Several decades after the discovery of oil in the Nigeria Delta region, inhabitants of the region continue to suffer degradation of their environment as JOY EMMANUEL reports.
When the oil was first discovered in Oloibiri in present day Bayelsa state many felt it would change the landscape of the region. While the inhabitants if the region acknowledge there is a change, they however say, the change has left the regions ecosystem depleted and completely degraded.
They argue that the activities of oil companies has left the peoples of the region many tines battling with the devastating effect of the oil spill which is not only caused by oil companies alone but also by the destructive effect of pipeline vandals who are set on their nefarious ways of trying to get their share of the ‘national cake’.
While analysts continue to heap the blame for the destruction of the environment in the region, vandals’ activities continue to pose a serious challenge to the task of maintaining a clean environment.
And the issue was brought to the front burner once again at the presentation of an Interim Report by the Chairman of the Bayelsa State Oil and Environmental Commission in Yenagoa, Bayelsa State.
‘Degradation serious and lamentable’
Firing the first salvo, Archbishop of New York, the Most Rev. John Sentamu described the pollution occasioned by oil exploration and exploitation activities as a slow environmental genocide that is destroying lives and properties in Bayelsa State.
Archbishop Sentamu who is also a member of the British Parliament slammed the international oil companies operating in the state for failing to uphold best standards as they do elsewhere in the world.
Sentamu who noted that the Commission spent the past 7 months conducting researches in all the eight local government areas of the state, described the level of degradation as serious and lamentable.
He said apart from losing lives and its ecosystem, the Commission’s findings revealed that communities in the state are deprived economically and lack access to justice.
He assured the state government of his commitment to telling the Bayelsa story, and the need for collective action against the excesses of oil companies in the area.
“Environment knows no national boundaries. We all have a responsibility to care for the environment and it is for this reason I accepted to chair this commission,” he stressed.
“Oil and gas exploration has had an adverse impact on Bayelsa’s lives, water systems, biodiversity and its people. Over the past seven months, the Commission has been investigating and gathering evidences about the activities of oil companies.
“The Commission has spoken to hundreds of people across the eight local government areas of the state on the impact of environmental degradation and the wide ranging effect on the people.
“I believe that what we have seen amounts to a slow environmental genocide taking place here in Bayelsa and this has been allowed to go on for over fifty years.
“First of all, I don’t want to call it corruption but organised theft, regionally and nationally on an unprecedented scale. Corruption for me is too thin a word to describe what is going on here.
“We need a sort of moral outrage; we ought to express what is happening to the people of Bayelsa. Companies have done an incredible level of damage and they can’t just be allowed to get away with it any longer.
“Our interim report details the environmental and health degradation, economic devastation, disestablishment of communities and lack of access to justice by the people.
“So, it is our hope that as a commission , we can exert increased pressure on multi-national oil companies to operate through the same legal and moral responsibility in Bayelsa State and they do in the UK, US and elsewhere,” Sentamu said.
Galvanising international support
The Secretary and member of BSOEC, Dr Kathryn Nwajiaku, said the final report which is expected in January next year will help in galvanizing international support for the struggle for a better Bayelsa environment.
According to Prof Engobo Emeseh “Some of us have been watching what’s happening in Bayelsa over the past 20 years. My observation is that things are getting worse, not better. I was shocked by noticing in many communities along the creeks that we visited.
“The expert team who visited expressed shock at the findings of the Commission in all the communities.
According to them, the people are not only subjected to penury and health challenges but that even their survival is under threat as the ecosystem of the area is gradually going into extinction.
“In some areas you don’t even see a single bird. You don’t hear bird song. And when you don’t hear a bird’s song in a place like the Niger Delta, you know that the situation is very serious. It poses a lot of worry.
“But I’m not hoping but committed to making sure the Commission Report will not be like any other report about the Niger Delta. The difference I’m hoping and working for is that we will galvanize and mobilize internationally. Bayelsa lives matter and that’s the reason we will continue to do our work.”
Mobilising international support
In his response, Governor Seriake Dickson, expressed gratitude to the Chairman and members of the Commission for doing a thorough job, which he noted would help in telling the often neglected Bayelsa story.
He also thanked the team, particularly Archbishop Sentamu for committing to mobilize international support against what he described as environmental terrorism in the state and the Niger Delta region.
While calling on people of the state to be conscious of their environment, he directed the Commissioner for Environment to create a website to beam information concerning environmentally unfriendly activities such as oil spills and illegal refineries.
He said, “first, on behalf of the government and good people of our state who a victims of the ongoing genocidal environmental degradation so aptly captured in this report, I will like to thank my lord, the Archbishop and members of the Commission and all who have been part of this documentation of the most tragic but often ignored stories of our state.
“The interim report among other things talks about a silent health crisis and which is why I have always referred what the oil companies are doing in our state, the Ijaw nation and the Niger Delta as an environmental terrorism. It is real, insidious but very silent.
“It kills people by installment and in advance. All our people are affected. If you take our blood levels and those who are not living in this our area, you will be shocked.
“But I’m glad the Chairman and members of the Commission are not only committed to this document but also to galvanize international opinion and action and to continue to prick the conscience of the world to know that beyond making money and seeing crude oil as a part of international diplomacy, that there is a real-life story of our people and that in the end Bayelsa lives matter.”