In recent months, international attention has gravitated toward the BP oil spill in the Gulf Coast, some claiming it to be the worst environmental disaster in the United States. However, large-scale oil spills are not a recent occurrence. As seen in the previous blog about the oil spill in the Ecuadorian Amazon, many developing countries have experienced environmental catastrophies that greatly alter the ecosystems and the lives of residents. Often in the interest of profit, MDC’s will ignore disasters in LDC’s, such as the oil spill in Nigeria.

As Africa’s main crude oil producer and one of the world’s poorest countries, Nigeria is also the country with the most oil spills in the world. According to an article in The Guardian the country has 606 oilfields which supply 40% of the United States’ crude oil imports. For the past 50 years oil has been spilled or leaked out of corroded pipelines, and the ecological degradation is much more serious than the Gulf spill because of the fact that it has occurred over a long period of time, affecting several generations of Nigerians. The government estimates that more than 2.4 million barrels have contaminated the land and water over a period of 20 years. However, the government owns 55% of Shell Nigeria, the company responsible for the majority of the leaks.

Those living in the Niger Delta are the most affected, and though many have staged non-violent protests, they have not achieved much under the shadow of corruption.

  1. Oil corporations in the Niger Delta seriously threaten the livelihood of neighboring local communities. Due to the many forms of oil-generated environmental pollution evident throughout the region, farming and fishing have become impossible or extremely difficult in oil-affected areas, and even drinking water has become scarce. Malnourishment and disease appear common.
  2. The presence of multinational oil companies has had additional adverse effects on the local economy and society, including loss of property, price inflation, prostitution, and irresponsible fathering by expatriate oil workers.
  3. Organized protest and activism by affected communities regularly meet with military repression, sometimes ending in the loss of life. In some cases military forces have been summoned and assisted by oil companies.
  4. Reporting on the situation is extremely difficult, due to the existence of physical and legal constraints to free passage and free circulation of information. Similar constraints discourage grassroots activism.

While the story told to consumers of Nigerian crude in the United States and the European Union—via ad campaigns and other public relations efforts—is that oil companies are a positive force in Nigeria, providing much needed economic development resources, the reality that confronted our delegation was quite the opposite. Our delegates observed almost every large multinational oil company operating in the Niger Delta employing inadequate environmental standards, public health standards, human rights standards, and relations with affected communities. These corporations’ acts of charity and development are slaps in the face of those they claim to be helping. Far from being a positive force, these oil companies act as a destabilizing force, pitting one community against another, and acting as a catalyst—together with the military with whom they work closely—to some of the violence racking the region today.

Essential Action and Global Exchange

Social impacts associated with the oil spill include loss of land and resources for those living in the Niger Delta, limited access to food and basic goods, and the additional burden that scarcity places on women, forcing some into prostitution. Some of the environmental impacts of the oil spill are gas flares, acid rain, pipeline leaks, destruction of habitat, and loss of biodiversity. The environmental pollution causes respiratory illnesses, coughing up blood, skin rashes, tumors, gastrointestinal difficulties, and malnourishment in the local villagers.

Oil spills of any magnitude and in any location should be of international concern, but the trend seems to be that spills directly affecting developed countries are widely publicized and quickly handled. The same immediate, large-scale response should be given to environmental catastrophies in developing countries, such as Nigeria or Ecuador, and aide given to the people who are plagued by poverty, poor health, and low economic development. Importance should not be based upon global socio-economic status but rather on the fact that we are all human being, and we are all dependent on our environments for survival.

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A gold mine expansion in New South Wales, Australia would threathen the health of one of the country’s last remaining wetlands as well as the aboriginal populations that reside nearby. The mine is located near Lake Cowal, and the proposal is to expand the open-pit mine by 60 hectacres and the operating area to 290 hectacres, according to the Greens Mining. The expansion would require land to be cleared, placing further stress on the Myall Woodland, which is protected under the Threatened Species Act.

 

Tailings from the mine would almost double for a total of approximately 140 M tonnes, according to Green Mining. As a waste product, the tailings contain residual chemicals from the extraction process such as arsenic and cyanide, and an increase in waste products would mean a greater risk of exposure and environmental degradation. Dust released from the mining process would affect the air quality surrounding the lake, and the lake itself is home to a substantial population of waterbirds. Contamination of the local aquifer could severely damage the area and any leaks would alter the soil health and composition, and the chemicals used in the extraction process also pose a threat to human health. Expansion of the mine would threaten animal and plant species, the lake itself, and the surrounding ecosystems.

A nation of aboriginals, the Wiradjuri, consider the Lake Cowal area to be a sacred place, and find their cultural beliefs threatened by the very existence and expansion of this gold mine.

When the International Whaling Commission (IWC) was created, allowances were made for aboriginal groups that traditionally depended on whale meat for subsistence purposes. The intention of the IWC was to reduce commercial whaling and its negative effects on both whale populations and aquatic ecosystems while maintaining the rights of certain indigenous groups to continue their traditional practice of whaling.

Since its inception, the IWC has recognised that aboriginal subsistence whaling is of a different nature to commercial whaling. This is reflected in the different objectives for the two. For aboriginal subsistence whaling these are to:

  • ensure risks of extinction not seriously increased (highest priority);
  • enable harvests in perpetuity appropriate to cultural and nutritional requirements;
  • maintain stocks at highest net recruitment level and if below that ensure they move towards it.

While subsistence whaling has occurred for thousands of years without having a substantial ecological impact, the emergence of commercial whaling in the 17th century has significantly effected whale populations. The industrialization of whaling, exacerbated by increasing market demands, globalization, and new technologies, has led many species to be overharvested. Factors besides modern whaling that contribute to declining whale populations include destruction or modification of habitat, disease, pollution, and pesticides entering the water from aquaculture.

The practice of whaling is important to many indigenous groups, such as the Inuit living in the northern regions of North America. Traditionally the Inuit hunt bowhead whales purely for subsistence, and their dependence on whale meat has led it to be an integral part of their cultural beliefs. Because consumption is on a local level and the Inuit held a deep respect for the animal that fed them, it is a sustainable practice. However, the commercial whaling industry has caused strain on the traditional way of life for the Inuits, endangering their primary food source and causing international legislation to be passed prohibiting or reducing the hunting of whales. As whale populations suffer, so do those people who depend on them for basic nutrition.

Nuclear power is considered by some to be the answer to our dependency on foreign oil and other fossil fuels and as a solution to climate change. While it is true that nuclear power itself emits relatively few greenhouse gases and waste is more compact, there are risks involved, there are “hidden” risks involved. The mining of uranium, the radioactive element necessary to fuel nuclear power, is still a relatively undeveloped and unsafe technology. Initiated by demand for uranium by the US Atomic Energy Commission, uranium mining began after WWII on the Navajo Nation Reservation in the Four Corners area of the southwest and has severely affected the Navajo’s land, water, and health.

The presence of Europeans in the Americas greatly disrupted the lives of native populations. The United States government made agreements with Native Americans, in which the tribes ceded large portions of their land with the exception of a portion “reserved” for their own use. A variety of social, economic, political, and historical factors have left Native American Reservations vulnerable to solicitations from industries offering jobs or compensation for placing these facilities on their lands. In the case of uranium mining, these jobs were accessable for the Navajo people, being located close to their homes.

However, research done by Brugge and Goble states that in addition to poor ventilation the Navajo were not warned of the health hazards involved with the extraction process of uranium or given proper protective equipment, despite the fact that they spent more time in the mines than other workers. In response to European evidence of elevated levels of lung cancer associated with uranium mining, the United States began examining the relationship in 1950. Miners were not notified and the research focused primarily on whites, while an analysis of the Navajo people did not occur until 1984. Additional research throughout the years has shown an elevated level of respiratory illnesses in miners, including tuberculosis and emphysema. Brugge and Goble also stated that the Navajo death rate from nonmalignant respiratory diseases were approximately equal to that from lung cancer.

Recently, attempts have been made by Uranium Resources, Inc. to re-establish the mining of uranium in the Navajo Nation. They propose to use the process of “in situ” mining, detailed in the picture below, taken from wise-uranium.org:

 

The “in situ” method is certainly much safer than methods used in the 1940’s but the process is still unsafe for the environment and for the people living nearby. However, the Navajo are understandably hesitant to allow mining on their lands again, considering that many still suffer from the effects of mining that occurred previously. According to Democracy Now, the cancer rate for Navajo teenagers residing near the abandoned mines is 17 times the national average, and half of the 180,000 people  on the Navajo Reservation live below the national poverty line. Re-establishment of uranium mines on Navajo land would pose threats to groundwater and the health of an already marginalized people.

In Africa, any meat that comes from wild animals in the forest is referred to as “bushmeat” and it has long been a food source for the forest-dwelling peoples of Central Africa, collectively named “pygmies”. (This term is inaccurate, as studies show that they are not a genetically, culturally, or linguistically unique group; “pygmies” are a conglomeration of ethnic groups each with separate languages, customs, technology, and locations whose only common attribute is that they are traditional hunter-gatherers living in Central African forests.) An increase in populations on the outer edges of the forests has created a demand for bushmeat in nearby cities and towns, and many “pygmies” and illegal hunters have found satisfying this demand to be economically beneficial. The commercial bushmeat trade is ecologically damaging and threatens the traditional lifestyle of the indigenous peoples of the African forests.

Typically, foraging societies will practice hunting and gathering solely for subsistence or ceremonial purposes unless influenced by an external force, and have a synergistic relationship with their environment. Modern foragers differ greatly from their ancestors as they are no longer independent societies and are influenced by regional trade, war, nation and international policies, and political and economic pressures. For these reasons, the “pygmies” no longer subsist purely on bushmeat and fruits and vegetables they gather themselves, but trade these items with local farmers in exchange for produce or sell to people in the cities. Rapid population growth in Africa and urbanization contributes to a higher demand.

Historically, limitations to this trade were mainly due to difficulty in accessing deeper regions of the forest. Growth of the timber industry dominated by foreign companies is, according to the Ape Alliance , largely to blame for the increasingly easy access to forested areas by creating logging roads that extend into previously unreachable regions. Hunters now use these roads to transport the meat to urban areas and loggers sometimes hunt in order to provide themselves and their families with food. In addition to deforestation, it also places already vulnerable species in an even more precarious position.

The transition to commercialized hunting of bushmeat is unsustainable, threatening the existence of local species and the health of local ecosystems. Research done by the Ape Alliance found that the crowned geunon monkey of Equatorial Guinea is being hunted at 28 times the sustainable level. A combination of habitat loss and unsustainable hunting means that flagship species such as gorillas or chimpanzees are at risk, as are less emotive species such as the Blue Duiker, shown below.

(http://www.africanbushmeat.org/fieldGuide/done/FGBlueDuiker.html)

While the threat to biodiversity is more than enough to warrant concern over the commercial bushmeat trade, the additional risks to human health and loss of cultural diversity is also concerning. Freddy Manongi of the College of African Wildlife Management in Tanzania stressed in a Rwanda Development Gateway article that eating bushmeat poses a risk of transmitting infectious diseases such as Ebola and Marburg from animals to humans. In addition to decline in wild animal populations, the potential decline wildlife tourism would be detrimental to many local and national African economies and indigenous societies.

From August of 2008 to June of 2009, I lived in a city in the middle of the Ecuadorian Andes Mountain, called Ambato. After spending nine months learning, exploring, laughing, and living with the wonderfully compassionate and generous people of Ecuador, it makes sense how angered I was to read about an oil spill in the Ecuadorian Amazon region by a U.S. oil company known as Texaco, which merged into the Chevron Corporation in 2001. However, unlike the recent BP oil spill in the Gulf Coast, the environmental and health damages in Ecuador were not the result of an accident, but of a deliberate plan to cut costs.

Referred to as the “Amazonian Chernobyl”, the spill remains the world’s worst oil-related catastrophe. According to an article by the Amazon Defense Coalition, Mitch Anderson states that “Chevron dumped more than 18.5 billion gallons of toxic waste — about 4 million gallons per day for more than two decades — and the world paid almost no attention.” In fact, the 345 million gallons of crude oil that were illegally dumped in the region amount to far more than the recent BP spill, but the public hears much less about it because it happened far away and affected mostly indigenous populations. The dumping, which occurred from 1964 to 1990 and included carcinogenic chemicals, has greatly harmed five indigenous groups and caused a sixth to disappear completely, and affects one of the most biodiverse ecosystems in the world.

The damages to the health of locals has been extensive. Below is a video made by those people who have suffered, addressed to the CEO of Chevron, Mr. John Wattson:

What is the combined ecological and health cost to this disaster? An assessment done by Dr. Cabrera estimated more than $9 billion as compensation for deaths from cancer, $3.2 billion for groundwater remediation and $428 million to improve potable water systems, $2.7 billion for pit remediation, $1.7 billion for damage to oil infrastructure sites, and $1 billion in soil remediation, totaling approximately $27 billion. However, Ecuadorian attorney Pablo Fajarado stated that “the damages estimate in Ecuador is glaringly low in light of the latest assessments of BP’s liability by Wall Street analysts.” Given the extensive damage caused from their attempt to simply cut costs of waste disposal and increase profit, it is possible that the proposed $27 billion liability charges are not adequate compensation for what Chevron (formerly Texaco) has done.

With regard to environmental degradation, the main culprit is often considered to be overpopulation. And overpopulation is a serious issue, as the past century has witnessed an explosion unparalleled in any other point in human history. According to the Population Media Center, approximately 200,000 people per day and 78 million people per year are added to the human population. The trend of rural to urban migration means a more concentrated population, leading to issues such as air pollution, water pollution, elevated energy and resource consumption, and waste disposal issues. An increase in population also requires an increase in food production, and deforestation for the sake of more agricultural land causes a succession of environmental issues such as desertification, soil erosion, degradation of ground water, and depletion of soil nutrients. With the global population approaching nearly 7 billion people, we cannot afford to ignore the effects of overpopulation. However, a large portion of the environmental degradation in third world countries can also be attributed to patterns of overconsumption in the developed world and the pressures this world puts on poorer countries to provide the resources to fuel this overconsumption.

Environmental degradation in third world countries is partially escalated by developed countries, whether directly through international dumping of hazardous wastes or indirectly through disproportionate consumption of resources. More Developed Countries (MDC’s) operate and thrive under what is known as the Materials Economy System, which involves the mass production of products intended to sell to consumers for a profit. This system is made of several components including extraction (the taking of natural resources from the earth), production (energy used to add toxins to natural resources to create a product), distribution (the transportation and selling of products), consumption (buying and using products), and disposal (removal of waste generated by extraction, production, distribution, and consumption). In each of these steps, the majority of environmental and health impacts are placed upon the poorest people, who often reside in Less Developed Countries (LDC’s).

The Materials Economy System is perpetuated by the concept of planned obsolescence, when products are intentionally designed for having a limited life. According to The Story of Stuff by Annie Leonard, only 1% of products purchased in the United States are still in use six months later, and the average citizen now consumes twice as much as they did 50 years ago. In order to sustain this rate of consumption, more products must be transported and more people hired to sell them, more pollutants must be added to the environment and more people must be exposed to harmful chemicals, and more resources must be harvested. It also means that more waste is produced in each of these cycles. Leonard’s research shows that each person in the United States generates 4.5 lbs of garbage per day.

So where are all of the resources extracted from, where are they produced, and where is the waste disposed of? While these resources are mostly extracted from, produced in, and disposed of in LDC’s, the majority of the products created are distributed and consumed in MDC’s. Leonard’s “The Story of Stuff” states that while the United States contains nearly 5% of the global population it consumes nearly 30% of the global resources. Similarly, William and Marry Cunningham in their 2008 textbook “Environmental Science: A Global Concern” show that the United States consumes 25% of all oil and produces 25% of all CO2 emissions and 50% of all toxic wastes in the world.

Environmental degradation is a complex issue, with neither the causes attributable to a single source nor the effects concentrated in a single area. Poverty, overpopulation, lack of education, and poor economic development are some of the forces behind dilemmas such as pollution, resource depletion, soil erosion, depletion of soil nutrients, contaminated drinking water, and disposal of hazardous wastes. Minorities, poor communities, and indigenous populations bear the majority of this burden, and the contribution of MDC’s and the Materials Economy System to the disproportionate level of environmental degradation in LDC’s cannot be ignored.

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