Monday, October 6, 2014 9:50 am
Jethro Ibileke/Niger Delta
Burning, government’s response to oil theft and illegal bush refineries in the Niger Delta, is worsening environmental degradation in the region and putting many out of business
Obruche Odjegba, a 67-year-old father of six from Aghalokpe, a small community in the rain forest of Okpe Local Government Area of Delta State, had been a farmer all his life. He cultivated crops both for his family’s consumption and for sale in the local market. Part of the proceeds from the sales had paid for the education of his children, some of them to university level. He had always managed to provide for his family’s needs, until 2010, when he was forced to retire from farming. Now, he can no longer feed his family as his farming business has been paralysed as a result of the impact of the destruction of bush refineries.
Trouble started when some boys in the community ventured into illegal oil bunkering; scooping crude from ruptured oil pipelines, which they sold to make brisk money. The business was good; they made more money in a few weeks than they had made all their lives. They decided to set up their own refineries to take their business to the next level, which they did within few weeks with help from their friends from other parts of the state that had been running their own refineries for several months. In no time, they began selling petroleum products refined from their bush refineries. That meant more money in their pockets. But farmlands, rivers and, indeed, the entire environment in the region began to suffer unprecedented pollution. Crops also began to wither, resulting in poor yield for farmers in the community, including Odjegba.
The bubble burst in 2012, when operatives of the Joint Task Force, code-named Operation Pulo Shield, discovered the illegal bush refineries in Aghalokpe and destroyed them by setting them ablaze, with crude oil still in the tanks. The environment suffered. The soil refused to give its yield and things got worse for peasant farmers like Odjegba as well as fishermen who depended on fish caught from the local rivers for their livelihood. Their health also suffered.
Like Odjegba, most farmers in the region are now hungry and angry, as it has become more and more difficult for them to feed their families due to drastic reduction in farm yields. The reason: their lands have lost their nutrients and fertility; becoming barren and poisoned as a result of oil spillages, fire and smoke emanating from the bush refineries and during their destruction by burning.
Fishermen in the riverine community of Gbaranmat, in the Delta, suffered a similar fate. Fishing has been severely hampered in the villages of Makarava, Odidi in Gbaranmatu and in Ashafama forests, all in Warri South-West Local Government Area of Delta State, as the waters have become polluted by illegal oil activities, resulting in migration of aquatic life.
Also, the mangrove forests in these areas are gradually dying without hope of regeneration, apparently from heat from flames and thick smoke of the bush refineries and from the destruction of the sites by the JTF. Furthermore, land areas around the refineries have become so empty, dry and barren.
Tonye Bralabo, a resident of Makarava who had been a fisherman all his life, lamented decreasing fish catch from the river. According to the father of 13 children from three wives, due to the large quantity of fish he caught in the past, people from as far away as Warri and Sapele came to buy from him in the local market. But the advent of illegal oil refineries and their subsequent destruction by authorities have reduced his catch and adversely affected his fishing business.
Jonah, a university graduate and catfish breeder in ponds dug along creeks in Oporoma, Bayelsa State, where Illegal oil activities are also prevalent, lamented huge losses running into hundreds of thousands of naira he has incurred due to oil pollution of river water serving his ponds. He said land in the region has been saturated with crude oil, to the point that oil leaks into his ponds, killing his fish.
Another aspect of the negative impact of illegal refineries and their destruction by burning is the health hazard. A random inquiry on the health of the people of Aviele in Edo North where illegal refining thrives and where many of such refineries have been destroyed indicated that a high number of the residents, especially young children, are prone to recurring respiratory tract infections. According to Dr. Taiwo Omosebi, a consultant at the Lagos State University Teaching Hospital, LASUTH, this might not be unconnected with poisonous gases emitted into the air from the refineries and during their destruction by burning. He said people exposed to such poisonous gases could suffer the same effects of direct smoking as the poisoned smokes could weaken their lungs and, invariably, make them vulnerable to long-term respiratory tract infections.
Domestic animals are other unlikely victims of illegal refining. Investigation revealed that oil condensates have polluted vegetation in areas where illegal refineries thrive. Reports of this kind of pollution in parts of Ogbe-Ijoh, a loading point for illegally refined petroleum products near Warri, have been linked to the death of some domestic animals.