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Monday, May 20, 2024

When Rivers, Akwa Ibom communities told tales of oil pollution, environmental degradation

Oil and gas extraction activities in Nigeria are often accompanied by routine gas flaring and oil spills. The resulting pollution has added to the vulnerability of host communities to climate change and the food crisis. Other impacts on the communities include flooding, coastal erosion, and sea level rise, among others. The communities bear the costs of the negative impacts of corporate activities while these corporations reap massive profits and governments turn a blind eye.

Polluted river
A polluted river in the Niger Delta region

Two of such communities are Ibeno in Akwa Ibom State and Joinkrama, a cluster of four communities, in Rivers State. They tell tales of oil pollution, environmental degradation and devastating abandonment by the government and the companies operating there.

While Ibeno community was known for fishing, Joinkrama stood out as a food basket serving both Rivers and Bayelsa states. Joinkrama has 48 oil wells being exploited by Shell and producing about 200,000 barrels of crude oil daily but when oil extraction began in this area, other businesses and investment opportunities took a downward spiral. Ibeno has been host to ExxonMobil and hosts about 90 offshore platforms comprising of 300 producing wells at the capacity of about 550,000 barrels of oil extracted daily.

Health of Mother Earth Foundation recently facilitated Community Diagnostic Dialogues in both communities during which they examined the dramatic negative changes that have occurred in their environments and what could be done to reverse the trends. On the issues of oil pollution, the people lamented that the Orashi River which serves as their major source of potable water for the Joinkrama people and the Atlantic coast at Ibeno have suffered severe oil pollution over time.

Azaga Ovie-Oniso Kelvin, a member of Joinkrama community, said: “Joinkrama is criss-crossed by oil and gas pipelines. Oil floats on the river and we can no longer fish, while crops like cassava are also not yielding like they used to. You can see the environment. The roofing sheets are all rusty. What we want is for the oil company operating here to mitigate the effects of their operations in the community by stopping pollution and cleaning up the damaged areas.”

He added that the 2022 flood left a huge impact.

“Crops were all destroyed. We were rendered homeless. The oil companies are not helping matters, and even the access road is completely broken. The oil company and government should at least repair our only access road. There are no benefits at all from the oil company. We still drink polluted water from the Orashi River,” he lamented.

In a joint Community Monitoring training exercise organised for both communities affected by oil and gas exploration and exploitation activities, the people learned ways of monitoring their environment, identifying environmental, social-economic and wellbeing issues as well as how to advocate and mobilise for change.

Sunday Dressman from Joinkrama stated the plight of his community following their lack of preparedness to the happening in the community.

“My people are enlightened by this capacity building meeting. We came as a group to gain from this training, and we are going back home to step it down to enable us to engage the polluters properly. I make commitment to first engage with my community chief and to enlighten him on the benefits the community stands to gain when we identify problems, ask the right questions and proffer solutions. We have suffered from flooding and pollution, and it is time to let them know what is happening while we prepare them for what is to come in future.”

Chief Specialist Effanga of Ibeno community while appreciating the organisation for its good initiative in exposing them to the complexity of the ecological challenges affecting the community, stated: “We will go back to form a formidable force with our people and also connect with the Joinkrama people to approach the highest court of the land and demand justice. We will toe the path of non-violence and will dialogue with them till they accept their wrong and begin to put in place measures to ensure that our land is completely clean, and our livelihoods are restored.”

Another member of Ibeno community, Emmanuel Akpan, stated: “The problem we have had before now was not having a right channel, but with the experience and teachings we have had here, our eyes are opened to know the right demand to make and actions to take. We will engage the government and our oppressors using the right media. ExxonMobil has enslaved us for long, but it is time to take up active advocacy in demanding for the restoration of our environment. We have suffered from cancers, respiratory diseases and others aliments while we lack basic essential amenities that we ought to have.”

Director of HOMEF, Nnimmo Bassey, described the monitoring training as timely.

His words: “This has given the communities the basic tools and knowledge on how to defend their environments and by so doing their health and livelihoods. The situation in both Ibeno and Joinkrama show abject abandonment of a very accommodating people. Their situation cannot continue to be one by which they are remembered only for exploitation of resources and extraction of votes during elections.

“There are key oil and gas issues in these areas and there have been notable oil spills over the decades, human rights abuses and repression of the people. We have heard from them, and we encourage them to speak with one voice. They deserve to enjoy the right to a safe environment and the time for them to be heard is now.”

Ken Henshaw, the executive director of We the People, during his presentation, stated that the Nigeria state does not care about the health and environment of its people. He added that oil theft and criminality are not carried out by communities, and they should not be criminalised for what they are not responsible for.

“This training should charge and equip you to face the government and oil companies to demand the right thing and to demand accountability from our leaders. Obnoxious sections of the PIA should be changed, and corporations should not divest without taking responsibility of the damage they have wreaked on the communities.”

He encouraged community members to be courageous in the face of challenges.

“It is more difficult to break a united and courageous group. The more united we are in fighting this cause, the more it is easy for you to achieve a better result.”

The dialogue and training sessions created platforms for convergence of communities in the region to have actionable plans for needed changes through demands for legislative changes, including a review of the Petroleum Industry Act, 2021, halting of gas flaring, ensuring justice in divestment processes and demanding reparations and re-source democracy.

The communities demanded for audits that would cover environmental, livelihoods, health, social and economic impacts of crude oil and gas extraction, which should be immediately followed by the remediation and restoration of their communities and the entire Niger Delta region.

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