Niger Delta Ecosystems: the ERA Handbook/The Human Ecosystems: Okoroba-Nembe

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  • Location
  • Topography
  • Soils
  • The Natural Ecosystem
  • Natural and Viable Society
  • Modern Society
  • The Economy
  • The Environment as Seen by Local People
  • Social and Political Status
  • Addendum: Local People and the Oil Industry


Okoroba is a village and Nembe a district centre, both about 150 kms Southwest of Port Harcourt. The Okoroba-Nembe district is a microcosm of most of the Niger Delta, covering the Fresh and Brackish-water ecozones, and the ecotone in between them, (see Maps 4 and 11).

Originally Okoroba was selected for participatory research by ERA because it seemed to represent a community in the Brackish-water (mangrove) ecozone. As it turned out, Okoroba is on an extensive levee in the ecotone between the Brackish and Fresh-water ecozones. For what became obvious reasons, there are very few communities within the brackish-water ecozone. The community lies beside the Okoroba Creek which feeds into the Adumama River which finally lets out into the Santa Barbara Estuary on the Atlantic coast.

Nembe is made up of two towns, Bassambiri and Ogbolumabiri, on adjacent islands in the Nembe Creek system of rivers that leads into the Brass River. (Biri means place - kiri in the Akassa dialect). The town is the headquarters of the Brass Local Government Area.

Whereas the Okoroba people appear to relate themselves to the forest (the Freshwater ecozone) around them, the Nembe people seem to relate more to the rivers and to other urban centres far away such as Brass, Ogbia and Port Harcourt.

Other communities included in the Okoroba-Nembe survey included Elemuama, Otatubu, Agrisaba, Enyumuama and Obiata. Also data was been drawn from work done around Ukparatubu village near Ogboinbiri, just Southwest of Nembe.


The district is in classic alluvial fan-delta country. The land is very flat. This is suggested by the width of its rivers; by the penetration inland of salt water; and by the slow flow of water, where tidal flows can be more important than the river currents, so that flushing, in the dry-season, is negligible. All the same, the landscape is not uniform: it has its valleys, its plains and its plateaux like any other: it is only the vertical emphasis which is limited.

The Okoroba-Nembe district is a young, pioneer landscape of mangroves turning mud flats into land and of forests creating soil. It is a dynamic landscape: rivers meander, forming levees and ox-bow lakes, frequently capturing each other, becoming drier or suddenly (in geological terms) carrying much more water by river capture, and thus eroding the older levees.

The difference between the situations of Nembe and Okoroba represent the two topographical poles of the district. Okoroba is in an area of swampy plains, interspersed with dry and seasonally dry plateaux formed by levees and fossil barrier islands, so that it is possible to walk, for much of the year, to Ogbia and thence to Yenegoa. Nembe is at the Southernmost tip of this area. It borders an arc-shaped plain created by the most recent alluvial deposits of the rivers that cut it. And, it is a waterlogged plain, large parts of which are submerged at high tide, scattered about with small, low, organic islands, like the two that make up Nembe itself.

20.3 SOILS

There are three soil types in the district: soils of the Fresh-water ecosystems; Brackishwater (mangrove) soils; and soils that are subject to both Brackish and Fresh-water regimes.


The fresh-water soils are of three main sub-types: levee soils; flood-plain soils; and fresh-water swamp soils.

The levee soils develop where the fine sand and silt deposited by floods create land that is high enough to be largely free of floods. They are fine sandy loams and silty loams with a low permeability so that if they are not flooded in the wet season there may be standing water at times. The soils are shallow because of the permanently high water table but there is some leaching.

Where the water table of the levee soil is one metre or more below the surface they tend towards soils similar to the Oxisols on the ridge tops of Akassa (but with a higher silt content). That is, soils which develop in hot, rainy climates where there is a regular downward movement of water, and where there are large amounts of added biomass - the typical soils of the African lowland tropical rainforest.

The flood plain soils are typically high water-table silty clay and clay gley (seasonal reduction) soils. They are criss-crossed with flood streams which work their way around the buttresses, stilt and knee roots that are typical of the trees that grow in these soils.

The fresh-water swamp soils are permanently wet and sometimes submerged. These soils have a higher clay content than the flood plain soils because they are the final sink for the alluvial deposits and because there is no downward leaching at all. Also because of reduced conditions and the accumulation of organic matter in depressions there are deposits of peaty soil.


The Brackish-water soils are acid sulphate soils because sulphate ions, carried by the inundating seawater, are reduced to Hydrogen sulphide (H₂S) under anaerobic conditions in sediments high in organic matter. The H₂S reacts with iron compounds in the soil to form pyrite (FeS₂) which when exposed to the air oxidises to form sulphate and free sulphuric acid.

In the Okoroba-Nembe district these soils are of two types. First Cat-clays, the more recently deposited alluvial mud which on exposure to the air oxidises to release bubbles of H₂S - the typical rotten-egg smell of mangroves at low tide. Second, Chicoco soils, the older peaty clay soils formed by the thick mat of Rhizophora mangrove rootlets, and also subject to high oxidisation and deterioration upon exposure.


Soils subject to both brackish and fresh-water regimes occur were mangrove soils have extended above the salt water level and, to a lesser extent, where fresh-water soils are subject to brackish water during the dry season. Both soils show similarities to their mangrove and fresh-water counterparts but tend to be silty clays with a high acidity, the former being higher in organic matter.


The natural ecosystems of the Okoroba-Nembe district climax as alluvial tropical rainforests. Rainforests which would have been ecologically youthful in relation to the lowland tropical rainforests which are the natural climax inland beyond the Delta. There are two natural ecozones in the district: the Brackish (mangrove) and the Fresh-water ecozones; and the ecotone between them.


The natural mangrove forest ecosystems form on water-logged alluvial deposits where the water regime is brackish, between the high and low tide marks, in areas protected from the battering of the Atlantic waves. They are pioneer ecosystems because alluvium and organic matter caught by the mangrove roots, in addition to the biomass created by the mangrove trees themselves, creates their own medium and they literally push out the land into the lagoons, creeks and rivers.

The dominant mangrove species is the Red Mangrove, Rhizophora racemosa with its characteristic stilt and aerial roots. On newly colonised mud the trees can grow up to 40m, but the second generation will be much smaller, such is the species selfcompetition. This gives the characteristic landscape around Nembe where great belts of trees billow up above the flat landscape on the inside curves of the wide rivers.

The natural mangrove ecosystem is low in biodiversity (in the Nembe district, there is mile after mile of stilt-rooted R. racemosa and nothing else) and biomass. But despite this, the mangroves provide a refuge and breeding ground for large populations of aquatic animals which depend on it during part of or for the whole of their life cycles.


The natural fresh-water forest ecozone is made up of three ecosystems defined by the drainage regime of the three fresh-water soils already described. Intermediate conditions exist, for instance on natural or man-made ridges running through the back swamps and in swamps that dry out at the very peak of the dry season.

The natural ecosystem of the levees (now extremely rare) corresponds most closely to the natural lowland tropical rainforest of the Ogoni Plain, but with a lower species diversity because of its relative youth. There are several tree layers, the tallest reaching 30m with large buttresses to support them in the shallow soil. The trees are tall, straight and unbranched almost up to the canopy, and so dark is the understory, that undergrowth is confined to young trees growing in the slash of light created by the fall of a dead tree. Beside the wider rivers, lighter conditions encourage palms, smaller shrubby trees and woody climbers.

The natural ecosystem of the flood plains is alluvial flood-plain tropical rainforest. Here, forest cover is less even than on the levees, depending on the susceptibility to flooding and the height of the water-table. Generally there is more undergrowth, plus palms, and shorter trees with buttresses, stilt roots and pneumorrhizae such as peg-roots and knee roots. Typical trees are again Mitragyna stipulosa with its knee roots and Alstonia boonei with its fluted base and adventitious surface roots.

The natural ecosystem of the back-swamps is alluvial swamp tropical rainforest. This carries the lowest species diversity of the fresh-water ecosystems, with large patches of palm forest, interspersed with broad-leaved forest where rattans grow up trees, frequently stilt rooted.


The ecotone between the natural brackish and fresh-water ecozones is narrow. As the mangroves create land above the high tide mark, the fresh water system takes over and the mangrove species are competed out. Thus typically, mangroves give way suddenly to freshwater plant species which tolerate only very low salt concentrations; plants such as pandanus palms, raffia palms and bamboo are common. Mangrove trees are very poor competitors with the fresh-water plants and very rarely does one see a mixture of mangrove and fresh-water plant species. Similar conditions are found beside rivers in the predominantly fresh-water ecozone where the water becomes brackish during the driest months of the year.

The natural fauna of the whole of this area would have been more diverse than the comparatively young flora might suggest, because of the land corridor extending from Okoroba to Ogbia Town.


Natural society will have been part of the ecosystems of the Okoroba-Nembe district for thousands of years. But as at Botem-Tai and Akassa it was with the appearance of viable society that the natural ecosystem would have begun to be substantially altered: the very accessibility of the Niger Delta rivers and the abundance of fish in them would have made them especially attractive to human settlement. Early fishing, hunting and gathering communities would have travelled through the mangroves in canoes to the more accessible parts of the fresh-water zone. Here they would have made tracks though the levee and flood forests, provoking seed distribution of plants that were useful to them, and, where possible, taking out trees for canoes. Later, isolated exploiting settlements may have encouraged the local predominance of useful species such as the raffia and oil palms.

However the overall impact of early mankind would have been small and easily absorbed by the ecosystem. The inhospitable nature of the mangroves may have discouraged the early infiltration of the area by groups of people moving through the numerous protected and interlinked creeks and lagoons inland that stretch from the Volta Delta to the Bonny Estuary.

The two ecozones of the district have different human settlement patterns and the people of Nembe and Okoroba are only distantly related.

The Okoroba people speak one of what are called the Central Delta group of languages, closely related to most of the languages of Southern Nigeria (in the BenueCongo family), while the Nembe people speak the Ijo language of the Atlantic-Congo family (from which the Benue-Congo is, nonetheless, descended). The likely settlement patterns are that the Central Group people (who may have moved from the East via the Cross River) were in the area before the Ijo group moved in from a dispersal point to the Northeast of Nembe, near Obiama, on their way to Akassa and Eastwards towards the Port Harcourt area.

The inter-relationship between the two communities is long standing. Whilst Nembe may have been established as a farming community exploiting the dry land on the two islands (perhaps as a refuge) its position ensured that it soon became a trading centre, for fish and agricultural produce, between coastal fishing communities and the agricultural communities inland (like Okoroba). Later it was involved in the slave trade and finally in palm oil trade. Nembe became so important that the Nembe Kingdom extended to Brass and in 1850 a hundred European traders were said to be living in the kingdom. But although it had its own small farming settlements Nembe would have depended on Okoroba for most of its food just as Okoroba depended on Nembe as a market for its palm oil and agricultural production.

The fresh-water ecozone is the most influenced by mankind's exploitation because it contains more of the things that mankind wants: agricultural land, timber, bush-meat and other forest products. Thus as the local population grew and the demands of the market at Nembe grew, so the human influence on the Okoroba ecosystem became more pervasive. Today Okoroba is largely a cultured ecosystem: a mosaic of small farms, oil-palms, exotic fruit trees, forest trees that have been retained for their economic value (such as the bush mango, Irvingia gabonensis, and timber species like the Ironwood, Lophora procera), interspersed with bits of forest which are too wet to farm and from which most of the useful timber trees have been removed. The flood forests close to the village are depleted, with few big trees, patches where palms have been favoured, and small farms in drier areas. It is the back-swamps that appear to be the least disturbed, partly because they are so inaccessible.

However the inaccessible flood and swamp lowland tropical rainforest to the North of Okoroba, where there is no settlement for 12 kms, is closer to its natural state than the area immediately around Okoroba. Here are to be found, for instance, patches of relatively natural forest and five types of higher primate including the endangered chimpanzee and Sclater's guenon (endemic to the area between the Niger and Cross Rivers and found in only five other locations). Interestingly, the farm-forest ecosystem of Okoroba and its neighbours may actively encourage the Chimpanzee population with extra food, in the same way as it encourages a much wider variety of birds than would have been found in the natural ecosystem of the area. Okoroba is a viable ecosystem of high biological productivity.

In the mangrove ecozone South and East of Nembe the traditional activities remain: fishing; collecting crabs, oysters (cutting the stilt roots of R. racemosa to get them) and periwinkles; cutting aerial roots to make fish drying racks; and cutting dead wood for firewood. It is a low-level activity which does not damage the mangrove ecosystem, whose relatively low bio-productivity does not, in any event, allow for much exploitation. With the exception of the areas around the Shell Oil installations of Nembe Creek the mangrove forests in the Okoroba-Nembe district are in good condition.


The inescapable manifestation of modern mankind in the Okoroba-Nembe district is the oil industry. The night sky around Nembe is bright with gas flares and the rivers around the town are a busy highway for its traffic. At Okoroba, the local water system has been severely damaged by the dredging of the Okoroba River and the construction of a wellhead slot just beside the village. This has created three problems: spoil has been dumped on levee farm-lands disrupting the surface drainage system; the slot has created a large volume of stagnant water beside the village so that locally, the river no longer flushes out or has enough oxygen to support fish; and, the upper reaches of the Okoroba River which used to supply clean washing and drinking water, has been drained. As a result a community that was essentially viable is no longer viable and gastric diseases, the most dangerous being cholera, are on the increase.

Whilst the traditional activities of the local people in the mangrove ecozone are viable, the Nembe communities are not and may be said to be modern in the very worst sense. The dry land on both islands has been built over and most of the wetland has been sand-filled; there is no agricultural land, little fishing and Nembe is no longer a trading centre, so that the local people are largely dependant upon outside income. Yet the island is not modern in any other terms: sanitation conditions are basic so that the river water, particularly in the creek between the two islands is full of human refuse, and parts of the town are inundated with sewage at high tide; clean water is dependant on the one generator and if it fails the only drinking water comes from filthy and poorly maintained wells; electricity is sporadic, often for only one hour a day, in order to pump up water, and then at a low voltage that serves less that half the houses.

Both communities express discontent but this symptom of modern mankind is most apparent in Nembe where it is exacerbated by the oil industry and is concentrated in the young men, especially those who at some stage have worked in the industry and have had money in their pockets. The cause of the frustration is the lack of opportunities contrasted by the obvious but unattainable wealth created for the fortunate few by the oil industry. This leads to anger with the industry, for not paying adequate compensation for taking away "their oil", and a belief that the elders have sold out to the oil industry without considering the future. In addition to all this angst is the infuriating knowledge that a few well placed members of the community have been paid substantial sums to keep the community "sweet".

Human population growth in the Okoroba-Nembe district is unlikely to be lower than other areas in the Niger Delta as a whole. But while communities like Okoroba have a little breathing space, Nembe has nowhere to go and a manifestation of this is the "colonies" on Okoroba land that are already causing friction in the host community. Nonetheless, Okoroba also shows signs of having a population too great to be supported by traditional methods: many of its sons and daughters work in Port Harcourt and both men and women complain about declining agricultural yields (although there is still a surplus going to Nembe); this, of course, is not some peculiar modern phenomenon and is the prime reason for human movements throughout history, but moving is no longer an option today when human populations are so high.

The assumption that population densities are low in the brackish and fresh-water ecozones of the Niger Delta is an illusion: population densities on land that can be settled are high.

Like in many other areas of the world, the regions where oil is found in this country are very inhospitable. They are mainly in swamps and creeks.........I believe there is a long way to go to meet the claims of the oil-producing areas which see themselves losing non-replaceable resources while replaceable and permanent resources of agriculture and industry are being developed elsewhere largely with oil revenue. Given, however the small size and population of the oil-producing area.

In a public lecture given by Mr. Philip Asiodu in 1980. At one time Permanent Secretary in the Federal Ministry of Mines and Power. Now a Director of Chevron Oil and Chairman of the Board of the Nigerian Conservation Foundation.

This political illusion, of empty land, creates additional problems for the people of the Niger Delta. This is because the place is seen as a big empty space where economic problems can be solved: where additional food can be grown and where valuable mineral resources can be extracted cheaply. The correct development of the Niger Delta may indeed solve some modern problems, but because it looks large and empty the answers are seen in terms of large-scale developments that by nature are careless of the local people and ecological viability. (A carelessness exacerbated by the corrupt nature of Nigerian government.) As Nigeria's food and timber requirements become more acute in the 21st century, the Okoroba-Nembe district is already being viewed as potential development land for large-scale forestry, fishery, oil palm and rice projects. Such developments may be an even greater threat to the long-term ecological viability of the Okoroba-Nembe district than the current cavalier attitude of the oil industry.


In national economic terms, the Okoroba-Nembe district is one of the most important in Nigeria: it contains the Nembe and Okoroba oil fields. Yet this oil economy largely bypasses the local communities who continue to farm, fish, hunt, collect from the forest and trade as they always have done, moving around the district in canoes. This activity is not enough to support the modern population.

The economic affect of the oil industry upon the people of the Okoroba-Nembe district is that it is they who bear the costs: they live under the constant threat of oil spills (the industry in Nigeria is notoriously careless, the chances of a spill are high); farming land is damaged and traditional communications disrupted; mangrove forest is damaged; gas flares are noisy and polluting to the villages that live near them, and light up the night sky for everyone else; but, above all the greatest economic cost, is the frustration, especially amongst young men, felt as a result of the oil industry. This frustration leads to expensive attacks upon oil industry installations. The only benefit that accrues to the local people is the temporary work available to young men, mainly, it seems, from the seismic prospecting Companies; but even this is a double-edged sword, for the young men get a brief taste of a cash-rich life only to have it frustratingly snatched away.

In the fresh-water ecozone, the prime economic activity is agriculture and forest exploitation, both for subsistence and for trading. Most farming is arable and by exploitation of tree crops that grow in the "bush" usually on abandoned village, hamlet and campsites. Tree crops include: raffia and bush-mango (not planted but encouraged); oil palm (planted and opportunistic); coconuts, plantain, mango, citrus, breadfruit, banana, kola nut (the long pod, known as Guru), and an "apple" tree that we could not identify; also there are (at Elemuama), but apparently no longer of economic value, cocoa and rubber (Hevea) trees. Livestock includes chickens and goats.

Arable crops include cassava (dominant), yams, cocoyams, Alligator pepper (a cardamom-like plant), capsicum peppers, pineapple and sugar cane. The land is allowed to stand fallow for up to ten years (suggesting that there is no shortage) and when fallow land is cleared, an effort is made to allow any trees that have come up to remain (although infestation of Awolowa weed - Chromalaena odorata - restricts the regeneration of trees): burning is not considered to be necessary, although it is done in the dry season; otherwise debris is allowed to wilt before being dragged into heaps, after which the soil is made into mounds for planting (a typical practise in wet tropical conditions to raise tubers and roots above the water-table).

Other important primary economic activities in the fresh-water ecozone are hunting, oil palm bunch cutting, timber felling and collection of periwinkles from the mangroves. Lesser activities are raffia wine tapping, fishing, and the collection of oysters and crabs from the mangroves.

Secondary industry in the fresh-water ecozone includes: palm oil and kernel production, using primitive methods; sawing; gin distilling from raffia palm-wine; and canoe building

Within the brackish-water ecozone there are the traditional but limited economic opportunities that sustain small communities: fishing, and collection of periwinkles, oysters and crabs; collection of firewood and manufacture of charcoal.

The economy of Nembe, because it is a comparatively large town with little agricultural land and poor fishing, is limited and symbolic are the crowds of youths who hang around the jetties all day in the hope that some one will turn up to employ them. To a limited extent Nembe is involved in the economic activities described above but they are not enough to support everyone. With the exception of periwinkles (and there are mountains of shell - the old towns are built on Periwinkle foundations), all food stuffs are imported and the community is dependant upon cash incomes from four sources. From Nembe people who work in Port Harcourt; from insecure, albeit well paid, work in the oil industry; from local government handouts and wages; and from payments made to a privileged few by Shell.


The most striking feature of the Okoroba people's view of their environment is the way in which they relate it to agricultural decline and how they relate that decline to the coming of Shell.

Chief L... of Obiata:

this used to be a community but things have happened which are bad for health. We used to live to 100 years and over; we grew a lot of food. Then the oil companies came and instead of giving use damages, brought armed forces; and food grew no more because of the oil. It is the same story for the river: no fish. They made communities fight.

Mrs J... of Okoroba:

food was surplus during the time of our youths. There was plantain, cocoyam, cassava. Here was the centre of agriculture; now nothing grows fine. We would exchange for fish and outsiders would come to buy. The river water was spoilt in 1991 and now it is just belly-pain.

Mr. K.J. I...:

before life was good, food was in abundance, life was easy, productivity in the farm was quite enormous; today the story is different - Shell is here, I am shocked to observe the coincidence of the arrival of Shell and the decline of our Agricultural productivity. I am frustrated at the turn of events: plants are dying, lands are flooded, fishes are killed, water with green colouring matters. We, I, yearn for the time past when we were the centre of agriculture; we do not understand these things, having our baths in the river, our life-wire, is becoming more and more unbearable.

In local maps of the area such as the one shown as Map 12, the Agip and Shell pipelines are always shown as being much closer than they really are. The "Oil Head" at Okoroba is shown as being as big as the village. In every community, in every conversation, oil is the dominant point as something that is destroying the environment upon which the people depend. There is never any doubt that oil is the cause of all problems.

It is not surprising that the other aspect of the environment permanent in the consciousness of the Okoroba-Nembe people is the rivers as communication, the link with the outside world, and the channels through which bad and good things come. In maps, rivers are always very wide taking up a large part of the landscape.

Generally the landscape is seen in terms of the resources that is gives. Names of places often refer to their uses (e.g. Obiata is Obi-Itia which means River for trapping fish); areas of the forest have their own names and in Okoroba a hunter defines three main types of land, being Main Land, Real Swamp and Mangrove Swamp, (the Main Land includes land that is seasonally flooded).


Except for schools, public services are rare.

Society is run by men who make most of the decisions and who appear to have an easier life than the women who bear the responsibility for raising children and feeding the family. All members of society suffer from poor health, primarily due to poor water (less of a problem in Nembe which has treated water most of the time). Despite the many problems society is self-organised and disciplined to a high degree, but less so in Nembe where young people are able to act more independently than in the rural areas.

The frustration already mentioned has brought together fairly well organised youth groups in Nembe that are held together and given direction by a common detestation of Shell. The frustration in Okoroba is less intense but appears to be more widely spread through the community and has yet to generate any political activity.


The relationship between Okoroba and Shell offers an insight into the problems faced by local people in the Niger Delta in their dealings with oil companies. As an addendum to this chapter, and for the benefit of anyone who is researching into the issue, the raw data for what was proposed as a following chapter is set out. This chapter was to have been called "Okoroba and Shell – A Way Forward." However, time has taken its toll, and for this edition, at any rate, the chapter has had to be omitted. The data includes:

  • An ERA statement of August 1994, concerning Okoroba
  • An ERA commentary of early 1997, concerning Okoroba
  • A Shell statement on Okoroba dredging
  • An ERA commentary on the Shell dredging statement
  • Initial ERA conclusions arising from Shell's relationship with Okoroba, including the entire Shell environmental policy as at 1995.

An ERA statement of August 1994, concerning nembe & Okoroba

Nembe at night is a strange experience for the sky is bright with the red glow of the Shell flow stations on the Nembe Creek. The narrow streets of the town are illuminated with hundreds of traditional Nigerian oil lamps made from tin cans, because there is no electricity, although one quarter of the town often throbs with racket of the private generator belonging to the Shell agent (the silencer had broken). Wisely the town councillors use the one municipal generator and the limited amount of fuel to pump fresh water from a borehole. When the generator breaks down, brackish water is drawn from wells.

Typical of the problems that the town suffers in relation to the oil industry is an incident in 1993 when the Ogbolombiri jetty was damaged. Although the jetties belong to the town, they are used by boats belonging to Shell and its sub-contractors who do not pay a harbour fee. One night, a dredging boat tied to the Ogbolombiri jetty drifted into the river pulling part of the jetty with it. The dredging company (a Shell sub-contractor) promised to repair the damage but in fact nothing happened until the town youths impounded two of the company's motorboats refusing to release them until the repairs had been completed.

In recent demonstrations about the environmental damage to Nembe Creek caused by the oil industry, the youth leader of Basambiri was deliberately shot in the legs by soldiers while making a peaceful presentation of grievances. In January his house was unaccountably set on fire while he was inside.

The plain tactlessness of the Shell activities is well exemplified by its treatment of Okoroba and other villages along the Okoroba River. To facilitate exploitation of the Okoroba oil field Shell has needed to dredge and straighten the river, and to construct a canal (known as a slot) beside Okoroba to provide access to a capped well-head. Before undertaking these activities Shell staff were sent to the villages to explain what was to happen (under the current land-use decree, there is no need to purchase land for oil extraction work once an agreement has been made with the state governor). Shell gave the impression that the way of life of the community would be changed for the better with electricity, education and health services, with the result that, as we were told at a village meeting, the youths "jubilated".

However reality was somewhat different. In the first place, the slot beside Okoroba drained the fresh-water creek upon which the village depended, replacing it with a stagnant body of brackish water (for the slot is a sort of cul-de-sac) which is useless for drinking and dangerous for bathing. Also the spoil from the slot was dumped onto farmland blocking the natural surface drainage and causing flooding. Just outside Okoroba Shell have built a new cottage hospital which is promoted as a philanthropically minded Shell development project, whilst in fact, it only replaces the building destroyed by the slot construction. One of many statements made at a meeting in Okoroba in November 1993 sums up the situation:

agriculture is the basis of our wealth. Before Shell, the river was not as wide as today and we caught a lot of fish. They came and surveyed the land and we did not know what was happening. They destroyed crops and economic trees. If the chiefs called attention, we had pathetic compensation. Thereafter we heard about oil wells and the youths jubilated for a change of life, but things happened in a different way. They cleared the river and drilled a well destroying the fish ponds, etc and trees. They made a lot of promises: the hospital and toilet houses were destroyed as were the burying grounds. They pumped out water and destroyed the farmland with promised compensation like community and secondary schools, a road to Nembe and pipe-borne water. But they left and nothing has happened. It is like a dreamland. Since crops are no longer growing fine there is no money to train children and most youths have dropped out of secondary school.

Although some of the statements may be exaggerated there is little doubt that Shell promised more than it intended to give in order to facilitate the dredging and canalisation work, and water quality has deteriorated subsequent to the work. Moreover it seems also that Shell did not carry out an environmental impact analysis before building the canal, and has no intention of rectifying the problems that it has caused.

We believe that the company is environmentally and socially careless and tactless, having allowed itself to be seduced by the climate of low environmental standards and carelessness for human rights within which the Nigerian oil industry works. Moreover, as a major transnational company that has had a substantial impact upon the communities amongst whom it has worked, Shell has shown, to say the least, a cavalier attitude to the well-being of these communities that currently amounts to a cowardly disregard, at a time when these communities most need their help. This attitude of Shell's not only costs the local communities dear, but must cost Shell many millions of dollars annually as a result of lost output and down-time caused by inevitable community anger with the company's actions. Taking the most cynical view, Shell is not very good at public relations.

An ERA commentary of early 1997, concerning Okoroba

What was not mentioned in the statement (of 1994), because at the time ERA surveyors were not aware of the fact, is that by shortening the river, and by increasing the depth of the out-fall, the canal has increased the velocity of the water flowing into it from the Oghobia Creek (because the same amount of water per unit time is flowing a shorter distance). The result of this is that during the wet season something akin to a whirlpool is created at the junction of the canal and the Oghobia Creek, which is strong enough to break have broken a number of canoes.

Since the statement was made the situation of Okoroba has deteriorated: not one of Shell's promises to the community that caused the "jubilation" have been kept, and although some compensation was received (about one million Naira) it was only after a long legal battle and a hefty payment to the claims agent and the lawyer, so that in the end the community received only about N500,000 (ca. US$6000) for the loss of farm-land and of its fresh-water supply. To be fair to Shell, the company did supply water pipes to connect a government borehole to standpipes. However, as it usual in such cases, the water pipes were supplied by an unqualified contractor, they were substandard and within a year they had corroded to uselessness.

To add to the woes of the Okoroba people the Agip pipeline running from Brass through swamp-forest west of the village broke in 1995. Crude oil was allowed to spew out for nine months creating severe ecological damage until pressure from human rights and environmental groups forced the Italian oil company to face its responsibilities and repair the damage.

Anyway, to get back to the problem of the slot: by the beginning of 1996 Okoroba farmers had made the best out of a bad job by digging drainage channels through the slot spoil, this enabling the flooded farm-land behind to be used again. Also crops were planted on top of it of the spoil. The crops included tree-crops such as coconuts, oil palms and plantains, raffia-palms, guava trees and a local timber species known as Abura, in addition to pineapples and cassava. Then Shell's contractor, Willbros (the company alleged to be implicated in the murder of a farmer at Biara in 1993) arrived in May 1996 (barge UB68) to dredge the slot. In the process, Willbros blocked up the new drainage channels which the farmers had dug, and destroyed a number of the new farms.

When local farmers complained, the Willbros contractors referred back to Shell in Port Harcourt who sent out their claims agents, Global Inspectors Ltd (Plot 144, Trans Amadi Industrial Layout, Port Harcourt). The agents told the farmers that Shell did not have to pay any compensation because compensation had already been paid, and (apparently) Shell owned the land. Nonetheless the agents were able to pay some compensation but the amounts paid, according to ERA records of signed documents seen in the village, were infinitesimal. For instance one woman farmer received K1200 (US$15) for a hundred plantains. Another farmer received N25 (US$0.50) for five young hybrid oil palms, which would not even cover the cost of buying new seedlings. Using valuation techniques approved by the British Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors a single three year old hybrid coconut palm cannot be worth less than about N1500 in 1996, and yet Okoroba farmers were offered only N12.

To add insult to injury and to express their contempt for the people of Okoroba, Shell asked five of the Chiefs to visit the Shell office in Port Harcourt in early May. The chiefs were asked to be in Port Harcourt on a Friday, but when they arrived they were told that the meeting had been postponed to Monday, and in fact the meeting did not take place until late on the Tuesday. In other words the Chiefs had to hang around Port Harcourt over the weekend because it was impossible to travel back to Okoroba and to return to Port Harcourt by Monday. At the meeting the Chiefs were merely berated for making their complaints about Shell public and when they asked for expenses for their travel and time in Port Harcourt were told that they would have to make a formal application. One wonders if the Managing Director of Shell in Nigeria faces the same type of problems on his many trips to London.

A Shell statment on Okoroba dredging

There is no doubt that Shell is sensitive about Okoroba having issued a document titled Okoroba Dredging. The entire document is quoted here.

  • Original dredging was performed in 1990 in order to enable rig access for the drilling of well, Okoroba-1
  • The dredging work undertaken was confined to the widening and straightening of the existing creek access to the well location, but a new channel needed to be dredged in the vicinity of Okoroba village itself, where the natural creek thinned considerably. Full compensation was agreed and paid to the community for the land lost as a result of the channel widening, and damaged from dredge spoil (e.g. Attachment 1)
  • The dredging operations were preceded by a baseline environmental study, and post-impact assessment, sensing local community opinions and making extensive use of consultancy services of the University of Port Harcourt. It was agreed that the natural creek, which had been blocked by dredging spoil in the vicinity of the well slot (figure 1) should be re-opened to allow movement of tidal water with its associated salinity changes. Due to funding constraints, this operation was delayed until 1996.
  • Prior to the award of the contract for this operation, SPDC representatives visited the community to consult with them on the scope of the work involved (see e.g. Attachment 2). During one of these meetings (Attachment 3), the community requested for extra dredging work to be done to ease access to and around the village, and promised to indemnify SPDC for any damage done as a consequence of this additional work (Attachment 4, and see figures 2,3 and 4).
  • At the same meeting one of the local chiefs claimed that his family owned some of the land in the vicinity of Okoroba-1, and would not give permission for dredging in this area to be performed until the matter of title was resolved. The title to this land was disputed by SPDC, who expected the Chief involved to visit Port Harcourt, where the relevant documents and maps establishing SPDC title would be displayed. However, the Okoroba Council of Chiefs overruled this visit and mandated that the work should be continued according to the revised scope of work (Attachments 5 and 6).
  • The dredging operations were conducted as planned, but some farm crops, planted on SPDC acquired land, were damaged as a result of this activity. Notwithstanding this legal standpoint, SPDC did indemnify families for this type of damage (see e.g. Attachment 7). Concern from the community on whether or not this compensation would indeed be paid led to prevention of the contractor demobilising his equipment for a period of five days, and required an additional exgratia payment to be made to secure the release of the equipment (on 6th June 1996).
  • Attachments
  1. Compensation receipt for 1990 dredging, 15/7/92
  2. Minutes of Meeting, SPDC and Okoroba Community, 17/4/96
  3. Minutes of Meeting, SPDC and Okoroba Council of Chiefs 23/5/96
  4. Request for Additional Work from Okoroba Council of Chiefs, 24/05/96
  5. Resolution of Okoroba Council of Chiefs, 26/05/96
  6. Memo from Willbros to SPDC concerning disputed land, 27/05/96
  7. Example Indemnity Payment, 06/6/96
  • Figures (aerial photographs)
  1. Okoroba Village and Creek: View from West (Okoroba-1 well location), 29/6/96
  2. Okoroba Village and Creek: View from South, 29/6/96
  3. Okoroba Village and Creek: Viewed from East toward Village Well location, 29/6/96
  4. Okoroba Dredging: Map Overview and Key to Activity and Figures

An ERA Commentary on the Shell Dredging statement

The statement is remarkable on a number of points:

  • The community had to wait six years before Shell removed dredging spoil blocking the Oghobia Creek. Shell claim that this is because of "funding constraints". Funding constraints during a time when Shell was able to commit huge sums of money to such projects as a multi-million dollar concert hall in Lagos, high expatriate salaries, the transfer of staff from Lagos to Port Harcourt and Warri, US$2 million to the Niger Delta Environmental Survey (the fees to the managing agents alone would have paid for the de-blocking of the Oghobia Creek), and the costs of a fruitless Public Relations campaign in Europe to off-set the bad publicity about their actions in Nigeria.
  • ERA maintains that the problem of the Oghobia Creek was ignored by Shell because it did not care about the problems which its activities had brought to Okoroba. As Attachment 2. (Report on Blocked Creek During the Okoroba-1 Location Preparation), suggests, Shell merely and belatedly responded to bad publicity:
    In the course of the location preparation works, the creek junctions with the slot were blocked by dredge spoils. This caused a disruption of the natural water flow... There followed numerous and sustained (inter) national outcry against this perceived environmental devastation of an ecosystem. There has previously been a joint SIPM/SPDC inspection to this location mid-1995.
  • The statement says "dredging operations were preceded by a baseline environmental study" not, as would have been required by an environmentally conscious operation, a full Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). In any event an environmental survey or an EIA are useless if mitigations required to offset adverse environmental impacts are not built into the design. Clearly the design of the Okoroba dredging took no account of environmental impacts, otherwise the problems arising from the blocking of the Oghobia Creek would not have occurred. In fact the dredging design was deplorable because as Attachment 2 points out:
    Due to access creek/channel re-siltation (from surrounding deposited dredge spoil), it is recommended that the routes and identified stretches as in the map be dredged.
  • The post-impact assessment seems not to have been considered until 1996, following the "numerous and sustained (inter) national outcry". We doubt that such an assessment was built into an initial environmental monitoring programme.
  • Also if EIAs are to done properly they must involve local people (all local people, not just the Council of Chiefs) who are seriously helped to understand the environmental implications of mining activity in their locality. It is not enough for Shell to do a sort of Public Relations exercise to persuade people to accept something which may not actually be in their interest in the long term, in exchange for a small amount of money now.
  • The statement refers to the "community" requesting extra dredging work, but what it means is that a Shell team which had no management authority (SPDC team promised to pass their requests to Management) met with some Chiefs. However the list of Chiefs' names set out in the Shell minutes is different from the list of Chiefs which ERA has. This does not mean that Shell is wrong in its list of Chiefs, but it does mean that Shell is wrong to assume that a meeting with some Chiefs is the same as a meeting with the Community.
  • The statement continually refers to land which Shell has acquired and that compensation has been paid, as if Shell's assumption that land has been acquired and that compensation has been paid to someone should satisfy the whole community. Okoroba is a gathering, farming and fishing community with a limited supply of good agricultural land. Shell baldly implies that it owns a sizeable chunk of the agricultural land adjacent to the village and that, moreover, it owns the land adjacent to the waterway (which it does claim because it claims the right to dump the dredging spoils on it). This shows a total misunderstanding of the community and an unwillingness to consider the needs of the ordinary people.

    As a result, regardless of with whom Shell thinks it has done a deal, and of how much compensation it thinks it has paid, the ordinary citizens of Okoroba, like the majority of ordinary people in the Niger Delta, have lost resources to an oil company and have nothing in exchange.

  • The aerial photographs attached to the statement are misleading and we assume deliberately misleading. For a start they show an apparently limitless green forest in which both Okoroba village and the Shell engineering works have a small impact. What they do not show is: the other villages; the high population in the area and the fact that a great deal of the forest is swamp forest which cannot be used for farming; the other oil installations in the area such as the Agip pipe-line; or the impact of the proposed Shell activities in the area. Neither do they indicate the poor condition of the water in the dredged river. Moreover on the annotated pictures the Okoroba Cottage Hospital is shown, which Shell claims to have built. It looks impressive from the air but on the ground it is no more than an empty shell. In June 1996 when it was visited for the fourth time by ERA staff it had not progressed at all since November 1993. The staff quarters have not been roofed, the main building is already deteriorating and is in need of repair because of bad workmanship, and the site is over-grown. As ERA has stated many times before, Shell spends a lot more time and effort on housing one single expatriate family than it is prepared to give to a hospital serving thousands of people at Okoroba.

Intial ERA conclusions arising from Shell's relationship with Okoroba, including the entire Shell environmental policy as at 1995.

Arising from the facts of Shell's relationship with Okoroba, some serious conclusions arise which bear on the attitude which mining companies generally have towards local people.

  • Involvement of the whole community: if Shell seriously wants to do the right thing, then it cannot expect to do a deal with just anyone or any group in the community who is willing to sit down and do a deal, and then expect the rest of the community to accept what has happened. Shell cannot expect to demand rights (as it perceives them) upon this basis and also expect the whole community to be subsequently compliant with its demands. Especially when these demands are not only perceived to be, but which are also sometimes genuinely unfair and unreasonable.
  • A realistic environmental policy: because Shell does not have a proper environmental policy which it can translate into action, it has to treat all

    environmental problems which come to public attention, as public relations problems. That is, until something has to be done, as at Okoroba, when it is too late, and when unnecessary damage has been done to the environment and, of course, to Shell's precious image.

    Lest anyone should think that we do not have a reason to suppose that Shell does not have serious environmental policies let us quote in full the entire environmental policy for the LNG project, all 288 words of it:



    Nigeria LNG aims to conduct its activities in such a way as to take foremost account of the health and safety of its employees and of other persons, and to give proper regard to the conservation of the environment. The Company aims to be among the leaders in the LNG industry in these matters.


    The policy on health, safety and environment includes the following objectives and premises:

    • the policy applies both to the development of the project, the construction of the Transmission System, the Liquefaction Facilities, the Residential Area and associated infrastructure, to the operational phase of the project and to decommissioning;
    • the activities are at least in compliance with applicable (national and international) laws, regulations and conventions;
    • the activities are at least in compliance with policy statement and guidelines of the Shareholders;
    • for employees and contractors the same standards on health, safety and environment apply.

    Nigeria LNG will:

    Health and Safety

    • work on the principle that all injuries should be prevented;
    • provide and maintain healthy and safe areas and equipment;
    • keep reviewing working areas, equipment and work methods, to further improve safety and health;
    • ensure effective training in health, safety and the environment;
    • will assess regularly health, safety and environment attitudes and performances.


    • realise protection of the environment through preventive and curative measures; pertain conservation measures to minimisation of emissions, effluents and wastes which are known to have a negative impact ([1]) on the environment;
    • strive at continuous improvement of efficiency in the use of natural resources and energy; *implement the environmental policy by means of the Environmental Management System.
    1. A negative impact is defined as an adverse effect on populations, ecosystems or natural habitats, leading to a disturbance of their structure and functioning (additionally to and) beyond the range of normal variation, or to a restriction in the human use of the environment

    The policy is defective in a number of obvious ways: for instance, it seems to deal primarily with health and safety so as to satisfy insurance requirements, while the environmental issue has been tacked on at the end. The last item of the statement does refer to the Environmental Management System, which may or may not exist, but which certainly does not work in practice. In practice, ERA's experience suggests that Shell does not take seriously any of the three items referring to the environment which precede the reference to an environmental management system. The stated policy should not be taken as anything more than a piece of cynical public relations which is not meant to bear any relation to operational practice.

    We have asked Shell to let us have a description of the Environmental Management System (October 1996).

    Shell's lack of a pro-active environmental policy which can be easily implemented in the field as part of its operational practice, means that the company has a fire-fighting approach to environmental issues, which is of no use to either itself or to the local people amongst whom it works.

    Thus ERA maintains that Shell must have a realistic environmental policy which it can translate into action. Such a policy would be a part of operational practice rather than just tacked onto the health and safety policy. For every activity in which Shell is involved either as the operator or major partner, the policy would include:

    • undertaking an EIA in participation with the community and making such an EIA a public document which is readily available to the public;
    • undertaking all the mitigations arising from the EIA;
    • evaluating with the community the real costs of the mining activity to the community and assisting the community to use compensation paid to its best advantage;
    • monitoring, with the community, the implementation of the mining activity and of the mitigations recommended by the EIA; and
    • working with the community to clear up after mining activity has ceased.