A new report from the United Nations Environment Programme reveals the extent of environmental devastation in Nigeria’s Niger Delta due to extractive oil and petroleum industries. Although the study was partially funded by Shell, it appears that it has some bite. Perhaps a sign of hope.
Meanwhile, an African king is suing Shell, and Niger Delta villagers are going to the Hague to take on Shell. Perhaps further signs of hope.
Oil-related problems in the Niger Delta are not new. They are old, enduring and stain the future of Nigeria. They have to do with powerful corporate and state interests, corruption, global oil and petroleum demand, and the unrelentingly harsh cruelty of capitalist profiteering at the expense of local people and their environment and livelihoods. Nigeria is a major provider of petroleum to the United States.
The Niger Delta region has been exploited with impunity by outside powers for many years. During the British colonial era, Nigeria provided wealth for the Crown through the export of palm oil (Osha 2006). In the postcolonial era of globalization, a different kind of oil dominates the country’s economy: petroleum. Starting in the 1950s, with the discovery of vast petroleum reserves in Nigeria’s Delta region, several European and American companies have explored for, drilled for and exported crude oil to the extent that Nigeria occupies an important position in the world economy.
Most local people in the delta, however, have gained few economic benefits from the petroleum industry. Instead, most have reaped major losses in their agricultural and fishing livelihoods due to environmental pollution. They are poorer now than they were in the 1960s. In addition to economic suffering, they have lost personal security. Many have become victims of the violence that has increased in the region since the 1990s through state and corporate repression of a local resistance movement.
Many others have become internally displaced persons (IDPs), having to leave the delta region to escape the pervasive violence, pollution and inability to make a living. Others in the region, especially disaffected youth, have turned to criminal behavior, seeking to cash in on any opportunities that exist.
The Ogoni, who live in the southeastern portion of the delta, are one of the most negatively affected groups. Ogoni author and Nobel prizewinner Ken Saro-Wiwa founded the Movement for Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) in 1992 to protest Shell’s actions in Ogoniland and the Nigerian government’s militarized repression in the region. In 1995, he and eight other Ogoni activists were arrested, tried under suspicious circumstances and executed by hanging.
In a 1992 speech to the United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations, Saro-Wiwa eloquently points to the connections among resource extraction, the environment and Ogoni human rights and social justice:
Environmental degradation has been a lethal weapon in the war against the indigenous Ogoni people…. Oil exploration has turned Ogoni into a wasteland: lands, streams and creeks are totally and continually polluted; the atmosphere has been poisoned, charged as it is with hydrocarbon vapors, methane, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and soot emitted by gas which has been flared 24 hours a day for 33 years in close proximity to human habitation…. All one sees and feels around is death. (Quoted in Sachs 1996:13–16)
Many social scientists agree with Saro-Wiwa that such forms of “development” violate human and cultural rights because they undermine a people’s way of life and threaten its continued existence (Johnston 1994).
Now, in August 2011, the long-awaited UN study shows that the oil companies and the Nigerian government consistently failed to meet their own standards.
Is there hope for the Niger Delta to become livable again? For the local people to able to practice farming and fishing in peace ever again? In many ways, the story of the Niger Delta is the story of where the world is heading, driven by demand in oil-dependent rich countries and rapacious capitalism that looks no further than its weekly profit line.
Hope for the Niger Delta is not just a matter of cleaning up Ogoniland and other parts of the region, though that’s a major global challenge and responsibility in itself. It’s also a matter of cleaning up our entire way of life, and “we” all know who I mean by “our.” This mess is “our” mess. Shell owes huge amounts of compensation to the region. As we hope for Shell to pitch in to help make things right, then we are hoping for a miracle the likes of which has not been seen before.
Recommended further reading includes the UN report and journalist Michael Peel’s compelling book, A Swamp Full of Dollars: Pipelines and Paramilitaries at Nigeria’s Oil Frontier. Recommended viewing: Crude: The Real Price of Oil, an award-winning documentary about the Niger Delta.
Main source: This post draws heavily on Barbara D. Miller, Eye on the Environment: The Oil, Environmental Degradation, and Human Rights in the Niger Delta in Cultural Anthropology, 6th edition. Pp. 378-379. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.
Johnston, Barbara Rose. Environmental Degradation and Human Rights. In Who Pays the Price?: The Sociocultural Context of Environmental Crisis. Pp. 7-16. 1994. Washington, D.C.: Island Press.
Osha, Sanya. 2006. Birth of the Ogoni Protest Movement. Journal of Asian and African Studies 41:13-38.
Sachs, Anton. 1996. Dying for Oil. WorldWatch June:10-11.