A word is enough for the wise! Interview with Betty Abah, Environmental Rights Action
22 February 2014
In this post, Betty Abah from Environmental Rights Action in Nigeria weighs in on lessons learned from oil advocacy in her country.
How did you become involved in environmental activism?
I describe myself as a writer cum activist, at the precarious edge of 40! I have worked on women activism for several years now and in recent times I am beginning to look closely at issues concerning children as well.
Because writing full time in Nigeria could be an economic ‘risk’, I went into journalism working for two major News magazines in the country namely Newswatch and TELL. I had trainings and insights into tobacco control during a short-term fellowship by the John Knight Foundation around June of 2006, and so when I returned home I saw the conditions in Nigeria, especially the flagrant ways in which the multinational tobacco companies violated all known public health laws, conniving with corrupt officials, taking advantage of the ignorance of a greater percentage of the masses, as they began to focus more energy on the developing world following their disgrace in the West.
I decided to throw in the reporting towel, so to say (and to the chagrin of my editors) and join the then budding tobacco control activists in the ‘trenches’. And Environment Rights Action (ERA) was a viable platform. A few years after joining ERA, I was made its Gender Focal Person to put the ‘gender flavour’ into our work in the Niger Delta campaigning for environmental justice. It was discovered that there was, at community levels, a sort of injustice or marginalization as women were not consulted or carried along in matters of general concern, and their voices were mostly stifled in the push for justice.
My position at ERA has also seen me coordinating projects in other countries in the region. I coordinated a major project by Friends of the Earth International and Gender Action USA that saw me mobilising women in Nigeria, Ghana, Togo and Cameroon, and witnessing the launch in Washington DC in 2011. It’s been an exciting, and most of all, fulfilling assignment for me.
What are the biggest environmental problems that you see in your work?
The biggest environmental problems particularly in the Niger Delta is gas flaring and crude oil spills. Nigeria contributes about 13 per cent of the global gas flare total, which is also a ‘handsome’ contribution to climate change problem. Besides, there are issues of deforestation, the tampering of our forest biodiversity, land grab in the process of laying pipes and other instrument of the extractive projects. The Niger Delta region is rich in the oil mineral resources that account for 85% of government revenue and 95% of foreign exchange earnings. So, while oil resources do not necessarily translate to improvements to their social-economic status, communities in the Nigeria live the daily reality of a degraded environment and an endangered future.
A few years ago, a team of 100 experts from the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) carried out a three-year investigation to look at pollution in Ogoniland [Niger Delta]. It documented that fisheries have been destroyed and that wetlands around Ogoniland are highly degraded, and verified that a large portion of the cases arose from equipment failure and not wholly sabotage as the oil companies would want us to believe. Again, Shell [oil company] was indicted. The report noted the overall consequence: irreparable loss of livelihoods, some which will take 30 years to remedy. Besides, the report recommended a US$ 1 billion restoration fund for Ogoniland.
Since its release in 2011 and since the Federal Government’s cursory look at the papers bearing the paper, nothing has been done in terms of implementation. There are several cases where ERA’s campaigns using these approaches have yielded fruits, some leading ultimately to both local and international litigations, compensations for fisher folks, farmers and land owners in the last 20 years plus that ERA started spearheading environmental activism in Nigeria. Some of the cases involved dragging Chevron to courts in California [USA] over the killing of seven youths protesting at a Chevron platform in the Ilaje area of Nigeria as well as taking Shell to courts in the Netherlands to account for lost livelihoods for fishermen in Niger Delta communities.
We have also seen a progressive trend of other multinational companies like Michelin working in cahoots with governments and others, and annexing large expanses of land belonging to local people most times without their consent in the so-called quest for plantations. In the process, natural equilibriums are tampered with, livelihoods are lost and in some instances of violent seizures, lives are even lost.
Women can be differently affected than men by these problems. Could you explain how?
While everyone grapples with pollution of the environment, women in most Niger Delta communities and indeed, in communities ‘cursed’ by the presence of mineral resources, have had to deal with extreme forms of poverty in what we call the feminization of poverty. The typical woman also has no claim to any land as dictated by patriachy in most of Africa so she is first at the mercy of the community and then that of the multinationals that are often involved in annexing communal land and resources. Tradition effectively ensures she can’t claim anything in instances of compensation for lost land and resources.
I clearly remember a case in an indigenous village in Southern Cameroon while coordinating the ‘Gender and Pipelines’ project sometime in 2011. A woman I was interviewing told me that though she was entitled to compensation for her lost farmland following the pipelines construction, she had no idea the exact amount paid to her husband. Why was that? I asked her. Her answer was that when the officials from the pipelines company came, they decided to consult only her husband though the farm was hers, they bargained the compensation with him and eventually paid him. Thereafter the ‘father of the house’ paid his subservient wife what he liked, obviously a fraction of the real amount. We had gone to community meetings in some instances and it took our insistence for women to be part of such community consultations, even if the projects were about them. It is that bad.
Our women also have to contend with issues of lack of access to credit facilities that would provide better means of livelihoods or. Of course, there are also issues of pollution leading to health implications resulting in birth defects, various kinds of respiratory diseases (just as in the other sex) and many forms of cancer. So, for the woman who finds herself in these situations, it is usually a case of ‘double tragedy’.
And at the moment, I am looking seriously at the possibilities of a wide range of livelihoods enhancement programs. I believe that you cannot talk all the time, and confidently so about women’s empowerment when they are not empowered economically empowered. That may amount to ‘empty empowerment’ in the long run. Women must hold their own economically in order for their voices to matter in a commercialized world!
How do you work with local communities? What challenges do they face when mobilizing to protect the environment?
One of our major monitoring strategies is holding ‘town hall meetings’ where we consult, sensitize community members as to their rights and also get ‘testimonies’ or narratives on issues bothering them. That way we are able to get first-hand information from the impacted victims’ point of views. We also organize trainings on how they can enforce their rights in legitimate and non-violent ways.
But generally, some of the challenges we encounter are the attempts by the companies to water down the struggle so that they can continue exploitation unhindered. This they do by trying to plant seeds of disharmony between communities in what is commonly termed ‘divide-and-rule’ tactics. There are instances where companies pitch youth groups against themselves, or instigate crises among local chiefs. In the case of Ebocha, In Rivers State, for instance, even after a major conflict sparked off inter-communal youth fracas sacked entire communities, some years ago, the oil multinational including Shell, ENI and Agip continued drilling oil in the deserted place, unperturbed.
How do you engage the government and the oil companies when you observe these problems?
Our field reports and findings are out there and available to the oil multinationals, and I would say some of their actions aimed at remediation (whether sincere or otherwise) are as a result of those reports. Some of our media campaigns are directly aimed at them. We have recorded many successes in terms of compensation for local people, won litigation but most especially, in sensitizing and galvanizing the people to enforce their rights using legal means.
We have also had to work with government monitoring agencies for better results. Those agencies or departments may not always get the true pictures so they sometime rely on our reports. We also organize training workshops for some of these government agencies, legislatures and so on, to familiarize them with these issues since our group is community based, so those meetings sometime serve as bridge-building opportunities – between them and those communities.
But as for the multinationals, we tell them, via our releases and special reports, to do ‘the needful’ (a now popular parlance around here) to the communities in abiding by international codes of conduct, in respecting community rights and carrying out the right compensations.
What is the biggest challenge for you and for your organisation in monitoring oil issues in Nigeria?
A major challenge I would say we have is getting the companies to respond on time. There are times where there are spills owing to equipment failures as a result of old and damaged pipelines but the companies would insist that it is sabotage in order to cover up.
There is also the problem in getting government to take the necessary steps in redressing the issues as officials may collude with companies at the expense of the communities, so corruption remains a stumbling block.
There are several cases where government’s environmental monitoring agencies have also been accused of compromising. Naturally, you cannot bite the fingers that feed you, so organizations like ERA sometimes find themselves in a tight situation in trying to find a solution or redress to some cases. Getting needed information from government agencies is also another.
What key lessons would you share with communities in oil exploration or drilling areas?
I would say that vigilance should be their watchword. And they must, above all, be dedicated to integrity. The Niger Delta remains an enduring example of a region that represents the ‘curse of oil’ today. For instance, in 2011, the National Bureau of Statistics indicated that 23.9 per cent of Nigerians are unemployed, meaning that about 40 million Nigerians if not more are jobless, most of them young people. And there is strife over resources off and on in some of these communities. So, where is the benefit? And all is because many leaders of the communities and especially our political leaders went to sleep, satisfied at the tokenism from the multinational oil corporations in the early period, and even now, to a large extent. Many have woken up now, but then, irretrievable damage had been done with respect to environmental damage, the degradation of human values, human rights abuse and militarization of the region. Imagine Ogoniland where the UNEP report says remediation may take as long as 30 years! How do the people, mainly farmers and fisherfolks, survive in the interim, with government not even showing any interest in their welfare?
One of the ways to ensure environmental sanity and social justice in the entire scramble for oil in Africa now is to ensure right from the start that the companies follow due process, respect the human rights of host communities and abide by all international laws regarding resource extraction.
They must value their natural environment above riches, because that is where they will live the rest of their lives after all the glitz over oil is gone. That is why ERA is actively promoting the campaign to ‘Leave the Oil in the Soil and the Coal in the Hole’ as a way of minimizing extraction and reducing the environmental and human risk. The sad reality is that those who do not stand for what is right will not be spared in the day of reckoning since both community leaders, politicians and the degraded people share a common space and will share in the ultimate calamity.
A word, it is often said, is enough for the wise!