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Environmental Lip Service: The Gulf vs. The Niger Delta

June 10, 2010

When we experience something as outrageous as the Gulf oil spill, it makes me wonder just how much we- as Americans care about the entire environment, or if we tend to just focus on our little corner of the world.

Let’s take a second look at the devastation caused by the spill: wild life covered in mounds of oil- some dead, others dying a slow death. Fragile wetlands and wildlife breading grounds destroyed. Fishermen unable to work, and thus unable to sustain their families. Natural waters contaminated farther than the eyes can see or the mind can comprehend. Millions of gallons of oil continuously flowing into these waters, compounding each of these problems daily.

Now take that reality which we’ve come to know so well, and place it smack dab in the Niger delta- in Africa.

You may find this hard to believe, but in fact, more oil is spilled in the delta every year than has been lost in the Gulf coast with this recent spill.

That disaster, which took the lives of 11 oil rig workers, is headline news everywhere you look. But little is known about the destruction done to the Niger delta or the people who live there. Though ignorance to this plight appears to win out, ironically, it’s the destruction these spills have caused that provide us with a realistic picture of the cost of drilling for oil in today’s market.

The Niger Delta is an area of dense mangrove rainforest in the southern tip of Nigeria, comprises nine of Nigeria’s thirty-six states: Abia, Akwa Ibom, Bayelsa, Cross River, Delta, Edo, Imo, Ondo, and Rivers. The region’s oil accounts for approximately 90 percent of the value of Nigeria’s exports, but the Niger Delta remains one of Nigeria’s least developed regions. With more than 600 oilfields, the Niger delta supplies 40% of all the crude the United States imports and is the world capital of oil pollution.

Competition for oil wealth has fueled violence between ethnic groups, causing the militarization of nearly the entire region by ethnic militia groups as well as Nigerian military and police forces.

The people of the Niger Delta have suffered an unprecedented degradation of their environment due to unchecked pollution produced by the oil industry. As a result of this policy of dispossessing people from their lands in favor of foreign oil interests, within a single generation, many now have no ability to fish or farm. People living in the Niger Delta have found themselves in a situation where their government and the international oil companies own all the oil under their feet, the revenues of which are rarely seen by the people who are suffering from the consequences of it.

Kenneth Roth, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, has said of the situation, “The oil companies can’t pretend they don’t know what’s happening all around them. The Nigerian government obviously has the primary responsibility to stop human rights abuse. But the oil companies are directly benefiting from these crude attempts to suppress dissent, and that means they have a duty to try and stop it.”

Life expectancy in its rural communities, half of which have no access to clean water, has fallen to little more than 40 years old over the past two generations. Locals blame the oil that pollutes their land and can hardly believe the steps taken by BP and the US government to try to stop the Gulf oil leak and to protect the Louisiana shoreline from pollution; it’s a relief and recovery effort they’ve only ever been able to dream about– but have never received.

Many agree; if the Gulf spill happened in Nigeria, neither the government or the company would pay much attention beyond protecting their profits. Spills the size of the one in the Gulf are a regular occurrence in the delta.

And we may only have seen the tip of the iceberg. Many industry experts are beginning to reluctantly admit that major spills are likely to increase in the coming years as oil companies try to drill oil from remote areas with difficult terrain. Future supplies will be offshore, deeper and harder to work. When things go wrong, it will be harder to respond.

There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t hear someone say BP should face criminal charges for the Gulf spill, for the damage done to the environment, and for the level of risk they’ve exposed oil workers- and now cleanup workers- to for many years.

But the environment isn’t limited to what lies off our shores, the environment is international- it knows no bounds.  Human rights aren’t limited to Americans- they are for everyone, everywhere.

If we want to take BP to task for this latest disaster- for the environment or for the people, then we have to look at Shell, Exxon and other companies operating around the world.

Otherwise all our talk about demanding justice is just that- talk.

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