[Nnimmo Bassey interview by Ethan Cox, June 2013] When we speak of Nigeria, and of the Nigerian people’s inspired resistance to the devastation wrought by multinational oil companies such as Shell, the name of the late, and great, Ken Saro-Wiwa is inescapable.
But many others have continued to toil in the shadows over the years since Saro-Wiwa’s death. Nnimmo Bassey is one such activist who is finally beginning to get the credit he deserves for a lifetime dedicated to healing our planet.
Bassey is a Nigerian activist, author and poet, who has devoted his life to fighting for a healthy environment. He is the Director of the newly formed Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF), the coordinator of Oil Watch International and was, until last year, the Executive Director of Environmental Rights Action (ERA), a grassroots NGO he founded, and the Chairperson of Friends of the Earth – International (FOI-I).
Named a “hero of the environment” by Time magazine in 2009, Bassey was awarded the Right Livelihood award in 2010, colloquially referred to as the alternative Nobel Peace Prize, and in 2012 won the prestigious Rafto Human Rights Prize. He is the author of the newly released “To Cook a Continent: Destructive Extraction and the Climate Crisis in Africa” and has been touted as a candidate for the Nobel Peace prize itself.
Bassey is in Montreal this weekend to speak at the Festival of Solidarity, an annual event organized by Montreal-based NGO Alternatives, and rabble was able to sit down with him to discuss his three decades of climate justice activism, and his vision of an oil-free future.
For starters, why don’t you tell me a little about how you got involved in this work. I know you’ve been involved with Environmental Rights Action for over two decades in Nigeria, and that you trained as an architect, so what got you involved, what made you shift from architecture to devoting your life to protecting the environment?
Bassey: Well, I still do some architecture. [laughs]
Activism doesn’t pay the bills? Shocking.
No, it doesn’t pay the bills!
As I grew up, I saw only a very few years of democracy. From 1966 we had military rule in Nigeria, and thereafter on and off for thirty years the country was under the control of the military. In the late eighties there was a strong campaign against the military, a campaign for democracy in Nigeria. I was in the mainstream human rights movement, campaigning mostly against the military, and also against bad prison conditions, police brutality, the repression of local communities.
Around 1990 the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MSOP) became quite strong, led by the late Ken Saro-Wiwa. This movement produced the Ogoni bill of rights, made very strong ecological, and also political, demands on the state, and asked for a clean up of the environment. Now, while this was going on, it occurred to me and some of my colleagues that many of the human rights issues we were campaigning on actually had their roots in environmental abuses.
We campaigned for better prison conditions, better police detention conditions, but we had to ask the question, why are people being detained in the first place? And what we discovered was that people were being criminalized because they demanded environmental justice, because they demanded economic benefits from resource extraction in their communities. People were being criminalized just because they asked for dialogue, with a corporation like Shell or with the government.
The Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF), which is my main focus now, is an ecological think tank whose major objective is to overturn the current thought pattern which makes people in Nigeria, in Africa especially, accept the neo-liberal logic as the only way to do things. This idea that only the private sector can do anything right. Well the people in the private sector are no different from the people in the public sector, and the private sector depends heavily on the public sector to be able to do things.
With this new organization we are focusing on two broad themes: fossil fuels, which includes alternative energy, climate change, and climate justice, and hunger politics.
We are looking at why people are hungry. If you’ve been paying attention to what the G8 are doing, they’re creating a new alliance for nutrition in Africa. We see that as a way of opening up the continent to big seed companies like Monsanto, who will introduce GMO seeds in the name of nutrition. They’ve been engineering some crops which are very popular in Africa, primarily to increase the amount of Vitamin A. If you need Vitamin A you can get it very easily, from foods and other things, there is no need to go to the extent of engineering crops just to enhance the level of vitamin A in them. Moreover, people don’t eat these crops in quantities that would provide a sufficient amount of Vitamin A, which is the excuse the companies are giving us about why these GMO crops are necessary.
So we ask, why are people hungry? Not just in Africa, but globally. I think this is a very pertinent question.
Along with these two broad themes we have what we call the Sustainability Academy, or HOME school. It will have two sessions a year, and each session will have at least one facilitator, that we call an instigator, there to instigate positive change. So we will get someone with a strong point of view, who is knowledgeable about a particular topic, and get them to speak on that topic to policy makers, to undergraduates and scholars and to high school students and community members. All at different meetings, but the same topic, the same presentation, on different levels. We are trying to create a common understanding on certain issues as an organizing strategy.
You said when you were younger you were working on human rights and then got drawn to the environment because you were looking for the root causes of these human rights abuses. Now, with the Health of Mother Earth Foundation, it sounds like a similar process of trying to look at the root causes of why we have these issues – why is there hunger? Why are there these environmental problems? Do you believe the current system can be reformed, or do you think we need to change the system in order to save the planet?
Absolutely. We need to overturn the system. Most policy-makers believe in transactions. We don’t need transactions. What we need is transformation. We need radical change. The kind of change we need is not the one where you look and say, well, it’s slightly transformed from what it was. We need total change, because if you look at the world today, the petroleum civilization, which has driven industrialisation over the past 200 years or so, is totally unsustainable. We know that the resource we are using is non-renewable. We know it’s harming the planet. The World Bank – if you’re looking for a conservative organisation, there’s nothing more conservative than them – they said just before the last meeting in Doha that at least 80 per cent of known fossil fuel reserves must be left untouched if we’re going to avoid runway global warming. If we’re going to have a reasonable chance of survival as a species. And yet the world knows that this is causing global warming, and they know that this resource is depleting, but they’re saying “wait! we can get more!” We can get more from the Tar Sands, more from the deep sea, more from all kinds of things. But that is not the issue. The issue is not whether you can get more. The issue is the destruction of the planet. They’re destroying life. So we need a situation where people can think more clearly than they do right now – not just about profit. We need to restructure the economic paradigm. We cannot allow the world to be run on speculation and financialization of everything. It’s serious work.
But then the question becomes, how do we bring about that change?
It’s going to be a political decision, and if you work in the environmental justice movement, you don’t just stand alone as an environmental activist. You have to work with social movements, work with political movements, work with labour, work with everybody, because the thing is…we simply have to be able to get into the driver’s seat of making decisions. We need more people getting active in decision-making, understanding the issues and taking an active role. That is why in the HOME school thing, where I’m speaking with policy makers, for example, the first HOME school is going to be on climate change. We’re having that in August. And the first session will be with legislators and Nigerian negotiators and Ministry of Environment people because they need to be reminded that the way the negotiations have been undertaken is not going to solve the problem. It may bring some commerce or revenue from projects – maybe adaptation and mitigation measures and things like that, but that is just immediate and temporary. And so we want to get them to begin to look at the fundamental issues and see how narrow the negotiations have been, and to really understand why Copenhagen was such a disaster – Cancun, Durban, Doha – and how Poland will be a big disaster this year. We need to change the way decisions are being made.
And I guess change the form of democracy too, because you’re quite a vocal critic of the democratically elected government in Nigeria as well, right?
That’s a big issue really, because globally, if you look at the governments we have around the world, even the biggest or most applauded democratic settings, there’s very little democracy. Many of the governments are put there by big corporations who pay for their elections and who lobby them, and they have to do the bidding of those corporations. They’re not really looking at what is in the best interest of the people, only what will support business. If you look at a place like Nigeria, you find government officials going on the economic road-show. They’re looking for direct foreign investment. This is also driving land-grabbing, but they don’t call it land-grabbing. They say it’s foreign direct investment! They don’t care what happens in the future. So all this – there are no easy answers, but the whole so-called democratic setting needs to be critically reviewed. We need people to regain their sovereignty. We need to decide what we allow, and what we don’t allow – what people want, and what they don’t want. People know what they want, but right now, we’re not able to enforce what we want and what we don’t want, so we need a situation where true democratic space is created in the world and there’s bottom-up leadership, not top-down leadership. The fact that we elect a man, or woman, does not mean we surrender our sovereignty to him or her.
I was wondering if you could tell me more about what’s happening in Nigeria in terms of rebels standing up to the government or oil companies. We hear a lot about religious conflicts but not much about resistance to the oil companies…
There’s always been conflict in the middle belt – the middle portion of Nigeria – and it’s usually characterised as a religious conflict. But I think it’s actually a climate conflict, because you have pastoralists who are displaced by desertification, who can’t raise their cattle where they used to live before. They have to migrate southward, and then they meet farmers who need their land to cultivate crops, and then this creates conflict between the pastoralists and the farmers. It’s not because they are Muslims and Christians. It’s simply about climate. This is a climate conflict, but as long as it’s characterised as a religious conflict, then nobody is going to find a solution.
So tell me about what brings you to Canada, and your thoughts on our role in fighting climate change.
I’m very excited about coming here; the environmental policies in Canada are a big sore on the conscience of the world, a huge wound on the conscience of the world. The government insists on going down the wrong path, developing resources that destroy the environment and poison the water. Generally, they don’t care about the effects on human health, but just think about economic gains.
I’m here to show that this logic of expansion and economic growth at any cost which has taken root here is very dangerous. In Canada your government has said they will not make any serious commitments to fight global warming. They pulled out of the Kyoto Protocol, even while the Kyoto Protocol was on life support. In negotiations, Canada led the fight against binding commitments to emission reduction. I’m also here to express real solidarity with people who are impacted by these developments, and who are campaigning against this destructive path.
To stand together is the beauty of our campaigns; that we can lend support to each other, that we can stand together and also generate our own stories to let the whole world know the concerns of the people and that this degradation is going on. Leading humanity to destruction doesn’t make sense, and it must not continue. It is also for governments and those pushing this agenda to know they are doing this against the wishes of the people, and what they are doing is wrong. No matter what profit they’re making or the economic gain, it doesn’t make sense at all if what you’re doing is breaking the cycles of nature. The way it’s going there is no good way to do it, this environment can never be restored. It will take thousands of years to get back to normal shape.
This is why every location where this destruction is going on, is a crime scene – simply put.
As someone who has been a prominent environmental activist in Africa for many decades, you obviously know that in 2006 the Harper government was elected here in Canada. For us a great deal changed as a result of his election, is that a change that you noticed in Canada’s behaviour before and after Stephen Harper?
Whatever happens in the rich countries is known across the world, and patterns of action and inaction are very well documented and well known. Sometimes we get surprised, other times we know this is what to expect. Yes, obviously we’ve seen the disturbing trend, but we are not surprised the government is going the way it is going. We are never really shocked that there doesn’t seem to be a realization that we have only one planet. We have natural cycles we have to maintain, runaway global warming is not going to be good for anybody. No country is strong enough to withstand natural disasters; the worst is that these are no longer even natural disasters because these are man made.
We’re the ones breaking the cycle; we’re the ones changing the patterns of the weather. Again you know, this logic that whatever we need we can obtain from nature without any price is a logic that needs to be changed. I hear frequently “global warming is good, it will melt the Arctic ice and then we can reach the resources there”. It’s just plain stupid, but this is what corporations are saying. We’re going to have shorter navigation, we can get to Russia from here without going around the world to get minerals and crude oil. Everyone is trying to see what continental shelf moves closer to the north pole, so they can plant their own flags there. This is why we have to intensify the resistance and globalize the resistance, build linkages across the world on these issues so that when politicians and transnational corporations insist on going down the wrong path we can hold them accountable. Ecocide must be recognized as a crime, and that recognition is being pushed through the United Nations right now.
But nations can begin, citizens can begin. There should be laws in each country that recognize ecocide for what it is; crimes against humanity, crimes against mother earth, crimes against the future, crimes against our children. Corporations should not be allowed to hide behind the inaction of governments and commit this ecocide. The directors of these companies should be held to account for the massive degradation that is going on.
What would you like to see people here in Canada do in terms of concrete action to try and change things for the better?
Look at what Idle No More did, just simple actions, but they captured everybody’s imagination. We need things likes this, we need more people to say no to the destruction. To me saying no is an alternative because if you say you don’t want something, that thing must stop, and that thing stopping is an option already. If all of us stop doing the wrong thing, we are going to find a thousand right ways to do things differently.
There are particularities in certain nations, and we will find out what is the best way to do certain things. But the things that are bad are universally bad. Destruction and dependence on fossil fuel is not good anywhere in the world. Quebec now is moving more into exploiting fragile ecosystems and places that are restricted; more people should come out and say no we don’t want this anymore. We don’t want this traditional economic growth; we don’t want to live today and not tomorrow. We have to care about what’s going to happen to our children, the planet and us. Those who have investments in this sector should pull out those shares and divest.
We have to reduce consumption. We have to live within our means. Things can get exhausted, that’s what it means to live within ones means. Right now what we’re doing with this kind of environmental destruction is like saying well I don’t have money, but I’ll continue living on credit. It’s not even as good as that because we know that this is bad. That is what’s happening the way nature is being degraded and destroyed. Of course ultimately, once every four years we should be careful who we vote in. We have to be careful about who we vote in and who should be trusted in these positions.
Thanks to colleagues in thought crime Robin Sas and Matthew Brett for their help transcribing this interview.