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The Niger Delta is at the southernmost end of Nigeria. It is a swampy network of creeks characterised by levees, seasonal swamps, flood plains, and permanent and seasonal lakes and rivers, all sustained by as much as 3,000mm of annual rainfall. It is believed to be one of the largest remnants of tropical rain forest in Nigeria. It also contains "possibly the largest and least damaged mangrove forest in the world". Because of its impregnable terrain, it has largely been unexplored but the little research conducted on the area indicates the presence of animal and plant life previously assumed alien to Nigeria and probably unknown to science or previously thought to be extinct.

This bio-diversity is however set to be irreparably destroyed if the EU sponsored RISONPALM Lowland Oil Palm, Yenagoa (LOPPY) project is allowed to continue, unchallenged. The story of the destruction of the Delta began as early as 1956 when crude oil was discovered in commercial quantities in Oloibiri. That marked the beginning of an assault on the area and the destruction of the lifestyle of the indigenous peoples. The ensuing oil exploration and exploitation brought with it immense deforestation and pollution due to gas flares, negligently abandoned drilling installations and equipment, and constant oil spillages in an area where the people largely depended on fishing for their livelihood.

To add insult to injury, the local people were rarely consulted before any project was implemented. Compensation for the destruction and displacement has been paltry and, today, the people of the Niger Delta, from where a large chunk of Nigeria's wealth is derived, remain among the poorest and most deprived in the country.

With the inhabitants of the area still trying to come to terms with decades of destruction of their land, the RISONPALM LOPPY project is wreaking untold damage. RISONPALM is a Rivers state (a regional government)-owned company which - in 1984 - decided to build a palm oil plantation in the Delta region. It hired a Brussels based company - Socfin Consultancy Services (Socfinco) - to carry out feasibility studies for the project. As expected, Socfinco recommended the go-ahead and was immediately awarded the contract to build the plantation.

The project was to involve the building of a dyke, 82 kilometres long and running southwards from Swali to Ewoi (see illustration). The dyke, which was considered necessary to protect the 70,000 hectare plantation from seasonal flooding from the Ekole river, would be 1.4metres high and up to 10 metres thick. The projects also involved the sealing up of 10 creeks and the construction of 300 kilometre drains, covering 65,000 hectares.

The process of creating the dyke and the drains would also necessitate the building of 256 kilometres of access roads, 825 kilometres of "new collection tracks", and 116 bridges and culverts. In return for the massive destruction and the displacement of the peoples, RISONPALM promised compensation of one borehole and one fish pond for each of the 50 affected villages in the area!

Following the feasibility studies, RISONPALM then applied for and received a loan worth 3/4 of the cost of the project (estimated between N600 million and N2.4 billion as the Naira fluctuated) from the EU. The loan would be repayable over ten years. In the light of investigations by the Environment Rights Action of the Nigerian-based Civil Liberties Organisation (CLO/ERA), however, it has been revealed that the feasibility studies - on which the EU based its decision to grant the loan - deliberately misled that body. Literature on the project stated that the area was inhabited only by common monkeys, and the plant life that would be disturbed was "of no particular interest as far as specie was concerned". As revealed by the CLO/ERA, the monkeys were native Sclaters Guenon and the white throated monkey, both protected species. This is besides the many unknown species of animal and plant life.

The CLO/ERA also accuses Socfinco of failing to undertake an environmental impact assessment contrary to International standards and in breach of the spirit of the Earth summit charter. When approached by the CLO/ERA, the Managing Director of the RISONPALM, Mr Goddy Omereji said, "We are not used to doing environmental Impact Assessments before a project... We have already cultivated 17,000 hectares without any Environmental Impact Study"

Since the project began, many farmers in the area have only been able to harvest a fraction of the rice they used to because the natural swamp needed for the rice has been drained away by the drainage systems built by the project. Onuebum farmers have had to revert to cassava growing as a forced alternative. Swali community lost all its timber and forest products when the dyke was constructed behind it. The river which is meant to transport the timber has dried up, leaving the timber lying unmovable and causing great losses.

The Agbura, Ewoi and Otuaka communities have experienced persistent flooding since the dyke was constructed. Yenezue, Otuogori, Onuebum and other communities along the west bank of the Ekole River have lost all their fish ponds, economic trees and flora used as medicine. In 1993, Agbura was seriously flooded. Also, Otuaka creek was polluted by pesticides banned in Europe. The pesticide killed fish and other marine life with which it came in contact but the community was only paid a compensation of N20,000 (about ?133!). Mr Paul M A Schildkamp, counsellor, Rural development of the EU claimed of the pesticide: "it will break down in 60 days and thereafter have no effect at all". He offered no explanation as to why, then, the pesticide was banned in Europe.

So far the reaction to the suffering of the people has been characterised by piecemeal and insulting compensation and the brutal suppression of those who agitate for more. Apart form the above-mentioned compensation of one borehole and a fishpond for each of the 50 villages affected, provision was made for affected individuals. For example, Mr Noble Ewege, a farmer form Otuokpoti, received N7 (less than 5p) for fifty pineapples. Similarly, Morino Aboki's elderly parents were allegedly paid N3,500 (?23.33) for a combined 10 hectares of land.

The people of Azikoro, Elebele and Otuokpoti were given N1,000 (?20, then) for every hectare of high forest while in 1991, Blessing Ebei received N25 for his 25 X 35 metre cassava plot. Napoleon Igwe was paid N30 for a fish pond costing about N10,000.

Those who have challenged these inadequate settlements have faced police harassment. For instance, Mr Jericho Osengi from Otuokpoti was arrested and detained from 9th to 13th of February last year (1994) for writing several letters to RISONPALM demanding compensation for his fishing nets destroyed at Ogbodo lake. While in detention, he was allegedly beaten, tortured and confined to a badly ventilated cell.

The EU chief delegate in Nigeria, Mr Bauldwin Zimmer has, in the light of the above revelations and visible evidence of damage, promised to review the project and consult more with the local people. This is obviously too late to reverse the damage already caused. Even so, whether this will lead to a satisfactory resolution of the problem for the affected people, in a country infamous for its insensitivity towards it citizens is left to be seen. The EU afterall is simply hoping to collect its money by the end of the ten year loan period, and is eager not to be seen as a failure in most of the Third World. Mr Zimmer was afterall quoted in the (Nigerian) Guardian of Dec 3 1993 as saying, vindictively, that the project is behind schedule due to "the hostility of the people of Yenagoa".

The CLO/ERA report was written by Oronto Douglas, an environment/Human rights lawyer investigating RISONPALM project.
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