Fatigue was etched in every slow gesture she made. It was there in the nearly imperceptible forward and backward sway of her upper torso as she worked the paddle. It echoed in the slow swooshing sound of paddle dipping in and out of water. Tiredness ringed bleary eyes and the sad sag of her sun burnt face staring straight ahead.
When the canoe breasted the rickety wooden pier in front of her wooden hut in Tsekelewu, Madam Betty Tongaji lifted the green plastic basin onto the pier. “This is all I got since this morning”, she stated sadly. At the bottom of the about 18 inches high basin was two inches of a mix of tiny shrimps, mangrove leaves, twigs as well as several pieces of unidentifiable debris.
Much of the dug out canoe was taken up by about 30 small sized rectangular woven baskets which the fisherwomen use to trap shrimps in the swamps around the community. These were all empty. Betty had taken them out on another hopeful shrimping day, praying for that increasingly elusive bountiful catch.
She had set out for the swamps around Olodua creek at 5.00am that day. Dusk had set in when she returned home 14 hours later.
She would spend another hour that evening sorting out the debris from the big basin with the tiny portion of shrimps. After that the shrimps would be spread on a rack over a smoking fire to be smoke dried.
She told The Guardian that she would sell the shrimps later for between N50 and N80. She has five children and the older three in their teens all spend several hours a day fishing, bringing home mostly small fry with which the family supplements its diet.
That evening as Betty sat for several minutes on the pier staring at her miserable catch for the day, several fishermen fished in another portion of the Olodua creek. Mouthing supplication to the gods of their ancestors, they cast their nets, hoping for something to take home for their wives to smoke and sell. Others set traps for the night in the hope that the next morning, there will be something for them.
Poverty has spread its net round the communities of Opuama, Isekelewu and the smaller Egbema villages, as their major preoccupation of fishing is no longer a sustainable economic activity, consequent upon environmental degradation related to oil production.
These days, say locals, nobody eats any sizeable fish caught in the creeks around the community anymore. Precious little is caught and everything is sold to buy food and send the children to school. Some of the money is also used to buy drinking water in sachets and iced fish brought in from bigger towns like Warri and Sapele.
Yet, life was not always this desperate race where families send out children as young as eight and 10 years to fish or catch shrimps. These children could be seen in the crannies of the Olodua creek and surrounding swamps, moving in mud hunting for sea food or perched precariously in dugout canoes bobbing on the waves, their skinny hands strung to paddles or pulling outsize nets.
“We were a people noted for their prowess at sea, making good fish catches and living a good life,” stated Chief Monday Ede, traditional ruler of Opuama community, the mother community of the Ijaw Egbema clan.
Life changed in a devastating manner for the Egbema people of Opuama and Tsekelewu, they said, in the late 1970’s when the American oil giant Chevron began the construction of a canal along the Opuekeba creek, linking the Atlantic Ocean. This was to facilitate its operations. Specifically to enable the movement of large vessels bringing in heavy equipment to its facilities in the area.
With this artificial canalisation came the alteration of the water course around Opuama and the surrounding creeks. The mangrove forest that sustained marine life and coastal ecosystem and provided the Opuama-Tsekelewu environment the scenic and aesthetic setting has been destroyed, possibly forever. The Opuekeba and Olodua creeks and others, once fresh water sources which the rural Opuama and Tsekelewu people used as their only source of drinking water and for fishing has been inundated by salt water from the Atlantic Ocean.
“We have become a people who buy water in sachets. We buy ‘pure water’ from Warri or Sapele. The alternative is to buy water in plastic drums, which are brought here from Sapele. They cost N200 each. Our people paddle out to places like Ologbo to buy water in drums. In the past, before Chevron constructed the canal, people used to come in here from Ilaje area to fetch drinking water”, stated Mrs Cynthia Tomowei, a leader of the Tsekelewu women.
During the visit, stretches of grassland could be seen in what obviously was once tropical forest. In other places, a few stunted growth of mangrove could be seen. However, much of the greenery in the area is grassland and is evocative of savannah grassland transported to the creeks and swamps. From any point on the Olodua creeks, miles of grass and low-lying shrubs could be seen. The density associated with rain forests and mangrove is absent as the outlines of very distant communities could be seen from across the grassland.
At Tsekelewu, around and within the community, is a dense growth of grass which elderly members of the community insist is alien to their community. “Those grasses are growths we noticed in the 1980’s after the canal was constructed. They were not there even in the 1970’s. Not when I was a young man growing up decades ago or even when the oil companies first came in the 1970’s”, stated Chief Joseph Doyah, one of the oldest men in the communities.
Aged 90 years, but wiry and sprite, he had been present in the communities when the oil companies came, bringing their gifts of now failed promises of prosperity.
“When the oil companies came, we were happy. There was work for any hard-working person. In addition to our traditional occupations of fishing, hunting and farming, those who wanted got work. We worked in the teams, clearing the forests and doing all manner of odd jobs. We thought prosperity had finally arrived in our land. Now, we know how foolish we were,” he lamented.
Doyah traced the present misery and poverty of the Egbema people to the practices involved in the process of exploration.
“We began to realize there was trouble when the animals that were native to our land began to disappear when the oil companies, starting with Shell in the 1960’s began to blast the ground using dynamite for seismic operations.” The animals, he said, began to migrate to other areas in hundreds where they were killed without a thought for tomorrow. “We used to have diverse types of animals which we killed with traps and spears. We kept some for food and sold the rest for our needs. We used to send bush meat to places like Sapele and Warri. Then, we had animals like ‘agra’ (antelope), crocodiles, alligators and manatees which we called Torufaowei”, he said.but unrelenting. First, he said the thick forest around the Egbema communities had remained without noticeable damage, although they noticed quickly the depletion of fauna driven away by dynamiting and gas flaring. The real damage had set in when the American oil company, Gulf Oil, which had concessions in the area, began to construct a canal along the Opuekeba creek to link the Atlantic Ocean to facilitate its operation in the area.
Locals say the introduction of salt water that accompanied the process resulted in the destruction of the natural forest. Doyah noted that, “ the mangrove forests that were there when I was a child and adult began to die off. We used to have thick forest with valuable economic trees including abura, azonia, white and cotton woods, black and white afara and mangrove forests from which we built our homes. We were known for economic trees. Palmwine tappers used to come in from far away to tap palmwine. Many of our people also brewed native gin from the palmwine.”
Today in contrast, desolation hangs over all the communities. Formerly thickly forested areas stare empty, completely denuded of their tropical splendour.
With the incursion of the sea, fish native to the areas have died off or migrated. Elderly villagers say children born after the devastating canalisation have never tasted the fishes they savoured when they were young
Owei Tongaji reminisced “We had sweet tasting fishes including one called ‘governor fish’ ebah, ‘mud fish’ odia, a prolific breeding fish , so many others, all have gone forever. Today, even though we are a riverine people, our children and everyone eats costly iced fish brought in from Sapele.”
Another source of concern in the communities is the silting up of the Olodua creek. At Tsekelewu, the depth is about two feet in some places and stinks horribly during low tide in the day season that occurs between January and May, say locals.
Doyah noted that, “the creek used to be up to nine fathoms deep in some parts. Colonial boats carried officials of the colonial government to come in here whenever they wanted to have discussions with the communities.”
The communities expressed deep bitterness over the condition of the land and river that had sustained their ancestors for centuries. “We complained to the oil companies that everything we relied on to maintain our lives was gone. We cannot steal. When we talk to the oil companies, they do not treat us as human beings. Government has given them soldiers to back up their operations. When we protest, they send the military to harass us. Several of our people, especially the youth, have been killed when they staged protests at the oil company facilities.”
Chevron officials in Lagos gave somewhat vague responses to what ameliorative measures they plan if none was given to the affected communities when the toll of the canalisation began to register in the 1980’s.
Chevron/Texaco’s Fred Owotorufa claimed that, “In some instances, some of the charges came about as a result of nature but I agree that some other causes may be due to the activities associated with oil production. We need to look critically at whether it is nature or company activities. As a company, we are very sensitive to the environment where we do our business.
But the Egbema people accused the company of insensitivity to their plight. Leader of the Tsekelewu women, Christy Tomowei, noted that “all we get are promises”. Community members expressed worry that the devastation is on-going. Recent dredging carried out by Chevron/Texaco along a stretch of the Olodua creek is adding to the woes of the people.
During the visit by The Guardian, stretches of mangrove forest laid desolated, scorched by dredging spoils piled there during a recent dredging project. The dredging was embarked upon to facilitate access by Chevron’s boats into its areas of operation. Mangrove trees on which the spoils were pumped had lost all their foliage while the trunks had a badly blistered look. No undergrowth of greenery was present. Nothing stirred in the affected stretches. No birds flew around. No sea creatures made a presence in the area.
Poli Johnson, a trader and leader of women in Opuama community captured the devastation thus, “We used to fish and send our children to school from the proceeds. But most of us have abandoned fishing since the oils companies came with their problems. All the fishes have been driven away by the incursion of the sea. In 1998, there was a major oil spill here. After that, many people took to farming along the banks of the creeks. Then they did this dredging, pouring hot dredge spoils on our crops and the mangrove.”
In the process of dumping the spoils, The Guardian learnt that the contractors to Chevron usually dig huge holes in the ground to contain the spoils but these fill up and spill over into peoples’ farmlands and the surrounding vegetation, destroying everything.