The Commission has sought to assemble a comprehensive picture of the contours and nature of the crisis engulfing Bayelsa. As well as undertaking an extensive review of the existing literature, the Commission has conducted original scientific field research to capture direct evidence of the effects of oil pollution across the state. All of the LGAs in the state were reviewed and then key areas of LGAs were selected for visits and deep-dive case studies in order to take testimonies from local communities and to assess the nature and scale of pollution.
The Commission interviewed over 500 people, and collected blood samples from 1,600 people to assess the levels of toxicity in their bloodstreams. A key motivation of this endeavour was to ensure that the voices of the communities that have suffered most – voices that have all too often been ignored by decision-makers – are heard. The Commission has developed detailed case studies of select individual pollution incidents to help unravel and illustrate the interplay of causes that are at the root of the problem.
Using this rigorous, multi-faceted approach, the Commission has built a detailed account of the devastation Bayelsa has suffered and the impact on the state’s environment and its people.
It is difficult to convey or put precise numbers on the magnitude of the disaster that has unfolded over the last 60 years. Findings from different studies vary dramatically, but all of them attest to the extraordinary intensity and sheer variety in the forms of pollution from which Bayelsa has suffered over the last half century. Oil spills, gas flaring, effluent waste disposal, the dumping of drilling waste and mud, and destruction of artisanal refining sites have all had severe impacts on the state. In addition, the proliferation of community conflicts over the distribution of ‘benefits’ associated with oil and gas production activity have all exacerbated and continue to contribute to the entrenched and unacceptably high pollution profile of Bayelsa.
The figures are stark. But there is considerable evidence that NOSDRA’s statistics may, if anything, understate the number of spills. Material differences have been discovered between the number of spills recorded by NOSDRA and those recognised by the IOCs in their published data.
An infographic showing that Bayelsa experienced an oil spill every 12 hours for 14 years.
Even bigger question marks remain over NOSDRA’s assessment of the volumes spilled. Since 2006, the agency states that just over 697,000 barrels have been spilled across Nigeria in its entirety, with 522,000 of these in the Niger Delta.167 Although experts have identified some reporting inconsistencies, the NOSDRA online database indicates that only 109,200 barrels were spilled in Bayelsa between the inception of the agency in 2006 and October 2019. These figures are at odds with those released by NNPC. The national oil company, which is responsible for the regulation and monitoring of overall oil output, states that 33.7 million barrels of ‘petroleum products’ (including liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) and other outputs) were lost between 2005 and 2018, with almost 5 million barrels of crude being unaccounted for between 2013 and 2018 alone.168 The former DPR, of which NNPC was a part, had previously published research estimating that a further 2.4 million barrels were spilled in the Niger Delta between 1976 and 1996.169 The United Nations Development Programme cited similar figures, finding in excess of 3 million barrels of spillage between 1976 and 2001.170 According to a recent report, the DPR had also developed estimates of recent spill volumes that in 2018 were as much as three times higher than NOSDRA’s.171
Part of the reason for these significant divergences may be found in the dysfunctional NOSDRA process. Evidence from multiple independent sources, as well as significant testimony from numerous witnesses at all levels, suggest that the JIV process, which provides the basis for NOSDRA’s assessment of the number and impact of spills, is fundamentally compromised by the outsized role that IOCs play in the process.
Data released by NOSDRA confirms that all too often, JIV reports are often highly incomplete, fundamentally undermining the accuracy of the agency’s figures. Of a sample of over 6,000 JIV reports filed between January 2010 and August 2015, 82 percent included no estimate of the spill area, 71 percent had no description of impact, and 33 percent did not include an estimate of the quantity spilled.172
Even where reports are completed, distortions in the way the JIV process is run render the figures produced deeply unreliable. The Commission’s own findings confirm those of an extensive body of independent research that suggests that the administration of the JIV process is subject to capture by the companies it is meant to regulate (the JIV process is further expanded on in Chapter Three).173
This problem is exacerbated by the obsolescent methods used by JITs to assess the scale of spills and the damage they cause. JITs often rely on highly flawed and outdated techniques, no longer used globally, such as estimating spill areas “by sight”. Particularly in cases concerning bodies of flowing water, this can lead to a significant understatement of leak volumes. In one example (outlined in Chapter Three) the combination of these issues led local residents to claim that the volume spilled had been underestimated by a factor of as much as 60.174
Independent research suggests that the amount of oil spilled in Nigeria is, to a significant magnitude, greater than that suggested by NOSDRA. Research published by Amnesty International and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in 2009, using the Nigerian Government’s own data, estimated that 9 million barrels had been spilled over the previous 50 years across Nigeria.175 The Woodrow Wilson Centre offered a higher estimate suggesting a level closer to 16 million barrels of oil.176 All of these figures will have risen since these reports were completed.177
Figures printed on a page fail to convey the enormity of these findings. These numbers describe an almost unprecedented level of oil pollution. The collated data suggests that every single year for the past 50 years. Nigeria suffered the equivalent of a major oil spill roughly on the scale of the Exxon Valdez disaster, an episode that devastated over a thousand kilometres of the Alaskan coastline and became one of the defining pollution incidents in the history of the oil industry.178
Southern Ijaw LGA Town Hall Meeting by BSOEC
Bayelsa State has borne a significant proportion of the Niger Delta’s oil and gas-related pollution. As outlined above, 26 percent of spill incidents and more than 15.6 percent of spill volumes cited by NOSDRA have occurred in Bayelsa between January 2006 and December 2020. Applying these as ratios to the widely recognised independent assessments of how much oil has been spilled in Nigeria suggests that Bayelsa has conservatively suffered 2-3.5 million barrels of oil spilled over the last 60 years.181 If the NNPC figures are correct, the numbers could be higher still. According to official figures, the number of spills in Bayelsa have fluctuated significantly in the last 15 years:
While every single LGA in Bayelsa has suffered oil contamination, the problem has been especially concentrated in just a few parts of the state. According to official estimates, the Southern Ijaw, Brass and Nembe LGAs have together accounted for 60 percent of all spills the state has experienced.183
Even after taking into account that the figures are likely to be underestimates, the official statistics paint a sombre picture. And behind each number lies a story. The Commission has heard from hundreds of people living in affected communities and conducted over a dozen detailed deep dives to gather information in affected communities. There has been particular focus on Southern Ijaw, Yenagoa and Nembe LGAs - due to their exposure to oil spills - with on-the-ground teams undertaking in-depth research to understand what occurred and what impact pollution has had in individual cases. Elements of their testimony are outlined below:
Testimonies paint a consistent picture. Villagers in communities across the state tell of pipelines suffering numerous leaks, of IOCs all too often denying the scale of the leaks, or, controlling the JIV process in an effort to minimise their liability for compensation.
As well as being an ongoing source of pollution in Bayelsa and elsewhere in Nigeria, gas flaring is a major contributor to regional and global climate change. Although many other jurisdictions around the world have outlawed the practice, Nigeria remains one of the main locations of gas flaring by the international oil industry.
Routine gas flaring disposes of associated gas through open burning during oil production in locations where oil companies decide not to build the infrastructure to process, use, market, or re-inject into the reservoir. In Bayelsa, and the Niger Delta more broadly, large flares burning from towers and land surface areas have been prevalent since the inception of the Nigerian oil industry in the 1950s. Flaring has been, and remains, the main means of disposing of waste gas produced by oil extraction in the country.
Although gas flaring is a necessary part of the petroleum producing process, statistics from various countries show that no country flares as much gas as a percentage of their total gas as Nigeria.188 According to World Bank data (2021), Nigeria is in the world’s top ten gas flarers in terms of volume and flaring intensity.189 Libya for instance flares about 21% of its natural gas, while Saudi Arabia, Canada and Algeria flare 20%, 8% and 5% respectively, conversely Nigeria flares up to 90% of its associated gases.190
According to the World Bank’s Global Gas Flaring Reduction Partnership (GGFR191), in 2021, Nigeria was the seventh largest emitter of gas by flare volumes. 6.6 billion cubic metres (bcm) were flared representing 17.67 million tons of CO2 emissions at an estimated cost of US $760.58 million.192
The top 10 largest flaring countries in 2021 – Russia, Iraq, Iran, the United States, Venezuela, Algeria, Nigeria, Mexico, Libya, and China – accounted for 75 percent of all gas flared while the top seven (a group that included Nigeria).
According to GGFR data, the 20 Nigerian fields with the largest flaring volumes averaged over 150 million cubic metres (mcm) annually per field while the number of fields discharging gas between 2012 and 2021 increased from 168 to 180. While the volume of gas flared dropped by 30 percent from 9.6 bcm in 2012 to 6.6 bcm in 2021, gas flaring intensity – i.e. the volume of flared gas (cubic metres) per barrel of output produced – increased from 10.73 in 2012 to 11.75 in 2021. This implies an almost 10 percent increase in flaring intensity between 2012 and 2021. One study cites flaring at 139 of 177 oil field sites in Nigeria highlighting that the majority of sites flare gas.193
Statistics on flaring vary. While state level data is available from NOSDRA, there are some inconsistencies with the World Bank’s Global Gas Flaring Reduction Partnership (GGFR) data and with the state government’s own data. A study citing Bayelsa State Government figures finds 17 onshore sites flaring an average of 13.7 mcm of gas per day.194 GGFR data finds 14 major on and offshore flaring sites that account for 39.5 Mscf* in 2021 (roughly one sixth of the country’s flare volume) while NOSDRA estimates 20.8 Mscf flare volume from a total of 23 onshore and five offshore flare sites.195 Despite the varying statistics, on a per capita basis, Bayelsa’s flaring rates are the highest in the region.
These LGAs will need more resources to tackle flaring and the impact of it.
While federal fines for flaring have been on the legislative books in Nigeria for decades, these penalties have been insufficient to deter the practice. The oil industry cites the Nigerian government’s inadequate regulation in this area as a key factor in flaring’s persistence, but market factors also play a prominent role: building infrastructure to process gas for the local market is not profitable enough for the IOCs.
The prevalence of gas flaring in Bayelsa means that local communities are unfairly exposed and bear the environmental and health impacts of this dangerously polluting act. Flaring locations are indiscriminate and flares have even been operated close to schools. Estimates suggest that 2.2 million people across the Niger Delta live within four kilometres of a flaring site.196 330,000 of those people live in Bayelsa.
Gas flaring produces harmful volatile organic compounds (VOCs), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), and inorganic contaminants. Other byproducts of flaring include nitrogen, carbon and sulphur oxides (NO2, CO2, CO, SO2), particulate matter, hydrocarbons and ash, photochemical oxidants, and hydrogen sulphide (H2S).197
Despite all the evidenced health impacts, oil companies have brazenly published photos of Niger Deltans drying cassava or fish from the heat of a flare with the justification that flaring offers a functional benefit to local livelihoods, when in fact livelihoods are being destroyed and lives shortened.
The flares harm and disperse local wildlife and are associated with numerous ecological problems including acid rain. The ‘black soot’ problem evident in Rivers State is a looming issue for Bayelsans.200 When petroleum products are burned carbon is released into the atmosphere, causing soot particles to drop on and stick to houses, clothes and other materials.201 Gas flaring causes contaminant build-up, deteriorating water quality,202 poor agricultural yields and the economic and ecological deterioration of important Deltan food staples, such as cassava, yam, cocoyam, and local fisheries.203 A 2013 study of the pH of rainwater near flare sites indicated that in most cases, the pH levels were below the acceptable WHO minimum, indicating high acidity.204 Given the broader context of ‘energy poverty’ in the Niger Delta, where excessive flaring takes place while local residents lack affordable local cooking fuel, the ongoing burning of waste gas is particularly frustrating and hazardous for the affected population.
The Gbarain area in Yenagoa LGA is a major gas flaring site. A 2019 study of gas flaring in the communities surrounding the Gbarain Ubie gas processing plant found that, with the exception of carbon monoxide, the concentration of gaseous pollutants in air samples in the region exceeded the standards of Nigeria’s Federal Ministry of the Environment.206 A recent study of Total Suspended Particulate Matter (TSPM) across Yenagoa LGA recorded TSPM concentrations that significantly exceeded WHO and Nigerian federal standards at four sampling sites, with the highest levels of toxicity found at Gbarain Ubie.207 At their highest reading, TSPM concentrations – a cause of respiratory and cardiovascular disorders – surpassed the Nigerian federal standard by a factor of almost 10 during the wet season and 15 during the dry season. 208 In addition, sulphur dioxide concentrations at most study locations exceeded the federal standard during dry periods.209 In all the study area’s locations, VOC concentrations in both wet and dry seasons were in breach of the Federal Ministry of Environment’s standards.210
The Commission’s field work in Bayelsa state captured testimony on the devastating impact of flaring on health in the region:
The Commission heard repeated testimony about the release of polluted water and drilling fluid into waterways. To give one measure of the extent of the problem, the case of the Brass Canal, on Bayelsa’s Atlantic coast, typifies the pollution issues resulting from the unregulated dumping of toxic hydrocarbon waste into the Brass river and onward into the Atlantic. The canal in fact was specifically designed for this purpose. Built by Eni (Agip) in 1973, the Brass Canal is a 3.2 km long waterway designed to discharge produce water, oily sludge and other effluents from Nigeria Agip Oil Company’s (NOAC) Brass terminal. Operated by Eni (Agip) for over 40 years, the terminal is situated on the coast and houses a tank farm for storing crude oil, a skimming unit, office spaces and accommodation. The canal separates the local Brass community from the oil terminal. Pollution of the canal itself and in the canal bank soil and sediment has resulted from the build up of hydrocarbon substances over the last 40 years. The Commission received written and photographic evidence and heard numerous testimonies from Twon-Brass communities and their legal representatives about repeated (often frustrated) attempts to secure justice and fair compensation for decades of environmental damage and systematic destruction of livelihoods and living standards as a result of systematic river pollution.
The Commission uncovered community testimonies about artisanal refining. This is where illegally syphoned crude is refined into consumer fuels for the local market by unemployed youth and traders working in connivance with state security personnel.213 Artisanal refineries contribute to the overall contamination of production sites and the surrounding areas.
The artisanal refineries phenomenon is a product of governance, regulatory and response failures that resulted in the impoverishment of local people and limited access to energy in the Niger Delta and Nigeria generally. Many in Bayelsa and other parts of the Niger Delta are not connected to Nigeria's national electricity grid. Even for those connected, public electricity is notoriously unreliable, and government offices, businesses and affluent families invest in noisy and expensive electricity generators dependent on diesel and petrol. Within the cities and rural communities, low-income families use kerosene for cooking. The absence of an extensive railway network in the country also means that most transportation is by buses, car taxis and motorbikes that run on petrol and diesel. In Bayelsa, many residents travel between towns by motorboats that are expensive to fuel.
Meanwhile, long-term corruption in NNPC's refineries resulted in their collapse and the chronic shortage of consumer fuels. For about two decades, Nigeria has imported most of its consumer fuels due to low domestic refining capacity, and despite millions of dollars expended by the federal government to reactivate NNPC's moribund refineries. However, the fuel importation regime is often unstable, with moments of acute shortage of consumer petroleum fuels, such as during the last quarter of 2022 and in the build-up to general elections in February 2023, crippling whole regions of the country.
National fuel shortages were commonplace nationwide as Nigeria transitioned from military to civilian rule in 1999. With worsening poverty, some youths started scooping crude oil from spill sites, refining it into consumer fuels in the bushes. As the demand for illegally refined fuel increased amidst nationwide fuel shortages, more youths and traders began syphoning crude oil from pipelines for refining in bush camps where they use metal containers as pots to distil crude oil by cooking the product over boiling points to produce petrol, diesel and kerosene. Artisanal refineries supply consumer fuels to communities that would otherwise not have affordable access. Operators of artisanal refineries that spoke to the Commission claim that they supply over 90 percent of the kerosene available for domestic use in the Niger Delta, without which low-income families would be unable to cook their food. Artisanal refiners also contribute substantially to diesel supply, essential to business operations in the region's cities and elsewhere. A respondent narrated to the Commission how Nigerian Agip Oil Company (NAOC) staff in Bayelsa sometimes buy fuel from artisanal refiners to operate company vehicles.
Leaks occur when people illegally drill into pipelines to syphon crude oil and during the transportation of crude, sometimes on wooden boats (called Cotonou boats) and barges, to refining locations. At the refining sites, crude oil is stored in tanks, drums or open pits lined with plastic or tarpaulin sheets to prevent the product seeping into the ground. However, leakages occur, and the land around such reservoirs is often visibly polluted. Workers in the sites use buckets to scoop crude oil into the refining tanks. Crude oil is also used as cooking fuel to heat the tanks during the distillation process.
Furthermore, artisanal refiners do not have a safe method for managing waste products. There is damage to the local vegetation from cutting trees and fires. The air is polluted with hydrocarbon soot and could impact communities kilometres away.
Members of communities in Bayelsa State generally acknowledge the adverse environmental impacts of artisanal refineries, including the contribution to crude oil pollution. While there were incidences of sabotage of oil pipelines and other installations with the emergence of artisanal refineries, local communities fiercely contested the attribution of most spills to sabotage. All communities visited by the Commission insist that oil companies' attribution of a more significant number of oil spills to sabotage is an attempt to avoid liability, including the payment of compensation to victims of pollution.
For more than a decade IOCs have been selling off their onshore assets (which tend to be located in places where communities live), to Nigerian companies. In turn they have stepped up their investments offshore in more lucrative and less exposed (to community challenges) deep water extraction sites. Asset sales have tended to take place in secrecy, with limited public oversight with respect to questions of liability for (past and future) pollution damage associated with sold assets, which has been determined contractually between buyer and seller, rather than by regulatory authorities. Changed ownership from international to national companies, has made it more difficult for communities and their representatives in Bayelsa to get their voices heard by Nigerian companies, either through the courts or through protests.
Since 2010, Shell has been implementing a divestment strategy, divesting from its onshore and shallow water assets, in order to concentrate offshore, for commercial reasons.217 Between 2010 – 2015 RDS has earned US $4.8 billion from the sale of its assets.218 Yet divestment does not mean withdrawal, but a shift to deep offshore areas.
Ostensibly divestment is also a strategic decision as a result of threats to the industry. Such threats include the illegal production and sale of oil, greater environmental rights awareness among community groups, and likely increased legal action against IOCs in local and foreign courts for environmental infractions. This heightens fear of incurring heavy costs in remediation of polluted sites and huge financial compensation to communities.219
According to the NGO ERA, the secrecy around the sale of OML29 to Aiteo was deliberately orchestrated to keep communities, who would have wanted to acquire part stakes in the assets themselves, or insist that liabilities of environmental remediation outstanding, out of the picture.
Special purpose vehicles were set up to allow the communities to participate in asset acquisition. Yet all assets in the end were bought and sold in Lagos. The regulators (DPR, NNPC, NOSDRA, Ministry of Environment) appear to have played very little, if any, role in the transactional – contract negotiation stage, with very little discussion about outstanding environmental pollution matters. If these issues had been raised, the scope would have existed for the seller to indemnify the purchaser with respect to issues that may have arisen as a result of damage that was already in place, even where there was no litigation pending.
For local communities, divestment of oil and gas assets to indigenous oil firms by Shell looks like an attempt by the company to avoid its ecological liabilities.
In 2015 Nembe communities placed a Caveat Emptor or ‘buyer beware’ to ward off would-be buyers of the danger of such business that includes not just assets but also environmental and social liabilities, notably what will happen to the unfulfilled obligations under the GMOUs. Nembe Chiefs Council wrote a letter to the Country Director of Shell at its corporate headquarter office in Port Harcourt regarding divestment of OML 29, requesting the following:
Determining who bears liability for spills post divestment may depend on the type of divestment that occurs. In effect if Shell divests its assets to another company, then it may still be liable for a cause of action which arose pre-divestment, but may not be liable for a post-divestment cause of action. But this is complicated by the fact that a spill may occur post-divestment but actually be the result of pre-divestment negligence in the laying of a pipeline, or in failure to adopt certain procedures which may have prevented the spill from occurring. In such cases the divester may be called upon to bear responsibility.
There is a lack of clarity in Nigerian law with respect to divestee liability. This has potentially serious negative consequences on the ability of communities to defend their rights to compensation, clean-up and remediation. First, they are less likely to be able to hold the divestee liable in the Nigerian courts for pollution impacts that are the result of negligence prior to sale, or take the new company to court internationally, given its registration as a Nigerian company. The legal frameworks particularly to liability for historical spills need to be assessed.221
All sampling and testing for both studies was undertaken according to strict international standards. A detailed description of the methodology is laid out below.
The results are stark. The environmental impact study found high concentrations of dangerous toxins, far in excess of internationally recognised safe limits, across practically every site.
PAH levels exceeded safe values in virtually every sample taken, in some cases by considerable amounts. As indicated in the graphs that follow, every single ground water sample exceeded the recommended maximum safe level by at least 100 times, with one of the samples taken from Egbebiri exceeding the WHO limit by over 1 million times.
High levels of PAHs were also found in the surface water and sediment samples, as well as those of surface and deeper soils, and in most cases were significantly above safe limits. The study also found evidence that these concentrations had found their way into the food chain in a number of locations. In Egbebiri, as well as Ikarama and Kalaba, the analysis found that a number of species in the food chain, including catfish and crabs, all showed high concentrations of contamination.
With the exception of copper, the study found all other heavy metals at concentrations much higher than stipulated regulatory values at almost all locations.
Lead was found above regulatory limits at all locations, as was chromium; in many cases, the concentrations were dramatically higher than safe limits. For example, readings for chromium in ground water showed unsafe concentrations at every site, with every location on the Brass Canal exceeding the WHO target values by a factor of at least 40, and some breaching the values by over 1,000-fold.225 These results echo those reported in a 2013 International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) study in Nembe, which found high levels of chromium in surface water, and high levels of both the metal and cadmium in sampled sediment and soil.226
Similarly, cadmium – which the WHO classifies as one of its priority poisonous metals – was found in the sample areas at levels which significantly exceeded regulatory limits, as was nickel, in the soil, groundwater and in the air.
Reflecting this, high concentrations of heavy metals were found in the food chain across testing sites, including chromium, cadmium, zinc, nickel and lead.
Unsafe levels of some heavy metals were even found in the air. For instance, at Ikarama, nickel levels of 1.4 mg per cubic metre of air were recorded. Based on the readings taken across the test sites, Professor Jamieson estimates that Bayelsans inhale between 10 and 28 mg of nickel a day. According to the WHO, nickel inhalation induces respiratory tract irritation, chemical pneumonia and emphysema, as well as being carcinogenic. Given the health risks, the organisation states that ‘no safe level for nickel compounds [by inhalation] can be recommended’.228
Critically, but perhaps unsurprisingly given these results, levels of nickel and zinc exceeding safe limits were also found in the bloodstreams of test subjects in locations where blood samples were taken.229
While levels of inorganic compounds in the air were broadly within stipulated limits, VOC levels were problematic, exceeding safe limits with densities in the air sampled of between 350 and 750 parts per million (ppm).
These findings on air quality in Bayelsa corroborate and reinforce research undertaken in other parts of the Niger Delta. A 2019 study of gas flaring in communities around SPDC facilities in Gbarain Ubie in Southern Bayelsa showed that levels of all gaseous pollutants, with the exception of carbon monoxide, exceeded the limits set by Nigeria’s Ministry of the Environment.231 Even more alarmingly, levels of total suspended particulate matter exceeded government limits by between 10 and 15 times. These findings were corroborated by other studies showing particulate matter concentrations at four sites across the Niger Delta that significantly exceeded both Nigerian Government and WHO limits. Sulphur dioxide limits were also exceeded in some cases.232
These results were mirrored in part by the findings of the human health study.233 This study confirmed that people living in areas with higher levels of oil pollution had increased levels of zinc in their bloodstreams, although the levels of other metals did not appear elevated.
The study’s qualitative data also confirmed that those living in pollution-affected areas reported a higher prevalence of allergic reactions as well as acute and chronic illnesses. It also found that children living in affected areas were more likely to be underweight. These findings are consistent with those of a previous independent study that analysed four years of medical records taken from communities exposed to gas flaring.234
The pollution crisis has had a devastating effect on almost every facet of Bayelsa’s environment. Internationally, decades of research has charted the highly adverse impact oil pollution has on wildlife and the natural environment. This section seeks to provide a snapshot of some of the evidence the Commission has seen and give a sense of the scale of the environmental disaster that has unfolded.
Chapter One introduced the Niger Delta’s unique landscape of swamp, mangrove forest, farmland and waterways. The Niger Delta, which boasts the largest mangrove forest in Africa and the third largest globally, is Africa’s largest wetland. 80 percent of the Niger Delta’s 12,000 km2 of mangrove vegetation is distributed across just three states – Bayelsa, Delta and Rivers.235 As much as 36 percent of Bayelsa’s total landmass – over 3,500 km2 – is covered by mangrove forests. It is an area of immense environmental value, acting as a key biodiversity hotspot and providing a critical habitat for the animal and plant life upon which so many of the state’s residents depend.
While other factors such as over-harvesting of timber have exacerbated the damage to the region’s mangroves, oil pollution and activities associated with the oil industry, such as waterway dredging and the removal of barrier islands, are among the primary causes of forest destruction. Development of oilfield infrastructure in the mangrove areas of the Niger Delta is often preceded by dredging and/or vegetation clearance to create navigable accesses. During dredging, the soil, sediment and vegetation along the right of way of the proposed site are removed and typically disposed of over bank, and in most cases upon fringing mangroves, and then abandoned. Abandoned dredged material has altered topography and hydrology and led to acidification and water contamination, all of which has resulted in vegetation damage and loss of marine life. After several years of natural weathering, former mangrove areas have become altered into either bare heaps, grassland or freshwater forest. The altered topography has, among other factors, also prevented the natural re-establishment of lost mangrove forests.239
The extent of local deforestation has driven broader negative shifts in many of the state’s wetland ecosystems, with the loss of canopy cover and sediments that the mangroves anchored, leading to a loss of habitat for a broad range of animal and plant life. 240 Tropical forests are complex ecosystems and when destroyed or polluted recover only slowly at best.241 Mangroves are not only crucial in providing protection against marine erosion and salt intrusion but are indispensable to the reproduction of many fish and crustacea which are central to the livelihood of Delta communities.242
his dynamic has been reinforced by some of the other effects of oil pollution, both direct – through the poisoning of populations and the introduction of dangerous toxins into the food chain – and indirect, for instance through the inhibiting of photosynthesis and the reduction of oxygen levels in waterways.243
During its evidence-gathering sessions in Bayelsa, the Commission heard individual accounts of environmental destruction as a result of oil production.
Similar stories were heard during the Commission’s visit to the Aghoro community concerning spills over the last twenty years that led to the permanent destruction of mangrove creeks.
Once known for its thriving fisheries, Brass’s landscape has been decimated by oil pollution. A fisherman spoke of the change he has seen over 40 years.
In Yenagoa LGA, the Commission heard that in the past, the river was dredged without community consent for one year, which led to the community suffering from frequent flooding and constant river bank erosion with land and, eventually, houses lost over a number of years. Similarly, rain water used by local people was said to be contaminated from nearby gas flares that burn daily. In a site visit to Southern Ijaw, the Commission witnessed the environmental degradation first-hand. During a visit to Oyeregbene, the Commission was told that oil had repeatedly spilled from an 18 inch Eni (Agip) pipeline, leading to devastation of adjacent mangrove swamps that were stripped of mangroves, foliage and vegetation.
The resulting impact of environmental pollution is often a dramatic fall in critical animal populations. A 2003 study on the impact of pollution on turtle numbers across the Niger Delta found that the turtle population was almost six times lower in polluted areas.248
Similarly, research on the impact of two major spills in neighbouring Rivers State found a 91 percent decline in the number of species after pollution incidents.249 Key populations that anchored the ecosystem and provided an important source of food for both marine life and humans were completely wiped out.250
It is not just waterways that have been contaminated, farmland has been destroyed too.251 As will become evident in the next section, oil sector activity has introduced toxins into the human food chain and significantly reduced the yield of affected farmland, thereby contributing to a loss of earnings and food insecurity.252
The absence of a similar full assessment of the extent of environmental pollution in Bayelsa was lamented by many of those the Commission met with, and is one of the main reasons why the Bayelsa State Government took the decision to set up the Commission. Whilst the Commission has been able to make significant strides in shedding light on Bayelsa’s environmental problems, the need for a full environmental assessment of Bayelsa remains.
The degradation of Bayelsa’s environment has implications that go significantly beyond the destruction of the local natural biosphere. In a state where 75 percent of the population rely on subsistence agriculture or fishing to make a living, pollution and its impacts have huge ramifications for local peoples’ livelihoods.
Research across the globe demonstrates that oil pollution dramatically reduces the incomes of affected communities, and the Niger Delta is no exception. The evidence is stark. A study of 13 fishing communities affected by oil pollution in the Niger Delta found that 88 percent of respondents saw their businesses fall into loss following oil spills. Catches and income dried up completely in the immediate aftermath of spills and only recovered slowly after remaining depressed for years after the events. The significant loss of livelihood following spill incidents led 43 percent of respondents to change their means of subsistence and another 25 percent to consider abandoning their current business.254 As well as reducing incomes and employment in the area, spills had also driven price rises that local people could ill afford, as goods that were previously sourced locally had to be brought in from outside.
Much of the available data on economic effects comes from neighbouring Rivers State due to high-profile court cases related to instances of pollution. In Bodo, a host community known for suing Shell for oil spills, a comparative study found that incomes from shellfish collection in the polluted areas of the Creek were only roughly 40 percent of those generated in comparable non-polluted communities.255 The spills in these areas wiped out the periwinkle population. A post-spill study of the area did not find a single living specimen, resulting in local women who had previously generated incomes of 500 Naira (US $1.22) a day from harvesting them being forced to find other employment in a neighbouring state.256
In Bayelsa, studies conducted over the last few decades have highlighted the devastating impacts of oil pollution and gas flaring on livelihoods. A survey of 150 respondents on the impact of gas flaring in Ogbia LGA published in 2009 found that over 40 percent of the respondents believed that gas flaring undermined their socio-economic wellbeing. In addition, farm households claimed that flaring by oil companies in Ogbia reduced their agricultural output and income from farming activities.257 Another study on the impact of oil pollution in the Epebu community, also in Ogbia LGA, concluded that oil spillage had greatly affected the livelihoods of the community’s people by destroying forests and trees, causing untold damage to economic activities and agricultural production along with destruction of fish stocks in ponds and other waters.258 Specifically, prolonged gas flaring, oil spillage, and other forms of pollution have decimated local wild palm trees. In addition, the extension services of the Nigerian Institute of Palm Oil Research (NIFOR) in Bayelsa have been affected by the degradation of the environment by the oil companies. As a result, the tapping of palm trees has virtually ceased and poor harvests have also been experienced by farmers across the state to the extent that they have had wider negative impacts on food production.259
The effects of spills are not just confined to fishing. A 2012 study in Rivers State found that polluted crop farms had an average output 22 percent lower than those that had not been exposed to pollution.260 This tallies with evidence from the Bodo spills, where a 2011 report found that average yields for staples such as yams and cassava fell dramatically after a pollution incident and remained depressed for a number of years afterwards.261
These findings are supported by research into the production rates of 262 farms across neighbouring Delta State, lying to the west of Bayelsa, which confirmed that as spill intensities rise, yields fall. Typically, a 10 percent rise in pollution depressed yields by a corresponding 5 percent.262
These deleterious effects are not limited to oil spills only, as a wide range of polluting activities have generated negative impacts across the length and breadth of the Niger Delta. A study from Imo State found that crops grown within 200m of a flare station suffered a 100 percent loss in yield, while those grown 600m away from the station saw their yield plunge by 45 percent.263 Even farmland a kilometre away from the flare experienced a 10 percent fall in its output.264
Other research has also found significantly elevated incidences of toxins in crops farmed on tainted land with, for example, increased levels of lead and cadmium by as much as 90 percent and 94 percent respectively in local pumpkins. The same study found that crops farmed on contaminated land have a far lower nutritional content, with the protein content of cassava, for example, being reduced by 40 percent in samples taken.265
BSOEC HEARING, OGBIA
BSOEC HEARING, BRASS
BSOEC HEARING, BRASS
Bayelsa’s population has historically depended on agriculture and fisheries. More than 60 years of oil and gas industry activity and associated pollution, combined with the diversion of water sources to make hydrocarbons extraction possible, has severely disrupted agrarian productive systems.266
The scale of oil contamination has had a significant impact on the economics of Bayelsa and the livelihoods of some of the state’s poorest people. At site visits and evidence gathering sessions, the Commission heard testimony and received written submissions describing how individuals and communities had lost their farming and fishing livelihoods and had been reduced to destitution as the result of oil related pollution.
Across Bayelsa, people interviewed by the Commission complained of the lack of employment opportunities with oil companies, despite having the requisite skills, and refuted IOC claims that opportunities are available to local people. The Commission heard how in Ogbia LGA, "host communities cannot boast of [being] even drivers employed by Shell”, and in Brass LGA, local people reported how “they [the oil companies] have employed people from outside this island, but not the host community”.
Despite oil companies offering to up-skill and train those in host communities, the Commission heard frustrations and anger expressed about perceived economic injustices resulting from projects not completed and promises left unfulfilled.
Moreover, the loss of livelihoods is all too often accompanied by an increase in the price of basic staples, as more food stuffs have to be brought in from outside the community. This double whammy of falling incomes and rising prices as a result of spills has driven sharp rises in local food insecurity and malnutrition. A large-scale study conducted across Bayelsa found that only 3 percent of those living in communities that had suffered an oil spill were food secure as against 67 percent in non-spill affected communities. The research also found that 47 percent of children in oil polluted communities in one part of the state are underweight, more than double the rate for south-west Nigeria as a whole.268
This confirms what countless witnesses have told the Commission: oil pollution has deepened poverty in communities that are already struggling to get by and the primary victims have been children.
Pollution has contributed to the rise of artisanal refining, as more people, deprived of their livelihoods, are forced to partake in the oil theft industry themselves, potentially participating in pipeline sabotage and perpetuating the cycle of pollution and loss of traditional livelihoods.
Unfortunately, the economic impact does not stop there. The tensions caused by loss of livelihoods have caused the social fabric, already strained in many of these communities, to further break down, often violently. The Commission has heard repeated evidence that pollution has forced many people to travel far outside their local area to find employment or new fishing grounds, often bringing them into conflict with other established communities. In the case of those affected by the Bonga oil spill in 2011, this oil-enforced migration had tragic consequences, as fishermen in search of unpolluted waters crossed into Cameroonian waters, sparking a conflict that cost a number of lives.269
These same dynamics have fuelled depopulation, with villagers from polluted communities often forced to migrate to urban centres in search of alternative livelihoods.270 Against this backdrop, research shows that traditional practices that are important for the maintenance of community cohesion, like communal fishing, have gone into steep decline in polluted communities.
Transaction costs remain inordinately high due to poor infrastructure and the cost of transporting goods by speed boat, while oil companies provide the only viable local market for any kind of productive activity and trading in the riverine/swampland communities. At the same time, competition for scarce and selectively distributed resources by IOCs that trickle in from compensation and remediation payments has increased, fuelling additional conflict within local communities themselves. As will be outlined in subsequent chapters, deep flaws in the operation of GMOUs and the way IOCs engage with affected communities have exacerbated both inter- and intra-communal polarisation and violence. 271
The Commission heard testimonies and received evidence about deep divisions in communities allegedly created by IOC’s through selectively favouring particular groups against others as a means of undermining claims for clean-up or compensation.272
Testimony at Oporoma Community Hall
Extract from Witness Statement for Bodo Community vs SPDC
The decline of traditional livelihoods, the expansion of a transient workforce, and instability within and between communities through the unravelling of social ties impede the development of local economic systems while driving growth in the exploitation of people who are already vulnerable. Women and young girls have been made particularly vulnerable to sexual abuse in many communities where oil workers have had access.274
Particularly disturbing, the Commission gathered documentation and testimony concerning the ongoing allegation of sexual abuse of minors by oil company staff at multinational oil company facilities, in particular with reference to the Gbarain Ubie gas plant. These social issues require ongoing attention and investigation.275
Julie Okah-Donli, the former Director General of the National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP), confirmed high levels of sexual exploitation of girls in Bayelsa State at the hands of oil and gas workers.276 Although there were numerous reports of exploitation to NAPTIP and many cases were taken to court, most never saw the light of day as poor and vulnerable families would accept settlement offers from defendants to drop the cases.
His Royal Majesty, King Bubaraye Dakolo, Agada IV, the Ibenanaowei of Ekpetiama Kingdom testified before the Commission, on 29 March 2019. In this testimony he recounted how rape, underage sex with girls as young as 12, and unwanted pregnancies, were commonplace. He repeated calls made in 2017 (to no avail) to UNICEF and the NAPTIP to investigate and even offered to pay for their visits to Bayelsa.
This content was used in a press of interview in 2017 and now the subject of a book-length publication in 2021.279
Extracts from King Dakolo’s book The Riddle of the Oil Thief:
The human suffering inflicted by the pollution catastrophe that has befallen Bayelsa is measured not just in terms of incomes reduced or communities fractured. It is also measured in lives cut short.
The intensity and sustained nature of the pollution communities are exposed to has fuelled a silent health crisis. The scale of the crisis demands ongoing research and careful monitoring, something which industry has sought to avoid all over the world to prevent class action proceedings. But independent research suggests that the toll across the Niger Delta could run to hundreds of thousands of deaths, with countless more lives ruined by chronic disease. The price paid in human suffering for the failure to tackle oil pollution and its health effects has been simply extraordinary.281
BSOEC Hearing, Yenagoa
The connection between key types of hydrocarbon contamination and both chronic and acute conditions is well established as previously illustrated. Evidence shows dangerous levels of toxins in the land, groundwater and crops across Bayelsa and their accumulation in the human food chain and ultimately in the local population itself. Across each of Bayelsa’s eight LGAs, there is repeated testimony of medical conditions resulting from exposure to oil spills, ranging from skin rashes and respiratory illnesses to pneumonia.
One member from the coastal community of Ekeremor LGA described sickness that engulfed her family as a result of an oil spill that occurred in May 2018:
This testimony confirmed earlier accounts collected of surface, ground water and soil contamination with hydrocarbons, heavy metals and other toxic chemicals:283
Similarly, in the Apoi community in Southern Ijaw, a large spill of crude oil in 2017 from an Agip facility had devastating impacts on the local community:
One elderly fisherwoman was said to have fallen into the oil spill-affected swamp and experienced a “pepper sensation” and “peeling skin" for weeks afterwards. Another resident stated that
The consequences for the health of the population of the sustained exposure to a cocktail of pollutants have been sobering.
Today, life expectancy in Bayelsa is a mere 50 years at birth, 286 three years less than Nigeria as a whole and among the lowest of any state in the Niger Delta. At a time when mortality and morbidity rates have fallen in the rest of the country, Bayelsa has seen theirs remain stubbornly high, with an infant mortality rate of 31 per 1,000 live births. 287
While oil pollution is not the only factor, it is among the key driving forces, contributing directly to elevated levels of chronic disease as well as to raised levels of malnutrition that push up mortality rates, in particular among children, in communities without the resources to cope.
Perhaps most shockingly, recent research suggests that exposure to oil spills before conception killed around 16,000 infants within the first month of their life in 2012 alone. There is no reason to believe that 2012 was special. If these results were reflective of other years, this suggests that pollution has led directly to more than 100,000 additional neonatal deaths in the last 15 years alone. And Bayelsa, at the epicentre of the pollution crisis, will have borne much of the suffering.289
Compounding the tragedy, Bayelsa’s healthcare system lacks anything like the capacity to tackle the silent healthcare crisis endemic pollution has created. Only 5 percent of households have health insurance. As a result, many families are thrust deeper into poverty by oil-related health problems. According to a 2018 study in the state capital, Yenagoa, additional healthcare expenditure resulted in almost 10 percent of households being pushed below the poverty line while another 9 percent who were previously poor were pushed even deeper into extreme poverty.290 Moreover, even when families can find the money for healthcare, it is often of low quality. Only 6 percent of clinics in the state have a doctor and only 18 percent have any form of trained medical staff. While there are 168 clinics across the state on paper, many are barely functioning, closed or even derelict.291
Such a tide of pollution would never be tolerated in the home countries of the large international oil companies. Yet it has been allowed to carry on unchecked in the Niger Delta. So why has Bayelsa suffered such extraordinary levels of pollution? Chapter Three will examine the causes.