Tools to empower local communities in the Niger Delta
‘I like poetry as a means of empowering people,’ says Nnimmo Bassey, ‘poetry and songs resonate all over the world.’ Bassey is co-founder of Environmental Rights Action in Nigeria and chair of Friends of the Earth International. ERA wants to strengthen local communities and the ties between them. Not just by singing of course, but also by doing research, by training and by monitoring oil spills and damage done to the environment. In 2007 the network of local communities HoCoN was founded, now 60 communities are involved, with some 2000 volunteers.
ex Ponto Magazine nr.11
When Nnimmo Bassey studied architecture at the university in Nigeria, in the late seventies, he became aware of injustice engendered by unjust economic relations and wanted to do something to change it. ‘In the eighties I got involved in human right organizations and wrote critical articles and made cartoons for a number of mainstream newspapers. In the nineties we became aware of the fact that many human rights issues were connected to environmental issues, so we began to have a closer look at environmental rights. The particular relationship between environmental rights as human rights became very clear in the context of the Niger Delta where peaceful protest against pollution by transnational corporations often ended up in vicious repression. The repression happened through the use of security forces in destruction of communities and in physical harm to the people. Another direct way of situating environmental rights as human rights is in seeing laws such as the African Charter of Peoples and Human Rights whose article 24 stipulates that “every African shall have a right to a generally safe and satisfactory environment in which to develop”. In 1993, with activists from both Nigeria and Britain, we founded ERA.’
Dance to the same rhythm In the mid-nineties Bassey had to go underground for several months. ‘A lot of people went underground that time,’ he remembers. Bassey, like many other activists also got arrested several times. ‘On one occasion, after ERA became a member of the Friends of the Earth International, I was to travel to Ghana to attend one of their meetings but I was stopped, arrested and detained for a period of 42 days. Those were the days when the nation was ruled by the military and critical voices were silenced and activists got frequently locked away without any charge.’ In prison he wrote poems. Poetry about oil, blood and hunger.
‘Poems and songs are very powerful tools in mobilizing people. They resonate all over the world. Especially in Africa songs are a strong part of communication. We will sing together at meetings and it keeps ringing in people’s minds. We dance to the same rhythm, we share the same thoughts and pains.‘
Moral pollution The Niger Delta in Nigeria has been suffering from pollution as a result of the exploitation of oil in the region by foreign oil companies and the Nigerian state oil company. Besides the environmental pollution this has caused moral pollution as well. Not only have farmers lost the possibilities to support themselves because of this pollution, everyone knows there's big money involved in the oil industry. Money that mainly flows into the pockets of foreign companies, the state and into private pockets of some Nigerian politicians and even security officers. Even support for some communities can create conflict. ‘Local communities where oil is pumped up, will get some facilities from oil companies or the state,’ Nnimmo Bassey says, ‘A school might be built there, for instance. So communities where no oil is pumped up, will suffer from pollution too, but don’t have these advantages. People of so called “host communities” pride themselves, because of these facilities. But having these is not the issue. It just means you have more pollution in the area. Who would consider that something to be proud off?’
Get together These differences cause conflict. Some have facilities, some don’t. 'We facilitated the founding of this community network because we know we are all in this together. All communities suffer. People die of cancer, have skin diseases, lung problems and so forth. It gives me personal pain to see young people have their health impacted for no other reason than oil. We want people to mobilize themselves. To get together and see what they have in common. People are not powerless, they don’t have to suffer in silence.’ There was a big spill last December. The spill was led to a raging fire moving from River State to Bayelsa State. 'This time the community monitored the incident, cried out to the media and they got media coverage. So Agip responded somewhat faster than they normally do. Some spills go on for months. Getting television to report about it really helped to solve the problem sooner.’
Monitoring Another tool is training. HoCoN trains people to report about what they see changing in nature around them, leaves turning yellow, crops failing, dead fish floating on the water, stinking of petrol, water getting polluted... ‘We at ERA also have toll free telephone lines where people can contact us about spills and other pollution. We will send someone from our office, and report produce field reports and where necessary call the emergency response agencies.’ At the end of 2008 the Community Guide for Environmental Health was published by Hesperian Foundation. It explains, among other things how local communities together with specialists can do research on health problems, related to pollution. Two chapters were tested in the Niger Delta. An environmental test has been done in a community named Iwherekan. 'It shows that with oil activities both soil and water are polluted. No oil company can say that these people make up things.'
More information on: Environmental Rights Action www.eraction.org(more info on HoCoN here too) Friends of the Earth international www.foei.org Friends of the Earth Netherlands www.milieudefensie.nl A Community Guide to Environmental Health by Jeff Conant and Pam Fadem The guide can be downloaded from the publishers website: www.hesperian.org Publication Nnimmo Bassey ‘We thought it was oil, but it was blood’ One of the poems of Nnimmo Bassay can be found on www.oilwatch.org
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