nigeria: focus on environmental rights action
an interview with Israel Aloja
I joined Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth Nigeria as a volunteer in 1998 - now I'm the technical operations officer. My work involves a combination of media work, information technology and field-based investigations. I spend most of my time in the field, travelling regularly to the Niger Delta. On my visits I document oil spills and human rights violations, using photographs and video recordings as evidence. Photography is a major part of my work, and one of my first jobs as a volunteer at ERA was to start building up photographic library.
Before I joined ERA I wanted to do some voluntary work on human rights issues but I didn't know that an organization like ERA existed in Benin City where I live. When I met Nnimo Bassey I discovered Environmental Rights Action. I worked as a volunteer in field investigations for a short while before joining the staff.
I was a volunteer during the time of the military regime and heard of people being imprisoned, beaten and even killed. On my visits to the Niger Delta I saw oil spills covering thousands of kilometres that were destroying local communities. The water supplies, fishing and farming were all being affected, and I decided to help no matter what!
I have been arrested on my travels to the Niger Delta, and have been close to death. These experiences have made me more determined to carry on with my work. I will not stop while multinationals continue to destroy the lives and livelihoods of these people. There is a history of atrocities by the military including arresting, beating, raping and even killing. The level of destruction, intimidation, poverty, frustration and pollution that the people of the Niger Delta suffer is my inspiration. I want to oppose these injustices and fight against them.
My work during the military regime was extremely hazardous. I did not know what to expect and often had my camera and other equipment confiscated. I could be arrested and beaten at any time. The situation is better now, but the military still have a presence - many of the government are retired police or military officers.
Environmental Rights Action is one of the foremost environmental/human rights NGOs in Nigeria. It was established in 1993 by Nnimo Bassey, Godwin Ojo, Oronto Douglas and others. Before this, there were many human rights organizations in the Delta region but little awareness of environmental issues.
ERA is an advocacy organization with the goal of protecting the environment and defending human rights. We have approximately 18 staff, working in 4 offices. There are also numerous volunteers, many of whom are not formally connected with ERA but work for the organization’s principles. We operate 4 resource centers within the Delta communities, each has a library and operates a revolving loan scheme. We run evening classes for children who have dropped out of the school system and women who miss out on their education due to childbirth. We teach people new skills, for example making soaps, or cosmetics so they can provide an income for their family.
climate change campaign
In September 1999 there was a major incident in the Delta State, involving an old Shell pipeline that had been built over thirty years ago, and had not been well maintained. The spill was so massive that the whole creek was covered in a thick layer of oil. The community informed Shell of the spill, but although they investigated, they didn't take any action.
Some time after this there was an explosion at night and the fire that followed engulfed the whole river. Six local communities were devastated - all their boats and fishing equipment was completely destroyed, which meant their livelihoods were also ruined. Many people suffered from respiratory problems because of the thick smoke that hung in the air for a long time afterwards.
By the time I arrived, many people had run from the community because they were scared. Sometimes the military will attack them because they are opposed to the Shell.
Luckily I arrived before Shell and I was able to warn the community of Shell's tactics . I gave out campaigning materials and warned them that Shell were likely to attempt to buy their silence with bribes of food.
When Shell arrived they tried to fix the pipe but the community demanded negotiations first. The oil source was closed off but it takes a long time for the oil to stop flowing, which meant that oil was still polluting the creek and killing the fish.
It was inspiring at the time because when I explained to them how Shell operates, they caught the vision and they were determined that they wouldn't suffer the fate of other communities in the area. My first trip was a success - I was able to provide information and the communities were receptive.
Some months later I went back for an update on the situation and found that things had totally changed. This time the reception was cold and people were unwilling to give me information. I had the feeling that Shell had bought the community's silence. I went back there two years ago and found that the situation was even worse. This was something I really did not want to see!
There was no clean up. They don't usually clean – in fact I've never seen a case where an oil company has cleaned up after a spill in the Niger Delta. The best method of cleaning they have is to set fire to the oil, which releases hydrocarbons into the atmosphere. When that happens, people out in the bush can be trapped by fire.
In this case the preliminary report stated the cause of the leak was a ruptured pipeline, but media reports gave the cause as sabotage. When a spill is caused by "sabotage", Shell can avoid paying compensation or clearing up the damage.
These days, oil spills are so common that if there is no spill for a month, people think there is something wrong. Shell often blames the local community for the spill, citing sabotage. The reality is that many of the pipes are 30 to 40 years old and in a poor state of repair. Usually the company is at fault, as the poor condition of the pipes leads to the fracture. But whenever there is a spillage local communities are scared that they will get the blame.
more information about Shell in Nigeria