Gbarakoo: There is total lack of commitment to Ogoni cleanup

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Secretary General of the Ogoni Environment Foundation (OEF) cum environmental entomologist, Dr. Tambeke Gbarakoo, told KELVIN EBIRI, that the delay in the cleanup of Ogoni Land, and failure to provide basic amenities, seven years after the publication of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report on the area, speaks volumes about the Federal Government and oil companies’ lack of commitment to carry out the exercise.

Six years after, can the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Report on Ogoni Land, still be relied on for the cleanup of the area?
I will say no. This is because of what is happening in the Niger Delta. In the last seven years, it could happen that there are fresh contamination even in those areas where contamination occurred earlier and evaluation was carried out. You can’t afford another spill because that increases the toxicity level of the pollutant around there, but the key thing is that something must be done because the noise about the cleanup is much. Mind you, it is not only cleaning that particular area that is of much concern to us. There are certain preliminary things to be done to assure the people that the cleaning will be done, including the provision of potable water and healthcare facilities for the people. This will give them hope that the government is ready to clean the place. But when you emphasise cleaning and things that ought to be done are left undone, what hope does the Ogoni man have that his farm is actually going to be cleaned? These are the issues. If you look at the UNEP report, you will see that there are certain things that are to be done, which have not been done.

For instance, in the area of healthcare, we have existing hospitals in Ogoni, but has the government furnished them with necessary equipment? It is not coming to build new hospitals that is the issue, the ones that are there should be equipped enough to address challenges arising from oil pollution because health situation is very precarious in Ogoni Land.

Is the cleanup not turning out to be mere political gimmick?
I don’t want to discuss whether it is political or not. We want to look at the realities on ground. We at the Ogoni Environmental Foundation (OEF) are following up the process. We want to see how the thing is being implemented. The Hydro-carbon Pollution Restoration Project (HYPREP) coordinator is going round the area sensitising the people about what to expect. They talked about training some youths that would be engaged in the cleanup. If you ask me, I don’t know if the HYPREP coordinator has a functional office. You are aware that they came to Bori and did the groundbreaking (without a contractor, or any architectural design) for what is expected to be office for the Centre of Excellence, where people will be trained. Several months after, there is nothing on ground there. So, who are we deceiving? As stakeholders, we should be able to say that since the groundbreaking ceremony, this is the level the building has reached or this is the contractor, but they are always on air talking about the cleanup when there is no serious commitment on the side of the government. One would have expected that infrastructure would be on ground by now so that you can see people working in the offices and you can also know from them when they are going to the field to commence the exercise. These things are not there.

Is there a nexus between government’s apparent lack of commitment and the fact that oil drilling is currently not taking place in Ogoni?
If that is what the government thinks right now, what will be its thinking in the future about the entire Niger Delta? Ogoni is just a part of the area that produces oil. If because oil exploration is not going on there, as a government, are you supposed to abandon the area and go to areas where you are exploring oil? That obviously does not show commitment on the part of the government.

So, we can safely say that government is not committed to the project?
There is no commitment. Let’s start from the Ministry of Environment. Since groundbreaking ceremony, what has the ministry done? Apart from asking a few questions about how much has been expended in the cleanup recently, what has the National Assembly really done? Is there any befitting office for HYPREP since the groundbreaking ceremony took place, or has any contactor been awarded contract to construct the office structure? Generally when you look at all these things, you will discover that there is simply no commitment as nothing is going on about the cleanup. Where is the training going on for people they have recruited from the area that will partake in the exercise, or is it supposed to be hidden? Even the provision of potable water that the United Nations recommended, has not been done. Go to Ogoni now if you can find an alternative to what has been existing in terms of water facilities. There is total lack of commitment.
It is not enough to appoint a project coordinator for HYPREP and then no provision is made for him to function. One danger is that by now the people are still hopeful that something is going to happen, but once that hope is lost, it is going to be difficult for even HYPREP to operate in the area. So, the Federal Government needs to utilise the confidence it is enjoying now in Ogoni and not allow it to wane because once that happens, it will be difficult to operate in the area.

Ogoni is predominately known for fishing. What is the situation there now?
Fishing activities is drastically low. If you go to the shore in Bodo, a fishing community, the catch fishermen would come back with is not like what it used to be before, and this is a very serious issue. In fact, we have done a lot of researches like the one we are doing now. Children like to feed on crickets, especially during the raining season. Most of the areas where they get these crickets are polluted. The consequence is better imagined.

Should there be a re-evaluation of the UNEP report?
A re-evaluation is very necessary. Evaluation of the areas that were not captured in the UNEP report is very necessary, but again, there are areas you need to kick-start things. However, the key thing is for us to see that something is being done. If the cleaning starts, my organisation will also take the soil and water samples to check if anything has changed.

What are some environmental concerns you have about the cleanup?
In our letter to the Minister of Environment, we stated that organic solvent should be used for the cleanup instead of non-organic. Now, we gather that some people are thinking that nitrogenous fertiliser should be used in order to boost the soil nutrient. That is quite alright, soil nutrient will be boosted, but there is a danger in it. We are already talking about heavy contamination in the area and now you want to use nitrogenous fertiliser, which means you are killing the people more because when it gets to underground water, we are in trouble. That is why OEF is following up the process keenly. If we find out that nitrogenous fertiliser is used, we will raise the alarm. You are aware that the loamy soil in Ogoni is completely gone. So, if you now put nitrogenous fertiliser it will get to the underground waters, and when it gets to the aqualfs, there is a distribution and when children drink such water a very serious health problem will occur that generations to come would suffer from a syndrome. We are monitoring to ensure that nitrogenous fertiliser is not used. You can mop up the oil and use organic solvent in cleaning and you will get a better result. Our happiness is that the HPYREP project coordinator is an environmentalist and he knows this. If you visit the areas concerned, you will discover that certain microorganism are completely gone.

An agrarian area like Ogoni has some microorganisms, which I will also call micro-atropos, they work in synergy to ensure that there is decomposition and nutrification of the soil. Now, from our studies, we found out that some of these are no longer there because of the pollution. So, by the time you start growing crops, it is wasted efforts on the part of the farmers because the biodiversity of the organism must be restored. That is what is important in the cleaning of the environment. So, if the place is well cleaned, we will see those things coming up. Another factor, which I am afraid of, is the use of external organisms, which are not indigenous. Once that is done, you have cleared away our local organisms and we will henceforth depend on foreign organisms, a development that will pose serious danger to the ecosystem. That is why the re-evaluation is very important. OEF has a list of species, which are indigenous to Ogoni. If foreign organisms are to be brought to the area in the name of cleanup, we have to know where they were tested before, and how it worked. Bringing in something too foreign, that is exotic species will wipe away the local species and change the structure of the ecosystem maybe that of the United States, or wherever they brought them from. That is why everybody is anxious to see what the government is doing.

Won’t the politicking ahead of 2019 polls further delay the cleanup exercise?
You would recall that during the Ogoni struggle we lost a lot of our leaders and we have now moved to this level. This presupposes that somebody should not toy with this area. Politics no doubt will soon set in, but one thing I can assure you is that the people are very much enlightened. They are also aware that one or two persons will come and say vote for us because of the cleanup. If the man you are wooing to support you does not see any physical thing on ground, how will you be able to convince him? So, using the clean up for politicking will not work because the people must see that you have made some effort. Another thing is that if you wait till few months to election to come and start something, the Ogoni people are also aware that such things could happen, and we are monitoring and seeing what is going on. You can’t just come and tip sand somewhere and say you want to start work when it is two or six months to the election. The government has to be committed. Right now, the Ogoni people are very hopeful that something is about to happen there. But, if nothing happens a year after now, the people will react because they will feel deceived and disappointed. So, the aspect of politicking to me, is an old fashioned thing that cannot work.

What are the consequences of further delay?
One is that the confidence the people have will be eradicated. The more you delay the more the people will say these people are not serious, but they only came to play politics with us. So, when you come again, they people will conclude that you are not committed, and that confidence will be eroded totally. Secondly, there will be continuous suffering by the people; their health situation will worsen and hope would be lost. What will be the fate of an Ogoni widow whose only asset is this polluted land? How will she survive? The government has promised her health centre and potable water, but there is none anywhere.



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