Niger Delta communities are contending with environmental crisis points including rising climate change crisis and women are the greatest burden bearers. That was the summation of a consultative dialogue on “Exploring Customary Law Applications To Protect Women’s Access Right To Ecological Resources/ Services/Benefits’ put together recently by Habitat Protection and Sustainable Development Initiative, an environmental non-governmental organization operating in Niger Delta communities.
Welcoming guests to the one-day event which held at the hall of the National Environmental Standards and Regulations Enforcement Agency, NESREA, D/Line, Port Harcourt, executive director of the organization, Mr Menidin Egbo said life was becoming more difficult for Niger Delta women as their lands, forests and waterways continue to be degraded by extractive and individual activities. He said civil society can no longer look the other way while the women groan hence the assemblage of community and environmental activists to visit the challenge with a view to proffering solutions.
Menidin Egbo said: “Rural women are heavily affected since their lives depend on extracting livelihood from the forest and rivers. Stakeholders cannot continue to look away as women suffer”.
He pointed out that in Bayelsa State, “Women are not meeting needs; new issues are coming up. Hoodlums camping in the forests as kidnappers, pirates, militants creating fear, anxiety, -access to attacks, rapes, abductions, produce theft. Extra psychological burden; reduced access to land for women.”
In addition, Menidin said the level of competition over land in the communities since women’s access to land is only through secondary sources reduce their access to forest resources and as such, limits their economic and food survival powers.
He raised alarm over the bringing down of the ogbono tree, a major economy source for women in Bayelsa State by lumber producers in search of quality wood, thus depleting the forest and restricting women’s free access to ecological resources and ability to contribute to development.
Chairman and sponsor of the programme, Mr Olu Andah Wai-Ogosu harped on the need to address Niger Delta environmental issues with regards to real devastating impacts on communities.
The veteran environmentalist decried the high level of violence in the environment.
“There is a lot of violence in the environment from mining, lumbering-all fresh water bodies have been destroyed as a result of illegal sand dredging which is destroying the ecosystem.
“Anthropic activities-fishing with dynamites destroy the Niger Delta ecosystem which is rich in biodiversity and these contribute to climate change,“ he stated.
Chief Wai-Ogosu raised issues on lack of environmental literacy among community people stressing a need for knowledge transfer for the needed life support for the ecosystem to be created.
“How many women really understand what women are talking about? There is lack of knowledge transfer. Without the life support system in the ecosystem, life will be in danger.
“Ecosystem services provide food, medical plants, clean air, regulates the environment. The ecosystem services the environment and must be protected to keep the environment thriving,” he pointed out.
According to him the organs assigned the duty to protect the environment are not helpful.
“Regulators are so many in our system causing confusion. Regulators must be passionate, committed, have capacity, and be well equipped to be able to function properly, ” he stressed explaining that NOSDRA and NESREA, the key regulators are neither equipped nor committed enough to work together to protect the Niger Delta environment as they rely mostly on the violators, the oil companies, to perform.
Lending weight to Menidin’s call for the protection of women’s access to land, forests, waterways, etc., he urged government to partner with international development bodies to help Niger Delta women.
Said he: “It is women you see on the waterways struggling for livelihood to support the home. In the forest, women are the majority with just a few men
“Access denial is gradually killing the environment. International Finance Corporation, IFC, World Bank should be called in to partner with government and address this challenge”.
The University of Port Harcourt lecturer called for media advocacy to support the environment and the removal of politics from governance, so take environment issue can be given very serious. He expressed serious concern over unregulated dredging harming the ecosystem.
“Unregulated dredging is causing serious environmental hazard. Aleto (Eleme) fresh water has turned brackish. The river is widened by dredging, and even affecting the bridge,” he added as he challenged “environmentalists to air their views to save the environment”.
NESREA representative, Mr Victor Odim said it was time to consciously work to keep the environment safe by exhibiting responsible stewardship.
He added, “The NESREA Green Call Monitoring Eco-violence Dialogue is important and an opportunity to drive home the idea of environmental conservation to say No to environmental crisis at your backyard,” as he called for environmental literacy and adoption of traditional control measures instituted by our forebears to preserve the earth.
Permanent Secretary Ministry of Women Affairs, Rivers State Mrs Uche Uriri commended the organizers for focusing on the environmental challenges facing women, noting that when women are empowered, the incidence of gender based violence decrease.
“I am very happy to see gender being mainstreamed. Women suffer at the end of the day. Environment provides for food, medicine and hygiene and women are responsible for feeding; need personal hygiene. Cost of feeding goes very high, seafood costly, a cup of periwinkle is now N500, offiongo, N1,500 because of ecosystem destruction. This translates to a heavy burden on women as they have to put food on the table, take care of other needs.
“When women have money, gender based violence, GBV is less; women can fend for themselves, husbands, children and the family and society are more at peace”.
A veteran long term Niger Delta environmental activist, Dr Frank Godwin harped on the need for increased adoption and documentation of traditional practices alongside modern day challenges.
He disclosed that forest areas are major reserves for carbon, noting that mangroves supply 15 per cent of our carbon and asked for respect for local environmental governance systems which allow for the environment to renew itself with close season practices for planting and harvesting.
A female activist and lawyer, Mrs Rita Okotie-Megbagandu called for strong customary laws to be incorporated into Nigeria’s mainstream law to protect the environment with women as stakeholders to enhance their participation in the customary law system.
Keynote speaker, Prof Lucky Ibiba Worika, of the Faculty of Law, University of Port Harcourt in his presentation on, ‘How Environmental Law Can Form The Basis of Local Environmental Governance Through Ecology Promotion-based Customary Law Application,’ stated that there is not much on the land rights of women in the Nigerian Customary law but noted that customary laws though not written, are dynamic and can change.
Restating that environmental devastation affects men and women but women are more affected especially in the rural areas, the environmentalist lamented that government is not doing enough to protect both the environment and the people.
“We despoil our environment a lot in the Niger Delta and government is not doing enough. I saw poverty, people begging for help, livelihood. I saw women using polluted water to bathe, feed, using crude as medicine. There is pollution everywhere; oil companies claim all is sabotage”.
He said there are some international legal frameworks for environmental justice such as the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, CEDAW, and African Protocol
Convention on the Rights of the Child, Stockholm Declaration 1972, Rio Declaration 1992 and other regional conventions as well as Local provisions in the 1999 Nigerian Constitution for environmental sustainability which can be explored by women to address environmental right abuses and violations.
Responding to the rather gloomy picture on the fate of environmentally abused communities, the legal expert with vast international experience expressed optimism that change is possible as according to him, the courts are beginning to show concern.
“The courts are beginning to show interest in environmental justice cases.
“Nigerians don’t know yet; when they do, government will begin to do things right, they will begin to put square plugs in square holes, and equip regulatory bodies,” he stated.
To help make things right, Worika proffered some solutions with access of women to land as a top priority, stressing that when you empower the woman society is empowered.
He recommended sensitization and education awareness campaigns of rural women especially, on women’s, customs and ecological rights as well as the inclusion of women in key roles in conservation training and awareness to help mitigation, adaptation measures and resilience.
Calling for the environmental sustainability of women to be given deserved attention, the environmental don demanded the significant drafting of women into decision-making on environment and sustainability.
To sanitize extractive activities which continue to devastate the region’s ecosystem, Worika called for proper regulation in line with international best practice, of their operations.