‘Fishes gone, no jobs, bandits have turned our homes into hell on earth’
– Fishermen, farmers in oil communities
• Region critically bleeding – Activists
By Vanguard reporters
THE people of Niger Delta are on the verge of environmental catastrophe unless something urgently is done to reverse the situation. Not essentially newfangled, the problem – degradation of the environment by oil bandits engaged in bunkering, otherwise known as kpofire, spillage by oil companies and security agents – army, navy, etc, who set ablaze illegal oil refineries and confiscated products – is getting bigger by the day.
Sometimes, fire burns on top of water for days in some Niger Delta communities when oil bunkerers are at work and, at other times, if security agents set bunkering camps ablaze.
Residents have abandoned some communities due to the activities of oil thieves.
Prior to oil exploration and exploitation, the people lived in a pristine environment with tranquility. Today, the creeks and rivers, which their very existences revolve around, have lost their essence to pollution.
Aside the odour they exhale in the course of fishing, residents come across poisonous fumes from oil bunkering camps scattered in the creeks.
Many fishermen and farmers in some states of the region have lost their occupations to pollution of the rivers and creeks, while fishes and other aquatic animals are going extinct.
Despite the danger, several inhabitants involved in oil bunkering business carry on as if there is nothing at stake, even as graduates and children join the industry.
Whether he was acquainted with the facts was not immediately obvious, but President Muhammadu Buhari was dead right when he bluntly told a delegation of South-South Traditional Rulers at the Council Chamber, Presidential Villa, Abuja, last month (May), that devastation of oil facilities in the Niger Delta pose more danger to the environment and people of the region than government.
Niger Delta activist and legal practitioner, Eric Omare, who spoke to Sunday Vanguard on the ominous development, said, “The Niger Delta ecosystem is bleeding seriously and may require drastic and extra ordinary actions by government and all other stakeholders to restore normalcy. I am very worried by the environmental impacts of the activities of oil bunkering, especially the local refineries.
“The traditional fishing and fishing occupations are gone and the future looks very uncertain for generations to come. Now, the impact on the environment is in different phases. First is the continuous and consistent spillage arising from the illegal access to crude oil which results into a blowout or damages crude oil trunk lines.
“Second is the local refining process which has proven to be very dangerous to the environment in the form of degradation of Niger Delta forests and the entire environment.
“Closely related to this is the consistent illegal setting of fire to the forest in the process of destroying local refineries by security agents.
“They do this usually anytime there is a change of leadership in the military or when any military Commander is under pressure from the top; in a bid to demonstrate that they are working, they set fire to the forest in the course of burning the local refineries.
“This has very negative effect and it is also illegal as it is against the environmental laws of Nigeria. By the National Environmental (Control of Bush, Forest Fire and Open Burning) Regulations 2011, made pursuant to section 34 of the National Environmental Standards and Regulations Enforcement Agency Act, 2007, it is illegal for security agents to set fire to exhibits recovered in a bush or forest. However, security agencies in the Niger Delta consistently embarked on this venture”.
On Tuesday, June 18, the Commander of NNS Delta, Commodore Ibrahim Dewu, who spoke to select journalists on tour of some naval operational bases in the Niger Delta, disclosed that operatives destroyed over 50 illegal refineries in 32 days around Yeye, Burutu and Ibafia creeks in Delta State alone.
A concerned Bayelsan and Coordinator of Stakeholder Democratic Network, SDN, Inemo Samiama, said, “We should all be worried about the level of environmental degradation caused by bunkering and illegal refining in our communities. We are destroying our land, rivers and families with these activities. It is time someone raises the alarm about the sheer scale of environmental destruction that is taking place, and this is entirely caused by our men and youths, not Shell, Agip or Chevron.
“If only the communities had pursued the illegal bunkerers with the same vigour they tackle the oil majors perhaps the situation would have been better in the hinterland.
“They have their own share of responsibility in the environmental destruction; at least, spills caused by these oil majors are occasional, and not happening on a daily, persistent and ongoing manner as with illegal refining and bunkerers. We must collectively act to stop those committed by our brothers”.
How oil bunkerers forced us out of business – Bayelsa fishermen
Koko Tari, forced to quit his fishing occupation because of oil pollution for sale of foodstuff, told Sunday Vanguard in Yenagoa, “We do not have fish in our rivers anymore, even our farmland for farming is gone.”
An indigene of Bomo clan in Southern Ijaw local government area of Bayelsa State, Ayebakuro disclosed, “As you are aware, fishing is our means of livelihood, but the pollution of the rivers has forced many of our people out of business. They have continued to pollute the environment and, in the process, destroyed our fishing gears.
Faith, a native of Ebelebiri and Otuegwe in Ogbia, East senatorial district of the state, where the creeks and rivulets have been completely polluted, compelling many to abandon their traditional fishing occupation, said , “This is the sad reality confronting fishermen/women in the troubled enclave of Ebelebiri and Otuegwe in Ogbia, the East senatorial district of the state.”
The local, who withheld her name for fear of being identified and attacked, said, “Fishing as an occupation is no longer attractive in the locality. It used to be a lucrative business in this area, but the reverse is the case today. As you can see, crude oil is daily being discharged into the environment by oil thieves operating illegal refinery camps in the area.
“Most of our youths have taken to the crude oil distilling business in spite of its hazard. Sometime ago, there was an explosion at one of the camps in which over 20 lives were lost. It is suicidal fishing on the river at night because of the floating crude oil discharged into the water since many of us use naked flame for visibility”.
The story is, however, different in communities along the tributaries of the River Niger (River Forcados and River Nun) with minimal crude oil delivery lines, except for the complain of poor catch due to what they blamed largely on global warming and the pollution of the water in the deep lower Niger and its adverse effect on fish migration.
Dubezie Egbo, a native of Famgbe community, said, “Fishing gears are very expensive these days while the catch is also very poor. The rivers are also shallow and not deep as it was in the past.”
Another concerned native, Vanoanigizibe Kolokolo, said, “We do not have fish like before again. Most times when you go on fishing expedition, you do not have much to eat not to talk of selling. This has caused many to abandon fishing for other trades. Though I do not have the statistics, I believe oil-bunkering activities in the deep mangrove and global warming is the cause of lack of fish in our rivers. Our rivers too are not deep again and fish will not thrive in such a hostile environment.”
Many have deserted fishing for agro-farming, hunting – Ese, fisherman/journalist
Jesse Ese, a journalist and an indigene of Anibeze in Sagbama, lending credence to the ugly situation in the oil communities, said, “I started fishing right from childhood, when I was still in primary school. My dad used to take me fishing with him then until I perfected swimming and could go alone by myself, and that was about 1997, and I have been fishing till date, even as a practicing journalist.
“However, spills have been a very big problem across the state because, apart from damaging the soil, aquatic life is also threatened. When a spill occurs, whether as a result of explosion or third party interference, which we usually refer to as Kpofire, it is not only the immediate environment where it occurs that suffers, you know the river is a course, so it flows down to other areas, and the damage continues.
“And fishes cannot survive in polluted water; several times, you see dead fishes floating on the water, some of them have crude oil stains, and where the pollution is very high, you cannot catch anything because all the fishes have moved away. That is why we see fishermen from neighbouring communities leaving their area to other places to fish.
“What do you expect when you spend about N50, 000 to N70, 000 to prepare a net, and then you do not catch anything? Sometimes, we even borrow money to prepare the net, and the family is there too. So, rather than going into fishing fully, which may not be that productive, especially in areas where activities of oil thieves are much, you just throw your net to catch the one you and your family can eat, and if there is any extra, you sell it.
“That is why fish is sold very costly in Bayelsa, even though we have the water around us. There are days when you see oil floating on the water and you have to pack your net for days or even weeks, because if you cast your net, you are only wasting your time. Sometimes, you see the underwater boiling, and at times, when their Kpofire business gets out of hand, and their camps catch fire, the fire will burn even on top of the water for days, and how can you fish in such environment?
“Many people have left fishing for agro farming and other ventures, hunting, but some are just sitting at home, and how they cope is what I actually do not know. My friend who is a fisherman in Ayama in Southern Ijaw called me last week, complaining that they have not gone fishing for several weeks now because the river is not friendly, that means they hardly catch anything.
“If you know how to paddle the canoe, then you would know what a fisherman means when he tells you that he went fishing but did not catch anything. Do not forget the joy or strength of the fisherman is in the fishes he catches whenever he is in the river”.
Why we quit fishing – Delta anglers
Fishermen operating within and around Okpare River in Ughelli South local government area of Delta State have also abandoned their trade and taken to commercial motorcycle business, popularly known as Okada, owing to the spill recorded on the river as a result of bunkering activities.
Though security operatives stationed in the area to checkmate the activities of oil thieves accused oil thieves of being the brains behind the spill, some residents pointed fingers at operatives for purposely spilling the stolen products into the river as a way of discarding them.
Secretary, Okpare community, Gabriel Ekoh, stated that the military has destroyed aquatic life in the Okpare River and farmlands ravaged by fire because of the continued burning of stolen crude in the community.
On his part, Ebruvwiyo Emurotu, a resident of Ovwor community, said, “A lot of us (fishermen) from this community ply our trade on the Okpare River, but we have since gone into other trades owing to the pollution of the river. The oil company whose pipeline was damaged said since the spill was caused by oil thieves, it would not embark on cleanup or compensation, so we are waiting for the crude oil to flow away and that might take years for fishes to return to the river.”
Our predicament in Rivers – Anglers
Of the primary stakeholders, majority of them peasants whose livelihoods are threatened in Rivers State by widespread environmental pollution from oil spillages resulting from equipment failures, vandalism and oil theft, anglers are the worse hit.
Anglers in the state, particularly the locals, who go out to make daily catches for survival, lamented that activities of oil thieves and spills have sent them out of business, especially for those whose crude fishing gears can only permit fishing in shallow waters now too polluted to harbour commercial seafood quantity.
Tekema Amachree, an angler in Abonnema, Akuku-Toru local government area of the state, noted that those who still want to remain in business have to travel into deep rivers, close to the ocean to be able to get fish.
Amachree said: “Fish is hard to get these days. I depend on fish to take care of my family, but we are not getting fish as we do get before. For me to get fish now, I pull my canoe far. Sometimes, I spend whole day and I still return with small catch. Yes, we see these boys carrying gallons of petrol every time (referring to artisanal refineries operators). What they are doing in the creeks is causing this problem and threatening our lives and families”
Chief Igbaniama John-Jackrich, Gbereboye Dagogo I of Buguma Town in Asari-Toru community, said: “I belong to the group of fishermen because I am from the riverine. I do fishing. Because of my title, I do not go fishing often again, but it is clear that oil is in the waters because of the activities of oil thieves and pipeline spillages. It has severely affected fishing occupation up to the point that periwinkles we pick by in the close mangroves are all dead.
“You cannot see mud-skippers by the riverside anymore, sometimes after months, you will see very tiny ones. They have contaminated the rivers to the point that those who use hooks and nets to catch fish toil in vain. Those days, women use proceeds from fishing to run their homes and send their children to school because there is a lot of fish, but today we are facing sad tales.
“These days, you see a family of four go to pick periwinkle when the river has receded, but as they return home, they will not be able to pick a full bucket of custard container. Before, they can pick basket full of periwinkles, which is their source of livelihood.
“We are out of fishing business already. How we will get out of the challenge and replenish the rivers to return to the good old days of bumper catches, only God knows. Government efforts at stopping oil bunkering have not been audacious enough and so the problem lingers.
“Government is a part of this oil problem because it is not paying the military very well; if they do, they will try to be effective in their job.
“There are times bunkering will heighten; there are also times it reduces, but some species of fish we do not see again I believe have been killed by oil. Like there is a fish that we call ‘Singhe’. There was a time if we catch the fish, we see the tail cut off, even prawn, when we go for it, we do not see again”.
No fishes anymore in Gokona – Eric
Also speaking, Chief Eric Barisadoo from Goi Community in Gokana local government area of Rivers State said, “To be very candid, these days, fishermen and farmers are out of business. Reason is the rate of pollution in our rivers.
“It is not ordinary spill, but a spill that pours quantum of crude into farms and rivers; now, oil thieves have worsened the situation. You cannot fish in Gokana anymore. Our people now pull canoe from Gokana to Kalabari area to fish because there are no fishes again in our rivers.
“Mangroves that harbor fish are no longer there again. I have fish farms there; presently they have heavily polluted our farms. I am not the only persons there. There are whole lots of others who have fish farms by the rivers, which we are using as alternative fishing points away from the main rivers. They have polluted all.
“We are all waiting for the clean up so that we can go back to business. Our people who depend on river for survival are suffering”.
On the fringe of Goi River, Gokana local government area, Barisadoo has had his fishing pond destroyed by a spill. “Nobody lives in the community because of spill for many years”, he said.
Nigeria loses over 200,000 barrels a day to oil thieves, but Omare, who commented on the economic implications of oil bunkering to government, said, “I am less interested in the losses as per oil revenue to the Nigerian government. This is because, in the first place, the resort to oil theft is partly a socio-economic response to the age-long deprivation of the region and insensitivity of government to the plight of the people of the region.
“If the Nigerian authorities had been sensitive enough to give the Niger Delta oil communities a stake in the ownership and management of the oil resources, there would not have been any issue of oil theft because the communities would have been able to stand and protect these facilities as stakeholders.
“From my investigation, these illegal refineries are economically sustaining a very high number of Nigerians, including graduates because of the lack of job. The network of those involved in local refineries is so large and cut across nearly all parts of the Niger Delta even where crude oil lines are not passing through.
“In such cases, the crude oil is transported to such places for refining. A trip around any of the riverine parts of the Niger Delta region would bring you in contact with the class of people involved in local refining. They are doing this business virtually in all parts of the region.
“The problem of oil theft and the attendant degradation of the Niger Delta environment is a very serious problem that requires urgent action by government and all other stakeholders. I think tackling the problem of oil bunkering; especially local refinery would require addressing the wider socioeconomic problems.
“The resort to local refining is a social response to the aged-long deprivation of the Niger Delta communities. What has happened is that after so many years of environmental degradation by the oil exploration and exploitation activities in the Niger Delta region, the Niger Delta communities can longer earn a living through their traditional occupations, which are fishing and farming. Hence, some of them, especially the younger ones, in the desperation to earn a living have resorted to local refineries to survive.
“However, the environmental impact of this venture is not worth it. Government must take urgent steps to stop it. In my view, in order to stop oil bunkering in the region, the government must find an economic alternative for the local people to earn a living considering the environmental degradation that the region has suffered over the years.
“Some people have suggested giving legal backing to local refineries. This is an alternative worthy of consideration because the products of local refineries are used everywhere in Nigeria. This would require legislative action.
“Also further actions, including a complete and holistic clean-up and remediation of the Niger Delta environment so as to restore the traditional fishing and farming occupations; the ownership and management structure of oil in Nigeria must be reviewed to involve communities.
“There have to be a mechanism to directly involve communities in the oil exploration and exploitation process so that the communities would have the sense of stakeholder ship to protect the oil facilities. This goes far beyond mere palliatives such as oil surveillance contracts”.