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Since the beginning of civilization, man has always been motivated by the need to make progress and better the lives of fellow mankind by exploring the natural environment. It is indisputable that the natural environment before the advent of environmental degradation,[1] created unlimited opportunities for development and economic sufficiency of the inhabitants or the populace, but with the advent of environmental degradation, the inhabitants have been denied these opportunities and made to languish in abject poverty.

In recognition of the dangers posed by environmental degradation[2], the international community and the Nigerian government have put in place various laws to combat environmental degradation, while the various environmental laws in Nigeria and that of the international community (international legal instrument) in combating environmental degradations intended to yield encouraging result by enhancing environmental sustainability. The recalcitrant attitude of those involved in environmental degradation has continued to attenuate environmental laws with the government and its agency indirectly collaborating in the act of flouting environmental laws.

Unfortunately, the existing law legal mechanism in place have done little or nothing to eradicate this menace of environmental degradation. Environmental degradation continues to evolve everyday and everywhere with no end in sight of how this crime can be checked.

Thus this thesis intends to appraise how environmental degradation constitutes an indictment to human right and environmental laws. It also aims to serve as a theoretical framework for the review and harmonization of the relevant municipal and legal instruments. Similarly international agency/corporation in combating environmental degradation will not be left out. Hence, it is imperative to give a brief description or definition of environmental degradation.

Environmental Degradation

Before environmental degradation is considered we must first of all know what is environment or what constitutes the environment.

Environment is the natural world in which people, animals and plants live.[3] The Black’s Law Dictionary also defines it as the totality of physical, economic, cultural, aesthetic and social circumstances and factors which surround and affect the desirability of value of property and which also affect the quality of life of people’s lives.[4] Under the Nigeria law, “environment” includes water, air, land and all plants and human beings or animals living therein and the inter-relationship which exist among these or any of them.[5] Therefore Environmental Degradation is the deterioration of the environment through depletion of resources such as air, water and soil; the destruction of the ecosystems and the extinction of wildlife.[6]

Environmental degradation is one of the ten threats officially cautioned by the high level threat panel of the United Nations.[7] Therefore the importance and relevance of the environment cannot be over-emphasized, the environment is a complex and delicate system that when properly managed and harnessed can be geared to productive domestic, aesthetic and even spiritual benefit but when poorly managed could predictably be hazardous not only to human survival, but the survival of all living things. It is therefore inferable that the environment is the physical foundation upon which survival rests.

It is however sad to note that over the years, the environment has been greatly threatened with adverse and disastrous effects on human habitation and survival, which has reflected in the World Bank report. More than 30,000 people die each day globally, short of their predestined life span due to environmental degradation and pollution[8]. In a year, 108 million people die as a result of environmental degradation and pollution. Further research shows that between 1990 and 2009, which has a period of 19 years, about 7.3 million people died worldwide due to environmental degradation and pollution.[9] Therefore it constitutes a threat to the existence of mankind and needs to be checked by all the countries and organizations in the globe.

The Emergence of Environmental Degradation

Environmental degradation can be traced back to the garden of Eden, Jehovah God created a perfect world and life for man, but due to the disobedience of man (Adam and Eve), Jehovah God sent them out from the garden of Eden to till the ground from which he (man) was taken.[10] Noah also in the Holy Bible following God’s instructions constructed a gigantic ark (vessel, and used tar (a product of petroleum) to make it water tight, also the streets of Babylon were paved with bitumen and the walls of Jericho were bonded with it (tar). Thus, oil, gas and other forms of energy existed before the Christian Era.[11] It can therefore be gleaned from the above that exploration, exploitation and pollution of the environment also predate the Christian era.

The oil era began when in 1859, Edwin L. Drake, a retired railroad conductor, drilled the first oil wells near Titusville, Pennsylvania, USA.[12] As a result of the importance of crude oil in the world and the industrial revolution that took place in Europe a lot of multi-national oil companies were formed to prospect for crude oil. Thus this led to the building of oil wells in virtually all part of the globe as stated by Professor A. L. Atsegbua:[13]

Oil is found and produced in particularly all parts of the world: in north and south America, the Caribbean, the Middle East, the Far East, Australia, Europe, the Former Soviet Union, North and West Africa.

Environmental degradation result when natural habitats are destroyed or natural resources are depleted, or the deterioration of the environment through depletion of resources such as air, water and soil; the destruction of the ecosystems and the extinction of wildlife.[14]

Flowing from the above it can therefore be gleaned that there cannot be oil exploration or exploitation without environmental degradation, although environmental degradation takes various forms, oil pollution and gas flaring constitute a major threat to the existence of man, flora and fauna and in extension the environment in general. For example, eighty-plus years after the abandonment of Wallaroo Mines (Kadina, South Australia), Mosses remain the only vegetation at some sports of the site’s grounds.[15] Thus, environmental degradation and pollution, whether from oil spillages and gas flaring or as a result of exploration or exploitation is a serious threat to the existence of man, flora and fauna and to the entire environment.

Emergence of Environmental Degradation in Niger-Delta Region of Nigeria

The major environmental degradation in Niger-Delta region of Nigeria is a result of oil and gas exploration, though there are other forms of degradation in the country.

Oil was first discovered in 1956 at Oloibiri in what is now Bayelsa state and Afam, in Rivers State.[16] Since then oil and gas have been discovered and explored in all the states constituting the Niger-delta state and as a result of the large deposition of crude oil in the region. In accordance with government’s policy of increasing the pace of exploration and ensuring that the country was not over dependent on one oil company, thus a lot of international oil companies were granted exploration licenses about the same time. Some of the oil companies that benefited from the grant are: Nigerian Gulf Oil Company, Shell Petroleum, Texaco, Mobil producing, Chevron, Agip, and Elf, etc.

It was rightly stated by Professor L. A. Atsegbua[17] that,

Oil exploration and production has a high environment cost on the oil producing areas of the Niger-Delta. Oil spills kill fish and agricultural crops and pollute water with serious effects for the communities and families affected.

The exploration and exploitation of the Niger-Delta environment which is one of the world’s largest wetlands, and the largest in Africa by these multinational oil companies and the encouragement offered them by the Nigerian Lax Environmental Laws have made many communities in the Niger-Delta to believe that oil and gas have thus been a curse to many inhabitants of the area.

According to the official estimates of the NNPC, based on the quantities reported by the operating companies, approximately 2,300 cubic metres of oil are spilled in 300 separate incidents annually. It can be safely assumed that, due to under reporting, the real figure is substantially higher: conservative estimates place it at up to ten times higher.[18]

It has been reported that most international oil companies, especially the Shell Petroleum, used outmoded and outdated materials in their operations in Ogoniland, thereby endangering the lives of the inhabitant, flora and fauna and the environment at large.

According to the statistics available in the Department of Petroleum Resources (DPR) indicate that between 1976 and 1996 a total of 4,835 incidents resulted in the spillage of at least 2,446,322 barrels of which an estimated 1,896,930 barrels, that is, 77 percent were lost to the environment. Nigeria’s largest spill was an offshore well blowout in January 1980 when at least 200,000 barrels of oil, according to oil industry sources, spewed into the Atlantic Ocean from a Texaco facility and destroyed 340 hectares of Mangroves.

The Department of Petroleum Resources estimates were that more than 400,000 barrels were spilled in this incident. Mangrove forest is particularly vulnerable to oil spills, because the soil soaks up the oil like a sponge and re-releases it every rainy season.

Two serious spills took place in early 1998. On January 12, 1998, a major spill of more than 40,000 barrels of crude oil leaked from the pipeline linking Mobil’s Idoho platform with its Qua Iboe onshore terminal in Akwa Ibom State. Mobil estimated that more than 90 percent of the oil had dispersed or evaporated naturally, though the spill traveled hundreds of kilometers further than expected, and some 500 barrels washed ashore by the end of February 1998,[19] about 140,000 claims for compensation had been submitted from individuals or groups totaling an estimated US $100 million. About twenty communities, with a total population of about one million, were considered to be the worst hit, especially at the mouth of the Pennington River.

In October 17, 1998, as a result of the severe scarcity of fuel in Nigeria, the locals of Jesse town in Delta state found an avenue of making quick money from the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) petroleum pipeline that was left open by vandals, they went in droves to “fetch” petrol for sale, defying all warnings of the danger involved in such activity. The result was a massive explosion that claimed over 1000 lives including women, children and babies. The resultant fire burned for days emitting harmful smoke and petroleum gases into the environment and the destruction of all forms of lives in the immediate vicinity of the incident. It is pertinent to know that until now the Jesse town and its environment is yet to recover from this incident.[20]

Similarly, the local and foreign media widely reported the NNPC pipeline explosion in Ilado village that occurred on Friday, May 12, 2006 leaving over 200 persons dead with some corpses floating in the nearby river. Environmental degradation whether on the part of the multi-national oil companies or on the part of the Nigeria own oil company (NNPC) has never been reported to have been cleaned.

There have been a lot of oil spillages in Niger Delta and the unreported cases outnumbered the reported once. A case study has shown that oil spillage had occurred in virtually all parts of the Niger Delta with Lagos not being an exception.[21] The Nation[22] reported that independent investigators believed that the pipelines gave way due to alleged lack of maintenance, and as a result, the pipelines allegedly emitted crude oil into the environment of the host community and other surrounding communities.

More than twelve years after the 1992 oil spill incident,[23] the people are still alleging that the situation in Opobo community where the spill occurred is still deteriorating. The inhabitants claimed that the oil industry has never cleaned any of the spills thoroughly as a result the spill affected the occupation of the local people tremendously, they could no longer farm and fish as they used to do.

It is estimated by the Ministry of Petroleum Resources, that between 1976, and 1990, the Niger-Delta Region experienced 2676 reported cases of oil spillages. Green Peace estimates that between 1976 and 1991, there were almost 3000 oil spills, averaging 700 barrels each.[24] It can therefore be gleaned from all the above that the Niger-Delta ecosystem and environment have been greatly distorted and basterdised as a result of oil spills that have never been cleaned.

Gas flaring is another source of environmental degradation brought about by the activities of oil corporations. In Orugbiri a small settlement not larger than 100 metres in length, two flaring sites exist therein. This location contradicts the rule that flares are to be located far from villages to avoid gas flaring which is dangerous to health. More especially medical research has confirmed that those living near gas flaring sites stand the risk of developing respiratory diseases.

The Shell Petroleum has also been involved in the practice of canalization in Ogoniland. Canals are created to drain an area from drilling and pipe laying or to facilitate the access of drilling and other production equipment to mining sites. These channels alter the ecology of the areas by flooding fresh water with saline water, which destroys plants and aquatic animals which cannot stand the salinity. It was reported that in Ikoriba, Rivers State of Nigeria, a four kilometer canal constructed by Shell Petroleum has been threatening the fresh water forest in that area.

Canalization has generally altered the flood pattern of the Niger-Delta area, resulting in the perennial flood of the plains, which has been well drained before the flooding.

Dogo[25] recounted that in 1995 alone, most communities in Sagbama, Ekeremai, Yenagoa, Southern Ijaw and Brass Local Government Areas of Rivers and Bayelsa State were under flood for three months.

Another prominent source of environmental pollution in Ogoniland is oil spillage. Oil spillage often occurs when some weak and outdated wells and pipelines, which have been under intense pressure blow-out and cause oil to escape in furious speed to adjoining lands, thereby leaving large areas submerged. It has also been reported that there was an oil spillage in Ejanmah Ebubu Community in 1970 which destroyed kilometers of virgin land in Ogoniland and turned the area into a barren land.[26] There was also the Funlwa oil spillage, which involved Texaco, one of whose oil wells blew out and led to the spilling of 400,000 barrels of crude oil into the coastal waters.

Similarly, there had also been spillage along Brass-Ogada oil pipeline, 1983, 1991 and 1995 in which fire erupted, claiming the lives of some workers of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation.[27]

Gas flaring or natural gas flaring had led to an increase in the climatic temperature of gas producing communities and destruction of the biotic life in such areas, and industrial gases have also been identified as threat to the protective ozone layer, which shields life from the harmful ultraviolet rays of the sun. The layer is already deteriorating from the effects of increased global temperatures and chlorofluorocarbons found in aerosol sprays and the like.[28] The world temperatures are reported to be increasing as a result of the build-up of carbon dioxide from gas flaring and other gases from man-made resources such as power plants and automobiles.[29] Acid rains that result from gas flaring are a nightmare to those who live near industries that generate such toxic emissions. It has also been reported that more than 11 million hectares of forest are destroyed every year by acid rain,[30] thereby making farming and fishing, which are the major occupation of the inhabitants almost impracticable. The discharge of industrial waste effluents into streams have been known to kill marine life and damage crops irrigated with water from such streams. Similarly the same result occurs from the indiscriminate and deliberate dumping of toxic chemicals into streams that kill fish and endanger all other life forms including humans in the process.

Oil producing areas in Nigeria have been identified as danger zones of pollution arising from toxic wastes and high incidents of birth defects and cancer are becoming more rampant in Niger-Delta areas as a result of gas pollution from the gas flaring activities of oil companies.[31]

From the light of the above, I make bold to say that as a result of gas flaring acid rain, global warming, oil spillages[32], farming and fishing which are the major or primary occupation of the inhabitants of Niger-Delta have been made impracticable and their life expectancy of the people reduced and placed in jeopardy.

1.3 Classification of Environmental Degradation

As earlier stated the term “environmental degradation” is more properly restricted to describing the deterioration of the environment through depletion of resources such as air, water, and soil, the destruction of ecosystems, and the extinction of wildlife.[33] Thus in the light of the above, environmental degradation is therefore classified into three categories,[34] namely;

Air degradation
Land degradation
Water degradation

Air Degradation

The air is degraded when gas is flared by these oil corporations operating in the region, for example in Orugbiri, a small settlement not larger than 100 metres in length, two flaring sites exists therein. Also, acid rain resulting from gas flaring pollutes water, destroys fertility of agricultural land,[35] causes skin irritation and easily corrodes the roots of houses. It is disheartening that a medical research has confirmed that those living near gas flaring sites stand the risk of developing respiratory diseases.

Land Degradation

In Niger-Delta area of Nigeria, the major land degradation faced is the persistent oil spillages in the oil producing communities which have been reported to have destroyed more than one million hectares of forest. The indiscriminate dumping of exhausted oil wells and the canalization of lands by Shell petroleum has adhered the flood pattern of the Delta, resulting in the perennial flood of the plains, which has been well drained before the flooding. This flooding result in leaching[36] of the soil nutrient. For example it has been reported that there was an oil spillage in 1970 which destroyed kilometres of Virgin land in Ogoniland and burned the area into a barren land.

Water Degradation

Oil spillages also destroys aquatic life when it occurs in fresh waters in the Niger-Delta wetland, thereby placing fish farm in jeopardy. It is also well known that the people of the area depend solely on these rivers for their drinking and cooking water that is being degraded. Nigeria’s largest spill was an offshore well blown out in January 1980 when at least 200,000 barrels of oil, according to oil industry sources, spewed into the Atlantic Ocean from a Texaco facility. Thus as was rightly stated by environmentalist, Mr Al Gore[37], when he said:

It is the third world where the effects of water pollution are most keenly of death from cholera, typhoid, dysentery and diarrhea from both viral and bacteriological sources”.

Similarly, Professor Ambrose Alli also said:[38]

as a result of oil losses… surface water and river courses are invariably contaminated, and polluted rendering water undrinkable and the aquatic life is destroyed. The result is great hardship for the inhabitants who become impoverished and deprived. The unfortunate citizens are therefore compelled to emigrate to other towns and villages in search of a decent life.

However, it can be summed up from the light of the above classifications[39] that the lives of the Niger-Delta people have been placed in jeopardy with the government of Nigeria leaving the people to their fate while embracing the profit and benefit that oil from the area offers.

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