Nigeria: financing gas projects, poisoning foods
Local women in the Niger Delta use oil companies’ gas flare sites to dry a popular cassava-based food, kpokpo garri. The oil corporations count this as an economic benefit for the local people, and use it as yet another reason to justify their continued presence in the area. But food processed in this way is poisoned, and harmful to human health.
The health impacts of gas flaring are already well documented. They emit a range of toxins, including mercury, benzene, lead, nitrogen oxide, sulphur dioxide and particulates. These lead to increased incidences of asthma, cancers and respiratory illnesses in children. The chemical benzene is especially hazardous, causing leukaemia and other blood-related diseases. Women approaching the flares and people eating the processed foods are especially at risk. In spite of these dangers, however, the Iwherekan community still has no pharmacy, no health care center and no hospital.
The toxins have also killed most of the fish that local communities used to rely on for sustenance, as well as defoliating vegetation and corroding infrastructure.
As part of its ongoing opposition to oil and gas extraction in Nigeria, Friends of the Earth Nigeria / ERA, visited the Iwherekan, Uzere and Ozoro communities, all in Delta State. Campaigners spoke with women food processors, and held town hall meetings and consultations with community women, farmers, fisher folk and traders.
Together they shared information about the health impacts of using gas flares to dry food, and discussed traditional alternatives, such as drying kpokpo garri in the sun or in ovens. Friends of the Earth Nigeria also exposed the claims of World Bank and its consortium that the WAGP project would provide cheap energy, improve the environment, better the lot of the communities and promote regional development.
From Friends of the Earth Nigera’s visits, consultations, and analysis, it was clear that only women are involved in the production of kpokpo garri. 97% of the women from Iwherekan Community and Uzere Community use the flare sites for drying kpokpo garri, which they consume or sell to neighbouring communities. Only 3% use sunlight. Some of the younger women could not remember any technique other than flare drying being used: the flares mean that the food can be dried more quickly and in larger quantities.
In the Ozoro community however, which also hosts a Shell flow station, the women still dry their kpokpo in the sun, and were able to talk to the other women about their traditional methods.
It was clear that the women using the gas flares were very aware that their health was at risk. They complained of rashes and itching, miscarriages, burns, and cases of continuous internal ‘heat’. They also confirmed that those who eat the kpokpo suffer discomfort and stomach aches. According to the women, some of their customers complain of discoloration and a strong smell of chemicals.
A detailed analysis of the data collected showed that the use of gas flares for food processing resulted in health problems including coughs, headaches, miscarriages, irregular menstrual cycles, skin diseases, fever, asthma, difficulty in breathing, rheumatism, arthritis and eye problems.
The project succeeded in popularizing locally proven and traditional methods of food processing. It raised local communities’ awareness of the environmental and social impacts of gas flaring, and the need for facilities for processing agricultural products. It heightened the struggle against gas flaring.
The project also helped strengthen people’s willingness to speak out. Shortly after the consultation the Iwherekan community sent a delegation to their State government to draw their attention to the fact that, though they are the co-host of Utorogu gas plants that feeds the nation and the WAGP, the community people still live in squalid conditions lacking even the most basic amenities.
what was learned
The project was not without its difficulties. In the Iwherekan community the men kept trying to intervene in a (very well attended) women-only meeting. The presence of military personnel hovering around the consultation hall also created an atmosphere of insecurity.
Ultimately though, the project was successful because of the goodwill of the communities visited. Without their support the project would have been very difficult to implement. It was also supported by the Host Communities Network of Nigeria.
There is an urgent need for further awareness-raising activities and meetings with local women, who are usually the ones involved in the production and processing of food.
It will also be important to heighten and further popularize the struggle against gas flaring. Oil companies must be held accountable for knowingly exposing local communities to toxins.
with thanks to our funders: the dutch ministry of foreign affairs (dgis)