International head of Friends of the Earth, Nnimmo Bassey, is a special guest at this year's Frankfurt Book Fair. The Nigerian campaigner spoke to DW about the link between literacy and environmental protection.
Bassey wants science to be made more accessible to the public
For years, Nnimmo Bassey has been fighting against the oil industry's pollution in the Nile Delta. Broken pipelines, illegal small refineries and the burning of excess gas have caused an ecological disaster. According to Bassey's organization "Environmental Rights Action," the Nigerian chapter of Friends of the Earth, a proper cleanup would cost $100 million.
Bassey, a laureate of the 2010 Right Livelihood Award (also known as the Alternative Nobel Prize), spoke to the head of DW's Portuguese for Africa department, Johannes Beck, at the Frankfurt Book Fair's LitCam conference. This year's focus is on how education can contribute to sustainable economic growth. To hear the full interview, click the link below. Deutsche Welle: Today we've heard how literacy can contribute to climate protection. Yet if we look at industrialized countries, we see that many have a high literacy level – for example Germany – but we still cause a lot of carbon dioxide emissions. What do we need?
Nnimmo Bassey: The industrialized world has to a large extent – and I say this with due respect – lost the connection with nature. I mean, when was the last time you looked at a night sky to see the stars? If you are in a city with so much electric light everywhere you almost don't know what a beautiful night sky looks like. And this is [just] a small thing.
Nnimmo Bassey (right) with Johannes Beck, DW's head of the Portuguese for Africa department
We actually require taking this literacy to the popular level. Our scientists have to be retrained to communicate their work in a popular way, to speak the language that the people on the street can understand. Because when you keep on producing statistics and things that sound like flying above people's heads, this is okay as a scientific finding, but is has nothing to do with me. People want what they can relate to, what they can understand.
You said industrialized countries have lost their connection to nature. But when I travel to Latin America, Africa or Asia, I feel that at least in the big cities of the developing world, people also have a very fragile connection to nature. Is it really only a problem for industrialized countries?
I would agree with this. We need a worldwide reconnection, but we must also not forget the historical basis of the conflict and challenge we are facing. When scientists tell us that 80 percent of the atmospheric space for carbon has been taken, this was not done by the developing countries.
We know some really rich polluting entities of the world, which have taken off and colonized the atmosphere by themselves. They don't want to negotiate how the remaining 20 percent can be shared.
They don't really care what happens the day after, because they have better resilience and better capability to withstand the storms of life that most inevitably will confront all of us.
But again, when we make some broad statements, we have to look at details. We have the global north in the south; we have the global south in the north. Because there are very rich people in poor countries who live very wasteful lives and who are creating as much damage as anybody else.
I'm personally engaged and committed to engage in joining people across the world to confront power, because corporate power has captured public structures across the world.
Is it corporate power that prevented stories about oil pollution in the Niger Delta? We have more or less one Exxon Valdez disaster occurring each year in the Niger Delta. Why do people speak about oil pollution in the Gulf of Mexico or Alaska but forget about the Niger Delta?
You know, the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico was to a large extent – I'm sorry to say that – a 'good' thing. It helped to show the double standards in the mass media, for example, about how they report environmental disasters. When the Gulf of Mexico oil spill occurred in April 2010 the whole world was focusing on it.
In fact, even undersea cameras were installed to let us see the efforts to stop that spill. It revealed the practices of this industry. In the United States it was revealed that they didn't do site specific environmental assessments before they started drilling.
A farmer stands in front of two leaking oil wells which are polluting the Nile Delta
They were not prepared for emergency situations. In fact the best they could handle was about 48,000 barrels if an oil spill occurred.
If we see that level of control and connivance in an advanced country like the United States, it is easy to see what is going on in my country. We have oil spills equivalent of one Exxon Valdez every year.
In fact, in 2008 and 2009 there was one oil spill that experts estimate to have released 480,000 barrels of crude oil. In one incident! It went on for four months before anybody stopped it. The case is pending in the courts in the United Kingdom where Shell has admitted that they are guilty of that pollution, which is very rare. They hardly accept that they are guilty of anything.
So why isn't there a focus on Nigeria? As long as it doesn't directly impact Europe, or North America, Australia or Japan, the international mass media is not really interested.
The ones that come around these stories are 'freak' journalists. Why do they care about this thing? But this is what literacy needs to expose. These are the stories that the world needs to hear.
People are drinking water with Benzene about 900 times above World Health Organization standards. The oil companies operating in Nigeria don't even keep up to their own industry standards. This kind of crime is really reprehensible.
Shell admitted at least several oil spills, but the company is also claiming that 98 percent of the oil pollution in the Niger Delta is caused by the local population stealing or diverting oil from the pipelines.
I would say, Shell tells a lot of lies. Don't believe all they say. In the 1980s they were claiming in British advertisements that 80 percent of the pollution of the pipeline incidents were caused by the local people.
They said the same in the early 1990s. That was when the British Advertisement Board told them (they could only) make that claim with proof. That's when they stopped. Now again they come back with the same story.
I must admit that between 2005 and 2007 there was a rise in incidents of sabotage. But this was political sabotage. And whenever sabotage was going to happen, usually it was announced by email or through the media. Those who did it claimed they would do it for political and economic reasons.
We in the environmental justice movement and my organization, we condemned every action of sabotage, because it harms the environment and doesn't solve the problem.
The issue of Shell and other oil companies that say "Watch out, the people steal the oil," is not very correct. I want to explain what I mean. The level of oil theft in Nigeria is not what people do (with) cups or bottles or buckets. People collect petroleum products when the pipeline leaks.
The claim that people are responsible for oil theft is not correct, says Bassey
I dare to say that if a pipeline were to leak somewhere near here, some car owners might want to pick up a few liters. Maybe it would not happen in Germany, but it happens in other countries.
The truth about the oil industry in Nigeria is that there is such a lack of transparency, that even the Nigerian State does not have information on how much oil is being extracted on a daily basis. The oil companies would not reveal that to the official institution that audits the sector.
M my organization believes that about a million barrels of oil are stolen every day. This is done by international syndicates. It is done by players in the industry. This is done by players in government structures. We are demanding an investigation. And this is why we've said: Stop giving new oil blocks.
If you stop the oil theft, you are recovering almost 50 percent more crude oil. It would bring more revenue to the government, which can be used to develop the country.
So Nigeria would be back again as the biggest African oil exporter leading Angola?
I think right now they have already come back to their position, because since the militants and the violence in the oil fields has stopped, oil production has gone up again.
An oil spill could occur for four months like the one occurred in Bodo in the Ogoni region, and even so throughout that period the level of oil exportation has not dropped. You are pumping 480,000 barrels of oil into the land, into the environment and the oil production did not drop. It means that nobody really knows how much oil is being lost.
So if the corporations are blaming local people, they are just blaming the victims. The people who are taking the oil, that's a big time mafia. There are no poor community persons in that racket.
This Monday was probably a very special day for you: Ken Saro-Wiwa who worked with you and was executed in 1995 by the Nigerian military dictatorship, would have had his 70th birthday. What does he mean to you?
I would say the late Ken Saro-Wiwa inspired me to become an environmental justice activist. I started my life as a human rights activist against the military dictatorship in Nigeria, against bad prison conditions. But when Saro-Wiwa began to organize his people in the 70s, the Ogoni people, and demanded environmental protection and fought for justice and eventually expelled Shell from Ogoni-Land in 1993 - that was the year my organization started.
Ken Saro-Wiwa was executed in 1995 by the Nigerian military regime
We found that most of the human rights issues we were campaigning against were caused by environmental impacts from oil extraction and from the use of the military to suppress people so that business can keep on going as usual and the pollution can continue.
So when we remember his birthday and in a month's time we will remember the day he was executed, I just feel that he has been vindicated. Because the United Nations Environmental Programme report about the oil pollution in Ogoni-Land confirmed that everything that the late Ken Saro-Wiwa was saying was true. He wasn't fabricating anything.
And now we really should be demanding an apology from both the Nigerian state and from Shell for working together to execute him and eight other Ogoni leaders. It is (stated) in the Nigerian national anthem "The labor of our heroes past shall never be in vain." Ken Saro-Wiwa is a big hero – the number one hero in Nigeria for me.
He used every cultural tool available to educate his people and the Nigerian people about environmental and political issues. I believe literacy and icons like Ken Saro-Wiwa can inspire us to really fight for justice. You know when you are on the path of truth, no matter how inconvenient it is, even when you lose your life in a struggle, as you stand for the truth, the truth will always be vindicated. You can kill the messenger, but never the message.
Interview: Johannes Beck (stf)
Editor: Sarah Steffen