By Olusegun Emmanuel, Abuja.
Applause and knocks greeted the report of the Committee on Environment on Monday when it was presented to the plenary session of the on-going National Conference in Abuja.
In particular, the committee’s recommendations demanding the removal of the Land Use Act from the 1999 Constitution and the establishment of a special court to deal with environmental issues received mixed reactions from various delegates, depending on which tribal grouping they belong.
Retired Justice Abdullahi Mustapha, said it was appalling to realise that every agency of government wants establishment of special courts to handle its issues. He was of the opinion that existing courts have the capability to handle such issues if reformed and properly situated.
During the clause-by-clause consideration of the report and its recommendations, this suggestion was voted out.
Another recommendation that was hailed by some and condemned by others was the suggestion for what was termed ‘resource democracy’ which committee described as the right by the people to own and manage their resources by prospecting for and developing such resources in their territories.
This recommendation, in spite of the knocks it received from a section of the delegates, was retained by the Committee of the Whole during consideration of recommendations, through a voice vote.
Chairman of the Committee, Senator Florence Ita-Giwa, had while presenting the report said every decision arrived at was exhaustively researched and debated while experts in various areas of environment-related disciplines were invited for professional inputs and suggestions.
All the same, some of the delegates found faults in areas covered by the committee while others, like Ledum Mitee from Rivers State, pointed out factual errors and inconclusive analysis in specific areas.
Chief Edwin Clark, who turned 87 on Sunday, said there was nothing new about most of the recommendations of the committee; explaining that what was lacking was the political will on the part of the leaders to accept suggestions and have them implemented.
He said “we in the riverine areas, live on top of water but we have no water to drink. We cannot farm. We cannot do fishing. The vegetation has changed,” adding that pipelines that were laid in 1956 have grown old but remain unchanged.
The committee had in its analysis pointed out that climate change has already led to serious desertification in northern Nigeria, affecting at least 11 states with the serious implication of dislocation of populations and livelihoods.
It observed that southward migration of pastoralists in search of grazing grounds could well be one of the key factors leading to conflicts with farmers in other areas.
It recommend dedicated actions to save Lake Chad from complete disappearance while forest reserves should be established, protected and properly maintained by the both the federal and state governments.
The committee stated the need for government to encourage communities to imbibe the culture of tree planting, strict regulation and enforcement of logging activities and creation and proper funding of a reforestation and a forestation agency to handle all anti-desertification projects.
Dr Isaac Osuoka in his comments said the issue of desertification should be treated as an issue of national emergency so that the situation could be arrested before it gets out of hand.
Describing gas flaring as the most intractable of the petroleum industry related pollution, the committee said its stoppage has continued to remain elusive despite numerous attempts at regulation.
Ranked seventh in the world in terms of proven natural gas reserves, the committee reported that apart from Russia, Nigeria flares more gas than any country of the world with 80% of the associated gas produced from Nigeria’s oil fields being flared.
The environmental impacts of this include increase in concentration of carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide in the atmosphere; negative effect on vegetation, livestock and aquatic lives in the vicinity of the flares, among others.
The committee recommended amendment of the Gas Re-Injection Act of 1979 and remove the provision that empowers the minister to authorise flaring of gas by oil companies; and that stiffer sanctions including fines equivalent to commercial price of natural gas should be imposed, while heads of offending agencies should be held responsible.
However, Mitee and Aishatu Isma’il faulted the recommendation in the sense that the committee failed to make gas flaring a crime in spite of its huge negative impact on the environment and humans.
Conference in session agreed that penalty for gas flaring should be paid to the affected communities and not to the Federal Government as has been the practice.
Oil spillage was another area of environmental pollution examined by the committee with a report that to date, more than 5000 oil pipelines spill incidents have been reported in Nigeria with large areas of dry land, wetland and water bodies permanently impacted.
It cited a study carried out by the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) stating that it would take a life-time for abandoned oil sites in Ogoni land to be cleaned up, a citation that was faulted by Mitee who said the report put the time frame at between 25 to 30 years and not a lifetime as reported.
However, the Conference resolved that Federal Government should, as a matter of national urgency, start implementation of UNEP report on Ogoni environmental problems without further delay.
Delegates also decided that a special agency be established by the Federal Government for the clean-up of the Niger Delta, particularly areas identified by international environmental bodies as badly affected by oil spills.
It suggested that the Act establishing the Nigerian Environmental Standards and Regulations Enforcement Agency (NASREA) should be amended to give it oversight over the entire environment including the oil and gas sector since, as presently operational, NASREA does not regulate the oil and gas sector.
In its recommendations, the committee stated that the vital need to preserve the integrity of the Nigerian environment and thus secure its sustainability for present and future generations requires clear and direct stipulations in the Nigerian Constitution.
It said, “As a people living very closely to and depending for livelihoods on nature, we should enshrine the rights of nature to maintain its natural cycles without disruption in our constitution.”
It stated further that although environment is fundamental to human existence, the 1999 Constitution made only a passing reference to the environment and environmental rights at its Section 20.