Nigeria: They are Making Money but People are Dying Out There, Says Nigerian Activist #AfricaClimateHope

Sharm el-Sheikh — While global activism on the climate crisis has gained momentum, the people who are on the frontlines of these struggles – environmental human rights defenders – face the gravest risks to protect their homes and communities.

Indigenous leaders, activists, journalists, human rights and environmental defenders who speak up to protect the rights of their communities, face danger and sometimes even death for their work. A report by Global Witness shows that more than 1,700 environmental activists have been murdered in the past decade, often with the involvement of corporations or their own governments. In cases where the motive was available, mining and logging companies were the most common perpetrators. Indigenous populations were the most common victims with 39% of the casualties, often from low-income communities directly affected by industrial pollution,” the report said.

Environmental defenders remain highly vulnerable and under attack across the globe. Their stories of how they protect their families and loved ones are often told in local contexts, but their work carries enormous global importance. Their activities are constantly under increasing pressure not only from the companies that destroy the planet and pollute it but also from the governments passing legislation criminalising them.

While many are harassed, threatened, intimidated, or criminalised, they never give up and continue to speak out and stand up for their work in addressing the climate emergency as well as pollution, and nature loss. Often they are imprisoned or killed for exposing corruption in large development projects or for speaking out against extractives, deforestation, and loss of cultural heritage or identity.

However, there have been some significant victories for environmental campaigners. In South Africa last year, Indigenous communities from the Wild Coast of South Africa’s Eastern Cape won a legal victory over Shell, forcing the company to halt oil exploration in whale-breeding grounds. The judgment outlined a number of reasons for the ruling including the fact that local communities whose cultural and subsistence fishing rights would be affected were not consulted in any meaningful way.

On the frontlines of Nigeria’s oil fields

The United Nations Environment Programme says that oil exploration and production in the Niger Delta began in the late 1950s but that operations were suspended in Ogoniland in the early 1990s due to disruptions from local protests. The oilfields and installations have since largely remained dormant but major oil pipelines still cross through Ogoniland and oil spills continue to affect the region, due to a lack of maintenance and vandalism.

Environmentalist and human rights activist, Celestine Akpobari shares how environmental and climate activism is connected to defending democracy and human rights. Akpobari is the National Coordinator at the Ogoni Solidarity Forum in Nigeria.

“It’s difficult, it’s difficult because you’re not living your own life. You live for people, you live for society. And you create so many enemies, enemies with the oil companies who would not want to do the right thing. Enemies with government collaborators, who do not want to know whether the community people where they are extracting oil or suffering or not. They don’t want to know whether you have your rights or not.”

Akpobari gives some background on the painful history of oil exploration in the region. “Ogoni history is a public one. Ken Saro-Wiwa was executed by the Nigerian government in 1995 for leading a struggle to make Shell oil in Nigeria clean up their mess in Ogoni. They said that he was leading a dangerous campaign that would stop oil production. He was famous and executed … But the only consolation is that since we stopped production in 1993, today, they have not been able to resume operations.”

With so many activists being killed Akpobari is not unaware of the dangers of speaking out about the injustices facing his community.One thing I’ve observed is that to be an activist, some people are there for food or for lack of job. But if you’re into it passionately, if you were born into it, fear is taken away from you. In fact, you live by the second … I’ve been arrested, with several restrictions because of the job.”

Activists at COP27 have spoken on their hopes for the climate talks but also about their frustrations around access to the talks itself as well as the strong presence of multinationals especially from the oil and gas sector.

Akpobari’s expectations for talks centre on clear progress on cleaning up oil spills and stopping oil extraction in Nigeria’s oil rich communities. “My expectation is that those who have polluted our environment pay for the mess that they have generated and to stop further extraction of oil and to stop going for new territories to extract oil in Africa because people are dying … they are making their money but people are dying out there. It’s a death sentence, that there is carbon in the air and that there is a carcinogens in the water that we drink.”

This story was produced as part of the 2022 Climate Change Media Partnership, a journalism fellowship organized by Internews’ Earth Journalism Network and the Stanley Center for Peace and Security.

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