Working for nature and culture in Nigeria
For decades, Nnimmo Bassey has been campaigning in Nigeria against the environmental destruction caused by oil production, fighting for food security and the preservation of traditional cultural wisdom. At the same time, he is a poet and uses poetry and activism to provide impetus for social and ecological transformation in Africa and beyond.
evolve: In your work, you speak about what you call a re-source democracy. Can you say what you mean by that?
Nnimmo Bassey: Many times, we hear people speak of natural resources as things that we can grab and do whatever we like without any sense of responsibility. It is something for profit, that’s all. So, I thought that resource should be hyphenated to be a re-source, which means reconnecting to the source. Where did this resource that I want to take come from? How can I use it in a way that respects its source? We need to understand that what we call natural resources is a part of the planet. We can look at it as a gift from nature. And it remains a part of nature, which means we have to use it carefully and respect the right of nature.
The aspect of democracy means that communities or nations where certain gifts of nature occur should have a right to say whether anyone should take that resource or not and what should be done with it. So, nobody would have a right to go to a place and then just use the resources, harm the environment, harm the people. We're hoping that resource democracy would help to ensure that the rights of Mother Earth are respected and that people don't just take whatever they call a natural resource.
e: That related to your experience in Nigeria. Could you say what are the most pressing issues that you are dealing with in Nigeria and how you try to address them with your work?
NB: Resource Democracy connects to the work we do. Right now many of the issues I'm working on are all traceable to global warming, whether it's the issue of food or pollution, they're all interconnected. The oil companies are central to the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, because petroleum products are used for transportation, production, agriculture. When we campaign against expansion of fossil fuel destruction, that's also a campaign for climate justice, so that the people who never contributed to the problem should have a breathing space, literally speaking.
Also, I work also on the issue of food from the perspective of asking the question: Why are people hungry? They are hungry because of lack of access to food, because food has become a commodity. It is no longer something that people eat or celebrate or is a part of culture. Food is exchanged for money. Climate change is impacting food production, because it is more difficult for small-scale farmers to have productive farming, because of changing weather patterns. This also further reduces the access of ordinary people to enough food, good quality food, nutritious food in sufficient quantities.
Another big issue connected to this is that modern biotechnology companies are now using the argument of climate change to promote genetically engineered crops. They are saying they can make crops that are drought-tolerant that can withstand saltwater and can grow in very harsh conditions. All these are false claims, we know. But we do know that there are local varieties that small-scale farmers have developed over the years that are very well adapted to the various environments and can withstand harsh conditions. So, the campaigns we do on either the politics of hunger or politics of fossil fuels, the bottom line is global warming. This also comes back to the right of people to allow or not allow certain things to be done in their environments, which relates to the idea of re-source democracy.
e: And can you describe maybe one or two concrete projects how you try to respond to this in Nigeria?
NB: My organization is an advocacy organization and a think tank, we are advocating for a halt in the expansion of fossil fuels. We are doing this concretely by working with communities in the oil fields. We're working with fishermen to oppose an expansion of fossil fuels in water bodies, in the shallow offshore and in deep waters. We are doing this not only in Nigeria but with fishers in other African countries, Senegal, Ghana and Togo. We are working towards expanding this so that we can have a network of fisheries around the entire continent opposed to expansion of fossil fuels. We do know that fisheries employ more Africans than the fossil fuel industry will ever employ. So, we are working to protect people's livelihoods as well as protecting their environment. These are all interrelated.
In terms of food politics, we are leading a very strong campaign against genetically engineered crops. Right now the regulation is very, very weak and gives a lot of loopholes. We're also campaigning against a law that the National Assembly Parliament passed recently called the Plant Variety Protection Bill. It would actually criminalize small-scale farmers who preserve and share their seeds and would also promote the infiltration of exotic varieties that may not be of use to our people.
e: What gives you hope that there are ways to influence the situation for the better?
NB: It's a very difficult task. I've been campaigning for decades. The biggest positive change I've seen is that very poor people are standing up to speak and demand their rights. The policymakers still have a colonial mentality, so tackling colonialism and colonialist mentality is a major task for us. In almost everything we do, we attempt to decolonize the narratives and to get policymakers to see the fundamental basis for the problems that we're having.
e: What do you think is needed in this process of decolonizing?
NB: Once we have a mass of people with a decolonized mindset, this will go hand in hand with people getting more active in politics and in policy making. We work on this in two ways. One is to get policy makers to hear from the grassroots and then getting grassroots people to be more interested in a politics of issues, not politics of benefits. Our politicians just carry out token activities rather than doing fundamental things that would change the lives of the people. We're working towards raising consciousness that will affect the consciousness also of policymakers. There is a whole lot of political and social engineering that we're engaged in that would lead to a change in the very harmful economic system of domination, oppression and exploitation that we're having right now. It could move to something that is more solidarity based, more cooperative, more traditional, more culturally appropriate and, of course, more social in nature than the capitalist system.
e: Is part of it also reconnecting to your own cultural heritage that you are trying to bring forth in that?
NB: I think you've got it accurately. As we work with the grassroots, we target the imaginaries of the people. That means, we are learning from indigenous traditional wisdom. We are learning from cultural practices and ecological norms, because our people have very strict social sustainability norms about not overexploiting any particular resource. Even when it comes to fishing there are times of the year you are not permitted to fish in certain rivers or certain locations. There are certain times that you cannot enter into a particular forest to take resources. We want this kind of norms to become the normal thing. We want conditions where we reverse the colonial notion. When the colonial masters invaded our territory, conservation locations and forests were destroyed. These were areas of conservation where we had a special species protected and not harmed at all. So, we are learning from indigenous knowledge about how to live with nature, how to respect one or the other, how to respect Mother Earth, how to ensure not to interrupt the natural cycles of life and how to live with other beings or even being connected. And there are also the cultural elements that we want to enliven, the myths and stories, the rituals and festivals. So, traditional knowledge and customs are very important in the building of wisdom for our work.
e: I also saw that you are writing poetry. How is this poetry influencing your activism?
NB: There is a very deep connection between the arts and activism. And poetry is one of the cultural tools that we use in our campaigns. A very strong example is Ken Saro-Wiwa, who was the foremost Nigerian environmentalist and engaged in a minority rights campaign. He was assassinated in in 1995. He wrote a lot of plays, novels, short stories and poetry, and this had been used in his activism.
With my own poetry I respond to the meta-crisis and the desperate situation. One of the poems I wrote that is very useful for us in campaigning against the oil fields is titled “We thought it was oil, but it was blood”. I wrote that poem after some people carried out direct action, direct climate action by shutting down some oil wells and then the military began to harass and kill some of them. When the oil gets connected directly to the blood of the people, this helps to raise consciousness against the continuous expansion of the destruction. In regard to food issues as well as climate change there is another poem I wrote called “I Would Not Dance to your Beat”. I speak against climate inaction and false solutions.
These poems are essential for our campaigns. This again is a lesson from our cultural traditional society. Laws and regulations are preserved in villages and enforced through songs and through poems. If somebody misbehaves, the best way to name and shame that person is to make a song about what the person has done. The entire community was singing that song and the person would be ashamed and would change from that kind of misbehavior. So, there is a strong connection to our cultural base and it’s very viable for passing messages, for sharing knowledge, as well as making people respond to react to negative activities.
e: Is writing poetry for you also a kind of resource of strength and resilience to keep on doing this work?
NB: It does two things for me. It helps me to communicate easier, faster, because you can say a lot in a few words. It is open to a lot of interpretation, so people can utilize them for in their own ways. It also helps to cool me, I’m looking for a way to describe it. It helps to keep my perspective, to remain focused on the task that needs to be done. So it energizes me and also challenges me.
There are a lot of obstacles, and sometimes it can be quite tiresome when things move slowly. What keeps me going is when I see the strength in the grassroots people, the community people who are so resilient and so determined to push forward, to stand up against powerful forces. That keeps me on my toes and it reminds me that, that I have to stand with these people and follow their leadership.