Black Gold Oil and Ore in Biafra and Brang Ahafo

This is a two-part article which will look at the impacts of American resource consumption in two different communities in West Africa through the lens of my experience working for the USAID 'Farmer to Farmer' Program. We'll also explore a few of the innovative ways some Africans are breaking from European food production models in ecologically and culturally appropriate ways.Niger_Delta.jpg All sources of quotes are cited via weblink.

Part 1:
'Oil Rivers'
Niger Delta
Southeastern Nigeria
Port Harcourt, Owerri, Imo State

(Google satellite imagery.)

Viva Biafra!

In 2006, I was recruited by FarmServe Africa to work for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) 'Farmer to Farmer' program as an added-value apiculture products specialist in Nigeria and Ghana. While I was excited to share my passion, knowledge, and expertise about honeybees and the many healthful products of the hive, I knew I had much more to learn than I did to teach.

My limited knowledge of the ecology of West Africa's rain forests and Sahel came more from books than real experience, and I’d never observed the habits of bees- either wild or kept- in their indigenous environment. I’d be researching nectar sources, pollination roles, seasonal behaviors, traditional beekeeping techniques, honey hunting practices, medicinal herbs and oils suitable for apitherapy products, and continually making new discoveries as I worked. But most importantly, I had everything to learn about the people- the cultures and communities that would be my hosts.

The trip continually confronted my preconceptions and assumptions about Africa, myself, and my place there. I was forced to reevaluate the continent’s tangled history and the complex legacies of colonialism, racism, missionaries, oil extraction, mining, corrupt government, social hierarchies, and more. I’d like to share a few brief views I gleaned there that present humanity’s most beautiful aspects, and a few that show some of our worst.

I first touched African soil (or at least concrete on top of it) in Port Harcourt, and there breathed the dank air of the Niger River Delta. Before leaving, I read the U.S. Department of State’s explicit ‘Travel Warnings’ for this particular area. They advised “avoiding all but essential travel to the Niger Delta” due to the prevalence of “violent crime committed by individuals and gangs, as well as... persons wearing police and military uniforms”, the frequency of “armed muggings, assaults, burglary, kidnappings, and extortion, often involving violence, as well as carjackings, roadblock robberies, and armed break-ins”, and “communal violence that could erupt quickly and without warning”. On the plane, I read a photocopied chapter from a travel guidebook I was given: this area was "not a destination for first-timers to Africa".

While these quotes may make for a dramatic beginning to my story, I’m troubled to even repeat them- they portray anything but the character of Africa and the Nigerian people. Once quotes like these, and the Niger Delta’s reputation in general, are placed in proper context, we find resistance to systemic exploitation and a struggle for autonomy. Instead of perpetuating the fear reflected in the Deptartment of State’s warnings, we can find opportunity for solidarity and mutual aid with some of the most gentle, hospitable, and inspiring peoples on the planet.

From 1967 to 1970, this area seceded from Nigeria as the Republic of Biafra, which resulted in the tremendously violent Nigerian Civil War (or Nigerian-Biafran war). The causes of the secession and ensuing war were many and complex, but the ‘country of Nigeria’ had been over 300 diverse and distinct cultures relatively randomly ‘unified’ into a territory defined by British colonists. Unlike the other areas that were traditionally ruled by Monarchs or Sultans, the Southeast was predominantly Igbo, a collection of about 600 autonomous, democratically-organized villages, where decisions were made in a general assembly in which everyone could participate. It seems as if dividing the country would have been mutually agreeable, until the tremendous value of the Delta region’s oil reserves was realized by the ruling elite of Northern Nigeria.

Today, this oil- known as ‘Bonny Light’- is highly sought after due to its low sulfur content and easy refinement into gasoline and diesel. Over 2.5 million barrels a day are shipped to the United Sates and Europe. However, it has continued to be nothing but a ‘curse’ to the peoples that live on top of it. Since the government nationalized its oil industry in 1971, the delta wetlands, mangroves, and maze of creeks have been dominated by the industry, its sky is lit by gas flares day and night. (The continued burning of natural gas from oil wells in the Niger Delta is the single greatest single sourse of greenhouse gas on the planet, despite the practive being outlawed over 20 years ago.) Along the 4,500 plus miles of pipelines, there have been over 6,817 oil spills reported by the government (and analysts estimate that number to be about 1/10 of the actual number of spills: about 70,000 oil spills since 1976!).
(Ed Kashi's photo from National Geographic)

In the communities where the oil is drilled, there are no schools, no clean water, and no longer fish to catch. As engineers lay road through marshes and pipeline through mangrove swamps, spawning grounds and stream courses are disturbed, threatening the livelihood of entire villages, entire ecosystems.
While its easy to point the finger at the multinational corporations drilling in this region (Royal Dutch Shell, Total, Agip, ExxonMobil, and Chevron- in case you’d like to) and Americans’ blood-thirst for oil (as I once thought I could do for almost all of our problems), there is rampant corruption within the Nigerian national government and distribution of the country’s energy wealth. Its estimated that in 2003, for instance, about 70% of oil revenues were stolen or wasted- almost none of the money makes it to the communities most impacted. A legacy of their defeat in the civil war over 30 years ago, Igbo and other Biafran Nigerians are underrepresented in their national government.

Perhaps, we can now come to a better understanding of Nigeria’s supposedly violent reputation- is it random violence? Rampant criminality? I’m not trying to excuse this violence- but I’ll ask you to try on their shoes: how would you react if someone were sucking out the sap blood of the earth beneath your feet, poisoning your waters, destroying your fish-based traditional diet, removing the forest, darkening the skies with smoke, lighting the night with gas flares, fouling the smell of the air, and taking by force? While the corporations make record profits, and Nigerian politicians buy mansions in the U.S. and send their children to private schools in London, your community is relocated to make way for an oil field and offered nothing but toxicity and squalor in exchange.

Well, I don’t know what you would do, but increasingly the delta’s young men are turning to arms. “The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta ("MEND") is a militant indigenous people's movement dedicated to armed struggle against what they regard as the exploitation and oppression of the people of the Niger Delta and the degradation of the natural environment by foreign multinational corporations involved in the extraction of oil in the Niger Delta and the Federal Government of Nigeria.”
(Again, the work of Ed Kashi.)

Of course, the motorboat militants hiding throughout the delta, striking oil fields, kidnapping expatriates, and prompting the travel warnings aren’t the only actions in response to such intolerable exploitation. Women and girls, arguably more directly affected by the region’s pollution, are at the forefront of nonviolent protest. Occupying corporate facilities, and employing one of the most powerful protest tactics used throughout Africa- the “curse of nakedness”- the women are having some of the most notable results. Exposing themselves “to inspire a deep sense of shame in their enemies”, mothers and grandmothers are closing oil terminals, airstrips, and docks, demanding local employment, improvements in infrastructure, and assistance in developing poultry production, fish farms, and other sustainable agricultural endeavors.

Here enter agricultural aid workers like myself. Although my presence was not the direct result of such dramatic actions, I did work with incredibly inspiring groups of women. Wanting to move beyond farming just for their families, these women banded together in collectives to learn beekeeping techniques, and develop and market added-value products like candles, cosmetics, cough medicines, salves, and more.external image moz-screenshot.jpg
(Dr. Frank Wilson and the author pictured with a rural women's beekeeping collective.)

Perhaps the most challenging aspect of this work was my struggle to shun the ‘authority of the expert’, counter the legacies of missionaries before me, and debunk the ‘foreigner has the answers (we don’t) mentality’. The skills I brought were valued, but the sharing of information was mutual- I was equally a student. I can only hope my genuine curiosity and esteem helped build respect and reverence for traditional culture. As agricultural advice, I stressed that direct observation of ecology and ecological relationships would be a far better teacher than myself, other ‘experts’, or books can ever be. I have much more hope for the solutions that arise from these sources- ecology and traditional culture- than any western models or industrial ideals.

While these women, and many people I met in my travel and work, were undertaking the inspiring work of growing good food, community building, and achieving ecological livelihood, most people in the city of Owerri (where I was housed) were looking for something else altogether. I’m not sure why this would be surprising (perhaps idealized notions from growing up listening to Afro-centric Hip Hop and Roots Reggae, or my immersion in permaculture and progressive agrarian communities in Vermont), but nonetheless I was disappointed to find most people embracing the dominant paradigms of capitalism, euro-centric culture, evangelical christianity, and even racism. Like almost anywhere else in the world, people seemed to want office jobs, big houses, televisions, cars, their own cell phones and computers, and material wealth more than they wanted healthy, intact ecosystems, real food, or to retain traditional knowledge and culture. Billboards depicted those without cellphones as primitive savages, and ‘roots culture’ was seen by surprisingly many as backward, or even ‘sinful darkness’ from which Africa had been ‘saved’. At least in the city, farming was anything but ‘cool’- it was a status symbol to not have to grow your own food. Even many of the extension agents and farm trainers I worked with would wear impressive suits and dresses, lest they be mistaken as actual farmers themselves.
external image 125px-Flag_of_Biafra.svg.png

In the countryside, I’d see the flag of Biafra waving, traditional culture seemed vibrant, and lush, fruitful anthropogenic rain forest surrounded many villages. While culture was equally rich in the city, and many important traditions were maintained- it was often hard to see through all the diesel smoke, power outages, and frighteningly common fatal car accidents. I could viscerally feel the rapid expansion of roads, vehicles, plastic garbage, and unplanned development racing out of the city in every direction, with biological diversity, health, and beauty moving just as fast in the other direction. Electronic garbage was beginning to accumulate everywhere. There was no waste management system of any sort beyond random dumping and piling trash in the center of roads- which served as de facto medians for the disordered traffic patterns. For the few hours during the day that the grid was on- or the generators running- there was MTV, American movies with Arabic subtitles, and American televangelical programs.

In the midst of this mad scramble for ‘an American way of life’, however, I found some of the most inspiring examples of ‘permaculture’ I’ve seen anywhere in the world- even though they’d never heard the word. One place I was able to spend significant time with was the Enyihoa farming co-operative, where I first experienced some of the amazing innovations in sub-Saharan African Sustainable agriculture. Besides their novelty to me, and their beauty, these systems particularly struck me with their cultural relevance and as distinct manifestations of the ecosystem they emerged from.
(The author pictured with Enyihoa Co-operative Farms staff, Imo State ADP staff, and our top-bar beehive.)

At Enyihoa, the farm fields- largely bananas and papaya over pineapple-were laid out between ‘Snaileries’: heliciculutural polycultures producing the Giant African Snail. The species was most likely Achatina achatina, the largest terrestrial snail on earth- and the systems were an example of ‘additive yield’ at its finest. The snails, a threatened indigenous species, have always been highly valued as delicacies and relative inaccessibility. Recently, they’ve become over-hunted in the wild due to their tremdously high market price and culinary value, compounded by burgeoning demand in Asia and Asian markets all over the world. In the snaileries, the snails were kept fenced in an environment much like their habitat in the wild- the debris of the tropical rainforest floor. However, in this system, the canopy was comprised of propagated bananas interplanted with cassava, a staple root crop. At Enyihoa, the snaileries were surrounded by catfish ponds, providing further yield of fish, and by way of relative location, working as ‘moats’ that protect the snails from voracious tropical ants and other predators. Whether called “Permaculture” or not, this was good ecological design- and our favorite principles are manifest.
(Achatina achatina out of the snailery, these were a little bigger than my fist. For more Heliciculture Polyculture photos, click here.)

In the larger ‘Free Range Paddock’ snailery, there’s yet another function stacked into the system, and another new character in the cast of sustainable tropical agriculture. The duiker, a miniature antelope endemic to the rainforests of Sub-Saharan Africa, are a prized game meat, though exceptionally difficult to hunt. In the wild, they are notoriously shy and elusive. 'Duiker' comes from 'diver'- as the few times they are seen is as they dart away into tangled undergrowth. The duiker at Enyihoa, also browsing the understory of banana cassava polyculture and coexisting peacefully with the snails, was a lone male they were hoping to find a mate to breed. Having grown up with humans as protectors and providers, this duiker was as friendly as a pet dog- he wanted to kiss and jump into my lap.
(Images by the author. For more Duiker images, click here.)

Elsewhere in the region, folks were maintaining the tradition of tapping palm trees for palm wine. In many areas, palms are cut down to be tapped, but the Igbo traditions are careful to leave the tree alive and healthy. Another critical staple food comes from palms, red palm oil, which is used for cooking and as a fuel.
(Palm kernal chaff and fresh pressed red palm oil.)
(The kernals just after harvest, all photos author.)

This crop was so important, the Niger River Delta came to be known as 'Oil Rivers'. In fact, it was named 'The British Oil Rivers Protectorate' from 1885 until 1893. While the name ironically still holds true, Its a shame that its for an entirely diferent reason.