The Niger Delta

There are a lot of environmentally wrecked places around the planet, sites we have known about for years. Generally they involve our efforts to extract stuff.

Of course environmentalists are frustrated that evidence – the photographs, videos and data on contamination and destruction – is largely ignored, but we shouldn’t be surprised. These are not rational times.

Another approach is through fiction, and a new and award-winning book, ‘419‘ by Will Ferguson, does it really very well.

Winner of Canada’s 2012 Giller Prize, this is an outstanding story.

The book is about Nigeria, framed by the emailed money-requesting scams we are so familiar with. (419 refers to the Nigerian law that prohibits such fraud). It is a terrific book, a tight and evocative tale of the harsh scramble that is life in Nigeria and how it can reach out to naive North Americans – well, in this case Canadians.

The oil fields along the coast of the Niger Delta are rich, exploited by many oil companies, subjected to minimal regulations (i-er.com)

A lot of the book takes place in the Niger Delta in Nigeria in west Africa, once home to many tribes living on the fishing the delta once provided. The destruction of the delta by the oil companies has involved mangrove destruction, air and water contamination, eliminated fisheries, militancy and the ‘Mosquito’ resistance and kidnappings for ransom, impressive levels of graft, and the complicity of the Nigerian government. As a result the history is one of destroyed cultures, far too familiar and horrible, and should never have occurred.

Natural gas is burned off as ‘flares’ wherever oil is drilled – but existing regulations on flaring are rarely enforced in Nigeria. The CO2 emitted by flaring in the Niger Delta is about equal to the CO2 emissions of Italy (nair aland.com)

If improvements can occur, if the destruction is to be successfully reduced and even perhaps reversed, the spotlight on the Delta needs to be a bright and strong one. ‘419’ will be read for its absorbing plot of relationships, manipulation, scams and life-and-death events. But as well it evokes an environmental hell, one for which we are all to blame.

Many very fine non-fiction books have been written by fluent and lucid environmentalists. Books that should have influenced the political leaders of the world, books that should have scared them into action. They obviously didn’t. Probably they didn’t get read by the people who most needed to read them.

So let’s see where good fiction takes us.

The Niger Delta is a reasonable target – if it can be in part recovered, probably anywhere can. Responsible drilling, gas flares eliminated, contamination cleaned up, communities made part of the solution, government laws concerning environmental and cultural protection not just passed but actually implemented: is this too much to strive for?

It can’t be – though in his book Ferguson offers only the very slimmest of hopes.

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