Interviewer: Sam, climate change is a major threat to Nigerians, as it is to everyone else on the planet. What are some of the specific environmental issues here, and what sort of consciousness is there of climate justice, and sustainable development?

Sam: I’ll answer your question from two perspectives. Let me answer it with the general perspective and then I’ll come to the more personal perspective. The threat of climate change is real. We, in this part of the world, are not immune from the threats of climate change. If we take a look around us, the humidity levels are rising. In recent times, where I live (I live in a small bungalow of three rooms), if there is no light [no electricity, no fan], I can hardly sleep.

My children can hardly sleep, except during the rainy season, it becomes a lot more manageable during the rainy season. Because what makes it even worse is that our light, our electricity situation, is in fits and pieces. I’ve found that in the past three or four years, between the months of March and April, before the rains start all over again, I am sweating like I have never sweated in all my life. I am seeing increasing levels of temperature that I did not see while I was growing up, and even in the 80s and 90s. Over the past five years, one has had to live with very sweltering temperatures. And the sources of this are not far-fetched.

If you look around, the forests that used to exist… If I go to my village, there used to be very deep forests, where little children would even find it very difficult to enter. Today most of these forests are no more. The little trees and mini forests that exist are being logged on a daily basis, and there is no form of check on logging. If you go to the villages, logging is taking place at very ridiculous levels. There is no agency of government in this part of the country that is doing anything to regulate it, to curtail it, to minimize it. So trees are being cut as never before and nobody is doing anything to replace these trees. The forest cover is increasingly going down and in our own part of the country where the population density is probably the highest in Africa outside the Niger Delta, we find that human activity is impacting seriously and negatively on the environment. People are building uncontrollably, roads are being built, bushes are being burnt. There is deforestation on a massive scale. And one of the consequences of deforestation in our part of the country is erosion, of soil, gullies, even roads in some places have been cut in two. Then of course the streams and rivers and rivulets that used to contain a lot of aquatic life are today drying up. There’s a stream that lies about 200 metres from my country home in the village. When I was growing up I never saw it dry up. But in the past ten years, if the rains fail to fall between February, March, and April, times when the stream dries up.

Interviewer: And how are people thinking about that, because people want to see development, but how can that be justified with sustainability?

Sam: The ordinary people do not have an accurate consciousness of what is happening. They are blaming evil forces, unseen hands and all kinds of metaphysical objects for these happenings and these developments. And it is actually up to the government to educate the people about the negative consequences of deforestation, of unbalanced utilization of resources, about the benefits of a planned, sustainable development – both for the individual and for the society at large. But the government is not doing much in this area. There is actually a dearth of public enlightenment and conscientization on the principle issues.

And you find also that in our villages, the lands that used to be fertile are not producing as much food, as much crops, as they used to. These are the consequences of climate change.

Yes, at the level of the elite, of the enlightened few, there is a realization that yes, something is wrong. But at the level of ordinary people, there is no conscientization, no effort to enable them to understand that it is in their interests to ensure that they protect their environment.

Interviewer: You mentioned the Niger Delta. That is one area in Nigeria where the struggle over environment and oil has been particularly acute, with massive oil spills but also militant activity which has had a real impact on oil production and trying to reclaim some of the wealth from oil for people. What are your views on the activities of militants in the Niger Delta?

Sam: The activities of militants should not be viewed in isolation. The activities of militants is consequent upon the exploitative tendencies of oil companies operating in the Niger Delta, who are not adhering to international best practices that they continue to observe elsewhere around the world. In Nigeria, because they are complicit with the Nigerian state and the government, they carry on as they wish. They carry on as if tomorrow does not exist. They carry on because there is nobody to call them to order, to hold them to account. So the emergence of the militant groups in the Niger Delta is consequent upon the exploitative practices and tendencies, and the absolute lack of care for the environment in the exploration, drilling and production of most of the oil companies operating in the Niger Delta.

So, if viewed against this background, the militant groups are responding to a clear and present threat to the existence of communities in the Niger Delta. When we were growing up, we grew up to learn that most of the villages, tribes and social groups in the Niger Delta were essentially fishermen. But with the constant oil spills, despoliation of the environment, the denudation of the fauna and the aquatic life of the Niger Delta, much of the fishing industry has disappeared. Much of the farming and agricultural activities taking place there have also disappeared.

So, when you have robbed a people of their environment, how, in good conscience, do you expect them to survive? To continue to exist as a people. You see, our people have a saying that nature has placed at the disposal of every group a means of survival. I’ll give you an example. In the south-east, in Igboland for instance, our people survive mostly on our land. We survive on our palm trees, our people make palm oil, our people farm, this is the basic means of subsistence. If you go to the North, they do not have palm trees. They survive on other firms of agriculture, like planting onions, planting yams, and also pastoral existence. If you go to Niger Delta, the basic means of subsistence is fishing, and some forms of agriculture and farming too. So if we agree that nature has placed at the disposal of every group some forms of sustenance, we are witnessing a situation where the means of sustenance of much of the Niger Delta has been taken away. Through the activities of oil companies who are not minded on any form of corporate social responsibility.

So, that is the context in which I view the militancy that sprung up in the Niger Delta from the late 1990s till today. Yes, most of the militant groups engage in all forms of criminality and banditry as well, which do not in any way serve the interests of ordinary Niger Deltans. And that is condemnable, but it does not in any way vitiate the original sin that pushed them into further sin.

This is an excerpt from an interview with Sam, recorded in March 2012 in Enugu Nigeria. You can also read the full text or listen to the audio of the interview.