Oil, GMOs and Neoliberalism: an Interview with Nnimmo Bassey

Pambazuka News, July 2014

Nnimmo Bassey is the co-founder of Environmental Rights Action (ERA), a Nigerian advocacy NGO, also known as Friends of the Earth Nigeria. Bassey has been involved in the struggle against oil exploitation in the Niger Delta. In 2010 he was awarded the Right Livelihood award. This interview was originally broadcast on Amandla radio in Montreal, Canada.

NNIMO: I’m Nnimmo Bassey. I direct Health of Mother Earth Foundation in Nigeria, which is an ecological think tank. I also coordinate Oil Watch International, which is a global South resistance network. I am a poet, writer and architect.

AMANDLA: You trained as an architect. How did you start working on issues of oil extraction?

N: Well, oil in Nigeria is as old as I am. And the problem is not getting any better, although I am getting better as I get older! I am joking. I started out life as a human rights activist, after graduation from university. In those days Nigeria was under military rule. The military ruled Nigeria for over thirty years and that really affected the political structure of the country.

In those days, we had serious human rights abuses. The human rights community was more concerned with fighting for better prison conditions and generally fighting for the rights of the people. I was more concerned about the environmental aspect, especially what was going on in the oil fields with corporations like Shell, Chevron, Exxon, Agip, polluting the environment regularly in the Niger Delta and the community people having their livelihoods destroyed.

I also grew up at the time of the Nigerian civil war. Nigeria fought a civil war with Biafra and my village was on the war front with Nigerian soldiers living in my village and Biafran soldiers living in the next village. They were playing games with each other and of course we couldn’t stay. We had to leave in the early stages of the war. I was a very little lad then. Before we left the village, I really saw human wickedness: innocent people killed, dead bodies everywhere, children abandoned by their parents. Sometimes I still remember voices I heard then. When I see a situation when people are oppressed or denied their rights, I get really offended.

A: Can you give me more of an idea of the scale of the destruction that these different companies have caused in the Niger Delta?

N: Yes, actually, it’s better seen than described. We have, on average, one oil spill a day in the Niger Delta. In fact, if you remember the Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989, or thereabouts, we have an equivalent of that spill every year in the Niger Delta. It’s really complicated because whereas with the Exxon spill, or the Gulf of Mexico spill, or the BP spill, there were serious efforts to clean up, in Nigeria you don’t have that kind of effort. If you visit the Delta today, there’s a location called Ebubu Ejama. There was an oil spill there in 1970 and its still visible today. What the oil company has done is build a fence around it and station the military to protect it. But there are thousands of spills. There are some communities where the creeks and the streams are coated with crude oil and yet people have to drink that water. The clearest example is the case of Ogoniland where the United Nations Environment Programme issued a report three years ago that stated that all the water bodies in Ogoniland are contaminated. All the water bodies. When you have people living in such a toxic environment, it’s not surprising that life expectancy is really very low. It’s a desperate situation, but that is still better than other parts of the Niger Delta because oil extraction stopped in Ogoniland in 1993 when Shell was expelled by the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni people.

One of the things that’s really troubling about the Niger Delta is that the corporations are very good at twisting the stories. They bring foreign journalists and local journalists on what are called pollution tours of the Delta. They fly them in helicopters, pointing out places where pollution is  occurring, claiming they are not the cause and that it’s the local communities that are causing the pollution.

A: In the course of your work, how have you advocated for communities living in these areas? You’ve mentioned that there have been no clean ups at all.

N: No, no clean-ups. They would tell you they have cleaned up, of course. And they can show you certificates, signed certificates that they have cleaned up. But these certificates are not worth anything.

There are many ways we work with communities. I think the most effective thing we do is sharing knowledge with them, so that they know the tools available, the laws, relating to oil operations in the country and how they can use those tools to defend the environment. So we support communities to litigate against both the state and the corporations. We work with them on the physical dangers from crude oil spills and gas flares. We try to tell the community people to insist that the environment is cleaned up properly when there’s a spill.

A: When you talk about sharing legal knowledge with communities, is this really effective in Nigeria where it’s difficult to achieve any kind of justice through official judicial processes?

N: If we look at the difficulties and how hard it is to get what we want, then we would just give up. There would be no need to be an activist. I was about to mention this earlier; in 2005, we got a judgment against gas flaring and that was most unexpected. The judge said, “It’s against the constitutional rights of the communities for you to flare this gas and harm them. You should stop it.” They didn’t stop. Until now, they are still flaring gas in that community, but the corporation was jolted to know that there could be a ruling against them. So that was significant. Recently,  we worked with four communities in the Niger Delta to sue Shell at the Hague. A decision was reached and three of the cases were thrown out by the court in the Hague, but over one case, Shell was held accountable. This kind of thing puts them on the spot, it helps communities to know at least there’s somewhere they could go for justice, no matter how long drawn out it may be, no matter how unsatisfactory it may be.

A: As well as oil, you’ve worked on quite a few other campaigns – GMOs, food sovereignty issues. There is now a move by corporations toward making a profit from almost any resource they can find.  Tell me about the work you have done on food sovereignty and GMOs.

N: Yes, my first engagement on food issues really was around 2002 when Zambia had a food shortage in one region. The international community was offering them GMO corn and Zambia said that unless the corn is milled, they would not accept it. This was a big political battle. There was talk like “How could Zambia, a hungry nation, be demanding what kind of food they want as food aid. Don’t they know that people are dying?” There was so much pressure because if they send whole grain GMO, some grains are going to germinate and grow in the country and there would be contamination. That’s why Zambia insisted that the corn should be milled. At the end of the day, Zambia did not take the food aid. Before all that they were able to overcome the food shortage because there was food in other parts of Zambia. That’s the best way to handle food shortages because there’s always food somewhere in the region. And it will be the kind of food that the people know already, something they are used to, more beneficial for them rather than someone bringing them strange things that people don’t eat and changing the diet and the culture of the people. Sometimes there are other factors that stop people from having food, maybe poor infrastructure, political barriers, and also the interests of some people to supply food aid because food aid is big business. I’s not aid, it’s not free, it’s not a gift. It’s only in an emergency, when there’s war or something catastrophic that you could get food for free.

The issue of genetic engineering is a very big issue in Africa because Africa appears to be the last frontier. The biotech industry is not able to penetrate Europe as much as they would want to, and even in the United States, it’s spread in the US by ambush, by ensuring that people do not know what they are eating. In Africa, where seventy percent of the population is engaged in small-scale farming, it could be a big market for the biotech industry. It’s not been so easy for them, because they are used to selling to big commercial farms. So they’ve been at pains trying to prove that small-scale farmers can also benefit from this kind of technology that requires mechanization, all kinds of chemical inputs that these small-scale farmers don’t have the resources to sustain. But again the claims of GMO exponents is that GMOs yield higher, that they require less labour and chemicals to cultivate. That has been proven to be wrong. Every year they are using more chemicals. They don’t necessarily yield better. I remember when the biotech industry produced golden rice that was meant to have enhanced levels of Vitamin A. Independent scientists proved that you needed to eat 5 kilograms of that rice a day – nobody eats five kilograms of rice a day! – to have the equivalent of Vitamin A that you can obtain just by eating two carrots. In Nigeria they are doing field testing of genetically modified cassava. Once any of these varieties are released into the environment, you simply cannot withdraw them because they don’t look any different. People think that whenever any thing is called GMO its going to be very big and look so fabulous! But that is not necessarily true, it’s just part of the myth.

A: We have all these different processes taking place all over the continent. You have the drive towards GMOs, you have increasingly more interest in the extractive industries by multinational corporations and then you also have market-based solutions to environmental problems, which are themselves quite lucrative. How do you think that people around the continent can organize to fight against these threats, without also buying into the neoliberal approach of environmentalism through profit-making?

N: [Laughs] It’s actually a complicated problem! The attack on the continent is actually a new wave of colonization. There’s ecological colonization, extractive colonization. Our countries and governments are falling into the trap of believing that anything called ‘direct foreign investment’ is very good. So they relax all the laws, they remove the taxes – they do everything to attract anyone who wants to invest. They sell our lands, and then of course there is this neoliberal market environmentalism where forests are seen as carbon sinks. All this will eventually have political repercussions.

I think we need to step up political organizing in our countries to ensure that the politicians working with predators are kept away from office as much as possible or dropped when they stand next for elections. But it’s a slow process to get people to understand the intricacies of how all these things come together.

A: How do you get people to understand that? A lot of these institutions that want to advance a market-based approach to agriculture or the environment use language that appeals to ordinary people, to small farmers. How can people understand that the reality is different?

N: It’s actually very difficult, especially with the kinds of arguments that institutions like AGRA (Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa) puts forward. They would not admit that they want to introduce GMOs. As I said, it’s a long struggle. Inevitably, the truth always comes out and we hope that it won’t be too late. People have seen how bad the Niger Delta has turned out, but they think they can do it better in their own country. In Uganda, oil is being drilled on the shores of Lake Albert, one of the headwaters of River Nile. When are people going to wake up and find they don’t have any land anymore, that minerals don’t benefit those who live where it’s being mined? The struggle is holistic, we just have to look at it from every perspective and re-build a sense of productivity based on the inherent ability of people to build their own economy. We have to redefine what is the pathway to progress. We have a lot of work to do.