Climate Refugees

Interview: Nnimmo Bassey

Regarding the threats of the climate crisis, looking across both your work with farmers and environmental organizations, what’s the biggest concern to state officials and civil society?

Like other responses to the climate crisis, the regions of origin of displaced persons are the ones bearing the heaviest burdens of action. In terms of direct climate action, vulnerable regions and peoples are forced to bear the brunt of the shrinking carbon budget by taking adaptation measures (sometimes a matter of survival) while the polluters continue with business as usual. It seems that policy-makers from powerful measures consider themselves to be immune to the climate crisis and assume the posture that the erection of physical, socioeconomic, cultural, and other barriers are the best ways to lock out the victims and insulate themselves while at the same time using the posture as the best ways to secure the support of their right-wing bases.

To some extent, some civil society actors aligned with neocolonial and neoliberal socioeconomic superstructures do not think differently than the state officials. This is one reason why many find it impossible to accept that there are climate refugees today. And that the numbers will continue to rise irrespective of how many, sadly, drown in the Mediterranean Sea. They hide under the specious shield that the Geneva Convention did not include climate-induced displacement as a factor that could qualify anyone to be accorded a refugee status. By insisting that people displaced by climate impacts are merely “climate migrants,” the victims are refused the courtesies, responses, and supports that refugees ought to receive.

The big concern we see here is that of mind-sets that can be equated to coloniality, which pervades the thinking and actions of neoliberal, exploitative state, and civil society officials. Some also see climate change as something that is either inevitable or will be resolved somehow at some point— not now. Matters are compounded by the constant insinuation that the solution to the climate crisis will be found in technologies, and this often pushes up suggestions of modern biotechnology (including the socalled climate smart agriculture) and geoengineering.

Oftentimes the issue of the climate crisis is framed as an issue of food security and security more broadly. Can you speak to how these dynamics might be operating in the context of long-term change across the Niger data region? Has the climate crisis and/or militarization played any role in exacerbating the underpinning issues of food security?

Climate change bares its fangs in very stark manners in Nigeria. The pressures are building from the north and south of the nation and manifest in violence along the way. The impacts on food security are severe. Here is how. Take the case of Lake Chad, the inland freshwater lake that is shared mostly by Cameroon, Chad, Niger, and Nigeria. That lake has lost 95 percent of the size it had in the early 1960s. That shrinkage and resultant water stress has been exacerbated by climate change, which reduced the quantum of recharge from rainfall. The shrinkage has grossly impacted fisheries, farming, and pastoral activities around the lake and caused impoverishing of the dependent population and forced many to migrate southward and in other directions. This is one of the causative factors that has bred violent conflicts between farmers and pastoralists in the country. The state of conflict has led to a heavy militarization of farming communities and a general sense of insecurity in the region.

The conflict in the Niger Delta is complicated by oil exploration and extraction activities. Sea-level rise, soil subsidence, and canalization by oil companies compound coastal erosion and damage of freshwater systems. These affect food production as well as availability of potable water. Bearing in mind global warming is driven by the burning of fossil fuels, we cannot overlook the fact of the heavy contributions from the routine flaring of gas associated with crude oil extraction. Researchers have shown a correlation between the productivity of farms and their distance from gas flare stacks. Oil spills and produced water contaminate soils, surface, and groundwater, directly affecting food production and security. With a singular focus on protecting oil pipelines and facilities, the Niger Delta region has been heavily militarized since the early 1990s, making farming and fishing in the region precarious endeavors in an atmosphere of insecurity.

What do you think is the best path forward for the Niger Delta’s communities vis-à-vis forced migration? What might the best responses look like on a local level, government level, and regional level?

The way forward is a complex path. The forced migration currently being witnessed is driven by human insecurity as well as by environmental impunity by multinational oil companies operating in the region. Stopping gas flaring, an act that has been declared illegal since 1984, is key to the restoration of the ecological balance of the Niger Delta. There is also the need to stop the incessant oil spills, embark on a region-wide cleanup and environmental restoration, and demilitarize the area. Ultimately the nation and others on the continent must urgently diversify their national economies, abandon the extractivist pathways, support smallholder farmers and fishers, and promote food sovereignty.

Farmers are concerned about the assault on local food systems and erosion of local biodiversity by the introduction of genetically modified crops into Nigeria. Erosion of crop varieties developed by local farmers over the millennia exposes the system to avoidable risks including that of increased food insecurity.