Urhobo Historical Society

World Bank, Big Oil
the Niger Delta

by Zak Harmon



Headline: World Bank, Big Oil and the Niger Delta
Source: The Virtual Caf,
Date: 1/21/97
Author: Zak Harmon

In May '95, the World Bank published its extensive two volume report, Defining An Environmental Strategy for the Niger Delta. While identifying a litany of deleterious forces currently and dynamically reshaping the profoundly unique ecological and social systems of the Niger River Delta, the Bank does not sufficiently articulate the underpinning causes, many the legacy of the World Bank itself. Key problems are ignored, others marginalized. Downplayed or dismissed are the unfortunate consequences of a half-century free-for-all for oil.

Shielding the multinationals responsible for the rapid and myopic plunder of Nigeria's economic and natural resources, the Bank nonetheless details in strong language many of the daunting issues critical to the ecological/social health of this 20,000 km2 wetlands. The report offers significant insight and, at times, harsh criticism, of various destructive environmental activities and maldevelopment policies. Declining agricultural productivity; land degradation; disease; erosion; fisheries depletion; illegal logging; deforestation; proliferation of exotic species; toxic and hazardous substance pollution; vehicular emissions; sewage; resource ownership; population; municipal wastes; oil pollution; institutional collapse and corruption, for example, are all flagged as critical issues.

Forgotten are the multinational controls over the Nigerian economy; the complete abrogation of all basic human rights and freedoms; the lingering maladies of colonialism; state terror; the elite Nigerian oligarchy; the national and regional militarization and hegemony; the pharmaceutical profiteering; the legislation of gender; the entrenchment of successive military regimes by the U.S., Israel, Japan and the EEC; the ongoing charade of "democracy"; and government by dictator's whim and decree. Such inconvenient realities are ignored, as if inconsequential to environmental or social woes, policy interventions, or regulatory and institutional reforms.

Neatly excluded from the report is discussion of the exacerbation of environmental and social problems by the destructive macroeconomic policies institutionalized by the IMF, IFC, and World Bank, in service to western predatory capitalism. Equally critical to the environmental and social integrity of Nigeria, and all West Africa, are the debilitating $33 billion debt and debt-service "obligations" accrued through years of indiscriminate exploitation. It is this debt which forever insures Nigeria's sovereign subservience to the elite benefactors of international finance capital, and the inevitable liquidation and sterilization of the natural environment. Couched in the ecospeak of "sustainable development," the report barely conceals what appears to be the Bank's ultimate agenda: Sustainable plunder.

A true commentary on the political and environmental climate of the mid-1990's, the report remains completely unchallenged. As cited by Paul Lewis in the "revisionist" New York Times article (2/96) -- which posthumously paints the hanged Ogoni dissident Ken Saro-Wiwa as a "ruthless political opportunist," and Shell Oil as a "beleaguered" corporation -- the report concludes that while the oil industry has caused environmental damage, "oil pollution by itself is of moderate priority when compared with the full spectrum of environmental problems in the Niger Delta. Many of these, it says," according to an efficacious NYT, "stem from a fourfold population rise since 1958." Turn this neat and tidy conclusion on its head and one might more appropriately comprehend the impact of Big Oil in the Niger Delta by posing the simple question: What would Nigeria look like with out it?

Citing scant or insufficient research or case-studies from which to extrapolate with legitimate scientific certainty, the authors often hesitate to draw conclusions about various non-oil issues. Never monolithic, this is not the case with Big Oil, where the superficial conclusions cast doubt on the objectivity of the entire study. As it is with the Bank's selective and self-serving "input from Nigerian stakeholders, including Federal and state government agencies, NGOs, communities, academics and the private sector," the report appears to be heavily skewed toward preordained or desired conclusions.

Commenting on a government steel mill, for example, the report concludes that "epidemiological studies on the surrounding communities would have to be conducted to determine the health effects from exposure to metals." There is no mention however, of the complete absence of epidemiological studies for communities in the vicinity of oil installations, gas-flares or unlined waste pits, all of which have contaminated water and land. The report concludes that "particulates, including sulfur, contribute to chronic and potentially debilitating respiratory illnesses, while lead can cause mental dysfunction and
potentially, death... and NO2 may lead to increased susceptibility to respiratory pathogens." But these are the deadly benefits of an unregulated and opportunistic automobile industry, where gas lead content is the highest in the world. Curiously, the epidemiological effects of poisons spilled by the waste streams of pipelines, flow- stations and gas-flares are dismissed without mention. Unlike other problems where data or research is lacking, here there is "little evidence" of disease, though "speculations are widespread," the "toxicity is likely to be very low," the pathological impact on human health "extremely unlikely." This in an region where N-oxides and SO2 emissions are estimated at some 210,000 and 40,000 tons per year. Nor does the Bank find it necessary to consider that human mortalities in the Niger Delta remain largely unreported due to the geographical and institutional constraints of rural communities and the complete lack of health facilities. Of the limited studies of gas flaring which have been performed, funded by Shell, the NOx and SOx concentrations, the Bank claims, "were not disturbing." All in all, the report says, "given the low environmental and health ranking, the actual future benefits of reducing oil pollution are low."

Gas flaring in the Niger Delta amounts to billions of cubic meters of ozone-depleting methane flared into the atmosphere daily and while the report notes that this is probably the single greatest contributor to global warming, it also concludes that "there is no prospect indicating that gas flaring practices will be changed in the future." Given these conclusions, about the repercussions of Big Oil in the Delta, it is not surprising to read that the "social unrest" in oil-producing communities is perhaps due more to a crisis of "perception" (than to prolific oil contamination), since "local communities perceive oil activity problems and especially oil pollution to be greater than they actually are." In fact, it can be inferred from the report that a little persuasion and propaganda would go a long way toward alleviating "social unrest." As for the ongoing Niger Delta Environmental Survey, funded by Shell, the report boldly asserts that "critical to the legitimacy of the study is the fact that it will be strictly independent from Shell." (The highly respected Dr. Claude Ake resigned his role in this study based on its complete lack of objectivity. Ake was killed in a plane crash in 1996.)

With Big Oil, the Niger Delta report relies almost entirely on feedback or information from government, the industry itself, and unreferenced sources. While acknowledging an estimated seven million m3 of drilling wastes, or the complete absence of Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs), for example, the report unequivocally declares that "the improved analytical methods and large body of evidence consistently show that crude oil and many refined products have a comparatively low immediate toxicity to most groups of organisms and ecosystems... Studies of actual spills and other cases of chronic exposure to petroleum hydrocarbons, including refineries and oil terminals, have shown that oil contamination has not caused evident irrevocable damage to marine resources, such as fish or invertebrates, anywhere in the world."

On the contrary, there is mounting evidence that the full extent of oil spill damage to ecosystems may not be known for years after, if ever. On February 28, 1996, the food chain off the coast of Rhode Island was obliterated after the "North Cape" spilled some 850,000 gallons of refined oil. Lobster mortality was measured at 1,000,000 and estimated at 3,000,000, and devastating long-term consequences are expected. Studies of the impact of the 1989 "World Prodigy" spill show significant
long-term effects present even seven years later. In 1994, the Center for Economic and Social Rights released documentation of the human health effects of oil in Ecuador, where Texaco oil pollution left a legacy of waters and soils contaminated with highly toxic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. "Those exposed to oil had a higher incidence of abortion, elevated rates of fungal infections, dermatitis, headaches and nausea," the Center concluded. The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute has reported that ecological studies of a 50,000 barrel crude spill in the Caribbean show extensive long-term damage to subtidal corals, seagrass beds and coastal mangroves, and "that the damage was far more extensive than expected."

The Bank report grossly understates the repercussions of oil in the Niger Delta. Degradation of the sensitive ecological zones was initiated by oil infrastructure: Dredging, roads, canals, oil platforms and seismic explorations have profoundly altered the terrestrial and hydrological regimes. Funded by the bulk of "community development" funds, oil infrastructure has enabled rapid colonization of sensitive areas otherwise impregnable. Economic "refugees" and the unemployed flocked to the region in hopes of oil employment and the "fourfold population rise since 1958" most likely would not have occurred without the economic marginalization insured by Big Oil and its Nigerian army. The history of maldevelopment and regional conflict in West Africa (poverty, disease, deforestation, refugee flows, declining agricultural production, genocide, war) begins with Big Oil.

It does not end there. International trawlers are plundering pelagic and oceanic fish stocks. Dams built in the 1960's and 1970's, funded by the World Bank, have altered the regional hydrology, causing siltation, erosion and aquatic mortalities. Multinationals are plundering inland and mangrove forests for aquiculture and monoculture plantations. But Big Oil is the departure point from which to understand the Niger River Delta. It is a perfect case study in environmental change, resource capture, and acute conflict.

The authors of the Niger Delta report may be sincere in their efforts: They have articulated many very strong conclusions, even contradicting Shell, for example, in noting that oil industry sabotage has accounted for less that 14% of all spills. The legitimate findings of the study, however, are marred by what is an otherwise relatively compromised -- if not "sanitized" -- text. One cannot fault the authors their values, judgment, or self-interest: Who can begrudge the consultant's desire to be paid for this job and remembered for the next? But the selective citations of research, the arbitrary and subjective definitions of criteria, the skewed foci, the fastidious use of experts, and the omission, obfuscation or manipulation of facts, all raise questions of integrity, propriety, and intent.

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