It gives me great pleasure to welcome you all to this gathering marking the 20th anniversary of the Environmental Rights Action (ERA), which is also the Nigerian chapter of Friends of the Earth International. ERA is also the host of Oilwatch International – the global South’s resistance network to reckless exploitation of fossil fuels.
ERA began life as a project of the Civil Liberties Organisation (CLO) around 1990. It began its early years while I was a member of its Board (1993-1999). It became an independent organisation when it became impossible for it to operate in the world of environmental networks while being anchored in the human rights community. The environment out of which it was born gave ERA the unique platform and character that forcefully pushed the fact that environmental rights are even more holistic than human rights because humans are merely a part of the environment and even though their rights are considered predominant this does not mean that theirs are necessarily superior to other beings or to nature herself.
For twenty years, ERA has been powered by key principles among which are the following:
- That every African has a right to a safe and satisfactory environment favourable to his/her development as captured in Article 24 of the African Charter of Peoples and Human Rights.
- That human rights are also well defended when ecosystems are respected.
- That the promotion of environmentally responsible governmental, commercial, community and individual practices is best attained through the empowerment of local people.
- That local people have the right and knowledge to control local resources
- Pro-environment policy changes are best worked for though non-violent resistance.
We stayed on course over the years and especially during the difficult days when Nigeria was under military dictatorship because we had dedicated ERA people and because we had an unambiguous philosophical compass that ensured we did not drift. Today I look back with satisfaction that ERA people, whether in or outside ERA, have stayed the course.
Over these years, we have suffered persecution, faced afflictions and enjoyed triumphs. Our triumph has been that our work with communities impacted by deforestation, land grabs, oil spills, gas flares and pollutions of all types has succeeded because the people have resolutely stood against the pushers of these harmful practices.
We have stayed the course because we view every scene of environmental harm inflicted by the agency of man as a crime scene. Although we sometimes resort to civil actions as a measure of resistance we note that these are not sufficient to stem environmental crimes. To stop those who reap profits from environmental damage laws governing those activities ought to be urgently upgraded to make it possible for criminal charges with long jail terms to be pressed against individual criminals and those who hide behind corporate shields. Ecocide would be an appropriate umbrella law to confront the massive lawlessness that run rampant across Nigeria and many nations of the world today.
Today I look back across twenty short years of momentous changes. I am happy that the four persons (Oronto Douglas, Nick Ashton Jones, Godwin Ojo and I) who brought this group to be are still engaged in the defence of Mother Earth in one way or the way. I remember our days of challenging harmful big dams in Northern Nigeria, massive logging in forests in many of our Southern States. I remember our struggles against oil spills and gas flares. I remember our battles against wholesale destruction of communities by government to pave the way for corporate claws to sink deeper into our lands.
We have fought steadily against the wasting of our environment and livelihoods by the petroleum sector. The world’s addiction to carbon-high life has elevated dirty oil companies to the level of the gods. Easy oil has now given way to tough oil. The scraping of the bottom of the barrel has thrown up dangerous extractive methods and spewing ever more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and sentencing the world to climate catastrophe. And while global leaders would not commit to provide funds for adaptation and resilience building, multiples of what is needed is being expended on wars fought for profit at the expense disposable lives – sometimes in the name of exporting democracy. In the era of peak oil it appears we have passed over peak democracy without attaining democracy in the first place.
Today I call upon all of us to tell the emperor that he is naked, to tell the promoters of neoliberalism that they are running (at one spot) on empty tanks! Let us shout it out loud: it is time to leave the oil in the soil; from Yasuni to Ogoni, to Kaiso in the Rift Valley to Lofoten in Norway. And if Nigeria is serious about fighting global warming gas flaring must be stopped immediately. Shutting down oil production in order to tackle the gas flaring problem makes economic sense if we consider the implications of catastrophic global warming. And of course the government must halt oil theft, halt the regime of unaccounted for oil through lack of metering. Do I need to add that delays in cleaning up Ogoni land and other polluted parts of Nigeria is an unacceptable disregard for the right to life and to a safe environment of the peoples.
Today, while celebrating our 20 years of marching on for environmental rights, I remember individuals and communities who have greatly inspired me as a person. Ken Saro-Wiwa, executed by the State on false charges on 10 November 1995. I remember the peoples of Umeuchem, Bakalori, Odi, Odioma, Ilaje, Gbaramatu and others. I salute the mentoring I continue to receive from our foremost community activist, Comrade Che Ibegwura who, at over 80 years, keeps trudging on the path of environmental justice. I salute Sister Majella Macarron, a Catholic nun from Ireland whose gift of books in those early days helped to frame our work. I salute my colleagues in ERA. I salute my wife and family for unstinting support over the years. I salute all our comrades across Africa and across the continents of the world. Your presence here today is of great significance to me and to us.
As we look back, we also look forward. Twenty years have passed. Twenty more will come. And much more still. The road is long and the runners will be many. The baton must be passed on. And so, while remaining in the trench with the foot soldiers, it gives me great pleasure to hand that baton to my brother and comrade, Godwin Ojo. And I thank you for marking this day with us.
Nnimmo Bassey gave this speech in his capacity as the Executive Director, ERA/FoEN (1993-2013) at event to mark the 20th Anniversary of ERA.