Niger: Ongoing leaks and environmental and social harm from oil mining, Church response

August 27, 2015

David Maggiore of the Vatican Insider/LaStampa reports on the hidden costs of ongoing fossil fuel mining and use, illustrating many of the points Pope Francis made in his encyclical, Laudato Si’

Oil leaks continue to occur with frequency. Last year, two of the most important companies, Shell registered 204 incidents and Ini reported 349 oil leaks.

“This area was considered to be the lungs of Nigeria: here there were the mangroves and rainforests, sources of oxygen, but today much of the biodiversity has been destroyed by oil operations.” Father Edward Obi, secretary of the “Forum of Catholic Bishops” of the Niger Delta, lives and works in Port Harcourt, which has been called the “capital” of Nigerian oil. The crude oil, which represents (according to data from the OPEC) 90% of the country’s exports, mainly comes from this area and has yielded, from the sixties to the mid-2000s, about 600 billion dollars to the state. “Yet this region so rich in resources,” continues the priest, “is also one of the poorest parts of Nigeria in terms of access to infrastructure and decent living conditions, so everyone cannot help but wonder why the situation, which could be good, is instead so bad …”

The local church has been involved for decades in denouncing the environmental and social damage produced by the irresponsible exploitation of resources. For the laity and religious, therefore, the publication of the encyclical “Laudato si’” by Pope Francis has represented a strengthening of this action. “It increases our moral authority in bearing witness to what is being done here in the Niger Delta, it gives us a different basis to talk about it,” says Father Edward. “The human ecology of which the Pontiff writes,” he continues, “directly connects what happens to the subsoil, the trees, and the water, to what happens to men who share this ecosystem with other creatures: by bringing together the two aspects the Pope is calling decision makers to assume their responsibilities in all these areas. “Nigerian Oil

An appeal which, if applied to the Niger Delta, is not one-way – when taking into consideration the oil leaks that continue to occur with frequency. Last year, two of the most important companies, Shell and Eni, registered respectively 204 and 349 incidents. The phenomenon has been underestimated for years by large groups and authorities: only in recent weeks has begun – for example – the reclamation of the area of Ogoniland: the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) presented a report on this four years ago, but the situation had already been reported in the nineties by activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, who was later killed. Also affecting the phenomenon are incidents of theft carried out by individuals or small groups of citizens, who then refine the crude oil by hand, causing further environmental damage.

“Laudato si’,” sums up Archbishop Cyprian Onwuli, Vicar General of the Diocese of Port Harcourt “is a call to all of us to preserve and appreciate our lives and all those of the creatures of God.” The implications of this call, the prelate noted, are both theological and social.  “Francis,” he says in fact, “has demonstrated the Church’s interest in nature and reiterated that all creatures, like humans, belong to God: so our salvation is synonymous with their conservation; preserving them helps us to become aware of what we are, to be of service to others and work together with others for our salvation.”

To give life to “a confrontation that unites us all” is in fact one of the needs expressed by Francis in his writing and Nigeria (whose reality goes beyond the damage caused by the fundamentalist Boko Haram in the north) has fully grasped this spirit. “Laudato si’ also speaks to leaders of other faiths,” says Father Obi by way of example, “I personally brought a copy to the local imam and to  the heads of other churches, telling them this is not about Catholics but about our common home, and they did not perceive it as something limited to Catholicism or Christianity: in fact everyone complains about the damage being done to our region, so the battle for the environment is shared.”