By Gbenro Adeoye:
Mrs. Margaret Sunday, a fish farmer in Kenyangbene community, Gbaramatu Kingdom , an Ijaw coastal community in Warri South West Local Government Area of Delta State, has been in the business for about two decades. But in the period, Sunday said the last eight years have been tough, given the increasing oil exploration activities in her community.
Some 15 years ago, Sunday said she caught a weekly average of 20000 fishes, a figure that has reduced to about 1000 fishes.
Sunday said, “Even the 1000 fishes cannot be caught around the community, we have to go far away from the community. We used to catch plenty of fishes here before, but today, it’s very few and it’s getting more and more difficult for us to survive. We are supposed to be rich because of the oil but sadly, we are poor because our government does not look after us.”
According to Sunday, keeping her children in school is increasingly becoming a challenge due to the effects of pollution in her community.
Kenyangbene hosts a major oil flow station belonging to Chevron Nigeria Limited, where oil directly flows from the oil well to for primary treatment and control. However, the lot of the residents deeply contrasts with the heavily-guarded multi-million dollar investment seated within the community.
It is is predominantly made up of wooden shacks, with some planks, windows and doors hanging loosely from their nails and hinges. A familiar smell of fresh and smoked fish pervades the community, which is largely dominated by fishermen and fish mongers.
Although the community has light and potable water running in tiny silver pipes, our correspondent learnt that the utilities were the results of protests by community members.
An Ijaw community leader and executive member of the Egbema- Gbaramatu Central Development Foundation, Mrs. Josephine Ogoba, said, “They did not just get the light and water, they fought before the oil company succumbed to their demands and decided to supply them.”
Also, Kenyangbene has a public primary school, Kenyangbene Primary School, but to get secondary school education, pupils have to go to other communities by boat. There are no health centres in the community and residents have to rely on local drug stores.
The community chief, Mr. Aaron Ifitimo, said the community had been largely neglected by relevant authorities, adding that most policies affecting them are carried out without due consultations with the residents.
He said, “Government does not know what we are facing because they don’t visit here. Government officials ought to go round to the communities they govern but they have not been doing that.
“Last year, we had a serious flooding problem, where people died and crops were destroyed. But our government is only interested in taking all our money and leaving us worse than it met us.”
In the creeks, our correspondent observed that plants in the stream corridors have blackened roots, with the smell of oil spreading through the forests. Two other coastal communities in Warri South West Local Government Area, Batan and Egwan II are, however, faced with a different kind of problem.
Following the discovery of oil wells in the communities, Shell Nigeria reportedly asked the members of the communities to relocate to new sites without adequate compensation for their troubles. Ogoba said, “The residents were only asked to relocate to a new place but there was no provision for them except for a jetty. So far, people have refused to move to the new place as there is only one house there.”
In Ekpan, Uvwie Local Government Area, which is not an oil producing community, residents suffer the effects of air pollution from gas flaring by the Warri Refinery Petroleum Company located within the community.
Residents identified the soot observed on cars and other items within the community as the result of gas flaring. The Executive Director, Institute for Dispute Resolution and the National Coordinator, Campaign Against Arms Trade Network, Nigeria, Innocent Adjenughure, said more residents have been having respiratory ailments, which he ascribed to the pollution from the gas flaring.
He said, “We are not an oil producing community, but we have Chevron and WRPC on our land, causing pollution. Although, we have not been able to carry out any comprehensive survey, to know the exact impact of the gas flaring activity, we are sure that the black soot from the plant is causing harm to our people. Sometimes when I cough, sneeze or put a finger in my nose, I see black soot. The soot is like an umbrella over the community and it stains our clothes and covers our cars.”
In addition, the Chairman, Ekpan Development Committee, Mr. Godwin Omasibro, said the pollution worsens in the community after every rainfall. Omasibro, however, said that the leaders of the community have been using a delicate approach to make their grievances known to the government. According to him, other ways have got agitators killed in the past, although he failed to comment further on the issue.
He said, “Some people have died in this country for asking for their rights, so we are trying to tread softly. We have been talking to people but we have not been writing because what you say, you can deny later, but what you wrote and signed, will be difficult to deny.”
Also, Omasibro said an Italian, who was part of the team that constructed the plant where gas is being freely flared in the community, told some community members that it portended danger for residents. He said, “In 1978, when it was constructed, the Italian told us that after 50 years, we would start seeing some kinds of sickness that we never experienced before. Therefore, the health problems may start manifesting in some of us soon and in the children that are being born. In such children, the products of what their parents have taken in may manifest in them as predicted by the Italian.”
A farmer and fisherman in the community, Mr. Chris Wiliki, told Saturday PUNCH that he was already contemplating leaving his job for a more promising one, due to the dwindling fortune of the farming business in the community, occasioned by oil pollution.
Wiliki, who has been cultivating cassava, plantain and palm tree for over 30 years, said, “In the last 15 years, our lands have stopped producing good crops because of oil pollution. The fish ponds are also polluted; it’s only when it rains that the ponds gets cleaned a little by rain water.”
In her reaction, the Administrator and Media Officer for Spaces for Change, a human rights organisation, Ms. Funmilayo Fakeye, said residents should take interest in policies that seek to affect them. She said, “For instance, people in the Niger Delta should engage in dialogue over the Petroleum Industry Bill so that they can voice out their concerns before the bill is passed into law.”