Niger Delta Ecosystems: the ERA Handbook/People and Resource-use Conflict


  • Animal Populations and Ecosystems
  • Resource Cycles and People
  • The Ecological Problem of Modern Society
  • Resource Use Conflicts
  • Is There an Easy Solution


The population of any animal species depends upon the ability of the ecosystem of which it is a part to support it. It is not only the total amount of biomass that counts in the support of a particular animal species, but also the quality of that particular part of the biomass that is relevant to the animal. For example, on Eco Island, the total number of Aphid Eaters depends on the amount of Aphids. The Aphid Eater can only eat Aphids: it cannot eat the leaves of the Eco Tree (Chapter 2.)

Moreover, the relationship of an animal species with its ecosystem is dynamic. The species is not just a passive occupant of an ecosystem: it influences the ecosystem and changes it for its own survival. Termites are a wonderful example: they build complex shelters in which they store detritus for the culture of fungi upon which they feed; in the process they turn over large quantities of soil, fundamentally influencing their ecosystem and many of the other species that live in it.

Animal species can change ecosystems to suit them, but in the end they remain subject to the fact that biomass is limited, and to the fact that they must compete with other animal species for use of the biomass. The total amount of biomass is fixed ultimately by those elements that make up the bulk of living matter (such as carbon, hydrogen and oxygen), and the elements that are micro-nutrients but nonetheless essential to life, such as iron. People are no exception, although in the evolutionary battlefield we have gained a dominant position by developing the technology to exploit the entire biosphere to the extent that, for the time being, we seem able to defy ecological laws.


All species exploit the resources of ecosystems in order to survive. A resource, as we shall discuss later, may be a complex material, such as soil, timber or oil, or the atomic or molecular components of these materials, such as nitrogen, or Water.

Atom: the smallest particle of an element, made up of an electrically positive core and associated negative electrons. The electronic nature of an atom—its ability to attract or repel other atoms—define its physical and chemical properties and may mean that it cannot naturally exist on its own but must be joined to other atoms.

Elements: the most simple substances, composed of identical atoms that have the same chemical properties. They may be found as collections of single atoms, but more often in the combinations of atoms that are molecules. We know of 93 naturally occurring elements, the most common in living matter being carbon, oxygen and hydrogen.

Molecules: their electronic make-up, or chemical properties, allow two or more atoms to join together into combinations called molecules. These are the building blocks of all structures, living and inorganic. The simplest are made up of two atoms of the same element: for example the element oxygen is most often found as a molecule of two oxygen atoms bound by their electrons. Water molecules are a combination of one oxygen and two hydrogen atoms.

Just as with atoms, molecules have chemical properties resulting from their electronic make-up that may cause them to interact with other atoms or molecules. For example, individual water molecules attract each other slightly, giving water the physical property of surface tension that holds a raindrop intact upon a leaf or allows a light insect to walk upon its surface. More complex interactions bring about change in the participating molecules and atoms; for example, water 'dissolves' salt by separating out the sodium and chlorine atoms that make up its molecules.

Living processes such as photosynthesis involve very specific changes in molecules and atoms; they are carried out by large, complex molecules that have very particular chemical properties allowing them to 'direct' change in their chemical environment that would not normally happen.

In healthy, viable ecosystems, resources are constantly being recycled in a complexity of inter-related cycles. For instance nutrients in soil are taken up by plants, and the plants grow, die and decay to become part of the soil to nourish new plants. Within this process, the element nitrogen is taken up by plant roots as a vital nutrient and released again into the soil by the micro-organisms which are the agents of decay. These are two simple inter-related cycles in an ecosystem, but they are part of increasingly large resource-cycles, the largest of all being the Biosphere in which we live.

The recycling of resources is facilitated by both living and non-living processes. For instance, water is re-cycled through plants by transpiration which is a living process, but taken up into the air from the surfaces of leaves to become clouds by evaporation which is a non-living process. Similarly, elephants drink water as a living process, while the percolation of water through soil and into rivers is a non-living process.


Resources can be followed through cycles both as atoms and as molecules.

Carbon: Take a carbon atom, as it is expelled in the breath of an elephant as a part of a carbon dioxide molecule. It is now part of the air. From the air, the carbon dioxide molecule is taken up by a plant through photosynthesis, so that the carbon atom becomes part of the plant structure as a carbohydrate molecule. Thus our carbon atom becomes part of a leaf which is eaten by the elephant again, and is then excreted in the faeces of the elephant thus becoming part of the detritus of the forest floor to be decomposed by micro-organisms and released back into the atmosphere in a carbon dioxide molecule.

Alternatively our carbon atom may remain in the detritus which through geological processes (for instance if it is buried under river deposits) becomes coal or oil. Here the carbon atom will remain for millions of years until it is released back into the atmosphere, again in carbon dioxide, if the oil or coal is burnt. It may be taken up by marine life on the surface of the sea, becoming organic carbon again and eventually part of the "rain" of detritus which pours onto the deep ocean floors. Thus we see that a carbon atom can be recycled within a matter of hours through the breathing of animals and the photosynthesis of plants, or through millions of years if it becomes incorporated into geological processes.

Water: Take a water molecule as it falls onto a tropical rainforest in a drop of rain. It may quickly evaporate again and condense within a cloud, so that very soon the molecule falls as rain again. Or the molecule may form part of a drop which drips falling from leaf to leaf until reaching the detritus of the forest floor it becomes part of the soil water. The soil water may be taken up by the roots of a plant to become part of the plant structure or to work its way up through the plant by transpiration to reach the clouds again; or it may percolate down to a stream where it can be drunk by an animal; or it may finally find its way to the sea, thus becoming part of different and yet inevitably inter-related resource-cycles.

Animals exploit resources for their survival by diverting them through their own systems. For instance, elephants obtain the elements which they need by breathing, by eating plants, by licking the minerals from dry lakes and riverbeds, and by drinking. Subsequently, for example, they return carbon and oxygen (as carbon dioxide molecules) with every breath, but the calcium in their bones is not returned until they die and their bones decay.

People are just another animal and Natural Human Society is not very different from elephants in their relationship to ecosystems. However, as Viable Society, our use of resources becomes more sophisticated. For instance, forest is cleared and the soil resource is used for agriculture; trees are cut and used as timber. But these uses, while they alter the resource cycles, do not break them: the food grown on the soil is eaten and the elements returned to the ecosystem as human faeces; a tree cut and used to build a house eventually returns to the local ecosystem when it has served its purpose and decays.

It is Modern Society's exploitation of resources which tends to break resource cycles. For short periods Modern Society can manipulate an ecosystem to produce resources at a level which is not sustainable, so that eventually the resource disappears. A simple example is hunting: a specific animal can be hunted in small numbers indefinitely (assuming that its habitat is not damaged) but once a certain number is exceeded hunters discover that they are having to travel further and further to find the animal and ultimately the animal may become extinct.

Extinction: the elimination of a species in a given area. For instance elephants are extinct on the Ogoni plain: elephants were recorded in the area up to the 1940s but they are no longer seen there.

As a more complex example of how ecosystems are damaged by our unsustainable exploitation of them, we can look at grazing in the Sahel in the far North of Nigeria.

Grazing in the Sahel: The ecozone south of the Sahara Desert is known as the Sahel. In its natural state it is a savannah ecozone characterised by annual grasses which are too scanty to carry regular fires, and by widely distributed trees, mainly of the Acacia genus. Rainfall is irregular but generally less than 600 mm a year. The boundary between the Sahel and the desert (where vegetation is limited to deep-rooted trees and shrubs, and a few drought-resistant perennial grasses) shifts according to rainfall patterns. These patterns vary over the years, decades and centuries, as a result of natural climatic cycles. Without any interference from man the Saheldesert boundary is not static: it will advance south during dry periods in the climatic cycle, and retreat north during wet periods.

From Viable Society's point of view the boundary between the desert and the Sahel savannah could be said to be the boundary between land which can be grazed and land which cannot be grazed. Old graziers will point out that this boundary oscillates over the years.

The grass in the Sahel savannah ecozone is a resource which Viable Society exploits very efficiently. In wet years when rainfall is plentiful and when the Sahara shifts north, the numbers of grazing animals increase. Their faeces improve the soil in terms of nutrients and structure (so much so that, traditionally, further south, Hausa arable farmers encourage Fulani owned cattle to graze upon the sorghum and maize stubble after the harvest). The high numbers of cattle ensure that grass and other vegetation is rapidly eaten so that a large proportion of the total biomass in the Sahel ecosystems is contained in domestic animals.

In dry years the Sahara moves south and grass becomes scarce: cattle have to be moved south or slaughtered for meat, otherwise they die of starvation. Usefully then, just as the Sahel ecosystems are being put under pressure by reduced rainfall, cattle grazing pressure is relieved. When the climate becomes wetter again, the Sahel ecosystems rapidly recover because they are not being grazed by large numbers of cattle, and the Sahara retreats north quickly.

In this example we can see how Viable Society is forced to accept ecological realities, and thereby is able to consistently exploit what resources the Sahel savannah ecosystems have to offer. The resource cycles, and ecological balance and stability are maintained, so that people's use of the ecosystem is sustainable.

However, given modern technology, Modern Society is able to maintain high cattle numbers in the Sahel longer during the dry period of the natural climatic cycle. This is usually achieved by sinking bore holes to mine water deposits that are part of a much longer resource cycle - water laid down during wetter geological periods. As a result vegetation is constantly grazed out and not given a chance to recover when the wet period of the climatic cycle comes around again. Therefore the desert perceptibly appears to move irrecoverably south, most dramatically seen as the sand dunes north of Gashua.

The situation is not irrecoverable: a reduction of grazing pressure will solve the problem in the Sahel. Inevitably this will happen when the water being mined from boreholes is depleted.



The Ecological Problem in the Niger Delta, as in the entire earth, is that Modern Society is able to exploit ecosystems for resources beyond the level of sustainability. Moreover, it can exploit them in such a way that the ecosystems are damaged and unable to continue to produce the resources that people need. Our demands for resources are continually increasing because our population is growing all the time, and not being limited by any restriction upon our ability to exploit resources.

The problem can be better understood as arising from four aspects of human society.

A need for resources

Such as water, soil, timber and oil. How ever well resources are managed, this need remains. The need for life-dependant resources, such as water, is a basic human right.

A defiance of ecological laws So that human populations are growing exponentially beyond the level at which they can be supported by ecosystems without damaging them. (An ecological law demands that as the population of any animal becomes too large for the ecosystem of which it is part, food will become scarce so that the animal becomes stressed and easy prey for other animal species.)

inappropriate technology

That has an infinite ability to exploit resources to exhaustion and to damage ecosystems in the process.

The human instinct to survive

Regardless of future consequences. (As summed up by the comment of a farmer in the Bamenda Highlands of Cameroon who, aware of the disastrous environmental consequences of maize farming on steep slopes in a high rainfall area, said: "I cannot just lie down and die - tomorrow will have to take care of itself.")


This ecological problem concerns the entire Biosphere for two reasons:

There is a global economy

So that, for instance, the timber and oil of the Niger Delta is demanded all over the world. In other words, demand is not limited by local needs.

The scale of modern human actvity

Has become so large that what happens in one part of the world affects ecosystems elsewhere and can affect the entire Biosphere. For instance: pollution in the Niger Delta can damage the fishing industries of all the countries which fish in the Bight of Guinea; pollutants from refrigerators and air-conditioners anywhere in the world damage the upper atmosphere over all the earth.


ERA is not making a moral judgement here, it is merely stating the reality of humanity’s condition, as an animal species living on earth: an animal which has gained an unnatural dominance over all other forms of life.

The Ecological Problem then, is a reality which has to be faced. But, it is a problem which, in the end, has no simple solution because there are just so many people wanting to survive; each of whom has an equal right to do so.

Nonetheless, it is a real problem, the practical solution of which demands an answer to three questions.

How can we minimise our use of resources, and maximise our returns from them?

How can we maintain a supply of resources which is sustainable; that is, at a level which does not damage the ecosystems which supply them?

Where damage has occured - that is, where the ecosystem is no longer able to repair itself - how can we repair it so that a supply of resources continues to flow?

In scientific terms, of course, we have the answers: there are solutions. But these answers are bound to entail restricting the supply and use of resources now in order to maintain a supply later. In this way, the Ecological Problem becomes an Economic and Political Problem which is not so easily solved. How can poor farmers support themselves without clearing the forest for farming? How can industry be persuaded to increase its costs by being more environmentally responsible? How can a government be persuaded to limit the production of certain resources and thus risk reducing its tax revenue? How can a nation be persuaded to use less resources such as water and petrol? How can people be persuaded that it is in the best interests of their country to have fewer children? How can people be persuaded to pay more taxes for environmental protection investments such as city sewage plants?

These are difficult questions with no easy answers. Difficult enough in relation to the Niger Delta on its own, but what about the global issues? For instance, as a result of the Greenhouse Effect, it seems that Global Warming is causing sea levels to rise, which will result in the coastal areas of Nigeria, including the Niger Delta, becoming inundated by the sea. It is a problem which can only be solved if all the countries of the world can come to an agreement. Is this in the realms of fantasy?

The Green-House Effect and Global Warming: The moon is very cold because it is a long way from the sun, and yet, the Earth, which is the same distance, is warm. This is largely because of the carbon dioxide in the Earth's atmosphere. Heat from the sun passes through the carbon dioxide to the surface of the earth. But, when the earth radiates this heat back out into the atmosphere, it is absorbed by the carbon dioxide which then re-radiates in all directions: some goes out into space but some goes back to the earth. As a result the earth is 30-40°C warmer than it would be if there was no carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

This process is called the Greenhouse Effect because it works just like a greenhouse in cold climates. The glass panes of the greenhouse allow the short waves of the sun's heat to pass into the building, but the long-wave heat radiating from the warmed surfaces inside cannot pass out again. Thus the inside of the building becomes a lot warmer than the outside, so that plants can be grown in cold weather.

It follows therefore that if the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is increasing, more heat will be trapped inside the Biosphere and the earth's average temperatures will increase. As a result of burning coal and oil, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is increasing, and global temperatures have increased by about 0.45°C since 1900, and mostly since 1940. This may seem insignificant, but it is enough to have caused the shrinking of Alpine and Polar ice caps causing a sea level rise of about 1.5mm per year over the same period. These processes are complex and not fully understood, but they appear to be accelerating.

Carbon dioxide is not the only Greenhouse gas. It makes up about 55% of the total. Pollutants from air-conditioners and refrigerators (Chloroflurocarbons - CFCs) make up about 20%, and Methane makes up 15%. Gas flaring in the Niger Delta is considered to be a major source of Greenhouse gases.

10.4 RESOURCE USE CONFLICTS The demand for resources beyond the ability of an ecosystem to supply them causes four resource conflicts.

Conflicts between present and future needs.

For instance, do we fish as much as our technology allows us to do now, or conserve breeding stocks for future supply?

Conflicts between the ways resources are used.

For instance, should the mangrove forests remain undisturbed to maintain the fish food chain, or should they be developed for rice production?

Conflicts about resource ownership.

For instance, does land and the minerals below it ultimately belong to the state or to the Local People; does this bit of forest belong to me or to the community; does this tree belong to me because it is on my land, or to you because your father planted it?

Conflicts between development methods.

For instance, should land be developed for agriculture as agro-industrial estates controlled by companies or as small farms controlled by Local People?

Rarely are these conflicts efficiently resolved and the most obvious manifestation of this lack of resolution is social discontent and even a breakdown of civil order. The recent problems in Burundi and Rwanda arise from resource conflicts in an area which has one of the highest human population densities in Africa. Civil disorder is often met with oppressive military backed governments which are careless of human rights and which get no nearer to finding a solution to the Ecological Problem.

More insidious than a breakdown in civil order is ecological degradation and breakdown, which causes a rapid decline in the yields of forest products, and in agricultural and fisheries production. These problems encourage people to leave the countryside to seek work in the towns, which in turn causes rapid urbanisation: another serious environmental problem threatening the viability of surrounding ecosystems. The problem of cites as they relate to the human condition is covered in the final chapter. Hence the Ecological Problem is not only a disjunction of ecosystems, but also includes the social problems that are the manifestation of the conflicts that arise from this dysfunction.


No, there is not, because while scientific solutions do exist the political and short-term economic barriers are huge.

Moreover, a solution to the Ecological Problem is made especially difficult because while some ecological problems are entirely local and can be solved locally, most involve much wider national or international interests and will have to be solved in a wider political arena.

For instance finding a solution to water pollution by in the Niger Delta must:

  • involve upstream users such as the textile industry in Kaduna (the Kaduna river feeds into the Niger);
  • conserving fish stocks in the Bight of Guinea must involve all the coastal West African nations;
  • while dealing with global warming concerns every nation of earth.

Nonetheless, undoubtedly the first step towards addressing the Ecological Problem is to find resolutions to local resource use conflicts. However, a resource use conflict is not usually a simple dicotomy.

  • For instance is a political decision is made to grow rice in the Brackish-water ecozone, at least four conflict issues will arise:
  • in terms of other possible land uses such as forestry and fish farms;
  • in terms of the potential methods of development such as agro-industrial estates or small farms;
  • in terms of ecological considerations such as the effect of rice development on the area's function in maintaining estuarine and in-shore fishing; and
  • in terms of existing land uses which may be immemorial (such as people's rights to collect periwinkles).

Therefore, the resolution of resources conflicts in the Niger Delta is bound to involve a decision which is based on a good knowledge of five factors.

  • The ecological nature of the ecozone in which the resource conflict occurs, especially in terms of human ecosystems.
  • Development Trends, in terms of population growth, the growth of towns, the oil industry and other industries, forestry, agriculture, and on-shore and in-shore fishing.
  • Development Methods, an especially important consideration because rarely can a particular development be avoided altogether, however inconvenient it may seem at the time. For instance the Niger Delta must produce more food in the future, but it is important that the right development method is chosen so that ecological needs and the needs of Local People are met. The best development methods are found through thorough Strategic Environmental Assessment (15.1.7).
    • Ecological needs, so that the viability of ecosystems is maintained.
    • Human Rights needs: because Local People have a right to a healthy environment and to the maintenance of the local ecosystems of which they are a part.
    However, with the best will in the world, any solution is bounded by a sea of ignorance about ecosystems and resource cycles. Usually decisions are based on easy short-term pragmatic solutions without any consideration of even the immediate, let alone the longterm, ecological implications of these decisions. But a solution has to be found because the Ecological Problem will not go away: the human population will continue to increase; oil and gas will continue to be extracted; and the demands for fish, timber, palm oil and rice will continue to grow. This ERA guide cannot provide the solutions but it aims to reduce the sea of ignorance. The natural ecosystems have been explained and in the following chapters the nature of the resources of the Niger Delta as a human ecosystem will be defined.