A dry wind drifts by as I sit in a friend’s car stationed a short distance from the local jetty in Bodo, southern Nigeria. It’s a hazy Saturday morning and I am at my country home with my friend Leton. Leton is an environmental rights activist introduced to me two years ago by a mutual friend of ours. We had both decided to check out the environmental clean-up project in Bodo which began months earlier.
It is the first phase of a clean-up exercise by contractors hired on behalf of Shell Petroleum and Development Company of Nigeria (SPDC had been directed by a British high court to clean up Bodo after a law suit against it by the Bodo community for two major oil spills resulting from SPDC’s pipeline failure in Bodo).
I glance from a distance at the trunks of dead mangroves by a waterside where I used to swim in shallow rivers.
‘I used to come here with my dad when I was little and watch women catch crabs and pick periwinkle’, I mention to Leton who is seated in the driver’s seat of his SUV.
‘And now you come here to check-out an environmental clean-up project,’ he says quietly at the sight of men in navy blue coveralls and white helmets; clean-up workers I reckon.
I was born in Bori, not quite fifteen minutes from Bodo and the second largest city in Rivers State. At the time, there was no general hospital in my hometown Bodo. Bodo is a coastal community laden with crude oil deposits. It is arguably one of the most oil spill impacted local communities in Nigeria’s Delta region.
Bodo was thrown into international limelight when it won the largest ever oil spill related compensation of $83.4m in 2014. Two oil spills took place in 2008 when an SPDC (Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria) pipeline burst and gushed oil into surrounding rivers. Nigerian regulators confirmed that the two spills lasted for 72 and 77 days respectively. This negates SPDC’s official investigation report which claims that 1,640 barrels of oil were spilled into the local environment. Amnesty International citing assessment by U.S firm Accufacts inc. found between 103,000 and 311,000 barrels spilled, considering that the spills lasted over 60 days.
The economic impact of oil spills on the people of Bodo can’t be over stated. An estimated 70,000 people in Bodo account for generations with long term undiagnosed health challenges. They live in sheer resignation to an environment with contaminated water, air and soil. This was an environment which was once a livelihood source. Poverty is now an integral part of the lives of the fishermen and farmers who make up most of the community’s population.
I have extended family in Bodo though my parents moved to Port Harcourt main city, about 40km from Bodo after they got married in their early 20s. I and my two siblings accompanied them on frequent visits to the country side for most of our childhood. I have memories of eating clam soup prepared by my maternal grandmother during such visits. Clam soup is a dish of simple flavour profiles. Grandma would fry salt, pepper, onions, and periwinkles in a dash of palm oil. She would then add blood clams picked from the low lying rivers around the mangroves of Bodo.
On one of our visits to Bodo, my younger sibling (a preschooler at the time) rushed into our grandma’s kitchen, eagerly anticipating a serving of clam soup in a wooden bowl.
‘No clam soup today Daadaa’ (as my younger sibling was fondly called), said Grandma.
‘But why can’t we have clams Nma?’ my sibling queried.
‘The clams got sick and travelled to the other side of the river. They’ll be back at full moon when the tide ebbs after the rains. I’ll make you clam soup then’, Grandma quietly explained.
‘Ok Nma, I’ll wait for the clams to come back’ my kid brother acquiesced.The clams never came back and my grandma passed on years later at a good old age.
The loss of Bodo’s biodiversity is one of greatest highlights of the tragic story of a natural environment impacted by hydrocarbon activity. The vast mangroves of Bodo used to provide shade to an array of seafood and fish. This was an assortment of marine life, from crabs, oysters, lobsters, mud skippers, clams, mussels to a variety of fish. It was before the oil spills when my late maternal grandfather would spend days on the high seas of Bodo in a wooden canoe. He would bring back fish enough to fill an aluminum basin and speak of tales of unimaginable wonders of the seas. After the oil spills, grandpa had to go farther from the rivers around Bodo closer to the south Atlantic to make his catch.
“The oil is a curse after all” Grandpa once reasoned.
Criminal tampering of oil facilities by locals and negligence of outdated infrastructure by oil multi-nationals have contributed to oil spills in this region making a case for resource curse in Nigeria.
It’s been decades of hydrocarbon integrating into the local environment. The artisanal (illegal) refining of crude oil, presently a staple but lucrative trade for the young men of Bodo continues to heat up the region compounding an already delicate situation for the local environment. It’s an illegal trade that requires the cooking of crude oil in aluminium tanks and ensures pollution in locations where it occurs.
The challenge of pollution to Bodo’s local environment is indeed multi faceted. I muse about a so-called collaborative effort between SPDC and Bodo community in the remediation exercise. Four hundred members of Bodo community had been trained to support the work of the clean-up contractors. It was a handful of them who were by the local jetty in their work wear. The relationship between SPDC and Bodo community had been contentious, beset by acrimony and distrust on both sides. It will be interesting to see where the cleanup journey leaves the strange bedfellows.
Reuters in May 2018, reported the protracted court case between Bodo community and SPDC over the clean-up. A British Judge had ruled that Bodo community should retain the option of litigation on the case for another year.
‘Lawyers for Bodo had accused Shell of trying to kill off the legal case by seeking a court order that would have meant the community had to meet onerous conditions before it could revive its litigation, which is currently on hold’, the Reuters report had stated.
‘Penny for your thoughts’, offers Leton.
‘Penny? How about a plate of clam soup instead?’ I ask quietly.
‘Clam soup? Gone are the clams of Bodo’, he replies kick starting the car engine.
‘I was thinking about the 2018 court case which Bodo won,’ I mention
‘Do you think the clean-up would be followed through?’ I ask.
‘You got an organisation with enough resources to mine mineral and buy people over. Go figure’, he replies.
I smile intrigued by his comment.
‘Also, consider the re-surging narrative on re-pollution…’ Leton continues.
‘When it comes to re-pollution, who hires security for the pipelines but the international oil company and who is responsible for pipeline integrity but them?’ I interject.
‘Yes dear friend but look at the big picture. A project like this isn’t without politics and that may very well be the overriding factor determining its future,’ Leton concludes.
I think of the generation of young children in Bodo who have never eaten clam soup or watched women catch crabs and pick periwinkles which don’t smell of hydrocarbon.
If followed through the clean-up exercise presents a glimmer of hope to restore a healthy environment in Bodo but time will tell as it always does. It remains to be seen if I’ll be eating clam soup any time in the future. Life indeed brought change to my home town and not much good with it. I shiver slightly as another gusty wind wafts through the car as we drive away.
*The first phase of the clean-up which commenced in September 2017 was concluded in July 2018. There is still no update regarding the second phase (which should address deeper and beyond surface contamination). It is noteworthy that no successful environmental clean-up has taken place in Nigeria’s Delta region despite decades of oil pollution.