Niger Delta Ecosystems: the ERA Handbook/The Human Ecosystems: Introduction


  • The Human landscape
  • The Natural Ecozones of the Niger Delta
  • The Human Economic Impact
  • Society
  • The Resulting Human Landscape


Clearly, the modern landscape of the Niger Delta is a manifestation of human ecosystems. These have arisen out of a people’s dynamic relationship with natural ecosystems. This relationship can also be understood as economic activity because:

natural ecosystems x people = economic activity

And people's ability to exploit minerals expands the equation to become:

(natural ecosystems + mineral resources) x people = economic activity.

Furthermore, the way that people organise themselves in order maximise the efficiency of economic activity is manifested in society because:

organised economic activity = society

When we look at a landscape as a picture we see land-uses (e.g. farms, villages, oil installations and raffia-palm groves), and ecological resources (e.g. rivers, forests, and soil). The picture is not an accident but the result of people's economic exploitation of the natural ecosystems for the resources that we need, and the social structure that has developed as a result of this exploitation.

The landscape represents people's impact upon the environment. An impact which today is potentially more damaging to the ability of ecosystems to continue to provide the resources required of them, because of fast growing human populations and inappropriate technology.

This is not academic theorising but a reality which must be grasped, especially if we ever get to the stage of considering some sort of planning for the Niger Delta. Land-Use Planning, in particular, must work with human ecological, economic and social realities: if it does not then it will fail.

Thus the present state of the ecological resources and land-use of the Niger Delta is best understood in terms of:

  • the natural ecosystems;
  • human economic impact;
  • society; and
  • the resulting human landscape.


The Niger Delta is a young, complex and dynamic ecosystem which can be understood in terms of five prime ecozones, unique to it, as described in Chapters 5-9. With the exception of the Estuaries and Offshore-Waters ecozone, the Niger Delta lies within the West African tropical rainforest biome, so that regardless of the human impact, the natural climatic climax vegetation is tropical rainforest. As already explained the prime ecozones group together a variety of subecozones and ecotones by five specific characteristics. Either:

  • they have deep soils where drainage is generally not a limiting factor (the Lowland Equatorial Monsoon); or
  • they have a fresh-water regime, where, with the exception of levees, excessive soil moisture generally creates reduced soil conditions (the Fresh-Water ecozone); or
  • they have a brackish-water regime, where excessive soil moisture creates reduced soil conditions (the Brackish-Water ecozone); or
  • they are on a Niger Delta sand barrier island; or
  • they are marine (the Estuary and Onshore Waters ecozone).

These definitions help our understanding but the ecozones are no more than convenient boundaries for the description of the Niger Delta ecosystem as a whole. An ecosystem which itself is no more than a convenient boundary for study, and actually an interrelated part of a hierarchy of ecosystems. A hierarchy that may, for example start with the West African biogeographical sub-region and reach down to the estuaries of the Niger Delta and defined species populations that live in them. These ecological interrelationships become more obvious when they are subjected to human influence. For example:

  • the man-made Kainji dam, up-stream of the Delta, holds back a substantial amount of the sediment load of the Niger River;
  • as a result, the erosion-deposition balance of the Sand Barrier Islands may be tipped in favour of erosion;
  • this could reduce the protection that the islands give to the mangrove forests,
  • thus reducing the mangroves' vital role in the initiation of the food chain that supports fish production in the offshore waters.

Thus, in the end, the natural ecosystem of the Niger Delta is no more than a conceptual idea to help us understand the human ecosystem that it is today.


An appreciation of history and economic conditions is essential to the understanding of the modern landscape, in addition to an understanding of geography and ecology. To understand the culture of the landscape and how it evolved in relation to the environment, and how, in dynamic relationship, the environment has been shaped by the culture and by outside influences. The country around ancient cities such Benin City or Rome are extraordinary testimonies to the profound influence that a high culture has had on the landscape for hundreds of years.


The natural ecosystems outlined in Chapters 5-9, remember, relate to the environment, without modern people. The landscapes that we see around us today are the visible manifestations of human ecosystems: the concepts of 'wild landscapes' or 'natural landscapes' that imply some sort of landscape that has evolved without the aid of people is nonsense.

For the greater part of our history, people have lived in ecological balance with the environment. We lived as viable people exploiting the ecosystems of which we were part in a sustainable manner. Thus our ecosystems remained healthy and were able to continue to supply the resources that we required from them.

Now, viable landscapes - the landscapes of viable people - are so rare that they are often preserved as National Parks (an irony, because the very people who have created these landscapes are suddenly excluded from them!) such as the Lowland Equatorial Monsoon forests of the Oban Hills in Cross River State.

These viable landscapes contrast, often dramatically, with the landscapes of modern people such as are found in most parts of South Eastern Nigeria, such as Akwa Ibom and the Lowland Equatorial Monsoon parts of Rivers State next door. These landscapes generally represent an unsustainable use of ecosystems for two reasons:

  • first, because population densities have increased faster than the ability of societies to evolve new ways of maintaining a viable relationship with the ecosystems of which they are part; and
  • second, because exploitation of the ecosystems by individuals or interest groups for short term financial benefits with no consideration for the longer term economic cost (such as the oil industry).

Two important principles pertain to the present environmental condition and trends of these areas the market impact and the "tragedy of the commons."


Viable human ecosystems can support remarkably high human populations. This is because viable human communities will never cultivate more land, or hunt and gather more forest products than they need for their own immediate survival (or to trade with similar neighbouring communities, for things that they cannot produce, e.g. palm-oil for fish). However this relationship is upset where human communities become part of a trading community which stretches beyond their immediate locality especially when unnecessary consumer items (trade goods) are introduced. Thus land is cultivated beyond local needs, the limiting factor being the supply of labour, so that the criterion for cultivation is not local need but market demand. In the present times, in much of South Eastern Nigeria, demand for agricultural and forest products is effectively infinite, the limiting labour factor being overcome by importing excess labour from other areas. In the end, the only limiting factor becomes the resource itself, which is exploited to exhaustion because of what has been called the "tragedy of the commons."


This explains why, once conservation traditions have broken down (and viable communities have many such traditions, examples of which can be found, still, throughout Nigeria), resources are exploited to exhaustion very quickly where there is an infinite demand for them. The usual example is a forest in a country where there is an acute shortage of timber and fuel, and where the forest is held as a common resource: no man or woman is going to consider conserving the forest because if s/he does not exploit it to his own maximum ability then someone else will, and so down to the last tree until there are no trees left which is the tragedy. The situation is exacerbated because poor people (made poorer by environmental degradation) cannot afford to think about conserving resources: present needs take precedence.


The environmental impact of modern people on the Southeast of Nigeria can be best understood in two stages.

The first stage occurred before the recent accelerated growth in human population. In this stage the traditional activities of shifting agriculture and hunting, fishing and exploitation of forest products were distorted by contact with the industrialising European economy which introduced a strong market impact in all West African society creating an infinite demand for some of its products.

The market impact was at first dominated by the slave trade. This is an important factor, because by undermining the human relationship between Europeans and Africans it led to the European underestimation of the value and strength of African culture, and thus prepared it for its subsequent destruction by missionary activity and imperialism. Later (when the Americas were satiated with slaves who were reproducing to satisfy the market), trade was dominated by palm-oil (essential for lubricating the machines of Europe and for providing candles, soap and margarine for its exploding population) and other natural resources such as timber. So important was palm-oil that the area of production, between the Benin and Cross Rivers became known as the Oil Rivers.

It was during this period that the great trading cultures of the Niger Delta and elsewhere developed, so that the names of Bonny, Brass and Calabar became world famous. During this period the trade was controlled by Africans, but this control did last long as the various industrialising European powers scrambled for control of the rich West African Coast. The British "won" the Niger coast and the story of King Jaja of Opobo is a nice example of the doomed indigenous attempts to maintain control of trade.

British imperialism formalised British control over the Oil Rivers, good access to the region being facilitated by the rivers themselves. From the beginning, the area was organised for economic exploitation: first, in 1885, as the Oil Rivers Protectorate, and then as the Niger Coast Protectorate in 1893, which extended from the Lagos Colony to the Rio Del Rey river, until it was incorporated into the Protectorate of Southern Nigeria on the 1st January 1900. As a result, for example, the production of local gin was prohibited to free the market for imports of British gin; forests were excised from local control and turned into forest reserves; cash crops such as rubber and cocoa were introduced to serve the European market; and finally plantations were established for oil palm and rubber. These latter three activities were continued and, to some extent, intensified after independence, so inextricably had the Southern Nigerian economy become tied to Europe.

This stage one impact of modern people on the environment of what is now South-east Nigeria had six effects as follows.

  • The stimulation, by economic activity, of population growth and urban development, which increased the demand for food.
  • The intensification of shifting agriculture in the Lowland Equatorial Monsoon ecozone so that more land was brought into agriculture as farms and fallow-land at the expense of cultured forest, which was itself subjected to more intensive hunting and gathering in addition to increased exploitation for timber. Fallow periods became shorter, thus farms less productive and abandoned earlier. (The nature of "shifting agriculture" is discussed more fully in the following Chapter).
  • The Fresh-Water ecozone was more intensively exploited for fishing, hunting, gathering and timber.
  • The rapid spread of oil palm in the Lowland Equatorial Monsoon ecozone because of its economic value and because the changing ecological conditions favoured it: the oil palm thrives in the light open conditions and it is fire resistant, even as a small seedling.
  • The domination of the raffia palm in the swamp forests as light restricting timber species were removed.
  • The introduction of useful exotic plants offset by an overall decline in biodiversity.


The stage two impact, through which we are living now, was initiated by a combination of a peaceful settled life, high agricultural production and health services. All these factors began to push the human population beyond ecological viability (by the 1960s), with growth rates of between 2.5% and 3% (doubling times of thirty and twenty-five years respectively).

The environmental impact has been a rapid and continuing intensification of the six factors described above, to give the present modern human ecosystems.

In the Niger Delta we can add to this an insatiable world demand for the region's oil and a corrupt, inefficient and environmentally careless oil industry. The result is the sad condition of the human environment in the Niger Delta today.


The social development of the Niger Delta is based upon the human economic impact. Six striking social indicators are evident.


Which are:

  • water-ways for communications, water and fish;
  • agricultural land;
  • forest resources;
  • roads and associated public transport;
  • health and education facilities;
  • employment; and
  • markets.

The greater the combination, the greater the attraction. Thus Port Harcourt is the greatest magnet for settlement in the Delta.


According to the 1991 census, Rivers State has a population of 3.98 million inhabitants and Delta State has 2.57 million. Rivers is slightly more urbanised than Delta, with 31 percent versus 25 percent of its population living in urban areas. Population growth rates in both states are estimated to be around 3 percent (ministry of Health, Rivers State, 1994). Since oil development began in the 1960s, immigration into the region has greatly increased........

The population densities for Rivers State and the former Bendel State are estimated to be 1.95 and 1.38 people/ha, respectively (Western Africa Department 1990, 116). However, state level data masks the very high population densities on habitable land in the riverine and coastal areas.'

Defining an Environmental Development Strategy for the Niger Delta: May 1995. Volume I - Industrial and Energy Operations Division West Central Africa Department of the World Bank.


Traditional activities in terms of shifting agriculture, hunting, fishing, gathering, crafts and marketing remain very important, especially amongst women, and are likely to remain important for a long time to come. Nonetheless, there is a definite and urbanising tendency towards employment in the oil and gas industry, in other secondary industry and in services.

Moreover, as rural human populations increase there is a trend towards a more settled agriculture in terms of tree crops and rice, and in terms of agro-industrial activity.

The resource conflicts arising from agro-industrial projects as discussed in Chapter 10. are one of the manifestations of the changing economic priorities.


Already, the three social indicators described above have created a society in which traditional systems of government have, to a large extent, been swept away.

In theory Nigeria is a Federal Republic where states have certain powers of government, which is supposed to come directly to the people through local government institutions. In practice, at least as far as the Niger Delta is concerned, Nigeria is a very centralised state, with state administrations operating as puppets of the central authority: Rivers, Bayelsa and Delta States, for instance, at the time of writing, have military administrators. Even the previous apparently democratic civilian state governments were equally subject to central military dictate, as the events of 1993 showed. Local governments do not work effectively because even if they were not also subject to military control, they have neither the financial resources or the capacity to properly administer or develop their areas. The reason for this state of affairs in the Niger Delta is to ensure that the oil continues to flow, regardless of any other considerations, and so that oil revenues reach the centre.

In other words administration of the Niger Delta as a whole has been cast to suit the financial demands of a central administration which is blind to the needs of local people.

Nonetheless, within local communities self-government survives, and is in some ways becoming stronger in response to the irrelevance of the state administration to local needs. This community government, which has its roots in antiquity, is based on a Council of Chiefs, and while it is open to corruption, there tends to be a fairly efficient degree of self-regulation.

In many communities in the Niger Delta, while the Council of Chiefs is exclusively male, it generally has a broad representation and is accessible to most members of the community. Moreover, while abuses are common, individual chiefs are often suspended or even chased away from the community for mis-deeds. Nonetheless, and particularly in oil producing areas, it is not uncommon for a chief to accept personal favours from oil companies in return for persuading their communities to accept conditions which may not actually be in the general interest of the community. Sometimes also, a chief may accept payments on behalf of community but not pass them on.

As a result of the obvious injustice arising from the attitude of the central administration to the communities of the Niger Delta there has been some local agitation for a recognition of a local voice. Statements to the press in early September 1996 by the Minister for Petroleum Resources suggested that central government is aware of this agitation and recognises that a solution to the problems of the Niger Delta and of Nigeria as a whole will have to include a 'grass-roots' voice in the decisions which affect the lives of local people.

Efficient government and sustainable development can only arise from the real participation of local people in government.


Although by no means a universal condition, poverty is the prevailing social trend in the Niger Delta and a social indication that all is not well. This trend towards poverty arises from a combination of seven interrelated causes:

  • a continuing degradation of ecosystems in terms of their ability to sustainably supply the resources required of them;
  • a fast growing population;
  • rapid and unplanned urbanisation;
  • uncoordinated and unsustainable development processes which favour the economically well placed and which are actually an economic cost to the economically disadvantaged;
  • a government development policy which is fixed upon maximising the income earning capacity of the oil and gas industries with a total disregard for the development needs of the mass of the population;
  • the capturing of a large proportion of the cash income arising from oil extraction by a military and political elite; and
  • the corruption of the Nigerian establishment by the oil industry.

The result is not only that, to use a cliché, the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer; it is not only that while some Nigerians, as a result of oil, are amongst the richest people on earth while the mass of Nigerians are now amongst the world's poorest, (in the 1970s, incredible as it seems now, Nigeria was a middle income country); but also, that Nigeria has got itself locked into a double economy so that it is, in a way, both a first world economy for the fortunate few and a third world economy for the unfortunate many.

In the Niger Delta, an expanding poor and urban population makes most resource and land use decisions. Their decisions are being driven by lack of development, stagnant agricultural productivity, negligible opportunities in urban areas, rapid population growth, tenuous property rights...

Poverty. Despite its vast oil reserves, the region remains poor. GNP per capita is below the national average of US$280. Unemployment in Port Harcourt, the capital of Rivers State, is 30 percent and is believed to be equally high in the rural areas of both states. The rural population commonly fish or practice subsistence agriculture, and supplement their diet and income with a wide variety of forest products. Education levels are below the national average and are particularly low for women. While 76% of Nigerian children attend primary school, this level drops to 30-40 percent in some parts of the Niger Delta. The poverty level in the Niger

Delta is exacerbated by the high cost of living. In the urban areas of Rivers State, the cost of living index is the highest in Nigeria (Rivers State - urban: 783; Lagos urban: 609.).

Defining an Environmental Development Strategy for the Niger Delta: May 1995. Volume I - Industrial and Energy Operations Division West Central Africa Department of the World Bank.


Given the poverty outlined above and visible injustice in the distribution of wealth in the Niger Delta, is it any wonder that there are so many manifestations of discontent with, and disrespect for those who are in authority? These manifestations are met with a ruthless military or mobile police jack-boot, with arbitrary arrests and detention, torture, and many examples of what has been described by world leaders as "judicial murder."

The murders of Nnah Uabari in Korokoro on the 25th October 1993, of Ken Saro-Wiwa on the 10th November 1995 in Port Harcourt, and of Joseph Kpakol on September the 22nd 1996 in Port Harcourt, are symbolic to ERA of the countless authorised murders which are the face of government in the Niger Delta today.


The human landscape resulting from the six social indicators briefly described above is discussed in the following chapters. Because ERA seeks always to understand the environment of the Niger Delta through the people who live in it, the discussions are based on real communities with whom ERA has worked. These communities include:

  • The Botam-Tai district of Ogoni in the Lowland Equatorial Monsoon Ecozone;
  • The Anyama district, just south of Yenagoa in the Freshwater Alluvial Equatorial Ecozone;
  • Sangana and Akassa Sand Barrier Island;
  • The Okoroba-Nembe district in the Brackishwater Alluvial Equatorial Ecozone (mangroves); and
  • A number of urban communities in Port Harcourt.

Our knowledge has developed in a circular way. By working with communities we get to know the ecosystems of which they are part, and we build up our understanding of the whole ecosystem. This leads us back to reassess earlier work and points us in new directions. For instance our early work in Ogoni in 1993 led us to the slum communities of Port Harcourt to consider them partly as the result of rural land degradation, and then to consider the urban areas as major components of the whole Niger Delta ecosystem. By the time we got to the Anyama district we were looking at the environment with the hindsight of a lot more knowledge than with which we had worked in Botem-Tai in Ogoni: in turn we learnt more at Anyama, for instance about the nature of rural human population densities, which made us reassess our views about Botem-Tai. Each community with whom we work raises new issues about people's relationship to ecosystems, so that we are continually reassessing our data.

The following chapters show how we describe ecosystems as a series of layers: topography; soils; the natural ecosystem (the inter-relationship of topography, soils and vegetation in a given climate); and people as part of the ecosystem. To understand the ecosystem at any place (be it in your own compound or on the farm or in the forest) one has to look at a section through these layers: it is like cutting through a layer cake.

We want to give you the reader a picture, in your mind's eye, of what it is like to be part of a human ecosystem that is not your own. And finally we want to stress that ecosystems are dynamic and when we describe an ecosystem and the human relationship to it we are, by necessity, describing it as it WAS at a point in time: not as it IS for ever.