Comrade Nnimmo Bassey is a household name in the Niger Delta and an authority on the environment. Styvn Obodoekwe caught up with the ever busy activist recently and the issue of climate change and the trending term, ‘blue economy’ was the focus.
The interview is quite educative and interesting.
Your organization, HOMEF, has a programme called School of Ecology and you just concluded a session. What is the School of Ecology all about?
Well, each of our Schools of Ecology is focused on a particular issue. The one we just had was focused on ‘Marine Protected Areas, MPAs’.
For Who and From What?
This idea came up because out of 1500 MPAs in Africa, there is none in Nigeria. There are very few in West Africa, mostly East Africa and some South Africa. It is not as if MPAs have the solution to all the problems; some of them may have actually, but from the discussions we had in the school, it was stated that the MPAs should be for the people and controlled by the people. It is not a thing that government will do from a top-down perspective sitting down in Abuja or somewhere and say, this is now going to be a protected area, but where communities themselves identify, and then agree on parameters.
Each protected area will have some guiding principles that people will not destroy the biodiversity. If it is a place that has endemic fish species, they will agree on when to go there to fish; or whether they would fish there at all and what kind of equipment you can use in fishing there and what are the penalties for breaching those guidelines. But the whole idea is to have places that we can protect the species from going extinct. And then supporting the local economies by making the environment more fruitful and more beneficial to the people. In other words, this fits into our overall principle of working for the health of Mother Earth. You know, when the Mother earth is healthy, then Mother Earth is free to supply all that we need to be healthy also.
You said the MPAs you are advocating for are the ones in which communities will be responsible for mapping out and controlling the MPAs, are there roles for governments?
Yes, there are roles for governments. One is to enact laws, governing the territories, and the other, to have designated places.
In Kono for instance, the community has designated areas where they protect the mangroves. Nobody goes there to cut any mangrove; they are protected for many years. The role of the government is to pinpoint the areas, agree with the people and make it legal; to make it legally protected. But the actual act of protection and monitoring is what communities have to do. You don’t just pick an area and say it is a protected area; that no community can enter there again. Maybe it is an area the community depends on for their economic survival, for their food and you say, no, this one is now protected; or you get an area and protect and give it to one big company, one industry; or a place is protected and you wake up and say we need oil, we need gas in the area and you want to destroy it.
No, we need an area that works in favour of the community; for the people themselves; they protect the areas from being destroyed by predators and speculators.
Talking about mapping out areas as marine protected areas, for communities that depend so much on the waters where MPAs are established, how will they survive if they are prevented from accessing their sources of livelihood? Is there any alternative for them?
Now, let’s just clarify this, each community protected area has some certain guiding principles and rules. Most communities which depend on fishing have places where they can’t go to fish just anytime they want. Some of them have some months in the year when nobody goes to fish; that’s already a protected area by the community. They know when to fish; if it happens at a place continuously round the clock, they are going to deplete it. But some, when they leave the place- just like crop rotation, shifting cultivation, the way our people used to farm in those days-they will farm a particular land; they would leave it for about seven years to fallow before they would go back there to farm again, so that they would give the land enough time to recover and be productive for them.
Even in fishing, communities across Africa have rules on when you can go to fish and when you cannot go to fish; where you can go and where you cannot go. This should be formalized in the sense that nobody just comes any time they want because there is no law.
Is there any relationship between creating MPAs and blue economies?
Very good question. Now, the blue economy is something that we are suspicious of because, the way it was formulated, the policy makers, African Union and men in our governments, are looking at the ocean and water body as places you can have limitless exploitation. In other words, when you look at the ocean and it covers everywhere, you will say, oh, this place, no matter what you do, there is always something to take. No, we don’t want people to look at our water bodies as places that must be exploited; that can be owned for exploitation for some corporations, for some people, just like oil companies, when they put their platforms in the ocean, about five kilometer radius, you cannot go there. All the fishes, only the oil companies can catch them, fishermen cannot go there. We do not want our oceans to be used as laboratories for people to use for experimentation. We don’t want our water bodies for exploitation against the interest of the people. We don’t want deep sea mining. You can imagine what mining does to dry land. If you go to mine in the sea, it is going to destroy aquatic biodiversity. We don’t want that to happen. We don’t even want oil and gas extraction in the water bodies; oil civilization has to come to an end; enough has been extracted. The world has had enough grace to find alternatives and we have to do that; find the alternatives and move to the alternatives in a way that is just, and not destructive because of alternatives..
Talking about contributions of oil and gas extraction to climate change phenomenon, recently, a minister in the Nigerian government advocated that Nigerians should adopt bicycle riding as a way of transportation as a way of mitigating climate change crisis. How would you respond to that call?
Well, using bicycle is a good idea, but not practicable in Nigeria. Where are the roads for bicycles? Are we going to ride along the highways or the flyovers in Port Harcourt? You are riding bicycles and you are knocked off by cars? Places where bicycles are encouraged have lanes for bicycles, they have lanes for pedestrians and different lanes for cars. And they are demarcated and protected so that cars don’t just jump into lanes where pedestrians are walking. And there are pedestrian bridges and people have means of transportation like trains within the city, where, if you get tired riding bicycle, you can put your bicycle in the train, get to some other part of the town, where, you can come down and continue with your bicycle. It is not that you will ride bicycle from morning till night; you can ride it, take it into a train, come down and continue riding, or go to somewhere, park the bicycle in your office, use a train, go down and continue. But where there is no infrastructure that supports using bicycles, it is deadly and dangerous to suggest that people should go riding bicycles in our cities, it is simply unsafe and unfair to recommend it.
If there are infrastructure that support the use of bicycles, if it is safe, bicycles are good; you don’t need fossil fuel, you don’t need petrol; you are not going to pollute the environment. It is very healthy, it’s an exercise. You are healthy, you are keeping the planet cool; you are not polluting the environment. If you are not going far, bicycle is the best means. When we go abroad, we do a lot of trekking. In some places, people trek hundreds of kilometers every day. Of course, in such places, the roads are there for you to walk on, there are trees to provide shed, weather is cool, you don’t need to start jumping into buses or cars, you find a lot of cars parked; people have a lot of cars but they are parked.
Even if everybody in Nigeria abandons vehicles and starts using bicycles as recommended by the minister while oil and gas exploitation activities still go on unabated, can it still be a good climate change mitigation measure?
That’s a very important question. Even the oil we extract in Nigeria, we don’t use them here; we export them, oil is exported. That question, we can write a book on it, because this is a big problem for Africa, not just for Nigeria. African leaders are saying that Africa will continue to extract oil, that we have a right to extract oil; that we have the right to extract oil and use it to develop, just like the global north people did. But we are not working in the same principles. The oil we extract here, we don’t refine them here; we export the crude oil, and import the refined product, not even good quality. So, whether you keep extracting, the co-relationship is not there because we are not extracting to use, we are extracting to export; and we are extracting to export because we value money more than human lives and more than the environment.
And so, no matter how much oil is extracted in Africa, it does not translate to the situation of energy to Africans, it does not. Even all the pipelines, we talked about building pipelines from Brass to Morocco to export gas to Europe; to build it from Brass to Algiers, from Algiers through the desert for export to Europe. The oil being extracted in Uganda is going to be piped through 1,400 kilometer pipe to tankers in Tanzania for export. All the export terminals, 89 or so percentage of all the oil extracted in Africa, is for export. So, extracting oil is still a very colonial enterprise where value is extracted, money is extracted, everything is extracted and we are just like, happy to be exploited, because we can pocket some money in our pocket and don’t care whether people suffer.
Now, if we take the question on another level, exploiting oil and polluting the environment counter whatever you save riding the bicycle. So, the solution is KEEP THE OIL IN THE GROUND so that our brains can be free to think. Right now, we are drunk on oil ideas; oil has blocked our brains, blocked our ears, blocked our blood vessels, and that’s why we are dying early also.
Talking about keeping oil in the ground, is it feasible for a country like Nigeria that depends so much on oil revenues? What is the alternative means of survival for Nigeria?
Nigeria does not depend on oil. The economy that runs this country is the informal economy. Seventy percent (70 %) of the workforce is in informal economy and Nigeria can run without a government. So, when anybody says the country depends on oil, it is just a story. They depend on oil for big business. The people, on a daily basis, are farming, fishing, getting their energy; this is the problem that we have and there is no correlation between governance and social services support. If government wants to give, even when they want to give palliatives, do they ever tell you they use oil money to do palliatives? They borrow from the World Bank, they mortgage our future and create more booby traps for our future, for our people. So, the palliative is actually a trap to create more problems for the future.
Let’s talk about the Health of Mother Earth. You have always been concerned about the health of Mother Earth. What can you say about the state of health of mother earth?
Actually, I’m quite happy that we took that as the focus of our work because as Africans, as Nigerians, going back to our root, the earth is our mother. The earth is actually our mother. And you have to treat your mother with respect. Some people say the planet fights back, but I don’t like to think of it that way. Planet only tries to heal itself. The cataclysmic forces and events that we see, it is just like when somebody is injured, your body tries to heal, all the antigens, everything, they try to fight back to heal. The mother earth is in a continuous struggle to heal herself. And her children who are human beings, are so destructive we don’t seem to care. So, the cries of mother earth are not being heard by her own children. This means that we are very prodigal, we need to wakes up to our responsibilities to treat our mother in a respectful way, in a manner that helps her to keep us; because this planet will outlive human beings. If we keep going the way we are going, it will get to a point where we cannot survive on the planet. Now, heat wave is being experienced in Europe; Europe now is so hot, very soon, it is going to be as hot as the Sahara desert.
It has become obvious that climate change is no longer a story. It is real. Every year, world leaders gather at conferences to take decisions on how to tackle the climate change crises; yet the situation has continued to worsen despite such conferences. They call it Conference of Parties, COP. Any hope for climate change to be mitigated through COP?
COP, I call it Conference of Polluters, cannot solve climate change problems. But the COP provides a space, especially on the sideline, where CSOs can meet and strategize. To me, that is the best advantage of the COP. CSOs all over the world, they can meet to discuss outside the conference itself. The conference is an excuse for people to come, so we go to discuss and strategize on what to do. Inside there, countries are negotiating how to avoid climate actions, not how to take climate actions. That is why,…, the major rupture happened in 2009 at COP 15 in Copenhagen. Before then, the law was that rich countries would be held to account to cut emissions at a certain percentage, to be able to keep temperature in the world at a reasonable level. But in 2009, that was the Copenhagen accord, the Kyoto Protocol was more or less thrown away, or was put on life support. Then they brought what they called the Copenhagen Accord, which made countries to do whatever they can do to take actions to solve the problems, without any legally binding requirement. And this was what was consolidated by the Paris Agreement, an agreement that cannot solve the problem. They set a target, at 1.5 degrees centigrade as the best target, and below two degrees as the upper limit. But right now, the world has gone beyond 1.1 to 1.2 degrees above pre-industrial rate already. And the 1.3 will be exceeded in a couple of years. And then, countries are expected to do what they call, ‘nationally determined contributions’, not globally determined. Kyoto Protocol was globally determined action, not nationally. Now, countries can just decide what they want to do; and that’s what they do.
Every five years, they would say, okay, this one we said we were going to do, we have done. How does it solve problems? Now, they are talking about net zero. Nigeria said it is going to achieve net zero by 2060; India said they would achieve net zero by 2070; EU said they would achieve net zero by 2050. Everything is being pushed to the future. That doesn’t mean they will stop pollution. When they say net zero, it means that they would pollute and then do something to counter the pollution to achieve zero, plus or minus. So, what are they doing to capture hydrocarbons, to get to that level? They said they are going to capture carbon from the atmosphere; that means they are going to build a lot of equipment; a lot of machines to suck carbons from the atmosphere; they are going to designate some forests/trees in Africa, Asia, Latin America or wherever they want, as carbon sink, and then, they would say, they are capturing a lot of carbon from the atmosphere; and they are going to bury them somewhere in the ocean or somewhere in rocks or some trees hiding somewhere. ‘We have captured this amount, so it doesn’t matter, we can keep on polluting’.
It is a big fiction, and people have decided to accept the lies because it allows industries to invest in infrastructures like geoengineering, which means fertilizing the ocean to capture carbon; or genetic engineering, which tends to have altered plants to reflect sunray, putting mirror in the sky, or sun shade in the sky, or using aircraft to go and whiten the cloud as if the cloud is stationed one place, all crazy ideas. This is what they say is technology solution instead of common sense of leaving the oil in the ground, which the Ogonis have succeeded in since 1993.
How will you describe these crazy solutions that they proffer?
I would like to be polite since this is a diplomatic issue. I think they are foolish; they are not solutions but deceptions; false, deceptive ideas. They are capital lies to allow them accumulate more wealth and more powers. Imagine somebody getting planetary thermostat to decide when rain will fall; to decide which place will have sun shade and which place will not have sun shade. That’s another realm of geo-political power that the weak and poor nations will have no say about and there is no law governing all these imaginations that they are bringing forward. And you know what? You really need to pay attention to this: there are a handful of very rich people in the world, billionaires in terms of dollars, who are investing a lot in outer space. Right now, people are in a particular place they built to simulate what it would be like to live there, which is like to live in mars. They are going to be there for one year. Other people will go to replace them. They are already seeing that they have damaged the earth to a certain point that the earth will become not suitable for living, so they want to move to the space to live either on the outer space or asteroid, or they colonize space. They colonize space where they will move from earth to stay. Some people are really investing in rockets for tourists, for traveling to go to somewhere else; they even pay millions of dollars to enter rockets, they go beyond gravity, they fall down; within a few hours, you go and come back and your dollars are gone. Some are even searching under the ocean for alternative place where they will go and live after they have damaged the earth.
This one they are talking about the world being over populated, is because they are rich and they want to be alone on the earth.
Is there nothing that can be done to call these people damaging the earth to order?
There is something that can be done; its people power, it is for people not to hand over their sovereignty to politicians. When Copenhagen held in 2009, the government of Bolivia convened a World Summit of Peoples and Human Rights in April 2010. Over 35000 people attended, paying their ways there, to Bolivia. I was there at the conference; within two days, the rights of mother earth were drafted which maintained that human beings would be obligated to maintain the health of mother earth; and what they must not do, and it is not about …
You go to COP in November/December, the major thing will be about loss and damage; which came up and was finally agreed that was needed in the last meeting of COP in Egypt. But do you know what we are hearing now? The rich nations are saying that they will not entertain any sense of climate reparation. In other words, we are not going to pay for damage done, we are going to give charity. Loss and damage is just a label and cannot solve any problem.
Is it because there is no money?
No. You know how much they spend on warfare, the rich countries. They spend more than $2trillion on wars every year, to buy weapons to destroy countries or cities, simply to ensure that they control power, to control capital, to control global politics and subjugate everyone; and they don’t care who dies in the process.
Flood is coming as predicted by the government and it’s usually disastrous. What do you think needs to be done to save the communities and citizens?
Last year when the flood came in October/November, some of my colleagues were trapped in Bayelsa in the flood. When they were trapped, they could not come out. I told them since they were there, they should find out how the community people were surviving there, and they began to do research. We sent people to Kogi, Benue, Bayelsa, Akwa Ibom, Rivers and Delta states. They did the research and we published a report called, Guide for Coping with Flood’ so that people had to learn and share how they cope, because government is not doing anything. People had to share the mechanism that they developed by themselves through experience, so that they can be ready for it. But when the flood comes, same sad stories; the East West road that has been broken by the flood is still broken, no repairs.
In your own thinking, why are governments in Nigeria not doing anything to save Nigerians from flood menace?
In my own thinking, number one is that governments don’t respect the people; they only respect them when it is time to vote. They only remember and visit the people when it is time to vote. If you go to Joinkrama, you will see the line on people’s building walls, you will see where the flood of 2012 stopped, you will see the line where the flood of 2022 stopped. Maybe after, you check the one of 2023, until nobody is there anymore. It is a big embarrassment. It is difficult to know why people who are elected into office to secure lives and make sure life is worth living find it difficult to provide basic things that people need, to provide basic social safety nets. But you just see that those people just like to accumulate power, and after, they will say I have power.
It’s a very frustrating situation and I think it is in the place of young people of social forces to come together to re-examine power relations in our nation and in our continent, where we have just been giving out power to people who don’t care about us; or we allow ourselves to be exploited and wait for crumbs to fall on the table. You put your money in foreign banks, then you borrow your own money, you can’t pay back; the interest is accumulated. That is why we have the debt issue; some people will say government has no business investing, but there is no country in the world where the government is not investing, or subsidizing industries.
We buy false arguments that the ones advising us don’t practice in their own countries. There are countries in Europe, , citizens don’t pay school fees, they don’t pay tuition fees in universities but here, you have to pay through your nose; people are struggling to get basic education; teachers are crying to get decent salaries; doctors are crying and are on strike as we speak. It is tiring.
Environmental justice movements are springing up across the world, particularly the Global South, campaigning for environmental justice. How will the Niger Delta key into these movements given the destruction of the Niger Delta environment by oil and gas extractive activities?
Globally, climate justice movements have to come together to form one force, one powerful force. We have to find ways, commonalities. It’s just that the contexts are slightly different, but the realm of operations, the suspects are the same – the big industries, and the way they manipulate everything in their favour talking of profits, is the same across the world. It will take a revival of something like the World Social Forum. World Social Forum was not a climate justice movement, but climate was a central concern and it was a platform for the coming together of various social formations, not just environmental justice campaigners but labour, farmers, industrial workers, everyone. We need to get to a point where we don’t work in silos, where we don’t call ourselves environmentalists, but fighters for justice. It is justice we are looking for; without justice, (there will be) no peace.
What would be your parting words to the public?
Let me just say that nobody should despair. It is not time to lose hope; it is time to build hope. We need to strengthen the upcoming generations to understand when the rain started beating us so that when they are fighting the fight, they know that they have no time to waste because things are running down the slope towards the precipice and, unless we hold the breaks now, the tripping point may arise sooner than we expect.