The Environment and Africa’s Development (part 3)

Miners in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (PHOTO: Heartland Alliance
Miners in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (PHOTO: Heartland Alliance

By Nnimmo Bassey

Environmental Corruption and Workers Safety

Weak governance structures and systems engender resource corruption beyond the popular financial corruption. Resources get corrupted when governments run lax environmental regulations and thus permit reckless exploitation of natural resources all in the bid to earn more foreign exchange. Superficial approaches to local content development can also lead to lax laws or non-enforcement of laws. These scenarios have direct implications for the safety of workers involved in the extractive or production sectors.

Lax laws are not given only to corporations such as those in the mining and petroleum sectors; they also pertain to the execution of projects such as highways, airports, seaports, housing developments and other structures donated by foreign governments. Some African governments also prefer foreign donors, like the Chinese, that do not have open conditionalities and do not ask political questions when making offers of assistance in exchange for the natural resources they crave for. By keeping a wilful blind eye such donors can support countries that are notorious for human and environmental rights abuses.

Technological advancements have tried to make more efficient products as well as increasing the rate of recycling and reuse of materials. The problem has been that energy efficiency, for example, does not curtail the rate of consumption of energy as people simply appear to love using more and more rather than less.  It has been said also that cheaper gasoline prices may make Americans drive more and worry less about the fuel efficiency level of the automobiles they own. That is a scenario where economy and environmental imperatives clash.

A major trend, however, tends to be in the direction of making disposable products or those with inbuilt obsolescence.  What this means is that as products are rapidly superseded by newer models they have to be disposed us. The disposal sites for these products are often found in the Global South were they are sold as cheap items for a people desirous to live the sort of lives advertised on television and glamourized in movies.

Thus it can be said that globally, “economic benefits of resource efficiency measures in manufacturing sectors are dissatisfactory as long as the corresponding products end up as hazardous waste in poorer regions.” These products also indicate to us that a whole lot of the mining going on is simply not needed.

The rampant exploitation of the environment goes in tandem with the exploitation of labour. Just as the previously hidden market forces now openly drive the supply of goods, so do the market forces blatantly drive the exploitation of labour. We can even add that in this age of disposable goods, it appears that labour can be disposed of with little thought. Let us say this in other words.

The environment and the labour force take a beating in the drive for nature’s resources to be supplied to the highest bidder. Workers get dispensed with because of the teeming pool of the unemployed and because poor workers are not the market for most of the goods they (workers) produce.

Cases where workers have been disposed of with little care include those that were mowed down at Marikina, South Africa and some thirteen Zambian workers that were shot dead by their Chinese colleagues.  If we add atrocities against informal workers we call to mind the about 52 artisanal miners reportedly buried alive in Bulyanhulu mining area in 1996.

Other acts of wilful and harmful deception against workers include cases where workers are given doses of milk in the supposition that it is an antidote to pollution that fills certain workplaces. Rampant violence against women at workplace speaks volumes on gender inequalities and related exploitation.

The point is that labour, just like the local communities where polluting activities happen, suffers double violence – one from repression and the other from pollution. Workers in the extractive sector, especially those in uranium and other mines, are as exposed to toxic pollutants as communities are.

It could even be argued that unsuspecting workers may unwittingly expose themselves to more harm than that suffered by polluted communities. This could happen because of the fact that workers are often closer to these pollutants as they work with or in them. The same is the case with industries where environment health measures are not given prime of place.

It is important that labour unions give attention to the quality of the environment in which their members work or live. Environmental health concerns if adequately taken care of could cut down on the frequency and types of illnesses that are experienced at the workplace.

Environmental Intensity

Extraction of minerals is often resource intensive. It has been reported that vast amounts of water used in fracking, for example, cannot be returned to natural water cycles because it is loaded with a toxic cocktail of chemicals.

Such wastewaters have to be stored in retention tanks in perpetuity – a clear impossibility.  One metal that is crucial for industrialisation is copper. Its extraction is considered to rank among the top 10 environmentally intensive materials. Deposits of the metal have been largely depleted and mostly very poor grades involving large volumes of ore, with huge disposal problems, are being mined these days. Acid mine drainage is a huge problem associated with gold mining and directly affect ground water.

Mines are abandoned without proper decommissioning. Mining communities enjoy the least benefits of resources extracted from their territory: Niger Delta (crude oil), Kono, Sierra Leone (diamond), Obuasi, Ghana (Gold), Witbank communities, South Africa (Coal) – to mention some.

Stuck in the Crude (Niger Delta)

Since crude oil and natural gas are being explored and exploited virtually everywhere on the continent, it would not be out of place to end this short discussion with a focus on that sector. The environmental challenges of petroleum resources exploration and exploitation are wide and well known. The physical destruction commences from the time of exploration through the cutting of seismic lines through rain forests, mangrove forests and swamps.

These clearings destroy biodiversity, including rare plants and animal species. Up to 20,000km of such paths have been cut in the Niger Delta.  In addition to these canals are built to give access to exploratory sites, greatly unsettling the hydrological balance of the marine ecosystems. In some cases, freshwater systems have become brackish and thereby destroying fresh water species in the process.

One exploratory well could generate up to 1,600 tonnes of drilling cuts composed of clay and an assortment of toxic chemicals. These wastes are dumped into thousands of open pits onshore and into the opens sea offshore. The impact on the ecosystem is clearly horrendous. During the production process itself, millions of barrels oil contaminated water or produced water are dumped into Nigeria’s inland and offshore waters.

Oil spills are a great menace and knowledge of the threat they pose tend to be ignored due to the popular media publications that the spills are caused by sabotage. Oil spills occur almost everyday, due largely to failed oil company facilities, expired pipelines and poor maintenance systems. 400,000 barrels of crude oil gushed into villages and farms when a blowout occurred on Texaco’s Funiwa-5 offshore platform in 1980.

In 1993 and oil pipeline leak at Korokoro in Ogoni spewed crude oil non-stop for over two months before being stopped. A rusty wellhead gave up in Ikot Ada Udoh in 2008 and gushed oil into farmlands for about 3 months before Shell intervened to stem the flow. The case of the 1998/1999 oil spill at Bodo, Ogoni, which Shell has admitted culpability and is to pay 55million Pounds Sterling in damages is well reported.

Other recent major incidents include Shell’s Bonga offshore spill of December 2011 where they claimed only 40,000 barrels were dumped into the sea and Chevron’s gas rig explosion and fire of January 2012 that raged for one month before being snuffed out.

Where natural gas associated with crude oil extraction is not re-injected into wells or utilised, such gas is flared in open furnaces. Several gas flare sites dot the oil fields of Nigeria and are common in offshore fields around the African continent.

These flares of hell release a toxic cocktail of chemicals into the atmosphere resulting in severe human and environmental health issues. Over $2billion worth of natural gas is flared in Nigeria, a nation with a huge energy deficit, annually. These flares cause respiratory diseases such as bronchitis and asthma. They also cause cancers, skin diseases and blood disorders. The flares also cause acid rain when he sulphur and nitrous oxides in them mix with atmospheric moisture. Yet they roar on despite a law that prohibited the practice since 1984.

What Can We Do?

As we have seen in this short discourse, it is impossible to delink social, labour and environmental issues. This is why we must keep in view the fact that expanding global economy generates conflict in the peripheries and raise environmental issues that must concern labour unions. The environmental and developmental challenges in Africa requires that labour unions intensify efforts at collaborating with other social forces to confront the menace.

Workers are in the best position to help impel action for the protection of the environment as harmful practices impact workers directly. Workers also have the knowledge needed to expose industry players that seek to entrench harmful practices and refuse to transit to cleaner options just because there are profits to be scrapped from the bottom of the dirty barrels.

Workers are affected by the many resource conflicts on the African continent. While the wars rage, workers continue to labour to ensure that the resources are extracted and transported to selling points. The lives of workers are put at great risk on the altar of capital.

We must always keep in view that the environment is the canvass on which our lives are constructed. Do we wish to live well or to accumulate and despoil?

Unions should insist on environmental impact assessments before projects are embarked upon and post impact assessment following appropriately wound down operations, including mines decommissioning.

Unions must be in the forefront of urging governments to urgently embark on transition to clean energy and to more autonomous energy systems as opposed to merely changing the grids.

Labour unions have the place as key influencers to insist on the precautionary principle to be adhered to in new projects, meaning that where there is no certainty about the impacts of certain schemes the logical thing to do is not to embark on such schemes.

Do not be in denial of hazardous and bad environmental behaviour by employers, but expose environment crimes as a way of stemming impunity on the continent.

Insistent on observance of highest environmental standards by industry
Labour activists must continue to act as a vanguard for the liberation of the continent and play key roles to end to eco-colonisation of our continent. Solidarity between unions must be organically translated into solidarity with all deprived social groupings and engineered to engender an opening of the democratic space.

Development as we know it has not led us in the direction of Eldorado. The time has come for us to clearly decide that living within planetary limits is the sensible thing to do and that to achieve this we need to urgently redefine the alternative to development needed if we are to secure a liveable environment for upcoming generations.

We need to underline that any abuse of the environment in the name of development is direct misapplication of the gifts of nature. Workers have a duty of stewardship to Mother Earth and to the community of humans. Artificial entities like corporations cannot rule the world. It is time to demand that the corporate shield must not be a façade for anyone to commit acts of impunity and ecocide. Tear the veil and hold the crooks to account. Ill-defined development must not be the route to recolonize Africa.