Ogoniland women produce most of the family’s food but the twin pressures of land grabs and pollution are making it impossible for them to surviveR
19 December 2018
Two women pick a slimy path through a creek, prized by generations of their female forbears for its mangroves, which once provided an abundance of food.
The elder in orange, the younger in blue, they fail to find a single periwinkle snail, a single fish or a usable piece of kindling between them. Their feet struggle to take purchase on the mud, more slippery than it used to be.
Their heritage stretches out around them: stumps of mangroves, the silent absence of birds: a blackened, blighted landscape. Everything coated in crude oil.
The woman in orange stops calf-deep in the mud. “Our land was not like this before,” she says. “The women suffer, mostly.”
Their creek is in Ogoniland, in the heart of the oil-producing Niger Delta, the source of most of Nigeria’s wealth. But they and thousands of women who live in the region are destitute.
Devastating pollution, government land grabs without compensation and ever-increasing violence on top of a strong patriarchal culture are making it near-impossible for many women, in what was once Nigeria’s land of plenty, to survive and sustain their families.
Oil suffuses the creeks and wells many miles downstream from Shell’s decade-old spill sites in Ogoniland, the kingdom where the British-Dutch company started drilling for oil in 1958, where Ken Saro-Wiwa fought for his people’s rights and was executed, and over which Shell is facing allegations from Amnesty International that it was complicit in murder, rape and torture– allegations it strongly denies.
The few fish and shellfish left are coated in oil; crops cannot grow; the drinking water is poisoned. Entire communities have had to move away.
The UN said in 2011 it would cost $1bn to clean up the spills, around a third of which is to be provided by Shell, and the rest by other stakeholders in the Shell Petroleum Development Corporation Joint Venture (SPDC). A government agency, the hydrocarbon pollution remediation project (Hyprep), was set up to organise it. An initial $10m was released.
But in the 21 months since Nigeria’s vice-president, Yemi Osinbajo, launched the cleanup, not even the emergency measures the UN spelled out to provide acceptable drinking water have been taken, according to dozens of local leaders, farmers and fishermen. All say there has been no serious attempt to clean up the pollution.
The most polluted sites cannot be cleaned until a centre for processing contaminated soil is built, and Hyprep has not even advertised for a company to build it yet. The head of Hyprep, Marvin Dekil, said it has been doing “feasibility studies”.
Local activists say it is unclear how the first tranche of money has been spent.
Dekil said the agency was evaluating proposals from companies to clean the drinking water. He said it has advertised for health impact consultants, and has had “initial interaction” with Ogoni women to discuss training 1,200 of them, as well as community preparation to show people the importance of a project that does not yet exist .
Gloria Wanam, head of the federation of Ogoni women’s associations, said the women she represents have no power to hold the government to account.
“We don’t have a say,” she says. “This delay … I don’t know when they will clean the ground, so we can have something good from the soil.”
Mothers say their sons have turned against them, resentful that their lack of education means they have no prospect of work. With no honest employment available to them, some have turned to drugs and crime.
Thousands of young people are in the business of kpo-fire, slang for the explosive product of illegal siphoning from broken pipelines. Their dangerous, rudimentary refineries cost many lives and add to the sticky mess coating parts of the Delta.
Wanam almost died when some locally produced kerosene she had bought exploded in her kitchen. She blames Shell for the chain of events that led to the explosion.
“They spoiled it [Ogoniland] and that made the youth to go refining the oil, which is not well done,” she says. “That is why this thing happened. I blame them.”
But oil pollution is not the only way women’s livelihoods are being snatched from them.
Working with private companies and using the military, Nigerian officials have systematically dispossessed people of their land for agribusiness without paying its true value – something sanctioned by the 1978 Land Use Act, which activists say must be changed. Women, who are particularly reliant on the land, are most affected.
In much of the Delta, a woman is responsible for clothing and feeding the family: she farms, fishes, and harvests crabs and snails. There are few formal jobs, but those there are are mostly filled by men, who usually receive a better education.
Glory Basi points out her old farm near Sogho, a community that used to peacefully farm cassava until their farmlands were taken in 2011 for a banana plantation, a joint venture between the state government and a Mexican fruit company, San Carlos.
Basi lost $28,000 worth of land; San Carlos said the minimum compensation payment for any women who were not considered land owners was 25,000 naira ($70), but she did not even get that. She and other members of the community said the state government, which leases the land to San Carlos, gave them nothing.
When promised jobs failed to materialise, angry villagers began to sabotage the plantation, sneaking in at night and destroying banana seedlings. Operations ceased in 2017, but the villagers did not get their land back. Instead, from their offices in Port Harcourt, “big men” rented it out to other farmers.
“I want that land. I need the land back. It’s government that collected this land from us,” Basi said.
Worse, Sogho is now at war with its neighbours, who accuse the village of selling their land. Some arrived with guns the previous week and opened fire on the simple houses. Basi and her children escaped with their lives, but 11 people were killed.
Now they sit watchfully on their porches waiting for the next attack, unable to farm, fish, or trade cassava. This is the only work available to many Delta women, where the culture is marked by “high patriarchy”, according to Martha Agbani, director of the indigenous women’s rights organisation Lokiaka.
“Issues that concern women are discussed and decided by menfolk, and they only come back to tell women what they’ve said,” Agbani says.
Women traditionally own no land but have the use of their husbands’ so if their husband dies, a woman often loses her livelihood as well, and in some communities widows (but not widowers) are forbidden to remarry. .
Watching women scrape the weeds from a cassava field near the village of Okwale, Agbani and Basi break into an old Ogoni folk song.
“Ale osuã kpá ee,” they sing, balancing imaginary basins on their heads. “Ale osuã.” Whether you’re educated or not, if you have your tools on your head, you’re OK. But tools are useless without land.
Okwale women have not used their tools on their own land for 27 years. For a few naira, they now scrape weeds on neighbours’ fields, as their own were taken from them. Palm trees grid their former farms; in 1991 the state government acquired more than 300 hectares (741 acres) from them without paying compensation, leasing the plantation out to several companies over the decades. The village’s fortunes have taken a catastrophic, sustained fall.
“Poverty, hardship and oppression. We’re under so much stress. The government has taken everything. You can see how thin I am,” says Gladys Nteenee, pulling at her yellow blouse to expose sharp collarbones, her friends murmuring their agreement.
“They were not like this. They were three times fatter than now,” her neighbour Patricia Wiri confirms.
Whether through oil pollution or land grabs, decades of being deprived of their land have taken their toll on Delta women, according to Wanam.
“We are dead already,” she says. “But we’re alive.”
By Ruth Maclean. This report first appeared in the Guardian.