Facing Oil Pollution With Little Govt Attention, Niger Delta Residents Begin Replanting Mangroves

Faced with little or no attention from the authorities after decades of devastating oil pollution, residents are replanting mangroves destroyed over the years.

During her childhood days in Rivers State, Martha Agbani had the pleasure of living in a coastal community in the Ogoni area, where the vegetation seemed pristine.

But with the passage of years, as oil spills from pipelines criss-crossing the Niger Delta spewed crude into the waters, the mangroves began to disappear.

People like Ms Agbani find life less meaningful without the presence of the mangroves that sheltered fishes, crustaceans and other aquatic lives that had not only fed the local population but had been the heart of a robust trade for fishermen and resident traders.

United Nations study released in 2011 revealed it would take 25 to 30 years to remediate, restore and clean up Ogoniland.

Six years later, Ms Agbani began a regeneration effort that would help the region restore the part of vegetation that was lost.

She runs the Lokiaka Community Development Centre, an advocacy backing indigenous women farmers in maintaining the natural state of the environment and protecting the green space.

She began researching, visited institutions for capacity building and also engaged institutions with expertise in reforestation-related fields.

In 2018, Ms Agbani visited several oil polluted communities in the region like Kpean, Kwawa, Baen, Kono, Bere, Gure and Bodo. However, Yaataah was more promising in accepting the idea of restoring the environment.

More than 50 oil wells are located in Yorla Oilfield – one of many in Yaatah Community – some of which are quite close to homes in rural settlements in Ken-Khana, all in Ogoniland

Mostly terrestrial, the oilfield has a patchy sort of regenerated vegetation, crowded by herbs, shrubs, and sparse trees.

Because of the magnitude of her vision, Ms Agbani couldn’t work alone. She assembled a group of indigenous women for that purpose; they would be compensated also. With women empowerment in mind, the composition of that team was one hundred percent female.

So far, one million trees have been replanted in the community. Ms Agbani and her team sell mangrove nurseries to companies including Shell who themselves are involved in reviving lost environments.

Her first experience in 2018 was a false start as many of the plants did not survive. She said the plants were not given adequate space during cultivation and that adversely affected the growth.

“Majorly (there) has been paucity of funding (and there have been) unemployed community youths violently disrupting our activities and threatening our lives and the project mistaken for HYPREP/Federal Government initiative which has financial benefits,” Ms Agbani highlighted the challenges.

Her centre gets support from donors like Global Green Grants Fund and a donor-advised fund from Tsadik Foundation supervised by Global Green Grants itself. Recently, her centre received financial assistance from Cultural Survival to plant about 10, 000 mangrove pods.

About mangroves

Mangroves possess amazing natural abilities, filtering brackish water, preventing coastal erosion, and offering a protected habitat for aquatic life that in turn supports humans.

One of the world’s largest mangrove ecosystems is found in the Niger Delta, where people have coexisted for years. However, the mangrove forests declined with the introduction of oil extraction, which the Nigerian government has grown to rely on for the majority of its income.

Following two oil disasters that ravaged thousands of acres of mangrove forests close to the town of Bodo in 2007 and 2008, Shell agreed to pay the locals compensation, clean up the oil, and replant.

In the Niger Delta, loss of mangrove space is caused by either oil pollution or plastic pollution.

Before the revegetation begins, especially in areas that have been polluted by oil, clean-up activities take place and it will be certified as good enough by scientists before replanting proceeds.

In the past, the Nigerian government has attempted several strategies for the clean-up such as the Hydrocarbon Pollution Remediation Process (HYPREP), introduced in 2016 to address issues of degradation and pollution in Ogoniland and other communities facing the crises.

The project is targeted at discovering the methodology and strategies suitable for cleaning up contaminated soil and ground water in affected communities. However, many residents are not convinced of its efficiency and impact even after years.

It will fix the problem by developing local capacity for and raising awareness of sound environmental management, enhance livelihood and sustainable development, improve security, and support peace-building interventions in affected areas.

More Heroes

Like Ms Agbani, other heroes have emerged, such as Menshack Uyi. A programme officer at Centre for Environment, Human Rights and Development (CEHRD) said his organisation began advocacy in 2001 on the need to revegetate the mangroves, especially in the Niger Delta.

In 2004, CEHRD started replanting some of the mangroves but they didn’t survive. The process only led to additional research that the oil polluted areas will be cleaned before the replanting process takes place.

“After the initial Phase 1 activities focused on free-phase oil removal in 2017 and 2018. Cleanup activities for phase 2 (actual cleanup) kick-started in November 2019 and continued till March 2020 when it stopped due the COVID-19.The cleanup commenced again in November 2020 till date,” he said.

The activities of replanting are not just because of the importance but also because the heritage to the people of Niger Delta must be preserved, he told PREMIUM TIMES.

CEHRD has taken its advocacy to Bundu, another community in Rivers where it preaches the gospel of revegetation to community members.

Mr. Uyi said CEHRD visited communities in the region where oil had destroyed the vegetation but decided to settle for Bundu and Bodo.

“We have achieved success in our actions so far. In Bundu, we have planted over three thousand mangroves. The community was also taught how to market the planting, not just the replanting,” Mr Uyi said.

CEHRD has also trained so many NGOs and schools including teachers in the advocacy and promotion of the replanting of mangroves for better community development, PREMIUM TIMES learnt.

The schools are Community Secondary School, Mogho and Bodo Girls Secondary School on how to nurture the nursery of the mangroves.

The schools don’t house the mangroves. The nurseries are grown by the water bank in Bundu, PREMIUM TIMES observed.

“There is hope in the nurseries being planted by the students, who currently are serving as the climate change vanguards and custodians,” Mr Uyi affirmed.

More importantly, unlike Ms Agbani’s nurseries, the survival rate of mangroves in Bundu has been impressive.

Despite the rising water level in the area, the nurseries and replanted sites are growing well.

A new era

Women, youth and children in the region champion the revegetation process. They now have other sources of livelihood, while making money in selling the nurseries.

A member of Ms Agbani’s team, Jesse Nubani, a traditional birth attendant from Lueku Group of Communities, got inspiration to raise mangroves after benefiting from the training.

She has raised a good number of mangrove nurseries as well as medicinal plants. She sells them between the range N500 and N1500.

“We started seeing the return of aquatic bodies back to the rivers like the return of periwinkles and fishes,” she said.

While these heroes are making efforts to improve the quality of lives of people in the region, residents and beneficiaries who spoke with PREMIUM TIMES were happy with the progress the groups and individuals have recorded in restoring the vegetation.

Manpikin Ngwere, 70, dressed in a red shirt, looking pale and hungry, reluctantly said he was surprised that mangroves could be replanted.

“People even cut the mangroves, use it for construction purposes and cooking too,” he said, using gestures to drive home his point.

Fishermen in Bodo told PREMIUM TIMES they were aware of the exercise even though they are yet to see the impact because it would take years for the water bodies to come back.

When PREMIUM TIMES arrived at the Patrick Waterside in the community, fishermen Patrick Tanen and Paul Apai were making their nets when this reporter approached them for an interview.

Mr Tanen agreed mangroves are being replanted but oil still destroys the plants. He feels the push is making no difference in his fishing career.

The chairman of the Bundu community, David Oba, acknowledged that organisations like CEHRD are stepping up restoration efforts.

“We were surprised when they came and offered to help us because our mangroves are majorly affected by plastic pollution and our periwinkles are dying off,” he said.

Ken Henshaw, a climate change advocate and executive director of We the People, said Niger Deltans have taken their future in their hands and chosen to secure it, knowing the government doesn’t care about them.

“I disagree that the Niger Delta is seeking a new phase. The Niger Delta is not seeking a resuscitation or re-energising of the region? No, not. What’s happened is that people are taking their destinies into their own hands, and they’re working to restore their environment,” he said.

“Though it has become obvious that the government does not care, it’s also become obvious that the oil companies who destroyed these environments do not care, and they’re already packing up in the name of divestment … they all live in the region, they don’t care,” he said.

He added that these are ordinary people doing extraordinary things – women groups, organisations of youth and young people coming together and deciding to replant as well as NGOs.

Mr Henshaw said there is need for the government at all levels to realise the value of the mangroves, not just its significance to the livelihood of the people, but also to climate change.

Because these oil firms are leaving, he feels, replanting the mangroves themselves may be the only option the people of the region have.

“Support for this report was provided by the Centre for Journalism Innovation and Development (CJID Africa) and it is made possible through funding support from The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.”

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