Why Traditional Leaders must Speak now on Environmental Justice to Save Niger Delta’s Future

Niger Deltans, demanding for environmental justice for pollution and degradation of our lands will be more impactful if our local community and traditional leaders join their voices with that of the youths and shun the temptation of receiving gratification, contracts and employment for their household from the polluting oil companies and their sympathisers. Gas flaring has damaged the respiratory system, unleashed mental health issues and reduced life expectancy in the region to just 43 years, aside destroying the traditional economic means of survival.

For over a week now, the people of Gbarantoru community in Bayelsa State have been suffering from intense gas flaring from the Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC) facility in the midst of the community. Massive gas furnace being flared horizontally has even led to the closure of the only school in that community, due to the noxious fumes being emitted into the atmosphere which is devastatingly compromising their respiratory system.

Families in the area can no longer sleep at night due to excessive heat and massive air pollution. The most painful part is that the residents of the community were not consulted to inform them of the commencement of the flares. We do not know which community will be next to cry out. The government, through its regulators – the Nigerian Upstream Petroleum Regulatory Commission (NUPRC) – needs to wake up to their responsibility.

The IOCs have almost concluded their divestment plans with no strong statement from our traditional leaders to ensure they pay compensations and restore polluted environment before their divestment. Our traditional leaders have forgotten the implication of divestment without environmental restoration, in addition to the environmental damages, the stranded asset, stranded personnel and stranded communities all these the IOCs are leaving for the incoming indigenous companies to inherit, who cannot be held accountable for the previous damages.

We are yet to see any major traditional ruler who has taken a stand in the demand for environmental justice. Our environment is our life. If what we hold sacred, our traditional economy system, which is our only means of building cohesion of the people is almost completely destroyed, what do we have to bequeath to our children and the unborn generation? Our farmlands are completely destroyed. Before oil exploitation in our region, my great-grand father used to share with us the story of the richness of our natural ecosystem and biodiversity in the region.

But, since the advent of oil extraction, the environment and entire natural ecosystem has suffered serious damages – aquatic life, vegetation, forests, land animals and human beings. These have all been greatly and negatively impacted. He also told us that the economic trees like walnuts, mangoes, oranges, and palm oil, among others, were their investment crops, with high yields that come with good economic returns. But, today, these crops only produced, little or no yield, even cassava, yams are also greatly affected. All these are due to environmental pollution – gas flare and oil pollution.

This is the time for our traditional rulers to speak with one voice, and do it now before it is too late. They should join the campaign to #SaveNigerDeltaEnvironmentNow and the demand for environmental audit, remediation, clean energy transition parks/initiatives to create green and environmentally friendly jobs as a sustainable alternative measure and financial compensation for damaged local communities in the region.

Since 1956 when oil was discovered in the region, we have suffered continuous environmental pollution with no substantial benefit for our people. If we must win this struggle against IOCs divestment plans without remediation and compensation, traditional rulers have the greatest role to play. They must stop the quest for personal gratification and self-serving benefits. Together we can make the Niger Delta environment safe again. I do not mind if my life is endangered as I can attest to since after our last local community summit on oil divestment and environmental justice. All I demand is that the truth and justice for our environment must prevail.

By Prince Israel Orekha, executive director of Connected Advocacy, an environmental advocacy group working in the Niger Delta, with the Campaign Save Niger Delta Environment Now


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