Bodo City, Whenyozor, Sugii and K-dere communities in Ogoni part of Rivers State prided themselves in the variety of crops and seafood they produced. They farmed the land and explored the waters around them for aquatic foods. The local economy is tied to the richness of the land and waters.
But two large oil spillage in 2008 changed all that. The spillage left many farmlands degraded and the people no longer able to cultivate crops.
The few who still farm now get poor yields. Some of the aquatic foods can no longer be found as the species did not survive the pollution of their habitat.
“We no dey see big fish catch again, even when I fish overnight reach Bonny-Opobo-Andoni boundary, na still small fish I go catch,” Sunday Monday, a fisherman, said in Pidgin English.
“This fishing no dey like before again wey person dey come back sell for better money,” Mr Monday lamented as he spoke with the reporter at his frontyard.
Sunday Beibari, the community head of Whenyozor in Gokana Local Government Area of Rivers State, said a particular specie of cocoyam which the locals call “Coco-India” has stopped growing in the area.
The specie, Taro root, is believed to be native to southern India but is a staple food for people in these communities. Mr Beibari, a farmer, said the locals eat Coco-India ”either with palm oil or as porridge.”
“Coco-India is ruined out completely. Once the polluted air touches it, it kills it. When you plant it, it begins to grow but as soon as it perceives the smell of crude oil, it stops growing.”
He also said vegetables like watermelon and cucumber have stopped growing in his community, while seafoods like oysters, periwinkles and snails are now scarce in its swamps.
“I used to grow cucumber and watermelon in my backyard here, but I stopped in 2015 following the almost no-yield I got that year. Move around in the village and you won’t see these things again, even melon and ugwu (pumpkin leaf) are really scarce now.
“As a Rivers man, we can’t do without seafood, we use periwinkle in all our soups even in our porridge and even the oyster. But they are really scarce now, making them expensive to buy.
“There are some species of fresh fish that we have lost. Most of these big fish cannot survive in this crude oil-polluted water. We are now left with small tilapia and some other tiny fishes,” he said.
Oil pollution in Ogoni dates back to the 1970s. In 2011, the Federal Government invited the United Nations to do an ‘environmental audit’ of the Ogoni environment after over 50 years of oil exploration in the Niger Delta.
The study concluded that environmental restoration of these areas is possible but may take 25 to 30 years of continuous remediation.
Recommendations were made to the government, urging it to begin a comprehensive cleanup of the area so as to restore the polluted areas.
According to the UNEP report, pollution of the soil in Ogoniland is extensive in land areas, settlements and swampy land.
The clean-up process seems to be taking forever to really start. A PREMIUM TIMES investigation revealed that the companies awarded the contracts have no experience in environmental-related issues.
But Marvin Dekil, the coordinator of the Hydro-carbon Pollution Remediation Project, in a recent report by PREMIUM TIMES, said the Buhari administration was committed to the clean-up.
In an earlier interview, he told PREMIUM TIMES that despite the concerns and frustration of the people, the remediation of the pollution has started and is on course.
“Between April 2017 when we came on board and now, we have done extensive work, including the scoping of the contaminated environment, sensitisation of the communities and procurement activities,” he said.
“We have addressed some of the emergency measures by carrying out medical outreach in two phases. We have attended to about 20,000 patients, carried out about 400 surgeries, and have trained about 50 scientists in two phases as well. We started with 15 scientists who carried out remediation demonstration across the four local government areas, and we trained an additional 35 scientists in collaboration with NDDC.”‘
‘Pollution damaging our farmland, water’
The indigenous Ogoni people are known for farming and fishing. Those who spoke with PREMIUM TIMES said since the pollution of their environment, anything planted does not bring yields as expected.
This is as a result of the contamination of the soil by hydrocarbon, which usually causes disruptions of the natural balance between living species and their natural environment.
The farmers said they have been having poor harvests for close to a decade.
Cassava is a staple food in that part of Nigeria. Though the tuber is drought-tolerant, its yield in Gokana has been poor because of the overwhelming effect of the pollution of the soil.
“Farming is part of me, I can’t just leave the land bare. But the sweat is much more than the harvest,” Anthonia Vipena, a mother of eight, told PREMIUM TIMES.
She was working on her farm in Bodo City in Gokana Local Government Area of Rivers despite a threatening downpour when PREMIUM TIMES visited.
But the unfavourable weather was not her main problem.
Tilling her farm to remove the chaff of the melon plant, Mrs Vipena struggled to cut off the yellow twigs of the cassava plant in the hope of a better one that will yield a sizeable root.
She said she was still farming because it is her only means of livelihood.
“Before, I used to get close to 10 big bowls of garri (cassava) on a plot of land, but now, I can hardly get two bowls. It is really frustrating,” she said.
Mrs Vipena said food items had become expensive unlike in the past ”when everything was growing in abundance.” She saw no hope of remediation of their land in the foreseeable future.
A small bowl of garri in these communities goes for at least N500 as against the N400 cost in the state’s capital city, Port Harcourt.
“Out of about six farmlands I have, I can only farm on two because I don’t consider the others productive again. Ordinary grass don’t grow on them, do you know what that means?” Patricia Denwa told the reporter.
Mrs Denwa said she was no longer able to pay the tuition fees of her nephew who is an orphan ”or assist two of my married daughters as I normally did.”
She blamed her situation on the dwindling yields of her farm.
“Before now, I can harvest enough cassava to get up to four ‘Babangida’ basins, which I sell and send some to my children. But now, I hardly get one basin because a lot of the roots die.”
Rusi Leso lives in Sugii community in Gokana LGA. She was helping her mother process garri inside their compound when the reporter visited.
She said low farm yields had not only affected cassava but also other crops.
The 40-year-old said: “We used to produce six to seven basins. Now it is not up to two. Also, crops like okro, tomato, vegetables, garden egg, cocoyam, yam, water yam have become so scarce because they barely survive when planted.”
Her mother, Bariley Minigan, 85, said before now, ”a plot of cassava farm can take up to two months to harvesting but since the oil spill, it barely takes three days to harvest because of low yield.”
She said this also affects the palm tree and has reduced the harvest of palm fruits drastically.
Residents of the other communities in the four local government areas of Ogoniland have similar tales to tell. The effects of enviromental pollution from oil spillage are felt across the area.
‘No Government intervention’
The residents of these communities said they have not had any support from the government concerning their degraded farmlands.
They said they rely on fertiliser they source by themselves.
“In the beginning, we had no cause to use fertilisers, everything that grows here comes naturally. But now, the yields even after applying fertilisers are poor,” Grace Bakpo said.
Mrs Bakpo, who resides in Bdere community of the Gokana local government, said she only produces enough for her household to consume ”even after using up to five bags of fertiliser.”
An agribusiness expert, Donald Akule, said in order to get better yields in the area, ”biodegradable manure should be used on the contaminated soil’.
“Mitigating factors have to be applied to reduce the hydrocarbon contamination,” he said. “Government should educate the people of Ogoniland on new and improved ways of farming in such areas.”
Turning to illegal crude oil refining
Crude oil theft and illegal refining continue to be a challenge in Ogoniland.
An Ogoni rights activist, Ledum Mitee, said the only way this can stop is to provide the people legitimate occupation to avoid further complications of the pollution, as recommended by the UN.
“As we speak, the so-called artisanal refining is going on, which further complicates the issue of pollution. The UNEP report gave an alternative occupation for the artisans so they can move away and give room for the cleanup,” he said.
Mrs Bakpo confirmed that illegal refining affects farmlands in the Ogoni community.
“After the people had waited for the government to do something about the spoilt land and help was not forthcoming, people started ‘bunkering’ which further spoilt the land. But no one can blame those boys,” Mrs Bakpo said.
‘Many obituaries… health hazard killing us’
Micheal Vipene, who identified himself as one of the leaders of the local council, said consuming food crops grown from the polluted soil has been having adverse effects on the health of the people.
“Up till now, we are suffering the same thing as the first day the spill occurred. Nothing whatsoever has been done to it. You can see posters of obituaries around, it is as a result of inhaling all these things day in day out,” he said.
Many of the villagers prefer going to see local chemists rather than going to the hospital when they are ill.
“Na to dey turn-turn person, waste time, still collect my money on top,” Gracie, a mother-of-three who came for treatment at a chemist, said.
Mrs Gracie was being treated for candidiasis, a fungal infection.
The owner of the local pharmacy, Bridget Nakpee, who they popularly address as “Nurse”, said the infection was as a result of ”bathing with and drinking contaminated water as well as the air’.
“Hepatitis A is common here, though very mild. Also, we have cases of measles, rashes and other skin irritation. We thought they were a result of cream reaction until we started noticing (them) in children.
“There are many other curable illnesses like typhoid as a result of the crude (oil) in the water we drink and these people are not enlightened enough to seek help on time,” the nurse said.
”Little or nothing has been done about sensitising the people on how they could stay healthy given their peculiar condition,” Mrs Nakpee said
A robotics expert who seeks to help farmers in the area through his technology innovations, Ndubuisi Ekekwe, said his firm does not render services to farmers ”unless they come in groups or through the government”.
“To use such a high-end technology as this, the farmers have to be serviced in a group,” he said.
“We just need to understand the mechanics and chemical composition of the soil in order to mitigate it. If they have hydrocarbon in their soil, that means they have to apply fertiliser or chemicals that have to mitigate that impact and it can also be by remediation. Somebody has to go and look for soil somewhere else in Rivers State, spread it on top,” he said.
On the poor yields of farmlands, he said ”it is as a result of a mismatch in what the crop needs and what the soil is providing”.
The Rivers State Governor’ spokesperson, Simeon Nwakaudu, did not pick several calls by PREMIUM TIMES to find out what the government was doing to ameliorate the suffering of the communities.
Mr Nwakaudu also did not reply to a text message sent to him.