The facts are right there at his fingertips, and he articulates the issues with the sort of clarity and passion that underscore the forthrightness of his activism, aimed at protecting the environment from plunder. Nnimmo Bassey, Chair of Friends of the Earth International, and Executive Director of Environmental Rights Action (ERA) in this interview with ARMSFREE AJANAKU ONOMO, provides insights into some of the deep-seated issues confronting the environment.
• Lies That Oil Firms Tell Against Community
• Africa Too Vulnerable To Climate Change
• Rich Nations Must Cut Emissions At Source
IT is the 40th anniversary of Friends of the Earth, and not long ago Nigeria turned 50; how would you assess the two vis-à-vis the progress made thus far on the issue of the environment?
Let me underscore the fact that Friends of the Earth started 40 years ago; when it started, there were just four groups that were members. There was a group in the United States, another in France, one in the United Kingdom, and then one in Sweden; these were the groups that made up the core foundational members of Friends of the Earth International.
Over the years, the federation has expanded; we call it a federation because it is not just a run in the mill, mainstream standard NGO. It is made up of autonomous national groups; in each country, we have only one group as a member of Friends of the Earth International. We have members in 76 countries in the world right now, at the age of 40. We actually look forward to the future when we will have member groups in every country in the world.
We have made a lot of progress over the years, and one key way to look at our transformation is that we have a vision of what we want to see in the world. We also have a vision of who we want to be as a federation, and as part of a mass movement for environmental justice.
Over the years, we believe that the activism of the federation, as well as those of other non-governmental organisations have placed environmental concern at the centre of discourse in the world. Some of the most vital issues being discussed politically, economically or otherwise are related to the environment, so the environment is recognised as the centerpiece supporting life, and also providing the space in which life is lived and the processes through which this takes place.
And so we believe that we have been a part of making that happen, and there have been a lot of milestones.
It is interesting that you brought up the comparison with Nigeria being 50, and since 1960, Nigeria is going to be 51 one this year. To me, one of the vital measures of what has happened in the Nigerian environment is to look at how many years commercial exploration of oil has been in Nigeria, and that started in 1958, and we got independence in 1960. Now what has happened? The parallel between the rise of oil and the fall of Nigeria is unmistakable; so the more oil took the center stage in Nigeria, the more the Nigerian environment went down hill, and by extension, the impact has gone beyond the shores of Nigeria. It is impacting the entire world because we are talking about the Global Commons.
We are a part of the universe, a part of a planet and nature is so vital in the way that we relate to one another; our culture, economy and who we, are based on nature. We are part of nature; we don’t own nature, nature owns us. We are a small part of it; and so the Nigerian environment has been seriously degraded. The gas flares in the Niger-Delta and the desertification in the North, these two things are related. They are not separate things.
Is it really so?
Yes, because the more you release green house gases to the atmosphere, the more you affect the climate, and the more the climate changes negatively, the more desertification is going to increase, and the more you have what is termed freak whether events. You would have more intense floods and severe droughts. The frequency of storms may not change, but the intensity certainly changes, and people are not ready or able to cope with such floods. So 40 years of Friends of the Earth, we have made progress; there are more challenges today. The climate change is an example; the food crisis is another example.
The entire neo liberal political and economic system is driving the world into serious crisis year after year. So I would say there has been progress on one end, a lot of disappointments on the other, but hope on every side.
People talk about ‘resource curse’ and they refer specifically to crude oil, especially in places like Nigeria; is the picture that pessimistic?
I think it is a very simple argument when people talk about resource curse; resource is not a curse, it is a blessing and Nigerians understand what blessings are. If you are endowed, that doesn’t mean you are cursed. It is when you lack that you can say there is something to worry about. So what has happened to many well-endowed economies like the Nigerian State is that we have so much resources, and we have squandered a lot of our resources and opportunities. We have a lot of oil, gas, and solid minerals, and we have abandoned many because we prefer the cheap money, which is also very costly to the environment and to people. So the resource is not a curse, it is how it is being managed.
Oil has been a particularly challenging resource for Nigeria because those who control the resources are completely disconnected from the effect of the resource itself. Many of them have never seen an oil spill, except maybe on television; they have not gone near a gas flare or the gas being burnt in the oil fields and communities, day after day, for decades now. They have not had to live by the riverside and not be able to use the water to wash their hands because of the pollution, and (they don’t know) that people can’t even breathe the air freely because of the fumes of petroleum products. They have not known all those disasters, but they could sit down in Abuja or in those days, in Dodan Barracks in Lagos, and then call the shots, and plunder the State by appropriating the funds from resources to themselves.
One reason, I believe, this has really happened so rapidly is because the oil economy is such that analyst call it the enclave economy. It is an economy locked up unto itself; it hardly affects the wider economy. Take for example; a whole lot of the investments in the oil sector in Nigeria are done abroad. The design, fabrication, and construction are done outside. What happens here is just the assemblage of the parts. All these floating oil stations and the refineries are done abroad; they are not fabricated locally because we don’t have the industrial back up. So you find that the bulk of the economic stimulus that ought to come here is exported. Then even the workers; most of the Nigerians working in the oil industry are working as contract staff. They don’t have rights, pensions and any long-range benefits they ought to get for working for such a dangerous sector. So because they are contract staff, and do not earn the wages they ought to earn, they are not protected, and they don’t have the health and safety…
The industry claims to be the best when it comes to safety, but really, the workers are so exposed and a lot of them don’t even know the challenges that they are exposed to regularly. So the curse has been the curse of the political framework of our relationship with the resource itself, not because of the resource itself.
Let’s move on to the irony of the overwhelming attention that the spill in the Gulf of Mexico attracted compared to the Niger-Delta where many much more devastating spills had occurred; is justice elusive for the Niger-Delta?
The Gulf spill was very devastating and the impacts would last for a long time. It was cleared off, and a whole lot of it was sunk to the bottom of the Gulf, and a whole lot also into the atmosphere. So it did not disappear; it is just out of sight, not out of mind, and neither are the impacts. And the impact is not limited to the Gulf because the Gulf streams and the ocean currents just take these things around, and nobody can really predict how far the aquatic life has been impacted, and what this means to the food chain.
It was significant that there was massive global attention, and response, and that BP responded as best as they could. Of course they were not prepared for such a disaster because if you look at the documentation of their preparedness plan, they were planning for a spill that would not be more than 28,000 barrels in that location, but what they got was up to 100000 barrels everyday.
In terms of infrastructure to cope with that kind of spill, there was nothing; the environmental impact assessment has no relationship with the location. It was just a cut and paste document; if that could happen in the United States, you don’t need much to imagine what is going on here in Nigeria, where the corporations can do what they like and where they do not do any serious Environmental Impact Assessment. They destroy the land, right from the environmental stage when they are passing seismic lines to the time when they are digging for the pipelines to the points where they are drilling and dumping the wastes, before the spills start to occur when toxic water resulting from the processes are dumped into our creeks and waterways.
And then, we have very limited capacity to respond to this. Government agencies make a lot of noise about detecting spills; that should be a run in the mill activity. It is nothing significant because once there is a spill, there will be pressure drop and changes, and the corporations themselves should know, even before they go to the spot where it happened. They should know that something has happened along the pipeline. Of course, communities do rapidly report what is going on.
For us in Environmental Rights Action, we have free green lines through which they call us and tell us what is going on in the fields; so they is nothing really special about detecting oil spills. The big problem is responding, by not just going to the field to say something has occurred, but actually going there to clean up the mess. By admission, there is at least one new oil spill everyday in the Niger-Delta, and there are thousands of oil spills that have occurred, that have not been cleaned.
In fact, when the corporations say that they respond and clean spills, it is very laughable because of the contradictions within themselves and the communities in which they operate. Sometimes, there is a spill and of course, communities want compensation, so the corporations claim that it is sabotage. In fact, if the Gulf of Mexico spill had happened in Nigeria, BP would have said it was caused by sabotage, especially since there was an explosion. They would have just said somebody caused it. But in Nigeria, even when the spill occurs from a pipe that is buried six feet under the ground, they claim it was caused by sabotage, without any hole being dug by anybody to get there.
It is so because in Nigerian law, when they claim sabotage, they are not bound to pay any compensation, and so they keep doing that, and the State structures play along with them. The other contradiction I mentioned is that when oil spills occur, community people offer to be the contractors to clean the spills. They don’t have the skills and tools; they don’t know how toxic the crude oil is, and so they go with bare bodies and hands, take buckets and shovels, dig pits, scoop the crude as much as they can into the pits, and then set it on fire. And when they are tired, sometimes, they even set rivers and forests on fire. And the corporation will say it had a contract for clean up, they paid for it, therefore they have done the clean up. It doesn’t take much reasoning to know that this is stupid; that is nonsense, and they have not cleaned up.
We always challenge them to show us one example of a spill over the past 53 years that occurred and you cleaned it; they can’t point out any. Our terrain is so fragile and so difficult; unlike the Gulf of Mexico, which was an open water and then those cleaning up had all the equipment, they could get thousands of boats, and pick up the dead aquatic life, in the Niger-Delta, most of the spills occur in the swamps, mangroves and forests. How do you clean those places up; these are places that we should not even touch at all. They are fragile ecosystems in which oil exploration should not be allowed to occur. But people would say we need the resource; and I would ask, what benefit has crude oil brought to Nigeria? It is decay on every side; Nigeria was a rich country without crude oil. Politically, it was a country that had respect within the African continent; it had good infrastructure, roads, railway lines and working sea ports and things were done at a level where you could say ethically, things were good, compared to what we have now.
But the moment oil became such a huge income earner, the roads were neglected, the railway lines collapsed, and the seaports are now good for importing, but not for exporting goods, although there is some export going on. This happened because you don’t need roads to transport crude oil; it goes through pipes, from the wells to the export terminals. And then they don’t need roads to bring in the cash, it comes in by wire transfer, and in fact many of the rogues who have had access to control the resources, just keep the money abroad because it doesn’t really need to come to Nigeria…
The good thing about that Gulf spill, if it is a good thing, is that it called the attention to the negligence of the corporations operating in the Niger-Delta. In the past you were of the view that engaging in dialogue with the corporations over these issues amounts to a waste of time; has that position changed now?
We don’t have dialogue with the oil companies, but our position has been that there should be peaceful resistance to these destructive activities of the oil corporations, and that has been our philosophy from the beginning, and that would continue to be our position because we believe that when the community people, the owners of these lands and swamps that are being degraded are better informed, they would stand up for their rights and demand what rightly belongs to them. They would also demand that the relationship between corporations and the environment must be such that the livelihoods of the people are not destroyed, and the people have opportunities and the space to live a life at a minimum level of dignity. That has been our position, and we believe that it must continue to be.
We believe that it is very vital that the environmental integrity be respected and that community interest be paramount in how things are being done. This is why we applaud the Ogoni people, who for example expelled Shell from Ogoniland since 1993. Now, I know that there have been efforts to restart things…They are still having pollution there anyway because the pipelines passing through Ogoni land, and the wells that were tapped are still failing. Ogoni is still a very heavily polluted community, but dialogue is the best way, especially with government structures. Let government have the dialogue with the corporations, and let those who can talk with the corporations also talk with them.
The kind of dialogue we have with them is through our campaigns, and the publicity we give to the destructive activities they are carrying out, and also through litigation.
Let look at the concept of climate justice, vis-à-vis Africa and the West; from Copenhagen to Cancun for instance, how much progress would you say has been made?
Not much progress, I would say, as a summary, and the trend is not very positive. It is going to take a lot of effort and mobilisation by civil societies and mass organisations and social movements and by actors for justice coming together to prevail on policy makers, not just in Africa, but around the world to see the basic needs for climate justice. And what are the components of climate justice? One, it has to be recognized that poor vulnerable countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America are not historically responsible for the green house gases in the atmosphere.
The polluting countries are the rich industrialised ones, and right from the time of the industrial revolution, they have captured up to 80 percent of the atmospheric space that could be occupied by green house gases without causing massive crisis, and so what is left now is 20 percent. So one of the calls of environmental justice is that that 20 percent should be democratised; it should not be colonised by the rich countries, and that they have to stop emissions at source.
Global warming is caused mainly by human activities, by the use of fossil fuels, coal, petroleum products, gas, like gas and oil, and the use of artificial chemical inputs in industrial agriculture, then there is transportation and all these man made processes. So we are demanding that polluting countries and entities should cut their emissions at source, and this requires that the rich countries should cut emissions by at least, minimum of 50 percent compared to the 1990 levels.
Is this realistic?
It is realistic; it is a question of life or death. What happened in Copenhagen was that African negotiators negotiated on the basis of proven scientific facts about climate change, and they called for real action to be taken, calling on countries to make commitments to cut emissions that are both binding and measurable. But what did they get? A few rich countries got together and drafted the Copenhagen Accord, and those who refused to sign were pressured to sign after the conference. Some were threatened that they would lose grants for development and environmental aid, and so they were forced to sign that thing, which is very sad. And then last year in Cancun, rather than throw off that so called Accord, the politicians ended up adopting it, more or less, and now, they are currently concluding some rounds of negotiation in Bonn, Germany, preparing the grounds for what will happen in November/December this year in Durban, South Africa, at COP 17.
If that trend continues, then the justice that we talk about is not going to be realized because apart from recognising the fact that emissions must be cut at source, we are also demanding that those who have caused the damage over the years from the pollution, the floods, and the droughts should pay. They should recognize that they owe the global South a climate debt, which should not only be recognised, but should also be paid. If they pay for the debt being owed due to the environmental damage by climate change, then these countries would utilise that fund to build resilience, and adapt to a damage they didn’t cause, but which was caused by these people that are owing.
We also demand that funding climate adaptation and mitigation shouldn’t be a thing that is difficult to do. Rich countries can devote five percent of their gross domestic products, and this will meet a lot of the needs or they can just agree to cut back on military expenditure. Even something like the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) could not be fully funded because countries that should bring the money were not putting on the table. And what was needed to meet the targets of the MDGs is just a fraction of what is being spent on needless wars in different parts of the world on a daily, continual basis, over the past couple of years.
Let me add something about why activist and countries like Bolivia are asking for legally binding emission cuts by the rich countries. When this is done, then scientists can sum up these emissions reduction, and estimate what the impact would be on global warming, and the global temperature rise. Scientists agree that we should have emission targets that would ensure that the global temperature does not increase beyond, let’s say, 1.5 degrees centigrade above pre-industrial levels. But the voluntary system that was proposed in the Copenhagen Accord and also in the Cancun Agreement, would add up to about three to five degree centigrade rise. This simply means setting Africa on fire because for each degree centigrade increase average in the world, the impact on Africa is known to be at the multiple levels. We can’t survive it; our crops would fail, there would be more droughts, and the continent would simply be uninhabitable. This is not a thing that we can afford, and this is why African negotiators must stand firm on climate justice demands, and not play politics with climate change.
How about the Clean Development Mechanism; why is Africa not taking advantage of it, or is it a mere palliative and not a solution to climate change?
The Clean Development Mechanism is a false solution to climate change; it was brought up by the United States delegation, in fact, it was specially pushed by former US Vice President, Al Gore at the 1997 negotiations in Kyoto, Japan. Many countries saw the mechanism as something that would not solve the problem, but would only give a semblance of doing something, whereas nothing is really being done, and they resisted it. But the US said they would not sign the Accord except the world accepted it, and the world accepted to include the CDM in the protocol, and they (US) still refused to sign it.
But since then, the world has been locked into that path, where market forces that are causing crisis in the world are now seen as possible solutions to global warming. And of course, speculators and people who just want to make money out of every crisis have latched unto it and it is now so difficult to get away from it. Of course, the Chinese have registered so many CDM projects because they are very clever about how to go around it. Getting a project registered for the CDM is not so easy either because there are many preliminary studies to be done, and for that you need so called experts, and it takes a lot of money out of the economy, and of course bring money to polluters, at the end of the day.
How does it (CDM) work? How do people get carbon credits; let say in Europe, North America or Japan, there is a polluting company who are not willing to halt their emission at source, they wanting to keep polluting and releasing as much green house gases and carbon into the atmosphere as possible… They say okay, ‘trees absorb carbon dioxide, if we have a plantation or a forest that is estimated to absorb an equivalent amount of what we are polluting, then of course, our pollution will become carbon neutral. So they come to Africa, Southeast Asia or Latin America, and buy up a forest or set up plantation, and they would say they are now offsetting what they were polluting, so they are no longer polluting. It is fiction; but it is accepted in the United Nations Frame Convention for Climate Change processes.
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