Michelle Atagana
Michelle Atagana

‘Poison Fire’

I recently watched a documentary called Poison Fire produced by Lars Johansson in conjunction with Friends of the Earth International and communities affected by gas flaring in Nigeria’s Niger Delta. Poison Fire documents Ifie’s (a local artist, feminist and environmental activist who works to promote dialogue between the communities, the oil industry and the federal government) journey across three communities in the Niger Delta in 2005 and 2006 her trip to The Hague, where she attends Shell’s annual general meeting. I might be a year and a half late in watching this documentary, hence this post is also late but rather late than never.

Shell moseyed on down to Nigeria some 50 years ago when black gold was discovered (oil). Nigeria is sitting on copious amounts of dollars worth of oil; it is the 10th largest oil exporter in the world and the largest in Africa. In fact Nigeria should be a superpower but it isn’t. The Niger Delta, the home of Nigerian oil is not only that, but also the largest wetland and maintains the third largest drainage basin in Africa. It is a fantastically populous ecosystem, which contains one of the highest concentrations of biodiversity on the planet, in addition to supporting abundant flora and fauna, it can sustain a wide variety of crops, lumber or agricultural trees and more species of freshwater fish than any ecosystem in West Africa.

The problem, Nigerians have a fair amount of problems but the biggest and possibly the most plaguing is the constant power outages. A problem the government has been trying to rectify for the last three decades. Back to Shell, they burn off billions of dollars in natural gas every year through gas flaring. What that means is that they waste gas simply because it maximises oil production. Yes they waste gas worth billions of dollars, gas that can be used to power the entire country and more for many years. This flaring releases greenhouse gases equivalent to 18 million cars a year. Aside from this method being environmentally unfriendly and a waste, it is also harmful to human life; these flares are only a few miles away.

How on earth does Shell justify this? They don’t really. Gas flaring is one of the many problems Shell has caused for these communities according to Poison Fire. There have been major oil spills every year for 50 years, that means more than 50 oil spills. The aquatic life, which is a major part of the communities’ livelihoods, is dying because of the oil spills and also the vegetation — their crops have become poisoned. Shell has been ordered by a Nigerian court to stop gas flaring (2005) and be kinder to the environment. They still haven’t though. They had hoped to phase it out by the end of 2009. Phase it out as in a slow and possibly never-ending process? The whole situation is reprehensible, how is it possible that Shell doesn’t get it? How is it possible that the government doesn’t give them an ultimatum? Apparently Shell is now considering pulling out of Nigeria, perhaps that’s for the best.

The Niger Delta is home to 20 million people.