Special Report: Environmental Refugees
FOR a year and three months, Veronica Aloy Khenom worked tirelessly on her okra and cassava farm, just adjacent her home in Gokana, one of four local government areas in Ogoniland. One bright afternoon towards the end of January, she returned to finally gather the produce. But what she met was disappointing—though unsurprising.
Since constant spilling of oil has taken a great toll on the quality of soil in her community, making it less and less fertile, Veronica’s harvests have dropped in both size and quantity, despite the use of fertilisers. And she is no novice when it comes to farming. She learnt the work from her mother several decades ago and has since used it to sustain herself, feed her family, and sponsor her children’s education.
“Before the spill, when we farm sometimes, if it is okra, we can get four or five basins from one plot of land. But now, you will toil hard before you get one,” she laments.
“You can see the cassava now. Before, we used to train our children with cassava, but look at it now. And this is harvest from all the farm,” the mother of four says as she points at empty sacks on the floor.
“In the past, today would have been our happiest day because we would have got money. But with this, you won’t get anything. Even if you try to sell this, nobody will buy because it is too small. The harvest is very poor.”
This has been the lot of Veronica for years and now she is considering a career shift to trading, which appears to be more profitable. Her children, one in JSS3, one in SS1, and the eldest, studying Surveyor and Geometrics at the Rivers State University of Science and Technology (RSUST), are all out of school due to financial constraints.
Kadi Aloy Khenom, 14, who hopes to become a naval officer, makes up for lectures missed by visiting her friends after school hours to learn from them.
“I hope to help the orphans when I grow,” she enthuses. “I won’t allow them to come the way I came—as in they won’t suffer these kinds of things. I have to give them a scholarship so that they can become something in the future.”
Besides the occasional produce harvested from their mum’s farm, the family’s only other source of livelihood is irregular writing gigs secured by the husband, a retired journalist. Aloy Khenom, who has worked with Sun Ray and Concord Newspaper, is often moved to tears by the thought of his children’s educational challenges.
“That is my greatest concern,” he mutters, wiping tears from his left eye. “I am not always happy. Once a journalist, my colleague, came wanting to grant me an interview on this situation. What I did was put it into writing, because I don’t like talking about their condition.”
“Sometimes we will be in the house, they won’t know I am in my room lamenting,” he narrates tearfully. “I peep and look at them. Peep and look. They won’t know I’m lamenting—crying sometimes. It’s only them. They are my only problem. As for me, forget about the goodies of life. I’ve conquered that.”
“Only the children; their school,” he adds as he blows his nose with the help of a white handkerchief.
The Aloy Khenoms are just one in hundreds of thousands of families in Ogoniland who have agrarian lifestyles and depend primarily on farming and fishing for a living. Communities where, in the past, the farmlands were lush and the fruits and roots blossomed have today become wastelands. Communities, where fish could previously be collected barehanded from rivers, have now become too polluted and dead to fishing.
“We are a people whose measure of economy is farming and fishing,” says Mene Steven Bari-ara Kpea, the paramount ruler of Mogho community. “But presently we are completely wiped out of that God-given gift. We are no longer farming, we are no longer fishing because of the pollution.”
Ogoniland, a vast community covering close to 1000 square kilometres in Rivers State, has been a hub of crude oil-related operations since the 1950s, and for many years has suffered from monumental pollution as a result oil spills and fire outbreaks.
In 2011, after it was commissioned by the federal government, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) published what it called the Environmental Assessment of Ogoniland. It is a first-of-its-kind scientific study of the damages that contains operational guidance for repairing them.
The study found that pollution by petroleum hydrocarbons is extensive in land areas and groundwater in Ogoniland. The pollution has led to the shrivelling of mangroves and killing of vegetation. Plants generally show signs of stress and yields are lower in impacted areas, the report said.
Floating layers of oil were found in surface waters, fish had deserted polluted areas in search of cleaner water, and community members were exposed to hydrocarbon emissions through air and drinking water.
“Hydrocarbon contamination was found in water taken from 28 wells in 10 communities adjacent to contaminated sites,” UNEP reported. “At seven wells, the samples are at least 1000 times higher than the Nigerian drinking water standard.”
In June 2016, the federal government finally flagged off the proposed cleanup and promised to set up the institutional framework necessary to drive the report’s implementation. Six months later, the Hydrocarbon Pollution Remediation Project (HYPREP) was reestablished to implement the UNEP recommendations.
The situation has, however, not improved eight years since the report’s publication and three since the cleanup’s launch. Among several other problems, people in Ogoniland often lament the unclean state of the water available for drinking. One resident of Goi community said the water always has tastes of salt and oil, but the villagers have no choice but to drink since there are no alternative sources.
Residents have reported constant visits to hospitals due to excess purging, prolonged urination, stomach biting and so on. “Normally we go to Bodo City General Hospital twice a month,” one resident discloses.
Where have the fishes gone?
Bad as it is, it is not only the farmers who have something to complain about. For people whose survival depend on fishing and fish sales, adapting has also been tough. Yvonne Peace lost her dad three years ago and, alongside three of her siblings, she has had to depend on her mum’s roasted fish business to carry on. But what used to be a booming trade is now an activity residents, middle-aged women especially, engage in for lack of alternatives.
Though the community has benefited from a cleanup exercise, residents say the river is still vastly polluted. Since nearby water bodies are no longer safe for sea life, Yvonne’s mum now travels to faraway places such as Calabar to buy fish to sell, spending the bulk of her capital on transport. Due to a lack of resources, Yvonne has written her secondary school certification examination but cannot proceed to a tertiary institution.
“I was having it in mind to engage in manual work because, for now, my mum does not have the means for me to continue my education,” she says, sitting at her mum’s tiny spot in the market, where she regularly helps with sales.
The story is not very different for Clara Ipepe and Tumbo Bovi, also fish vendors at the market. For the past five years, they have had to travel 25 kilometres to Bonny Waterside every three days to buy fish, spending an average of N6000 on the boat ride. A business that used to yield gross revenue of N20,000 to N30,000 on a daily basis now yields between N2000 and N5000.
For, Paul Nuvoo, a fisherman from Mwemuu community with a wife and two children, things have never been the same since the oil spills. As he fetches water from a well, which he says is only good for bathing, he complains of how fish have been scarce from the rivers.
He had been out to fish since nighttime. It was evening, but no fish had yet been caught. The last time he was lucky was the previous week and, with their austerity, the fish he got then should serve his family for a while—hopefully long enough to last till he gets lucky again. Nuvoo’s children have had to drop out of school because he hardly could earn enough from fishing to feed them.
The search for survival
The pollution has so much destroyed the riverine areas that thousands of Ogoni residents, both young and old, now migrate to cities in search of menial jobs.
33-year-old Nibari Burabari, who has spent most of his life in the rural environment in Tai Local Government, moved to Port-Harcourt in January with nothing but a t-shirt and pair of jeans. There was nothing left to do back home, he says. All the jobs are gone—including farming and bricklaying. He used to attend Bilabi Memorial Grammar School but had to leave after his father’s death because he could no longer afford the fees.
“I see that if I come maybe my help would come from somewhere,” Burabari says. “Even if it is clearing of gutters I would do if they pay me. I can’t just move about in the village doing nothing.”
Sitting outside a restaurant where he had come to beg for food, he says the last time he ate anything was 48 hours before the meeting.
He reveals that there are countless young boys like him at the village also aspiring to leave at the slightest opportunity, but they don’t have places to stay. But Burabari isn’t anymore privileged. Since he got to Port-Harcourt, he has been sleeping in odd places, open churches being one of his favourites. By dawn, he moves about the city again looking for where to work.
Burabari is not asking the government for too much, only stable employment and a chance to “become something” in life.
Young men aren’t the only ones leaving Ogoni for the cities. NGOs that work on the migration of youth in the Niger Delta say a great population of girls also, who used to dwell in the villages, now find themselves in the cities—most of them surviving through sex work.
“People think because of industrial activities there are jobs in the cities, so they come and they become disappointed and stranded. They do a lot of things, and the young girls also fall into wrong hands,” explains Emem Okon, founder of the Kebetkache Women Development and Resource Centre.
“Most times they know what they are doing is wrong. It is not good for them, it is not good for the society, but they tell you they don’t have alternatives. Some have to sponsor themselves to school. They don’t want to go back home. They came to Port-Harcourt and they don’t have anything doing. So they just need to survive.”
The increasing trend of youth, and general, migration can be observed in numerous communities. Mene Eric Barizaa Dooh, the paramount ruler of Goi, says his community could before boast of a population of 15,000, “but now everybody is in the diaspora”.
“We are environmental refugees,” he adds, briefly raising his eyebrows to stress the point. “Because of the disaster that has taken place here, this place is no longer habitable for human beings unless they want to die.”
The desertion can also be noticed easily by people visiting Mwemuu community. What used to be home to over 2000 people now barely has up to 300 on a good day.
“Most—at least half of this community—is living in the city there,” the community chief, John Nadabel, says. “Others followed their in-laws to nearby communities like Andole, Okrika, Bonny. So eventually the whole community became deserted.
“As a chief, I cannot desert my community. I have to be here. But even as I’m here, my family cannot stay with me because of the pollution. The air, the water, the fish, even the crops we planted in the farm were all contaminated.”
The contamination in Mwemuu is such that has led to death not only crops but animals too. Given its location close to an international water route, the mass departure has exposed the community to looting by opportunistic travellers. “There is another community we call Siato there, you can’t even see a single building. Every infrastructure has been looted,” Nadabel says. The few fishermen working in the community also often have their fish and foodstuff stolen by strangers.
The community chief foresees two sets of possible future events. If the cleanup takes place as planned, then life will be restored to Mwemuu and it will once again become a full-fledged community, capable of feeding itself and exporting crops to neighbouring cities.
On the other hand, if the cleanup is unsuccessful, he predicts, “even the few who are living here and coming to see us will be gone; all these buildings you see will collapse”.
“The case of Bodo city is not a hidden one. The federal government knows about the situation of the Bodo people. A fisherman cannot go for fishing and bring back fish that will be enough for the family not to talk of to go and sell it. A farmer will spend all day on the farm and, at the end of the farming season, this is what he will see.
“Now tell me, how are we going to take care of our children in this kind of condition when it is the only source of income for most families in this village? How are we going to cope? That is why I said the solution is only in God. It is only God that can come and intervene for us.”
Pushed into crime
When the cleanup exercise was flagged off in 2016 by Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, he had assured that “the methodology for the clean-up will ensure job creation for young people”. Three years on, many youth are still jobless.
The staggering unemployment rates may have pushed many into crime, including artisanal refining. Many residents believe, since the government has neglected them, they have no option but to take matters into their own hands and benefit however they can from their resources.
Former information officer of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), Bara-ara Kpalap, says the activities are condemnable and should be stopped as they have continued to lead to greater environmental devastation. But putting an end to them is not going to be easy.
“It won’t be easy for them to say they are going to leave it, or that they are not going to do it again when there is no alternative,” he explains. “And that is why we have advised that for you to effectively discourage that activity, we must have alternatives like providing training, among several other things.”
He urges the federal government to take the implementation of the modular refinery scheme more seriously in order to discourage the illegal refiners and provide them with a lawful alternative.
Chairman of the Ogoni Council of Paramount Rulers, Barisi Kpaama, says it is the “I-can’t-help-myself syndrome”, coupled with illiteracy and unemployment, that pushed people into artisanal mining. He also believes the activities may even be sponsored by the government.
Explaining, he says security agents are always glad to be deployed to Ogoniland because of the opportunity to make money from supporting the activities of illegal miners.
“The police are involved, the armies are involved, the civil defence are involved,” he asserts. “They are all collaborators and conspirators… Is the police not a representation of the government? That is why I said it is government-induced. What they are doing is they are pretending. There is no challenge in a nation that if the government wants to put a stop to it, it will not stop.”
One of the local refiners who spoke to us says it is a dangerous undertaking but they have no choice but to continue as there are no other jobs available.
“This is the only way to survive in this environment because there is no government support, there is no company, there is nothing we can use to survive,” he says. “And since we have this oil, instead of us to die this way, we prefer to do this refining, to survive with our family.”
He advises HYPREP to leave them to their livelihood unless they are willing to clean the oil effectively in a way that benefits everyone. He also says he and his colleagues will not support the cleanup exercise except they are given jobs that will make them and their families comfortable.
From artisanal refining, many of them have built houses, bought cars, married, and taken care of many other needs. And unless government is replacing it with gainful employment elsewhere, he adds, it is only wishful thinking to expect them to go back of a life of untold hardship and poverty.