Sunday 11th April 2021
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Nnimmo Bassey: Environmental justice and right to life

At the Health of Mother Earth Foundation’s (HOMEF) second School of Ecology in 2021, Nnimmo Bassey, the HOMEF Director, says in this treatise that a denial of environmental justice is a denial of the right to life

Nnimmo Bassey
Nnimmo Bassey

Environmental justice demands that all peoples and communities should be fairly treated irrespective of their nationality, race, class or gender. It relates to how humans relate to each other as well as how humans interact with the environment. Its discourse gained ascendancy through analysis of environmental harms promoted in the United States of America where communities of peoples of colour are disproportionately exposed to these harms.

Environmental injustices have systemic supports and do not occur randomly or fortuitously. Systems such as slavery, colonialism and capitalism do not only promote environmental devastation, but they also provide the bases that present them as acceptable. These are visible in colonial extractive activities in agriculture, mining and trade.

Coloniality conditioned the minds of the exploited that the conditions they were subjected to were inevitable and were in the best interest of the political structures. These conditions were seen as benign and often did not raise concerns except where the harm translated into undeniable destruction.

Right to a Safe Environment

Article 24 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights stipulates that “All peoples shall have the right to a general satisfactory environment favourable to their development. For countries that have endorsed this Charter and its protocol, this provides a basis for demanding and enforcing environmental rights, even where these countries do not have clear provisions in their constitution or laws.

Cases of environmental injustice that are undeniable include those related to various activities pertaining to mining and the exploration and extraction of fossil fuels. The power of capital completely trumps good behaviour when it comes to extracting capital through mining and industrial agriculture. Oil field communities in the Niger Delta are clearly sacrifice zones as they suffer incessant oil spills and gas flaring as well as physical manifestation of the horrendous crimes.

For over six decades since commercial export of crude oil commenced in Nigeria, ecological devastation has been so persistent that freshwater rivers and creeks have become rivers and creeks of oil. Aquatic resources that the people depend on are either no longer available or are totally contaminated.

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Subjecting people to living in areas where lands, rivers and atmosphere are inescapably polluted is a clear negation of any notion of environmental justice. Gas flares are known to release into the atmosphere certain elements that cause diverse diseases including cancers, bronchitis, asthma and skin diseases. The sulphur and nitrogen oxides in the inefficient flames also cause acid rain on mixing with atmospheric moisture. In Ogoni, ground water has been found to have benzene at 900 levels above World Health Organisation standards.

Hydrocarbon pollution has also gone as deep as 10 metres into the soils in the same area. These ecological horrors constitute blatant environmental injustice and its perpetuation without State action is best understood as environmental racism on the part of the transnational oil companies and a disregard of the right to life and dignity of the peoples by local authorities and accomplices.

The most upsetting aspect of the despoliation of the Niger Delta environment is the sheer impunity of ignoring oil spills and allowing them to go on for months, like the spill at Ororo-1 well that occurred in May 2020 and is yet to be stopped 11 months after. For most spills, the primary concern of the oil companies is to avoid blame and point at phantom third parties as responsible. In some cases, days are spent debating the origin of the spills rather than taking steps to halt their spread.

We have spoken mostly about the Niger Delta, but the scars left by the massive oil spills and toxic dumps in the Ecuadorian Amazonian territories remain contested and unattended to. Refinery fence line communities in the United States are afflicted with pollutants and continue to endure threats to their health while the operators of the toxic installations focus on profit. Another example is the oil sands mines of Alberta, Canada where indigenous communities are devastated with massive contaminants from the world’s largest industrial setup.

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The quest for fossil fuels and the power of capital behind them provide the sector the platform to lie about benefits as well as about their huge roles in the current climate debacle. At a time when it is clear that the world has to stop digging up and burning fossil fuels, an entity like ReconAfrica, a Canadian company, is busy pushing to drill and frack in the pristine and ecologically valuable Okavango River Basin of Namibia and Botswana[1]. This is one of the scenes of brewing blatant environmental injustice on the African continent.

Colonial Agriculture

We also see clear cases in colonial plantation agriculture often promoted as cash cropping and thus elevating the quest for finance above socio-ecological concerns. This model of colonial agriculture is the grandfather of the grand land grabbing that has been the lot of Africa today. It takes the best lands and forests, displaces or restricts communities and stultifies family farming.

It promotes cultivation of crops that would be exported for industrial and food needs of other peoples and negates food production for local populations. These plantations conscript local farmers into farm hands whose labour is not adequately compensated and who get exposed to harmful herbicides and pesticides.

Colonial agriculture persists in the neocolonial era including by the establishment of out grower systems where farmers do not only grow crops for external markets but also do so for internal and international speculators and companies. A system of carbon slavery has also been institutionalised by new climate imaginaries that speak of carbon offsetting rather than direct climate action.

In this context forest dependent communities have been turned into forest guards under conditions that renders slavery a weak term to capture the reality of the oppression. An example is the case of N’hambita forest project in Mozambique where families were cajoled into signing contracts, paid less than $100 for seven years but required to look after the trees for a period of 99 years. The contract required that if the people died their children and other successors would carry on their duties until the expiration of the set period. Happily, this rape was discovered, exposed and halted.

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Climate Justice

Climate change stands out as the biggest case of environmental injustice of our time. It encapsulates everything that can go wrong in a system of unjust relations. Historically and even to date, Africa South America each contribute about 3 percent of the carbon stock in the atmosphere that powers global warming. Small island States contribute only about 1.2 percent. Despite not being responsible for global warming, these regions are taking a heavy toll from the crisis and after years of negotiations through the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), rich polluting industrialized nations continue to fight to avoid taking action, draw up fictitious pathways to avoid action and project notions of unproven technofixes while being quite unserious about contributing finance to help poor nations build resilience through mitigation and adaptation. Bearing the brunt of the negative result of actions taken by others is clearly unjust.

The export of toxic wastes to poor countries is another clear manifestation of environmental injustice. This obnoxious act has been propelled by the need for foreign exchange by poor countries, weak or absent regulatory measures and the willingness to discount with the lives of citizens of affected nations. The dumping of Toxic wastes in Koko, in the Niger Delta, in the 1980s triggered concerns for environmental protection in Nigeria.

The wastes were shipped in from Italy and wreaked havoc in the largely fishing town where it was stored at a rent of $100 per month. This same lack of care for “others” permitted the United States to carry out nuclear tests between 1946 and 1958 in the Marshall Islands and other sites in the Pacific Ocean. It simply did not matter who got killed or harmed in the process. Understanding environmental justice is key to the struggle for a sane environment for the present generation and for future humans that will inhabit the Earth. And, of course, for all other species and beings.

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