Niger Delta Ecosystems: the ERA Handbook/Introduction


  • What is ERA?
  • The Era Philosophy
  • ERA Knowledge is Based upon Participatory Research
  • What is Participatory Research?


Environmental Rights Action, or ERA, is a non-governmental organisation founded in 1993 as an arm of the Nigerian Civil Liberties Organisation (CLO).

The organisation is dedicated to the defence of human ecosystems in terms of human rights, and to the promotion of environmentally responsible governmental, commercial, community and individual practice in Nigeria through the empowerment of Local People.

It describes itself as having two purposes:

  • to act as a peaceful pressure group, campaigning for change in the policies of governmental, non-governmental and commercial organisations where those policies are likely to act against environmental human rights
  • to enable Local People to defend their Environmental Human Rights in law.



ERA is bound together and guided by a philosophy which avoids moral ambiguity when approaching problems of human ecology. This philosophy is not a rigid dogma, but a guide based upon the seven beliefs described below.

#Environmental Rights are Human Rights

Article 24 of the African Charter of Human and Peoples' Rights states that:

All people shall have the right to (a) generally satisfactory environment favourable to their development.

ERA believes that a respect for all forms of life is an essential foundation to human happiness.

In other words, a genuine concern for humankind and our habitat depends upon a respect for other animals and their habitats, and upon recognition of the importance of diversity.

Humankind cannot achieve happiness in a degraded environment; living in harmony with other forms of life (as in some traditional relationships between people and their environment) is in itself a human right. Furthermore, every individual and responsible human being has an equal right to happiness, regardless of his or her wealth.

#All Ecosystems are now human ecosystems

This concept is central to the ERA philosophy.

Because of humankind's growing dominance of the Biosphere, all ecosystems are now ultimately human ecosystems. Ecological problems arise when an ecosystem is seen, in ignorance, as something separate from humankind.

#Environmental Human Rights Depend upon Conservation

Conservation is the wise use of natural resources with due regard for the rights of as yet unborn generations. The best conservators, with the most practical and genuine interest in the future of the local environment, will be Local People.

#Conservation is best achieved through sustainable 30

#Development and Participation

This was articulated in Agenda 21 of the 1992 Earth Summit. The Summit brought together more heads of government than any previous meeting in history, to focus world attention on environmental issues - the most critical issues we face as a global community. Agenda 21 is the global plan of action adopted to address those issues. The real hallmark of the Earth Summit was the emphasis on broad public participation, and the success of Agenda 21 depends on the continued participation of the public in decisions that affect their lives, both nationally and internationally.

Agenda 21 states that sustainable development is the way to reverse both poverty and environmental destruction. Achieving this will demand broad public participation in policy development, combined with greater accountability; individuals, groups and organisations need to know about, and participate in, environment and development issues affecting their communities.

Thus ERA agrees that:

Sustainable Development
=Participation + Wealth + Knowledge
=Empowerment of Local People

Wealth creation without local knowledge and participation does not equal sustainable development. If Local People are kept ignorant and unable to participate in or benefit from the creation of wealth, environmental degradation will result. Poor people may even directly damage the environment, if they cannot afford to think about tomorrow. Sustainable development of local communities, involving the elimination of absolute poverty and of gross income inequity, is therefore vital to any real conservation.

#Local People must be empowered for this to succeed

ERA believes this is the key to sustainable development and conservation. ERA aims to achieve this through the establishment of Community Resource Centres (CRCs). These are initiated with the help of NGOs, but are ultimately maintained by the communities themselves. Once established, a good CRC will be a focus for the accumulation and use of knowledge, and for the creation of wealth. It may also enable the community to attract any available aid funding and help. CRCs can become centres of innovation, but essentially they are places where community members (as individuals or as groupings) can empower themselves with knowledge and access the tools of communication to make things happen.

'Local People' may of course include immigrants, if they define themselves as local and see their future and that of their children as being bound up with the locality.

#Local Interests must have Primacy

People living in a locality have an investment in its long-term future. Outsiders, whether in government or non-government agencies, are more likely to be interested in short and medium-term considerations.

Outside interests may have rights that must be taken into consideration. However, local interests are more likely than any others to be concerned about genuine conservation and must take priority when decisions are being made.

#Fair Trade means transparency

ERA believes that sustainable development and equitable wealth creation depends upon Fair Trade. Local producers must receive a fair price for their products in relation to final market prices; for this to happen, they must be more closely linked to those markets and have knowledge of them.


These seven beliefs are fundamental to ERA's approach to environmental human rights, and explain the importance of ERA as a grass-roots organisation based on:

  • the Community Resource Centres
  • individuals who share and can demonstrate a commitment to ERA beliefs
  • any community, group, non-governmental or non-commercial organisation that shares and can demonstrate a commitment to ERA beliefs.


ERA is open to membership from all parts of Nigeria. Membership is independent of the centre but cannot be independent of the philosophy.


We have seen that participation is a right, enshrined by the Earth Summit (to which Nigeria is a signatory). However, it is essential to sustainable development for very practical as well as ideological reasons.

Development projects can only be effective if they are based on true (rather than preconceived) facts, and if the Local People for whom the projects are supposed to be designed are involved in project planning, management and monitoring. The first step is research, and the 'facts' about any situation will only be relevant if the people concerned are involved in their gathering and presentation.

Development without such participation can go terribly wrong. Numerous examples of development projects in the Niger Delta (indeed throughout Nigeria, Africa and the world) have failed because the development process is in the hands of outsiders. However well-meaning, most outside agents eventually leave and have no permanent commitment to places which are not their own. Development processes are more likely to succeed when Local People are in control, because they have to be committed and because they can only blame themselves when things go wrong.

Sustainable development therefore means empowerment. The political and economic empowerment of people in a locality allows them to control development and use its devices (institutional structures, funds, marketing, etc.) themselves, in order to create the local wealth which maintains the institutions of empowerment and the infrastructure needed for further wealth creation.

However, the first stage in any such work is participatory research.


ERA aims to be the voice of Local People, but it can only be their voice if it has their trust and if it speaks their truth. Gathering relevant knowledge comes from throwing off all preconceptions and by a humble immersion into local life.

ERA's approach is necessarily based upon what ERA people are able to do in the field with limited resources. This means getting to know a community by living within it, in order to feel as far as possible what it may be like to be a member of that community. This means sleeping, eating and washing in the same way, and travelling in the same way—whether by bush-taxi and speed-boat or, more likely, by foot and canoe, or piled onto the back of a motor-bike with one or two others. There are no guarantees, but this is the best way to win trust and friendship and, with luck, to get at the truth of a situation.

This approach to getting local knowledge seems to be dangerously informal, despite having the formal name of 'Participatory Research' or PR. Nonetheless, the process has a respectable academic history and ERA workers approach it seriously.

PR is based upon Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA). In the jargon of the rural development profession this began as Rapid Rural Appraisal (RRA), and the approach has been well justified in relation to work on the environment by David Atte when he was Senior Lecturer in Geography at the University of Ilorin. He wrote:

... rural communities in Africa and other parts of the third world have a profound and detailed knowledge of the ecosystem and species (the natural environment) which they are in contact with, and cultural settings within their respective environments. The dimensions of the knowledge are wide, encompassing the whole range of human experiences with regard to both tangible and non-tangible entities. Their fields of knowledge include history, linguistics, economics, social knowledge, politics and administration; energy related technology; (the) physical environment of soils, water and climate; biological entities of plants, crops, weeds, pests, domestic and wild animals, medicines, taxonomic systems, time, skills, artefacts, religion and a host of others. In all these fields, each rural group has developed knowledge encompassing theory, concepts, inter-relationships, factual and attributive information to a high degree of accuracy. (David Atte, 1989)

This applies equally to urban communities, and Atte further summarises PRA activities as

... both an attitude and a methodology. It provides the mind-set which enables the outsider (usually the elite) to interact with insiders (usually Local People) as equals and for mutual benefit. It helps outsiders to understand the ... community systems by using (the) visual techniques of diagrams, models, counting and quantifying devices, as well as techniques of direct observation, participation and discussion. When Local People partake in these activities and thus help to analyse their own systems (which is usually not done in a formalised way), a two-way learning process is enhanced. This process empowers Local People to take charge of their own situations and negotiate with outsiders from a position of strength and confidence. (Atte, as above)

From ERA's own experience, the process of PR has five advantages in developing relationships with the communities with which it works. They are that:

#PR builds up trust between ERA workers (often outsiders) and a Community

Especially as the results of PR describe the community as something valuable, special and unique.

#PR helps a community to articulate its own experience and ideas, and synthesise them into coherent and visible knowledge

Recognising the worth and power of this knowledge can in itself be a part of community empowerment.

#Well-documented PR provides a sound stock of knowledge for ERA

This gives credibility to its observations.

#Subsequent activities based upon information gained by PR are more likely to be relevant to local communities and thus have a better chance of being accepted and successful in local terms.

Where people have already made a direct investment of time and ideas into a project, they will also be more committed to its success.

#Above all, PR enables the community to have a platform upon which it can make its voice heard

And heard by a wide audience and especially by those agencies which, for better or worse, may wish to influence it.

#In summary, PR involves no more than surveyors divesting themselves of preconceptions, living with local communities and listening to them. This is the essence of Participatory Research; It is the Essence of ERA methodology.