United Bank Africa

Nigeria and Prodigal Environmental Stewards

Guest lecture by Nnimmo Bassey[1] at the 18th Bassey Andah Memorial Lecture hosted by the Bassey Andah Foundation at Transcorp Hotel, Calabar, Nigeria on Saturday 21st January 2017.
Let me begin by thanking the Board of Bassey Andah Foundation for giving me the opportunity to share my thoughts on the Nigerian environment on this auspicious occasion of the 18th Bassey Andah Memorial Lecture. The array of lectures so far held in memory of the Late Prof Andah speaks volumes about the enduring legacy that he left behind. The theme of this year’s lecture is most appropriate considering the fact that the Nigerian environment has suffered much neglect, and has had harm inflicted on it over the years, and we risk losing all that has been bequeathed to us by our ancestors if care is not taken. It is my hope that this event will not merely make us shake our heads in despair over our prodigal handling of the gifts of Nature, of our ecological carelessness and the global fixation on the exploitation of Nature, but serve as a call on all of us to action to preserve our environmental heritage.
Heritage speaks of birthright and inheritance. It connotes an acquisition from a predecessor and a handing down from one generation to another. In other words, our heritage is that something possessed as a result of one’s natural situation or birth.[2] Our heritage can be both tangible and intangible. For example, we could have a building or land as a heritage. Our way of doing things as conditioned by our culture or cosmovision – the state of our inner consciousness of who we are in space and time – is also part and parcel of our heritage.
An inheritance can be wasted, squandered, damaged, diminished or destroyed as is well illustrated by the Biblical story of the prodigal son[3]. We also note that the ideal situation is that an inheritance should be owned with a sense of stewardship, with the knowledge that it would be inherited by subsequent generations. This sense of stewardship includes the responsibility to bring about improvements on the inherited artefacts. Thus, heritage connotes the ideals of sustainability. Overall, the future of what is inherited depends mostly on the disposition of the inheritor. This is the person that decides if to preserve and handover to the next generation or to squander and waste what was inherited.
Nigeria has a number of valuable environmental spots that deserve to be protected, defended, preserved and improved upon when necessary. They are great place-markers and places of beauty, knowledge and cultural relevance. Some of these include the National Parks and Games Reserves. They also include places like the Ogbunike cave, Ikogosi Warm Springs, Qua falls, Olumo Rock and many others. Man-made ancient artefacts like the famous Ikom Monoliths inspire awe and challenge us to reflect on what great indigenous knowledge that were generated and developed in the past have been lost for lack of documentation or capacity to interpret what had been documented.
The environment itself is the basic heritage of a people, community or territory. This includes, but goes beyond, the re-sources bestowed on the people or territory by nature. Sometimes the tendency is to only consider those environmental features that have monetary or commercial values attached to them. That perspective is fundamentally flawed because when say, as in our cultural worldview, that life is wealth, monetary consideration is not part of the equation. True wealth includes a sense of health, wellbeing, solidarity and happiness. There are many threats to our collective national heritage from local and global forces. At the global level, we are witnesses of political turns and twists that truncate possibilities to frontally tackle global environmental problems that place the planet on a highly perilous path.
In all these we see Africa squarely on the firing line with little potential for protective cover. Possibilities of caring for our heritage are marred by the persistent exploitative relationships with foreign capital as well as the endemic reluctance or inability to interrogate certain undergirding concepts such as development – its meanings, drivers and ends. Elevation of neoliberal paradigms to the status of religious creed makes environmental protection almost impossible when States embark on roadshows to attract foreign investments to the detriment of our environmental patrimony. While some of us reject the concept of resource curse as an inevitable outcome of natural resource endowment without controls, we see unequal geopolitical power play and the extractivist path concretised by insatiable global production and consumption realities as the key challenges.
The environmental changes in the world today appear to be set in irreversibly negative path because of the obstinacy of the drivers of those changes. The exploitation of nature, including by its transformation, is being pursued as though the planet were limitless or that Mother Earth did not require times of rest to replenish herself. Industrial agriculture gets more intensified with the same land being ploughed relentlessly and with artificial chemical inputs that literally enslave or obstruct natural processes. Technological advancement moves in the direction of products with in-built obsolescence requiring that such products are replaced or thrown away rather rapidly. Add to this scenario the entrenchment of a petroleum-based civilisation.
The volatility of the mix of rabid exploitation of nature and labour, the pursuit of maximum financial profits and the externalisation of environmental costs pose a complex existential threat to our global environmental heritage. These factors are also the protagonists of threats to our local and national environmental heritage.
It is useful for us to dwell a bit on the question of value before we focus more on the threats around us. The intrinsic value of nature has been rapidly degraded by the forces of neoliberalism – especially the notion that elements of nature can only be valuable when monetary values are attached to them. The creed is that only things with economic value can be protected. In a certain sense, we can say that an extension of this idea explains why some human lives appear to matter more than others. In other words, the billionaire expects, and is accorded, higher levels of protection than the worker that earns less than living wages after hours of backbreaking labour.
The idea of placing financial values on nature has thrown up the concepts of payment for environmental services, carbon trading and various forms of market environmentalism including Emissions Trading Schemes, Clean Development Mechanisms, Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (REDD). Payment of ecosystem or environmental services simply means payment made to humans for managing their lands in a way that the said land performs certain environmental services.
Payment of ecosystem services can be seen as a result of the application of neoliberal ideologies to ecosystem management. The International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) explains the usefulness of the approach this way: “Payments for environmental services (also known as payments for ecosystem services or PES), are payments to farmers or landowners who have agreed to take certain actions to manage their land or watersheds to provide an ecological service. As the payments provide incentives to land owners and managers, PES is a market-based mechanism, similar to subsidies and taxes, to encourage the conservation of natural resources.”[4]
According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) “The key characteristic of these PES deals is that the focus is on maintaining a flow of a specified ecosystem “service” — such as clean water, biodiversity habitat, or carbon sequestration capabilities — in exchange for something of economic value. The critical, defining factor of what constitutes a PES transaction, however, is not just that money changes hands and an environmental service is either delivered or maintained. Rather, the key is that the payment causes the benefit to occur where it would not have otherwise. That is, the service is “additional” to “business as usual,” or at the very least, the service can be quantified and tied to the payment.”[5]
Those that sell ecosystem services are expected to assure the payer (or buyer) that the ecological services are maintained and this would necessarily entail having independent verification of the actions of the seller and the impacts those have on the resources. As with other climate related market mechanisms, a good ratio of the revenue that passes from seller to buyer ends up in the hands of consultants who measure carbon stocks as well as ecological services- predictably to the detriment of the seller who would often be a poor landowner with no understanding of the intricacies of these mechanisms. Consider this list of illustrating ecosystem services[6]:
1)     Purification of air and water
2)     Regulation of water flow
3)     Detoxification and decomposition of wastes
4)     Generation and renewal of soil and soil fertility
5)     Pollination of crops and natural vegetation
6)     Control of agricultural pests
7)     Dispersal of seeds and translocation of nutrients
8)     Maintenance of biodiversity
9)     Partial climatic stabilization
10) Moderation of temperature extremes
11) Wind breaks
12) Support for diverse human cultures
13) Aesthetic beauty and landscape enrichment
We should note that market mechanisms do not recognise the intrinsic values of our heritage.
Global inaction on climate change is one of the biggest threats, facing us today. Already global temperature increase above pre-industrial levels is already at 1.2 degree Celsius according to an assessment by the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO). The 1.5 degrees Celsius set by the Conference of Parties (COP) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is already an unattainable target. Of course, without binding commitments to emissions reduction at levels determined by science and at source by the major polluting and industrialised nations, there is no way (voluntary) actions taken within the subsisting Paris Agreement would stem the tide.
The factors pushing the temperature rise include the reality of higher methane emissions, unabated deforestation, burning of fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas) and land use changes in which half the planet[7] is now being dominated by human activities – including by the cultivation of crops for biofuels.
It is broadly acknowledged that for the world to have a good chance of limiting temperature increase to about 2o Celsius, 80 percent of known fossil fuels reserves must be left untapped and unburned. “The pollution and the global warming threats notwithstanding, the race to squeeze the last drops of fossils from the earth is on. An official US Department of Energy Report is quoted to have said “The world has never faced a problem like this. Without massive mitigation more than a decade before the fact, the problem will be pervasive and will not be temporary. Previous energy transitions were gradual and evolutionary. Oil peaking will be abrupt and revolutionary.”[8]
The year 2016 notoriously broke several environmental records.[9] The months of July and August were the hottest in recorded history, and 22 countries experienced all-time heat records. The ice levels on the Arctic sea were the lowest in 2016 and the first ever climate change-induced extinction of a mammal species was recorded.[10] The mammal species wiped out is the Bramble Cay melomys, a rat that was endemic to Great Barrier Reef in the Pacific region.
Nigeria is already being heavily impacted by climate change. The floods of 2012 took the lives of 300 Nigerians and displaced millions. It should be noted that besides the displacement of populations due to the shrinkage of Lake Chad, some animal species are endangered or significantly reduced. The species include the African elephant, hippopotamus, stripped hyena, red monkey, Dorcas gazelle and Kuri cattle.
In addition to the environmental factors that endanger species, Nigerians love bush meat and these animals are killed and displayed openly for sale along our highways. Sometimes bush burning is utilised as a means of hunting these animals – a method that has multiple attendant environmental costs.