Nnimmo Bassey, the Chair of Friends of the Earth International and Director of the Nigerian organization Environmental Rights Action is a poet, architect, activist, and tireless spokesperson for human and environmental rights. I’ve known Nnimmo since 2005 or so, when he served as a reviewer for the chapter on oil in my book, A Community Guide to Environmental Health.
Nnimmo left Cancun in the middle of the first week at COP16 to fly to Stockholm to accept his Right Livelihood Award (also known as the Alternative Nobel Prize) where he delivered this speech calling for a tribunal for climate criminals; he returned to Cancun to participate in the second week of negotiations, and then, soon after returning to his native Nigeria, he was arrested – a fairly common occurrence for Nnimmo, due to his commitment to environmental justice and his high profile activities – and then released.
I caught up with Nnimmo and conducted this short interview during the second week of COP 16 – between his acceptance of the Right Livelihood Award and his arrest and brief detention in Nigeria.
– Jeff Conant
Jeff Conant: I’m here at COP 16 in Cancun with Nnimmo Bassey, the Chair of Friends of the Earth International and Director of Environmental Rights Action in Nigeria. Nnimmo, what are your impressions of the COP up to now? What do you see happening here, and what do you believe will happen here in the next 24 hours?
Nnimmo Bassey: You know, if anybody attends this COP from civil society and if you are concerned with what is happening to the planet and the people of the planet, you will be wondering if this COP gathering is worth it at all, because from what we’ve seen, these negotiations are not about tackling the systemic causes of climate change and global warming. They are about business. Its about selling carbon credits, its about fictional projects that would help polluting companies to continue to pollute; its not about worrying about nations that may disappear, about small island nations, no: its about securing the interests of corporations; it appears corporate-driven, driven by the will of the market. So, I would say that we really need to reexamine how to make the system work.
JC: Now, for years you’ve been fighting against oil development in Nigeria, against the human rights violations and the violence associated with oil development. You’ve gone to prison for it, you’ve given your life over to it, and now we’re seeing this new initiative, REDD, Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation, which, ostensibly is going to give money to developing countries to protect their forests, which, in theory, should prevent oil exploitation, mining exploitation, in forest areas. And yet you are not in favor of this policy. Can you talk about that?
NB: The whole idea of Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation is not about stopping deforestation. The focus is on emissions reduction, and even that is still based on the fiction of market as a force that can the yield dividends in favor of tackling the challenge of global warming.
There are many things wrong with the process. Number one, as I said, its not going stop deforestation; its going to hand over forest communities and forests to the highest bidder. And so the people are the losers, forest communities are the losers. For those who buy up these forests, who are paying for these forests as carbon stock – because they’re seeing the trees not as trees but as carbon stock – it means that forest people can no longer use the forest in they ways they know best; they can’t live off the forest, they can’t hunt in the forest, they can’t get their medicines in the forest, they’ll be completely cut off so that this carbon stock can be preserved for somebody to get the carbon credits and then pollute somewhere else in Europe or North America.
Secondly, when forests are secured for REDD to generate carbon credits or whatever, there is no guarantee that in twenty years’ time and in a hundred years’ time that forest will not be cut down. There may be a change of policy, and then all the carbon that was supposed to be stored will be released. Moreover, you can save one forest in one part of the country as a REDD forest, but nothing stops deforestation from going on somewhere else. We’ve seen cases in Southeast Asia where forests have been earmarked in advance for this sort of program, and then those who paid for the forests deforested around it, made a plantation around it. So the whole thing is a myth, and its so shocking that global leaders would sit down and push more and more of these fictions, rather than figuring out how to tackle global warming at the source.
[Note: FOEI recently published a report on REDD, here.]
JC: One of the other things we’re seeing, we saw it at the CBD in Nagoya, we’re seeing it here, is this push for the Green Economy. Part of what we’re seeing is agrofuels, biofuels, bioenergy, biomass incineration as new forms of energy that are ostensibly going to be replace black carbon fossil fuels. So for someone, again, who’s been fighting against the petroleum industry all your life, one would think this would be a good thing. Can you talk to me about that?
NB: (Laughs) Well, we’ve looked critically at the issue of agrofuels and biofuels, the use of food crops to produce ethanol for machines, for driving cars, and we’ve seen that all of these can never replace fossil fuels; they’re just intensifying the same paradigm of development. It’s industry driven, it’s driven by speculators who want to grab land in Africa, in Asia, in Latin America, and who don’t really want to change the mode of economy we’re living right now. For the oil industry, for example, this is a very welcome idea because they’re also investing in biofuels, they’re influencing the policies for biofuels. The Nigerian policy on biofuels was written by the Nigerian petroleum corporations, and it’s such a crazy policy that it completely gives everything – national sovereignty, tax breaks, and lack of control – everything is given over to those who are going to invest in biofuels.
And we know that even if you use all the agricultural land in the world to cultivate agrofuels, you’re not going to replace fossil fuels, you’re only going to meet a fraction of the energy need. And so we’re asking for a change, a complete change; we’re not asking for additions to fossil fuel, we want a stoppage of the use of fossil fuels, to leave the oil in the soil, leave the coal in the hole, to leave the tarsands in the land, and then get out of agrofuels investments. We prefer biofuels that can be used at small-scale local community levels, run and managed by the people, to meet minor energy needs. But to think that industry can run on biofuels would mean to takeover all the lands in Africa and the poor countries in exchange for cash; and in exchange for that, people are going to starve; it’s a death sentence for communities.
JC: Finally, we’ve just learned from the Wikileaks cables that Shell Oil has been putting people into the Nigerian government, and they’ve been very explicit about it in these leaks. Can you comment on that?
NB: The wikileaks actually just confirmed out suspicion, because these corporations could not have been behaving with impunity the way they’ve done over the decades if they were not the ones running our government. And because we don’t have real democracy, we don’t have people who are accountable to the electorate, you don’t really have politicians who would work in the interests of the nation and in the interests of the people. And so Shell could boast that even if you traded all the offices, they’d get to know whatever government is regulating the oil industry. Government efforts to regulate the oil industry are frustrated continuously. This is why they’re not accountable for their pollution, they don’t respect court orders, they don’t allow the Nigerian government to prepare an acceptable Petroleum Industry Bill—there’s one that’s been in the works and the industry said they won’t accept it if it’s not in their favor, so until now the government’s been unable to move on that. And so what we’ve heard from Wikileaks shows that these corporations have been engaged in espionage against the people of Nigeria, they don’t respect the people, they don’t respect the environment, and in fact one of the things I read in the report published so far is that they had and they have in-depth knowledge about the violent actions being carried out by militant groups in the [Niger] Delta. And so when they claim that violence is stopping the oil production, I think they are part of that problem; they’ve been instigating the violence, and they should be brought to boot. Shell should be in the dock; the Nigerian government should investigate and bring them to account. Unless they want to tell the whole world that they’re working hand in hand.