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Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Engaging local communities for an enabling environment

In this treatise he presented recently in Yenagoa, Bayelsa State, Nnimmo Bassey of the Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF) explores the dynamics of engaging the skills, knowledge and expertise of local communities, in the light of an enabling environment 

Nnimmo Bassey
Nnimmo Bassey

Introduction: Our environment, our heritage

Our health and well-being is dependent on the health of our ecosystem. To the average Nigerian, and to Niger Deltans in particular, it is the truth when we say that the environment is our life. At the continental level, most Africans identify themselves as sons or daughters of the soil – when they speak about their lands of origin. In other words, our identity is tied to our land, tied to our soil.

Nature’s gifts, otherwise termed natural “resources” and nature’s cycles and actions, otherwise termed ecosystem services, are all gifts of nature. Our use and enjoyment of these gifts are expressions of stewardship and appreciation of the intrinsic value of nature. In other words, these benefits can be appreciated without recourse to monetary computations and payouts. The use of our soils, water, soil nutrients and organisms are gifts with deeper significance than financial filters can capture. Our duty as responsible children of the soil is ensuring integrated and sustainable management of our land, water, plants and living creatures.

Note 1: Our environment is not just where we live, it is our heritage. It offers us material, aesthetics and spiritual benefits. The challenge that we face today is that of human use and management of these gifts of nature.

Resource versus Re-Sources

The beginning point of our discussion is to interrogate our understanding of the word “resource.” Our understanding, is adequately captured in our publication, Re-Source Democracy. In it we posit that “the things we term ‘natural resources’ are the resources of Nature and not of humans. The fact that we discover them or extract them does not make these objects or things ours. At best, humans are merely borrowing from nature. Unfortunately, the process of borrowing often brings harm to nature, and her constituents, including humans.” We went further to elaborate that we should be speaking of re-source, with a hyphen as a way of reminding our self of our ties to the source. So re-source urges us to understand our close link to our source, nature.

As the title of our publication indicates, democratic relationship to nature’s re-sources opens up a vista of community ownership of those re-sources. This we believe should be the context within which ecosystem services ought to be framed and understood. Let us take a quick extract from Re-Source Democracy.

Re-source democracy hinges on the recognition that a natural ‘resource’ fundamentally belongs to Nature and secondly to communities of species and peoples who live in the territory or have traditionally held the territory where the ‘resource’ such as forests, rivers or grazing lands exists. Re-source democracy is about stewardship that recognises the right of citizens to establish rules and to act in line with traditional as well as best available knowledge to safeguard the soil, trees, crops, water and wildlife first as gifts of Nature and secondly to enjoy the gifts as necessary provisions that support their lives and livelihoods as well as those of future generations.  Re-source democracy calls on us to re-source, to re-connect with Earth – our source of life – and to respect her as a living being with inherent rights, and not just a ‘resource’ to be exploited.

It hinges on pragmatic politics and wisdom that our relations with nature cannot be left to speculators and manipulators of market forces whose drive is to commodify Nature. It ensures the right (and demands a responsibility) to participate in decisions that determine our access to, and enjoyment of nature’s gifts and removes the obstacles erected by the politics of access while providing process for redress. It demands that certain places must be off limits to extractive activities especially when such re-sources are found in fragile ecosystems or in locations of high cultural, religious or social significance in order to support the higher objectives of clean and safe environments to ensure citizens’ wellbeing.

Note 2: Nature has intrinsic value and maintains its cycles. The services of nature should not be linked to financial compensations.

The Skills of Local Communities

The skills of local communities represent knowledge developed and acquired over centuries of living in, and interacting, with their environment. Their skills are thus encapsulated in the very cultural heritage that they pass down from generation to generation.

External factors and pressures make local communities appear to have lost skills with which to sustainably manage their environment. Such external pressures disrupt and impair ecosystems in various ways and to various degrees. In the Niger Delta, environmental damage occurs from various factors including oil pollution, gas flares, deforestation, dumping of toxic wastes, coastal erosion and invasion of alien species.

These disruptions are so dramatic that local communities have no time or financial resources to acquire reasonable means of adaptation. This can be said to be the case in many parts of the Niger Delta where hopes that oil extraction would bring wealth and well-being has consistently delivered irredeemable horrors.

Persistent and protracted pollution and other forms of disruptions of ecosystems can lead to a loss of memory of what constituted community well-being at a time in the past when the environment was managed by the people without external interferences. Memory loss matches loss of skills to defend and sustainably enjoy the gifts of nature.

Note 3: The enabling environment to restore and secure the skills of local communities can best be achieved by the remediation or clean-up of their environments in a way that places it in a suitable state to support local livelihoods.

Expertise of Local Communities

The expertise of local communities does not include knowledge of how much carbon is stored in the trunks of trees or in soils. Market environmentalism or the notion that nature can only be protected or managed when assigned monetary value has become widespread because its rests on the bedrock of dominant and predatory economic systems. Rather than take steps to protect ecosystems in full understanding that its services are essential for our survival and that of other living species, actions and notions of protection are often based on market mechanisms including carbon trading offering participants the opportunity to trade in air and other contrived and imaginary products.

Local expertise in this context, on critical interrogation, could amount to nothing more than whipping local communities into line, in order to preserve certain ecosystems for the ultimate benefit of persons located far away from the communities. We will explain this in the next section. But let us add here that the expertise that will be disproportionately compensated in any project anchored on carbon speculation and trade will ultimately be the experts or consultants who speak the language of the trade and can look at a forest and basically see nothing but carbon, Naira, Dollars and Euros.

This is one of the huge negatives in these processes. They are processes of exploiting local communities and Mother Earth as well.

Note 4: Carbon trading benefits speculators and carbon traders, not local communities.

Environmental Limits and Carbon Speculation

Are we saying that our ecosystems should not be protected? Are we saying that communities should not benefit from nature’s gifts in their environment? The answer to both questions is NO. What we are saying is that to tie the services of nature to monetary considerations as the sole impetus or propelling reason for protecting such services is more suspicious than some may think.

In The Rights of Nature, Maude Barlow writes in the chapter on “Nature: A Living Ecosystem From Which All Life Springs,” that, “many in power now use the term (green economy) to essentially protect the current economic system that promotes more growth, production and global trade.”

And here is where we explain what we hinted at in the last section. How does the estimation and payment for ecosystem services provide less benefits to communities? Here is how.

The world is currently faced with a number of crises, among which is that of environmental change, including climate change. The Niger Delta has become one of the most polluted places on earth due largely to the extraction of crude oil from the region. This sorry state of affairs makes the Niger Delta a rather attractive place for projects that promise to bring benefits to the local communities. However, the starting point of who benefits from market environmentalism and conservation is not the challenged environments in poor communities. The starting point is the fact that rich countries, by their consumption levels have largely exceeded environmental limits and they need to find a way to compensate for this. These mechanisms permit them to continue on unsustainable paths while believing that they are somehow taking concrete steps.

One way this overconsumption is compensated for is through what is known as carbon offsetting. What this means is that if a limit is known as to how much a company or a country is permitted to pollute the atmosphere with carbon, for instance, the company or country can come to a forest in Bayelsa State or in Cross River State and secure a sizeable piece of the forest whose trees are estimated to have as much carbon as what the company or country is releasing into the atmosphere somewhere else. It could also be that a company or country is not polluting at all, but decides to invest and own the carbon in the trees in your community. If the company or country is polluting elsewhere, and happens to have more carbon in trees in a forest in a community, it can see the excess carbon that is over and above its polluting levels as its carbon credits which the company or country can sell to another entity to enable it continue polluting without changing its production systems.

Carbon credits help the owners to make money and also gives the buyers the license to carry on polluting. This may sound strange, but it is built on the old pattern of payment for indulgence or for forgiveness of sin so that a sinner could go off with a clear conscience, perhaps sin again, come back to pay some more sin credits and go off again absolved of his or her sins to repeat the cycle.

Note 5: Carbon credits offer the rich the licence to pollute or to promote pollution.


The level of pollution in parts of the Niger Delta is such that one would not be wrong to wonder if they could ever be restored. The level of ecological harm can best be classed as ecocide, including irreversible disruption of the cycles of Nature. The perpetrators of these atrocities should be held fully accountable.

Some communities in Bayelsa State suffer persistent and regular oil spills. The story of the devastation of Ogoniland is well documented and authenticated. The recent report by Amnesty International and Centre for Environment, Human Rights and Development (CERHD) confirm that even places that have been certified as cleaned up are far from being so in reality. Among other things, the report showed that Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC) recorded a total of 1,693 oil spills between 2007 and 2014, claiming to have spilled an obviously understated 351,000 barrels of crude oil into the Niger Delta environment. That is just one oil company. The report also confirmed that oil companies make empty claims of cleaning up their mess in the region. We are here referring to their oil spills. We are not speaking of the obnoxious gas flares and the other toxic wastes and produced water dumped in the already battered environment.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report indicates that it will take a whopping thirty years of dedicated work to clean the land (5 years) and water (25 years) in Ogoniland. UNEP also stated that about $1billion would be required to set up the structures and commence the clean-up processes. Four years down the road, that clean-up has not begun.

With the depth of the environmental degradation the best benefit the people of Niger Delta can receive is a clean-up of their environment to rescue them from the claws of death. With a thorough clean up, the people would enjoy good health, enjoy beautiful creeks and sea foods and carry on with productive livelihood activities.

We posit that the best value of environmental services that they people could get is the value of fully restored and healthy environment. The polluters should pay the full restoration costs and their directors should be held personally liable in addition.

Note 6: What the ecosystem benefit the people of the Niger Delta should have is those provided by restored natural environments. This will become more urgent if oil becomes an unwanted or worthless product.


As the No REDD in Africa Network (NRAN) states in its upcoming book, “The worst form of slavery is to willingly offer yourself on the auction block, get bought and pretend you are free. This is what participation in the mechanism called Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) is. Coming at a time when climate action has shifted away from legally binding requirements to voluntary, “intended nationally determined contributions”, REDD provides a perfect space for polluters to keep polluting while claiming they are champions of climate action.” NRAN also states that “The REDD mechanism is already resulting in the violation of individual rights, as well as collective rights of communities and indigenous peoples. REDD offers polluting industries, carbon speculators, and governments that serve them the freedom to continue officially endorsed misbehavior.”

NRAN also characterises REDD in Africa as a new form of colonialism that threatens to trigger a continent grab. According to NRAN, REDD is a mechanism whose name sells what it cannot deliver. Everyone desires an end to deforestation and no one approves of forest degradation. The network also explains that REDD takes advantage of the critical role forests and all other ecosystems play in the ecological balance of Earth to sell the concept, while at the same time giving climate criminals the opening to enclose the commons, abridge community rights and gamble away our future through African carbon stock markets such as the African Carbon Exchange (ACX) in Kenya and the African Carbon Credit Exchange (ACCE) in Zambia. Looking up to market mechanisms such as REDD and all its variants as a solution to deforestation, poverty, hunger, climate impacts, etc, is another kite being flown to hoodwink the poor and permit the powerful to displace the poor and to literally grab the carbon in the trees and environment generally.

Note 7: REDD does not deliver on what the name suggests. It may displace deforestation but would not stop it. Even where trees stand, knowing the amount of carbon in them is a part of the game of carbon speculation.

Conclusion: Money cannot buy Life

A commentator writing about the joy that greeted oil find Ugandan gives a universal warning: We have what remains of our natural past because there was connectivity between certain cultures and the environment, with these cultures making their environments and the environments making the cultures. But now this is threatened. The preferred culture of money characterised by spiralling consumerism and, poverty production is compounding the problematic.

This short contribution has been presented to remind us all that our environment is our life and that nature cannot be placed on the market shelves. We also seek to warn ourselves that off-setting mechanisms are not new in the history of exploitation of our continent. We only need to think back to what beads and whiskies exchanged for a couple of centuries ago. Real action to halt deforestation and enthrone sound management systems, including community management of community forests should be supported and promoted without recourse to carbon speculation.

Carbon trade, ecosystem service payments are definitely attractive to polluting oil companies and other remote players in the world. But what would it benefit communities in the Niger Delta if their forests, lands and creeks are enclosed in exchange for ecosystem service payments while the communities remain mired in rampant oil spills, explosions, fires and gas flares?

The enabling environment for engaging the skills, knowledge and expertise of local Niger Delta communities will happen when the environment is cleaned up and the principles of re-source democracy, including re-source ownership and defense are guaranteed.

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