Activists Battling Environmental Degradation in the Niger Delta

 Helen Okechukwu

In the heart of Nigeria’s Niger Delta, where the emerald green landscapes once sang with the symphony of nature, a harsh reality now unfolds. For decades, the region has borne the heavy burden of environmental degradation, a consequence of relentless oil exploration and exploitation. However, amidst the desolation, a glimmer of hope emerges as a dedicated cadre of activists are confronting the ecological crisis head-on.

The Niger Delta, once a pristine haven of biodiversity, now grapples with a host of pressing challenges. Oil spills, rampant pollution, and deforestation have laid waste to once-thriving ecosystems, leaving communities reeling from the devastating impacts on their health, livelihoods, and cultural heritage.

A study linked environmental pollution to newborn and child mortality rates in the Niger Delta. It found that oil spills within 10km of a mother’s residence, even those occurring five years before conception, doubled the neonatal mortality rate. The health of surviving children was also affected, with mortality rates increasing from 38 to 76 deaths per 1,000 births.

The persistent and uncontrolled oil spills that have been a significant issue in Nigeria’s oil industry, its main economic driver for over six decades, have caused substantial harm. 

Annually, approximately 240,000 barrels of crude oil are spilled in the Niger Delta, polluting water sources, contaminating crops, and releasing harmful chemicals into the atmosphere.

A 2011 UN Environment Programme report emphasised the severity of the situation in Ogoniland. It was estimated that reversing the damage caused by decades of oil spills would take 30 years and cost $1 billion. This underscores the urgent need for ongoing efforts to address the environmental and social impacts of oil spills in Nigeria.

Ken Henshaw, the Executive Director of We the People non-governmental organisation, said that “about 270 different gas flare points in Nigeria, in the Niger Delta region, spill millions of barrels of crude oil into the creeks, the lands, the farmlands, and swamps of the Niger Delta every single day.”

“The oil companies that are the primary cause of environmental degradation in the Niger Delta region operate with impunity. The Niger Delta ends up losing livelihoods every single day.”

Despite the daunting challenges, grassroots activists have waged a valiant battle against environmental degradation. Through relentless awareness campaigns and community mobilisation efforts, they have succeeded in shining a spotlight on the plight of the Niger Delta, garnering widespread support, and pressuring authorities to take action.

In the Niger Delta, NGOs and activists, including the “Lokiaka Community Development Centre,” lead efforts for positive change. They empower communities, restore ecosystems, and advocate for accountability. Martha Agbani, as the centre’s executive director, symbolises resilience and hope for the Ogoni women they support.

Mrs Martha Agbani, the Executive Director of Lokiaka Community Development Centre, smiling as she visit the site, to rebuild the lost ecosystem,  PC: Lokiaka Community Development Centre.

“We are a gender rights organisation,” Martha reiterated, her voice filled with conviction. “We are here for women. And we look at women in terms of the environment.”

As Martha Agbani spoke with this reporter, with a firm resolve, she continued to narrate on the diverse work of the Lokiaka Community Development Centre. Lokiaka’s work extended far beyond the mangrove cultivation that had garnered attention.

Martha spoke passionately about their holistic approach to women’s empowerment, addressing issues ranging from obnoxious cultural practices to education, poverty, food sovereignty, health, and environmental conservation. With each word, she painted a vivid picture of their tireless efforts to uplift women and restore the environment.

Raising of mangrove nurseries in bags, PC: Lokiaka Community Development Centre

The roots of their mangrove restoration efforts ran deep, intertwined with the struggles of communities like the Ogoni people, one of the Niger Delta communities found in the region, whose lands had been ravaged by environmental degradation caused by multinational corporations.

Martha recounted the tragic events that had propelled their focus on mangrove restoration, highlighting the intersecting injustices faced by women. The story of the late Ken Saro-Wiwa, an activist, and Mrs. Karalolo Korgbara, a native of Biara Village who was shot while defending her land, resonated as a poignant reminder of the violence inflicted upon those who dared to stand against exploitation.

“We see women as the environment,” Martha declared, her words echoing with purpose. “To restore the land is to restore the livelihoods, dignity, and future of our women.”

But the journey was fraught with challenges. Martha spoke of the harsh terrain, the tides that dictated their movements, and the lack of support from authorities despite their pioneering efforts. Yet, amidst adversity, they persevered.

“We must study the tide and know when to enter and when to leave,” Martha explained. “Our work is not just about planting trees; it’s about navigating a complex web of environmental and social dynamics.”

She reflected on the ongoing struggles they faced—from sourcing protective gear to combating pollution in the rivers—and the constant vigilance required to maintain their restoration sites.

Site Visitation on Project monitoring of Lokiaka Community’s Development Centre First Phase of Mangroves planted at Yaataa Waterfront in Ogoni, PC: Lokiaka Community Development Centre

As Martha Agbani, with a firm resolve, continued to describe the complex work of the Lokiaka Community Development Centre, she delved deeper into the organisation’s initiatives. With each word, she painted a vivid picture of their tireless efforts to uplift women and restore the environment.

“Our work extends far beyond the mangroves,” Martha emphasised, her voice echoing with passion. “We empower women through education, economic opportunities, and advocacy for their rights.”

She spoke of the workshops held to educate women on topics ranging from financial literacy to sustainable agriculture, equipping them with the knowledge and skills needed to thrive in their communities.

“We believe in providing women with the tools they need to shape their own destinies,” Martha declared, her eyes ablaze with determination.

Martha shared stories of women who had transformed their lives through the centre’s programmes—women who had started businesses, pursued higher education, and become leaders in their communities.

“Our goal is not just to plant trees, but to plant seeds of empowerment,” Martha said, her words resonating with conviction.

Mrs Martha Agbani taking Measurements of the tree planted by Lokiaka Community Development Centre, PC: Lokiaka Community Development Centre

She highlighted the centre’s advocacy work, which aimed to address systemic issues such as gender-based violence, discrimination, and environmental degradation.

“We stand with women in their fight for justice and equality,” Martha proclaimed, her voice ringing out like a rallying cry.

As Martha spoke, it became clear that the Lokiaka Community Development Centre was more than just an organisation—it was a beacon of hope, shining brightly in the darkness, illuminating the path towards a better future for all.

“We will continue to fight for the rights of women and the health of our planet,” Martha vowed, her words echoing with unwavering resolve.

“Together, we can create a world where all women are empowered to thrive and where the environment is protected for generations to come.”

Martha’s words painted a vivid picture of the complex work undertaken by Lokiaka Community Development Center. As she delved into the organisation’s initiatives, it became evident that their efforts transcended mere activism; they were architects of tangible change in the lives of Ogoni women.

Their work was grounded in the realities of the communities they served—places where farming and fishing were not just livelihoods but a way of life. Yet, these very means of sustenance were under threat, not only from environmental degradation but also from social upheaval and economic instability.

“We are seeing a lot of issues around them,” Martha remarked, her tone sombre yet resolute. “Violent conflicts, youths bulging—because they are idle. Women no longer have voices in their homes.”

In response to these challenges, Lokiaka embarked on a journey of empowerment, leveraging the environment as a catalyst for change. Their approach was innovative yet practical, offering solutions that were rooted in the communities themselves.

“We started with the idea of planting mangroves,” Martha explained. “For those who are landless, we believe that they could help by establishing mangrove nurseries. And we don’t stop at mangroves; we also cultivate fruit tree nurseries.”

Here is Lokiaka Community Development Centre, Teaching Community Women of the Zigzag and Scissor Mangrove Planting methods, PC: Lokiaka Community Development Centre

The concept was simple yet profound: empower communities to harness their immediate environment for sustainable livelihoods. From collecting discarded water sachets to use as nursery materials to mobilising women to reclaim their rights, Lokeyankar’s work was a testament to grassroots resilience.

Their impact was tangible. Martha proudly shared their achievements—two million mangroves planted since 2018, success stories in communities like Bodo and Yaataah, and women trained as leaders in mangrove restoration efforts.

“We have women now that can go anywhere and plant mangroves,” Martha declared, her voice brimming with pride. “That’s the mangrove work.”

Mrs Martha Agbani under-studying the nursery as she watch it grow before moving to the permanent site, PC: Lokiaka Community Development Centre

But Lokiaka’s contributions extended beyond environmental restoration. Martha recounted their collaborations with organisations like FIDA to challenge obnoxious cultural practices and empower women with knowledge of their rights.

Their advocacy transcended borders, from presenting their work at the UN Water Conference to exchanging knowledge with communities in Uganda facing similar challenges.

“We brought in victims of environmental disasters, women sharing their experiences, and experts providing guidance,” Martha explained. “It’s about ensuring that history does not repeat itself and that communities have the tools to demand accountability and protect their rights.”

As Martha concluded her reflections, there was a sense of both accomplishment and urgency in her words. Lokiaka had achieved much, but their work was far from over.

“We have been working for over ten years, and we are still working,” Martha emphasized. “If it is a thing that we have achieved or that we have just started, then we have just started.”

Beneficiaries Making an Impact

Here in the Niger Delta Region, where the echoes of environmental degradation reverberate through the community, Ledi Gboro’s voice rises with gratitude and admiration as she shares her journey as a beneficiary of the Lokiaka Community Development Centre, under the leadership of Martha Agbani.

“It’s been so good,” Gboro begins, her tone carrying a sense of deep appreciation. “Martha Agbani and the centre have done so much for us. They’ve given us the tools to reclaim our land, our health, and our dignity.”

Gboro recounts the transformative impact of the centre’s training programmes, particularly their focus on mangrove restoration. “Lokiakia Community Development Centre has taught us how to plant mangroves,” Gboro explains, her voice tinged with pride. “And now, thanks to Mrs. Martha Agbani’s guidance, we’re seeing life return to Kwawa Waterside. Even the periwinkles, which we thought were lost forever, are making a comeback.”

But the centre’s efforts extend beyond environmental restoration. Gboro speaks animatedly about the skills they’ve acquired, including how to make charcoal stoves—an innovation that not only reduces reliance on dwindling mangrove resources but also improves air quality and health outcomes for the community.

“The centre has taught us how to manage the pollution that’s been affecting our health,” Gboro shares. “Mrs. Martha Agbani has shown us that we can adapt and thrive, even in the face of adversity.”

Through Martha’s guidance, Gboro explains, the Lokiaka Community Development Centre has not only empowered them practically but also socially. “She’s taught us how to interact with our elders, how to advocate for ourselves, and how to ensure that women are included in community decision-making,” Gboro says with conviction. “She’s helped us find our voice.”

As Gboro reflects on the impact of the centre, her gratitude is palpable. “We’ve benefited so much,” she asserts. “We’ve been able to live successful lives despite the challenges we face. And now, with Martha’s support, we’re even able to navigate the cleanup efforts happening in our community.”

Gboro’s words paint a poignant picture of resilience and hope. Through the Lokiaka Community Development Centre, Martha Agbani has not only provided practical solutions but also empowered a community to rise above adversity, reclaim their land, and build a brighter future together.

Here is another beneficiary, Barisi Dumbir from the K-Dere Village in Ogoni, Rivers State. Nestled within the lush greenery of the Niger Delta, Barisi Dumbor tends to the mangroves within her backyard with a sense of purpose and pride. As she speaks over the phone, her voice carries a quiet determination and a hint of excitement as she shares her journey of empowerment through the Lokiaka Community Development Centre, shaping her into a steward of the environment and a beacon of hope for her community.

“It’s been an incredible journey, and I’ve learned so much,” Barisi shares, her voice filled with pride. “The organisation has taught me how to nurse mangroves and equipped me with other things. Now, I have the knowledge and skills to nurture mangroves to maturity, whether for sale or for replanting in their natural habitat by the water’s edge.”

 Barisi Dumbor nursery growing within her backyard, PC: Lokiaka Community Development Centre

Barisi’s voice reflects the newfound confidence and knowledge she has gained through the centre’s programs. “I have gained knowledge about growing mangroves and other things,” she admits. “But now, thanks to Lokiaka, I feel like I can truly make a difference in my community.”

But the impact of the centre extends beyond practical skills. Barisi speaks animatedly about the connections she has made through the program. “It’s exposed me to people from other countries,” she shares. “I’ve never had this kind of interaction before. It’s opened up a whole new world for me.”

As Barisi reflects on her journey, her voice resonates with hope and optimism. “I’m grateful for everything Lokiaka has done for me,” she says. “They’ve not only given me the tools to improve my life but also the opportunity to connect with others and make a positive impact in my community.”

Here is Barisi Dumbor nursing the mangrove within her backyard, PC: Lokiaka Community Development Centre

In Barisi’s story, we see a testament to the transformative power of education and empowerment. Through the Lokiaka Community Development Centre, she has not only gained practical skills but also a newfound sense of confidence and connection to the world beyond her village. And as she continues to nurture the mangroves in her backyard, she embodies the resilience and determination of a community determined to build a brighter future for themselves and the generations to come.

A non-governmental organisation , “We the People,” with over 7-year of existence whose activism has led to community awareness as a wake-up call to reactivate the minds of affected oil spill and gas flaring communities where oil exploration has been going on for over 66 years.

Ken Henshaw narrated how the NGO has been able to campaign for better environmental degradation that has cost many lives by being part of the unmentioned NGO that sponsored Chief Eric Dooh to battle against multinational oil companies in an international court, The Huge Court in the Netherlands.

“There is a community called GOI, and there is a chief in that community who goes by the name Eric Dooh. We supported him to go to court in the Netherlands.” Mr. Henshaw narrates how the NGO supported Chief Dooh with lawyers and finances, and he won the case.

Research has shown that flaring gas releases more methane into the atmosphere than previously believed, which can diminish the oxygen levels in the air. This reduction in oxygen intake can cause various symptoms, such as mood swings, speech difficulties, vision impairment, memory issues, nausea, vomiting, facial redness, and headaches. 

Ecological degradation in regions like the Niger Delta has sweeping effects on affected communities, touching upon their economies, social fabric, and health.

According to Dr. Favour Kingsley, a Obstetrician and Gynecologist at the Rivers State University Teaching Hospital says communities who are exposed to oil spillage areas are prone to having heart damage, stunted growth, immune system issues, respiratory issues, and even death to humans inhabiting such environments.

The necessary measures should be taken to mitigate the effect on humans such that “awareness should be done in schools, banks and municipalities on the divest from oil companies” , she says.

Speaking with Dr. Joseph Elimimian, a Surgeon at Benny’s Affordcare Walk-In Clinic reveals the grim impact of oil spillage. He explains how it disrupts nutrient balance, hindering plant growth, and contaminates grasses, leading to illnesses in animals. Residents suffer too, “experiencing memory loss, dizziness, and other health issues due to exposure to harmful chemicals.”

Dr Joseph Elimimian, PC: Helen Okechukwu

Dr. Elimimian warns of diseases like cancer and advocates for using natural plants like fescue and Bermuda grass to mitigate the effects. His words underscore the urgent need for action to protect both the environment and the health of the communities.

Government Response on the Ecological Degradation Posed by the Oil Spill from the Multinational Companies

While government responses to the environmental crisis have been mixed, some progress has been made. Legislative efforts have been initiated to tighten regulations on oil companies and promote environmental cleanup efforts. However, bureaucratic inertia and corruption continue to hinder effective implementation, leaving much work to be done.

The Federal Government of Nigeria, through the Ministry of Environment, calls for a clean-up in the affected communities and has set up committees like NOSDRA and HYPREP to mitigate and remediate the effects on human and environmental habitat.

The Ministry of Environment, via a state, was read to implore HYPREP to clean up Ogoni Land over the pollution caused by the oil spillage. “We wish to further inform the general public that President Muhammadu Buhari has, via a memo dated April 28, 2022, with Ref No. PRES/81/SGF/82 conveyed via the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, reiterated the oversight of the Federal Ministry of Environment over HYPREP and has directed the Minister of Environment to deliver on the Ogoniland cleanup with dispatch,” the statement reads.

The Minister of Environment assures that the established committee will “remediate and restore the polluted environment not only in Ogoniland but the rest of the Niger Delta and beyond.”

The impact of environmental degradation on communities in the Niger Delta cannot be overstated. From poisoned waterways to devastated farmlands, the toll on human health and well-being is staggering. Yet, amidst the adversity, stories of resilience emerge as communities rally together to reclaim their land, their livelihoods, and their future.

Looking ahead, the role of “Lokiaka Community Development and Centre” and other NGOs like “We the People” remains important in driving forward the fight for environmental justice in the Niger Delta. Through advocacy, capacity-building, and grassroots mobilisation, these organisations continue to amplify the voices of marginalised communities and push for meaningful policy reforms that prioritise people and the planet over profit.

For Martha Agbani and the dedicated team at Lokiaka Community Development Centre, the journey was far from easy, but it was one fueled by an unwavering commitment to justice, empowerment, and the belief that change begins at the grassroots.

As the sun sets over the mangroves, Martha’s gaze remains fixed on the horizon. In the heart of Lokiaka Community Development Center, the seeds of change have been planted, nurtured by the unwavering commitment of those who refuse to be silenced, together with the “We the People”, they continue to illuminate the path towards a brighter future, where women stand tall as stewards of their environment, empowered to shape their own destinies.

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One thought on “Activists Battling Environmental Degradation in the Niger Delta

  1. Good work by these great women. It’s an indication that if the people are properly informed, trained, and given the necessary incentives, then changes to a degraded environment become the people’s shared responsibility.

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