Could bitumen conflicts create another Niger Delta situation?

Nov 26, 2003 01:00 AM

The fears that the tension and conflict that have characterised crude oil exploration and production in the Niger Delta may be re-enacted in the bitumen bearing communities in the country if the Federal Government refuses to involve the affected communities in its plans to begin exploitation of the solid mineral.
Already, the Federal Government has been accused of avoiding the involvement of these communities in the on-going preparation for the exploration and exploitation of the solid mineral.

This accusation was made in Lagos by Chief Kayode Iwakun, the Chairman of Organisation of Bitumen Producing Areas at a national consultation workshop on bitumen exploration organised by the Environmental Rights Action (ERA) -- an environmental rights group. Chief Iwakun further stated that efforts of the affected communities to dialogue with the Federal Government also failed.
According to him: "We even tried to stimulate dialogue by inviting members of the Federal Government owned Bitumen Implementation Agency to our monthly meetings. We gave them our roster of meetings as well as notices of particular meetings. They refused attending our meetings".

The chief further accused the government of leaving the host communities in the hands of prospecting companies adding that what was delaying the commencement operations of the bitumen companies is the non-availability of necessary data for exploration activities in the area.
Chief Iwakun observed that since over 90 % of inhabitants of the bitumen belt in the country are peasant farmers who depend on the land to make their living, "the biggest and most fundamental problem of bitumen extraction will be the effects on the livelihood of the host communities".
The chief warned that the inability of the Federal Government to formulate positive policies regarding the socio-economic condition of the host communities would invariably lead to a replication of the avoidable violence of the Niger Delta area. ERA corroborated the chief's claim and also expressed concern about the manner the Federal Government has pursued its proposed exploration and exploitation of bitumen in the bitumen belt of the country.

According to a report presented by Bode Oluwafemi and Israel Alogba -- both of whom are officers of the environmental rights group -- at the workshop, some natives of the bitumen bearing areas are already frightened that bitumen extraction would lead to the destruction of their environment and their sources of livelihood since they are predominantly farmers and fishermen.
According to the ERA officers, one Mr Omoniyi Samuel -- a 75 year old community leader in Ilubirin-a bitumen producing area in Ondo State -- had concluded that the bitumen project had started on a disappointing note since the Federal Government had refused to consult with inhabitants of the affected communities. The old man's conclusion was based on the fact that no Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) had been done and no plan made for the resettlement of the thousands ofpeople that would be displaced by the project.

The communities feel this way despite the visit of President Olusegun Obasanjo to Ode-Irele, one of the bitumen bearing communities several months ago, to perform the “ground-breaking” ceremony for the extracting companies to commence extraction of the solid mineral. In spite of the non-availability of an EIA report, and the government's inability to consult with the inhabitants of these communities, Obasanjo had insisted the companies awarded bitumen blocks must begin exploration last July or have their licences revoked.
However, expressions of concern over the environmental implications of bitumen exploration has not been restricted to the local communities of the bitumen belt. Indeed, one of the companies given bitumen block allocation has identified some environmental issues which are similar to those of the crude oil industry.

In a paper presented by the representative of Bitumen Exploration and Exploitation Company Nigeria (BEECON) Engr. Jaafaru Wuyep, he identified some likely areas of future concern of stakeholders to include: spillages, fumes and other gaseous emissions, noise and vibrations. Others issues which he identified that are likely to demand the attention of stakeholders in the industry would include displacements and ecological disturbances which would likely arise from the construction of roads, pipelines and reservoirs and increased human and vehicular traffic which is likely to exert adverse impact on the environment of the affected communities.
Wuyep went ahead to advise stakeholders in the industry to ensure that in adopting guidelines that would regulate operations in the industry, an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) should be done with the aim of achieving the following objectives: predicting the nature, magnitude, activities and effects of future exploration activities and by giving confidence to the planning system through providing for public participation and consultation mechanisms.

In his comments at the occasion, the Executive Director of ERA Mr Nnimmo Bassey also stressed the importance of community involvement in the bitumen exploration industry. He agreed that since there are similarities between the bitumen and crude oil exploration, the environmental problems arising from them are likely to be similar. But he disagreed with the view in government circles that investment in the bitumen sector was in line with the much-talked-about drive to diversify the economy.
According to him, since both bitumen and crude oil belong to the same chemical family, reliance on one or both of them cannot be regarded as economic diversification even though Nigeria's deposit of bitumen has been estimated to stand at 42.74 bn tons and ranked as the second largest in the world.

Sounding fatalistic, Bassey expressed anxiety that given Nigeria's track record in the oil industry, it is possible that the same scenario could be re-enacted in the bitumen sector. According to him "The entry of these hydrocarbons into our economic equation, has been a clearly acknowledged factor in the stunting of our economic as well as political institutions". He described the oil industry as a major trigger of national waste and corruption adding that the reason may be traceable to the very powerful involvement of the transnational corporations in the industry.
The ERA leader further stated that when it is realised that the $ 350 bn which Nigeria has realised from oil sales between 1965 and 2000 has not led to meaningful development, but rather the spread of poverty in the land, oil money has resulted in a decline in the standard of living of Nigerians. Bassey argued that Nigeria's underdevelopment and instability keeps the people divided while the oil companies and government carry on business as usual.

At the end of the workshop, several resolutions were adopted and reflected in a communique that was issued by participants. The resolutions include:
-- the consensus among participants that the Federal Government and bitumen firms should encourage the involvement of local communities in the bitumen project in the spirit of environmental justice, economic empowerment and social harmony;
-- that all agreements signed between the government and bitumen firms should be made public without further delay;
-- that a comprehensive environmental impact assessment as well as social impact study be carried out in the bitumen belt before exploration activities begin;
-- that bitumen bearing communities, civil society organizations and the government should monitor the bitumen firms closely to ensure strict adherence to local and international environmental, health and safety standards to avert another Niger Delta situation and that all unjust mining and exploration laws should be reviewed.

Source: Vanguard
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