Speech by Sophie Prize winner Environmental Rights Action

Oslo Sophie Prize Ceremony June 15, 1998

Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen,

As we stand here today to receive of the Sophie Prize 1998 awarded by the Sophie Foundation, we are both delighted and saddened for a number of reasons. We are delighted that through the agency of the Sophie foundation a strong statement is being made for the recognition of environmental rights as human rights; for the acceptance as a matter of fact that we all live in a global village in which what affects one affects the other.

We are especially happy to note that an accomplished and well-respected writer has established this award. That Jostein Gaarder and his wife Siri Dannevig could find it in them to lay aside a part of their estate for the support of environmental efforts is a testimony to the fact that writers are often people with very fine spirits. To us at ERA and to most of our people, there is a strong suspicion that there is a very thin demarcating line between fact and fiction. This must be the suapicion that has spurned the new literary genre called faction.

We are sad when we look back at the Nigerian environment and note that it is strewn with oil, tears and blood. Whereas the Norwegian environment encourages and rewards creativity, the Nigerian environment is a terror to the creative writer. Allow your mind to reflect on what happened to the noted Nigerian writer and environmentalist, Ken Saro-Wiwa on November 10, 1995. All he asked for was that his people should be allowed some dignity in their own environment.

We are sad to note that those of our writers who are not eliminated are hounded into exile. Or, they are herded into the seething jails. We can begin the count from our Nobel Laureate, Wole Soyinka, who has been charged for treason for daring to point out the errors of government.The list is so long that time will not permit us to name them all.

We are equally saddened by the recklessness of big trans-national corporations as they exploit the natural resources of the Nigerian environment. The better known culprits are the operators in the oil as well as those in the timber industries. They carry on their businesses with an air of arrogance and with a total disregard of the local people, their environment or their right to existence. We understand the flagrant cases of double standards as being fuelled by racism and outright wickedness.

There is a direct link between wellbeing and oiling of dictatorship and the exploitation and general business of oil. We believe that for the people to benefit from development such must be democratised and emanate from the people. The present system of careless exploitation can only work in non-democratic settings where the people are not permitted to ask questions about why their water sources are being polluted and why their farmlands are rendered useless. Their outrageous blood-profit can only be sustained in an environment where the people cannot ask questions about why watercourses are being altered, about why their forests are denuded or are being replaced by mono-crop plantations.

This ENVIRONMENT PRIZE is a milestone in the path of our collective effort to salvage the planet of which man is a mere steward with no right to plunder, despoil, rape or destroy.

The Environmental Rights Action (ERA) came into existence five (5) years ago as an environmental advocacy group which strongly believes that a vast array of human rights abuses arise as result of environmental atrocities or the related struggles for access to resources. The organisation is guided essentially by a philosophy, which places man at the centre of the environment without, by any means, condemning the other creation to mindless exploitation. ERA is firmly of the opinion that all ecosystems are human ecosystems. THIS POSITION RECOGNISES THE  DOMINEERING ROLE OF HUMANKIND IN ECOLOGICAL PROCESSES.

ERA campaigns peacefully using lobby, dialogue, community empowerment and interventions, non-violent direct action and debates. These are all aimed at attaining acceptable environmental space and justice. Our methods are fully supported by law and we are determined to uphold the dignity of life and work for sustainable development. ERA is empowered in this struggle by Article 24 of the African Charter for People and Human Rights which states that ALL PEOPLE SHALL HAVE A RIGHT TO A GENERALLY safe and SATISFACTORY ENVIRONMENT IN WHICH TO DEVELOP. We are happy to note that the African Charter is superior to all military decrees and all other legislation by any particular member state of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU).

Because economic theories and thoughts have been centred on the creation and accumulation of wealth, its reproduction and distribution it has become the primary aim of corporations and anti-people regimes in emphasising short-term profit for few selected groups and individuals. This has made both man and his environment dispensable as long as cash gets stashed away in bank vaults.

The imbalance in the world today is a problem of the distribution of wealth often wrongly and conveniently categorised as underdevelopment. The quest for wealth at the expense of the people has led to large-scale environmental disasters that have resulted in what presents as poverty.

The oil boom of the 70s has now left the people reeling in oil doom and oil slicks. Sudden wealth resulted in huge deposits in Northern banks which were soon handed back to Southern governments as loans through the World Bank and related financial institutions. The last is yet to be heard of the evil of the so-called Structural Adjustment Programmes of the International Monetary Fund. Wrong-headed projects forced upon the people by the World Bank, IMF and their client governments have plunged millions into lives of misery, poverty and death. We believe that if the ecological debt is placed in the accounting books, most Southern nations, Nigeria included, would have repaid their external debts several times over.

If man must extricate itself from the gloom of prehistory and achieve balance and harmony with his environment, the issues of wealth creation and distribution must be re-addressed with utmost urgency in order to have a proper vision and take-off point for economic development at the turn of the century.

Besides, we share the concern of the Foundation about the manner in which the world is marching towards the 21st century. We envisage a world of brotherhood free from deadly competition- whether economic, political or social - in which mankind is considered an ill-fated victim. We agree that we must aim at reconciliation of man and nature, as was the creator's grand design. It is this reconciliation that has been the pre-occupation and utmost concern of ERA in the Golgotha of the Niger-Delta and the rest of Nigeria.

We are further encouraged by this award to plant more olive trees of fellowship between man and nature in our part of the world. It is a daunting venture as it is the case of all noble causes the world over. The odds we are contending with are enormous. However, the most immediate are those that border on the national superstructure, to wit, resource allocation, human and minority rights, genuine federalism and the phenomenon of military dictatorship.

Needless to say that the perversion of the environment in Nigeria took on an unprecedented dimension as a result of the discovery of oil in commercial quantity, especially in the Niger-Delta of Nigeria. The huge petro-dollars accruing from oil exploitation has become the mainstay of the economy. The consequence of this has been the well-known unbridled exploitation of this resource to the total defilement of the land. The oil rigs, like vampires continue to sink their teeth into the necks of the people.

This assault has not gone unchallenged. There has been a corresponding resistance from the people who consistently call for cessation of environmental degradation and demand for an equal access to development opportunity from the resources generated from crude oil exploitation. Thousands have already paid the supreme price in this struggle. None can forget the case of the hanging of the writer and environmentalist, Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight of his Ogoni compatriots. To restore environment and human equilibrium they have continued to demand for superstructural redress in the form of genuine federalism rather than the unitary status quo, which the present political arrangement by the hegemonic forces amounts to.

Of late there was the tragic-comic contrivance in which the late head of the neo-fascist military dictatorship, General Sanni Abacha wanted to succeed himself as a civilian-cum-military president in a discredited and fraudulent democratisation programme. The danger in this was that if the self-succession agenda of the regime had succeeded, environmental degradation and the occupation of the land would have continued unabated. This spectre still remains because an acolyte of the late dictator is now in the saddle.

The international community has remained ambivalent for too long. It appears the world cares more about crude oil and a few exotic goods than the good of our suffering people. The truth remains that it is the moral and political actions of the international community in concrete terms such as the imposition of oil embargo on the Nigerian junta that will help forestall further entrenchment of undemocratic forces. So far the political regime has done nothing to control the environmental degradation in the country. Gas flaring, oil spillage, acid rain, uncontrolled waste dumps; droughts and de-forestation (in the South and Western parts of the Country), desertification (in the North) and gully erosion (in the Eastern parts of the country) receive scant attention.

Today, we have a dream of a new dawn in which the wellbeing of mankind and his ecosystem will become the common currency of the world; a treasure to be cherished and a tenet to be revered. As we dream this dream, we would like to thank our brothers and sisters in the Friends of the Earth network. It has been a most exciting experience in dynamic brotherhood since we got into the fold two years ago. We also thank members of the Oilwatch International - the oil resistance network that fights against reckless hydrocarbon exploration and exploitation in the tropics.

We cannot forget our valuable supporters without whom many of our projects would have remained mere dreams. We say thank you to Swedish Society for Nature Conservation, NOVIB, ICCO, TROCAIRE, NC-IUCN, the GAIA Foundation, Both Ends and the Nigerian Civil Liberties Organisation.

The strength for us to carry on despite all odds has been provided by the example shown by the oppressed and deprived people of Nigeria who carry on living irrespective of which direction the sun rises from. We salute their courage. As we are talking to you now, one of us is languishing in an overcrowded, unhygienic detention cell for no reason than that we fight for environmental rights and demand that the humanity of the people be respected.

We plan to commit this award into the setting up of a comprehensive Environmental Rights Action Centre in the ancient city of Benin which should become a conservation centre that will attract environmental pilgrims from all over the world. We can already visualise the conference hall that we will call SOPHIE'S WORLD.

We wish to assure the Sophie Foundation and all our friends of our unflinching commitment to the creation of sustainable networks of conscientised activists fighting for the creation of national and international environments in which rights are fully respected.

It is indeed humbling for us to be adjudged the very first recipients of the prize. We dedicate this prize to the hero of environmental and minorities rights campaigner and writer Ken Saro-Wiwa. We also dedicate it to the indomitable people of the highly polluted Niger Delta.

Our work is now in the THUNDER stage and we are confident the RAINS will come. Permit us to conclude with a question the poet Christopher Okigbo (died in the Nigeria-Biafra war) asked: who can say no in thunder?

Thank you all.

ORONTO DOUGLAS - Deputy Director

Oslo, June 1998