palm oil, Port Harcourt is now the heartland of Nigeria’s oil industry.
As we flew into Port Harcourt, several members of our delegation noticed the telltale sign of the type of cheap and careless oil drilling prevalent in the Niger Delta – the great flames from natural gas flares. Though the city serves as a major transfer point for crude oil exportation,
We spotted a number of flare sites on the city’s edge. We began by visiting the village of Oshi where Nigerian Agip Oil Company first drilled for oil in 1972. This village is situated a few kilometres outside the town of Port Hartcourt, in Rivers State, and boasts a lush web of greenery, palms, and shrubs. But, in the midst of the vegetation and the foliage, an enormous fire spews out of the ground. It is Agip’s gas flare which has been burning continuously for three decades. We are informed that the indegenes have approached the State House of Assembly, and demanded to be relocated way from the flare.
The soil and ground water are polluted and adults and children develop open sores that fail to heal properly, both which the community attributes to the chemicals that are released into the atmosphere by the gas flares. Oyi informed us that for over 30 years, no one from the community has been employed by the petro-chemical giant that operates just across the road. Instead Agip uses Nigeria’s notorious mobile police to intimidate and harass the community.
In the past, the Agip has ascended to community demands by providing some amenities, but these were developed in consultation with the community nor delivered in a sustained manner. In response, the community had delivered a twenty-one day ultimatum to Agip to act upon the needs of the community or face sustained resistance. When we visited, they had not yet received a response. Yet, all that this community seeks is a chance at leading a normal life, even if it means relocation away from the land their ancestors walked.
The following morning, ERA hosted a group discussion on Nigerian history and environmental injustice at their Port Harcourt office. To provide us with some context for the problems that we would see during the exchange, they explained that the partitioning of the African continent at the 1885 Berlin Conference allowed the British to carve out a nation with no regard for the different ethnic groups that make up this territory. Nigeria’s independence from Britain in 1960 was only ceremonial, facilitating the further facilitation of natural resources by the colonial power, indigenous elites and powerful corporations.
Ethnic conflict and oil money provoked the 1967-70 Biafarian Civil War, where the largely Igbo Eastern region attempted to secede from the majority Yoruba and Hausa-Fulani regions. Latent tensions and distrust have largely been left unresolved, leading to continuing distrust between the major ethnic groups and ongoing concerns about the viability of Nigeria as a diverse nation. At the same time, ERA’s officials explained, the country’s mineral wealth has been drastically mismanaged, with 80-90% of revenue from crude sales going to the government, but only 30% financing development. With so tens of millions of dollars coming from crude oil rather than, the state has not had to promote growth because it does not rely on taxation Most of the oil money has gone into the pockets of government heads, with corruption now widespread throughout society. They emphasized that this is largely a recent problem, fostered and legitimized by the 1985 –93 military dictatorship of Ibrahim Babingida.
Further, the little money that has gone to development has disproportionately benefited the North and West, while little of it has returning to the region from which the oil came. Though there was a transition to a civilian government in 1999, the massive vote rigging and the fact that the unchanged nature of the state indicates, as ERA Coordinator Asume Osuoke pointed out, “we can not assume there is anything like democracy here.” The government still works hand in hand with the multinational corporations to allow the environmental pollution to continue unchecked and repress any resistance to these abuses.
The dirty spoils of oil
Following our discussion ERA officials took us to Rukpokwu in Rivers State, where corroded pipeline fractured, and caused a leak of chemicals into the vast community and farmland. This resulted in a widespread fire that destroyed nearby homes, and rare flora and. Initially, Shell attributed the leak to sabotage. Yet, an internal Shell report soon revealed that the four-decades old machinery and pipes had been leaking into the soil. Eventually, the failing pipes burst, shooting thousands of barrels of crude into the surrounding forest environment. Matshediso Tsotetsi of the Boipatong Environment Working Group, observes remnants of Rukpokwu oil spill
Despite Shell’s stated commitment to clean up, the site of the spill still has large quantities of unrecovered oil on the soil surface. Rather than excavating the contaminated soil, treating it and then returning it, Shell’s contracted cleaners have simply turned over the soil, claiming that a natural regeneration process will evaporate the remaining oil residue.
Despite the threat of another pipeline leak, Shell has made public no plans to remove and replace pipes that have been in place for over forty years.
Echisco of Rumuekpe by the local flare site
Next, our team of environmental activist visited to a community in Rumuekpe, in the Emuoha Local Government Area of River State which is host to several oil wells and Shell, Agip and Elf Totalfina flow stations. Here, oil production started in 1964. Only after vigorous protest at the facilities were the parties pushed to sign a Memorandum of Understanding and provide some compensation, but no employment nor change in drilling policies.. Instead they have problems with air and water pollution, where plantation such as Casava and Orange trees are not producing as they used to, the roofing of their houses has eroded, and many of the women suffer frombreast cancers, still births, and miscarriages. One of the village chief also noted that “there are no longer any butterflies”.
The community leaders informed us that projects initiated by these corporations are not sustainable. Rather they are once off, short term benefits, such as building a hall, with no follow up or regular upkeep by either the corporations or the local government. More than minor payoffs, those we meet with want the companies to be good neighbours, with an end to the massive oil flaring and the resulting pollution.