The theme of this year’s World Environment Day, Connecting People to Nature, could not have been more apt, considering that humankind has lost the vital connections that make us conscious of our being a part of a community of beings on Earth.
Today we want to particularly look at the disruption of that connection by the politics of infrastructure that is sometimes pursued without recourse to national or even natural laws. We see roads build without drainages and where they are constructed, they are invariably emptied into streams and rivers without any consideration of the wellbeing of the aquatic life in them and of the people that depend on the water downstream.
I once asked the manager of a phosphate factory dumping toxic effluent into the Atlantic Ocean at Kpeme, near Lome, why such a harmful practice was permitted. The answer was that “you cannot make an omelette without breaking the egg.” If you ask why international oil companies have been routinely flaring gas in the Niger Delta over the past fifty-nine years, they claim it became “industry practice” because there was no market for the product when oil extraction commenced. Can you seen how low we can sink?
One of the infrastructural projects that has astonished the world and stunned local communities is the 260 km Superhighway proposed by the Cross River State Government (CRSG) to originate from a “deep sea” port at Esighi in Cross River State and rip through the National Park and community forests to terminate at Katsina Ala in Benue State. This Town Hall meeting will examine what has been lost due to the commencement of the execution of the project without adequate public consultations, before an approved Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) and presumably before any detailed site-specific designs had been made. We will also examine what has been saved by the self-reversal of the order by which the CRSG had grabbed an amazing 10km span of land on either side of the proposed highway. That land uptake would have meant the displacement of several communities, conversion of pristine forests, decimation of wildlife and possibly the extinction of some species.
The idea of shaving pristine and protected forests for the installation of a highway of any form indicates a clear disconnection between people and Nature. The farcical community consultations so far carried out underscores the disconnection between the wielders of power and the citizens. The struggle waged by the communities to ensure that they are duly consulted and that their free prior informed consent is obtained before any project execution is an indication that a people connected to Nature would not readily allow any force to disconnect them from Nature on which they depend for livelihoods. This Town Hall will also seek to assure our threatened communities that we are united in the efforts to ensure that they are allowed to live in dignity, enhance their systems of knowledge and that the best interest of all beings is respected.
The forest dependent communities of Cross River State have shown exemplary commitment to protecting and managing their community forests. In attestation of their excellent performance, the Ekuri people were conferred with the Equator Prize by the United Nations Development Programme in 2004. Forests provide a variety of services to humans and other beings. Forests help to cool the Earth, protect our rivers, maintain soil quality, house wildlife. They provide food and medicine for humans and are home to pollinators. While the communities deserve to have good access roads, building any superhighway through the well managed forests would spell disaster of global implications.
Regrettably, Nature has become to many of us “a thing” that is to be appropriated, transformed and traded. We have gone so far from Nature that one sounds ridiculous to insist that we do not need to attach monetary values to Nature before we can protect her. This is the logic that undergirds the concept of Green Economy and promotes market environmentalism. We have forgotten the intrinsic values of the gifts of Nature and of Nature herself. We believe that all is not lost. We can wake up from the present nightmare and dream of better ways of living, of connecting with Mother Earth.
Today, we have deliberated chosen to mark the World Environment Day by having a Forest Town Hall Meeting. We note that parts of our nation are not being denuded by processes of desertification and the forest regions are rapidly becoming Sahellian. The transformation cannot be blamed on climate change alone, although it does play a part in the area of desertification. Our disconnection from Nature has permitted us to clear our forests, destroy complex ecosystems, food systems and our social heritage without any reflections on the consequences of our actions. The loss of our forest ecosystems translates to the loss of culture, of ways of life, of possibly irredeemable destruction of species. These loses translate to direct deprivation of livelihoods and the exacerbation of poverty in our forest dependent communities.
We are pleased that the Federal Ministry of Environment has stood ready to review Environment Impact Assessment documents presented by the CRSG and that a nod would only be given when it is clear that all requirements of the law are met, including full consultation of the communities that would be impacted by the proposed project. We are thankful that the Honourable Minister of State for Environment, Alhaji Ibrahim Usman Jibril, is giving the keynote address at this gathering. we look forward to hearing thoughts and experiences from development and environmental experts as well as from representatives of communities threatened by the proposed that project.
I and my colleagues took part in an ecological community dialogue in Akpabuyo, one of the already impacted communities, last week. The lament of the people that still rings in my ear is this: “We were not consulted before the superhighway was routed through our communities. We just saw bulldozers mowing down our trees, crops and properties. We insist that we must be consulted and that our consent must be obtained and due compensations paid for what has been destroyed and before any further work here. Our livelihoods depend on our environment. We cannot be treated like slaves in our own land.”
What was implied is that we must not be disconnected from our land, from Mother Earth. In other words, what Nature has connected, let no person or government put asunder.
Remarks made by Nnimmo Bassey, Director of Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF), at the Forest Town Hall and World Environment Day meeting held at Apo Apartments, Abuja on June 5, 2017.