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TITLE: The Human Ecosystems of the Niger Delta - An ERA Handbook
AUTHOR: Nick Ashton-Jones with Susi Arnott and Oronto Douglas
PAGES: 224
PUBLISHERS: Environmental Rights Action
WHEN PEOPLE TALK ABOUT THE UNIQUENESS of the Niger Delta, what seems to come to the mind of many is the oil the area bears underneath it. The uniqueness is a lot more than that. Take its hydrology, for example. It is the only part of Nigeria that acts as a receptacle for different water types, fresh water, white water and brackish water. Its estuaries are also the drainage holes through which the water goes out.

Besides its distinct hydrology, it remains the largest "discrete" mangrove forest in Africa, covering about 5000 km. It also contains 60 - 80 per cent of all Nigerian plant and animal species. The Niger Delta alone has 134 fresh water and brackish water fish species as compared with 192 for the entire continent of Europe.

In addressing himself to the richness of the Niger Delta ecosystems, what preoccupies the mind of Nick Ashton-Jones, an environmentalist, is the growing danger to which the ecosystems are subjected owing to exploitation of its resources that makes no provision for regeneration. And this is talking first about such renewable resources as fish, bush meat, timber, agricultural produce, among others. If their exploitation is properly carried out, so that the ecosystems which produce them remain viable, the author states, these resources can be produced indefinitely, and there will be no ecological problem.

Unfortunately, this hasn't been the case as far as the Niger Delta is concerned, and the author knows why. The reasons aren't different from what obtains generally in modern human society - human need for resources, defiance of ecological laws, inappropriate technology, the human instinct to survive. In the final analysis, what starts out as ecological problem becomes an economic and political one that is difficult to solve.

Ashton-Jones asks: "How can poor farmers support themselves without clearing the forest for farming? How can industry be persuaded to increase its costs by being more environmentally responsible? How can a government be persuaded to limit the production of certain resources and thus reduce its tax revenue?

However, those who think of the Niger Delta almost exclusively in terms of the crude oil, may not entirely miss the point. If the region remains one of the major issues in Nigeria today, it is because of its oil resources and the controversial exploitation of those resources. Most predictably, the matter forms the principal concern of the author who works in collaboration with Susi Arnott and Oronto Douglas, also environmentalists. "No one can leave in the Niger Delta without becoming aware that oil is the political, economic and environmental issue that eclipses all others .... It is because of oil and gas that international community is interested in the Niger Delta." And why not? The Niger Delta produces 3.2 per cent of the world's oil requirements. Oil exports make up over 90 per cent of Nigeria's export income, bringing the government a daily revenue of $20 million.

The huge income notwithstanding, its exploitation is equally fraught with monumental adverse environmental impact on the Niger Delta. The human ecosystems, the author regrettably concludes, have been damaged, creating health and deprivation problems. These because "the industry as a whole is corrupt and careless and clearly does not operate to the standards which are exacted elsewhere in the world."

Looking ahead with great anxieties, Ashton-Jones writes: "When the oil reserves have been exhausted and the human environment degraded, the local people would be worse off than they would have been had there been no oil industry. The primary beneficiaries will be the shareholders of the oil companies, the highly paid technical and managerial staff and most of all the plethora of corrupt officials, politicians, and military personnel."

The work is as unpretentious in its conclusions as it is authoritative in its presentation of facts. For instance, is there any solution to all the ecological problems raised? "No, there is not", the author confesses. "While scientific solutions do exist, the political and short-term economic barriers are huge ... The ERA handbook may not provide the solutions but it aims to reduce the sea of ignorance", he reasons.

This broad handbook is worthy of shelf room beside any of Nigeria's best because it addresses most comprehensively a question that has become a monumental national problem. Anyone who has consistently followed the literature on the Niger Delta will encounter no difficulty agreeing that the ERA book has reached heights unscaled before by previous studies such as Niger Delta Environmental Survey, NDES, by Gamaliel Onosode, a management expert and eight other collaborators, in 1996, and an earlier baseline study of the area by the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, NNPC.

The information in this book is based on participatory research. While the author lived for months with the Niger Delta people he has written about and experienced their situation, previous researchers had relied mainly on perfunctory collection of data from existing reports and accounts given by the subjects themselves without necessarily leaving with the people. Nowhere else but in this work has detailed information been given on the human ecosystems of communities like Anyama, Sangana, Boatem-Tai, Okoroba-Nembe, among others.