16 February 2013

Nigeria: Poverty Caused Lead Poisoning Deaths - Sen Saraki


Senator Bukola Saraki is Chairman, Senate Committee on Environment. He recently led members of his committee on an oversight function to some communities ravaged by lead poisoning. Saraki speaks on the results of the committee's findings.

Weekly Trust: Having been to the communities ravaged by led poisoning; how is your committee dealing with the danger posed by lead poisoning, which has claimed several lives in that state?

Sen Bukola Saraki: It is only when you are there physically that you will appreciate what these people are going through. You see it is actually poverty that is the bane of these people who are still mining there not minding the consequences on their health. It is an attitude based on our religion they all believe that death will come when it will come. They have to survive and they have no choice but to do what they are doing. What we need to do really is to make the mining process itself more hygienic, healthier, more secured and less poisonous, because to say you are going to stop them is a wishful thinking.

One of the things we tried to do is to tell them to start other businesses. I personally on my own gave half a million to the women there to set up a cooperative and look for some other businesses to do. If somehow we get other people to do that, maybe they will look elsewhere, but the temptation to always go back is high, because it is a thriving business from what I saw there. The mining process can earn them about 500 naira a day per stone. What job is he going to do that will earn him N10,000 or N12,000 per day? So you see, the temptation is so high. Let's just look for a way of making the mining safer.

The strategy is actually in three ways: first you relegate, treat and then deal with the mining itself. Then we can begin to talk of how to organize them into formal structure, giving them the kind of equipment. Countries smaller than us don't have this kind of situation.

The Ecological Funds Office was supposed to intervene in the situation. How far has this intervention been?

There is a saying that you don't cry over spilled milk. Unfortunately it has happened, it shouldn't have happened; the bureaucracy should have been less and fortunately something has finally been done. But after all that, I think we should learn from it and I think we should begin to as a country put value to life. We should bring it to the front burner, because the resources are available. The good thing with the remediation is that the companies handling the whole thing have assured that before the end of the dry season, they should have completed work. So, we thank God for that, but we must put in place systems and policies that allow for prompt intervention in this kind of scenarios. That is why such agencies are established in the first place.

A Dutch court recently ruled in favour of a Nigerian farmer from the Niger Delta that sued Shell over issues relating to pollution. How do you react to this outcome?

It is good news and bad news. The good news is that the court has said something we have always harped on. The oil companies will always tell allege sabotage, but then the court has ruled that these are their infrastructure and they must be responsible for protecting them. So, it is a very good ruling in as much as we all agree that sabotage contributes to some of this unfortunate development, but it is still not an excuse to do nothing about their infrastructure or take responsibilities for any destruction from their facility. It is also a good news, because it is the first time that we would see a ruling of compensation to a farmer for loss of income. The bad news is that we had to go outside the country to get this justice.

What we are trying to do is to provide the enabling environment that Nigerians can get justice within the country. We are working towards having laws that would guide how oil companies operate; how communities and individuals can receive compensation and get justice within our own system. We have so many bills to that effect in the in the Senate.

States are yet to disburse funds donated to cushion the suffering flood victims are going through in the affected states. What steps had been taken to ensure that the real victims are the ones receiving the palliative?

To be honest I have not been well informed on the activities of the people in that committee, because we were not included in the committee, so....

If we understand the responsibilities of your committee you are supposed to be part of the whole process.

Well, unfortunately, I am not a member of that committee neither is any member of the Senate Committee on Environment on that committee. But we are trying to extract as much information as possible to know what they are doing. A member of the Senate who is not a member of the committee on environment is on the committee inaugurated by the Federal Government concerning flood. Please don't ask how it was done but we are hoping to work hand in hand with them to look at how things can be better put in perspective so that things could be made easier for the people.

The UNEP report on Ogoni is still gathering dust even as more oil is being spilled. Will the UNEP report ever be implemented and what is the way forward?

The way forward is making sure that things are done the right way which is actually what we are doing now. We had a meeting with Shell recently and some time back we visited the affected area which would be the first delegation from the National Assembly to visit the sites. We went round. The bottom line is that it is Shell's responsibility and Shell must clean it up.

So, while all the talk of the UNEP report is going on, we have visited four major sites and we are not satisfied with what we saw. And we are asking that 20 years or more after, why are those sites still in that condition? And I am happy to report that for the first time, Shell gave a commitment that they would start remediation of these sites in compliance with International standard. This was a plus for us because for years nothing of such has ever happened. Second, we found out that most of the jobs were given to contractors who would just do a shoddy job. They just go, get soil and cover it and that is all.

So, Shell agreed that yes, they might have been doing that in the past, but now they were going to submit to us the best remediation procedure that will be used and which would be in line with what is happening internationally today under best practices. So, I am sure that whatever remediation they do there is effective.

Another major problem that Shell has is that the areas concerned are not allowing them access to start remediation. So, we said we will see what we can do to mediate between the community and the oil company, because I am sure it is a confidence issue and some other issues like litigation and all of that. These need to be addressed. So, what I am saying is that this can continue to take place while the issue of UNEP, who is charge and who is not in charge and UNEP should not use that as an excuse as not to do anything. The most important t thing is action, less talk, less meetings. With this approach, we should be able to have a head way.

It has been predicted that flood will occur this year in the country and would be more devastating than last year's. Do you think we have capacity to prevent the attendant disasters?

I wouldn't say we have done enough, but I would say we have learnt from experience of last year that climate change is something that must be taken seriously in Nigeria as years go by. And we must also accept that some of the behaviors of our people in the aspect of where we build and the kind of infrastructure we put up can also be a big problem in the issue of flooding. We need to begin to address it; urban development laws and policy need to be properly put in place to address such situations. We also need to look at how we can quickly respond to such occurrences. But the major thing for me is to make sure we try as much as we can to prevent whatever flood that might have been predicted.

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