Niger Delta Ecosystems: the ERA Handbook/The Human Ecosystems: The Botem-Tai District
17 THE HUMAN ECOSYSTEMS: THE BOTAM-TAI DISTRICT
- The Natural Ecosystem
- Natural and Viable Society
- Modern Society
- The Economy
- The Environment as Seen by Local People
- Social and Political Status
- Addendum: Shell in Ogoni
The village is 27 kilometres Southwest of Port Harcourt, in the centre of Ogoni in the Lowland Equatorial Monsoon ecozone, (Map 4). The typical landscape of the ecozone area is called derived savannah or farm-bush which covers much of the old coastal terrace of the Niger Delta containing the areas of highest overall population density: generally the country through which the East-West road passes, around Ughelli, Ahoada, Elele, North of Port Harcourt, Bori and Eket (Map 3B.). Increasingly however much of the landscape is becoming dominated by urban, industrial, oil industry and plantation activities.
Communities that ERA visited near Botam as part of its survey included Korokoro, Gbene-Ue, Ueken and Kpite. And further afield Bori, Onne, Nchia, Kono-Bo-Ue, Teeralle, Sogho, Guara, Bien-Guara and K-Dere.
Botem-Tai is on the alluvial Ogoni Plain, about 30m above sea level. The plain is a very flat dome which falls almost imperceptibly in all directions, except where is joins, as a narrow waist, topographically similar country between the Bonny River system and the Imo River to the Northwest. In the North and East the plain falls to the lower Imo Valley; in the West it falls to the coastal flats of the Bonny estuary; and in the South to the swamps, creeks and islands of Andoni and Opobo.
The plain is indented with shallow, slow moving rivers that sometimes stop at depressions, to make seasonal swamps and lakes. The main indentation is the Bori river system that runs West to East. Despite its flatness and the occurrence of clay deposits, plain is well drained.
17.3 THE SOILS
The natural soils of the Ogoni plain are Oxisols, the typical soils of the tropical rainforest, described in detail in Chapter 5.5.5. They develop in hot, rainy climates where there is regular downward movement of water, and where there are large amounts of added biomass. Because of leaching, Oxisols tend to be sandy and rather more so on the Ogoni Plain which is formed by sand deposits. Under rainforest, in the natural ecosystem, this sandiness is offset by a high surface concentration of humus resulting in high productivity and efficient recycling of nutrients.
Soil profiles observed in the Botem-Tai district show deep, reddish-brown, well drained, loosely structured, uniform profiles of sandy soils, the clay increasing with depth. In addition, the seasonal swamps gave evidence of isolated areas of sub-surface clay layers. Also there are the humus rich riverine soils created by seasonal waterlogging and a low level of leaching because of locally high water tables.
The sandy nature of the Ogoni soils is why clearing the forest for agriculture results in a very rapid loss of the humus that is essential to the structure and nutrient status of sandy soils; regular burning ensures that very little humus is returned to the soil. Typically, early high yields crash and it is very difficult to restore soil fertility. Impoverished soils, and low and declining yields are the recurrent complaint of the local people.
17.4 THE NATURAL ECOSYSTEM
The natural ecosystem of the Botem-Tai district, that is before the major impact of human population upon it, will have been Lowland Tropical Rainforest. It would have been similar, but by no means identical, to forests still seen today in isolated parts of the Niger Delta that are not subject to seasonal inundation and where the soils are more than one metre deep. During the long wet season, the flatness of the country would have allowed the rivers to spread out to form swamps and lakes; some of the lakes may have remained wet all year.
The natural ecosystem of the Ogoni Forest will have been unique for a number of reasons: it received higher rainfall than the forests in the otherwise similar conditions to the North between the Bonny and Imo Rivers. It was isolated from the lowland tropical rainforests further west, and by the swamp forests of the Niger Delta; and although the Imo River is not a significant boundary, there is only a narrow band of country with conditions similar to the Ogoni Plain, between the Imo and Cross Rivers.
Thus the Ogoni Forest would have presented a uniform pattern across the flat Ogoni Plain, seasonally waterlogged but draining rapidly between November and March. Alongside the slow moving rivers the forest would have been more swampy with a less dense tree canopy, having trees with stilt roots and pneumorrhizae (roots that grow upwards where downward movement is impeded by, amongst other things, water), with palms (raffia, oil and maybe rattan) and tall shrubs and bamboo in more open places. Sedges will have dominated the wider depressions where they were not entirely flooded. Except on its Northern and Eastern Imo River boundary, the Ogoni Forest would have graded through ecotones into mangrove forests to the South and West, and to drier lowland tropical rainforest to the Northwest. In especially favoured conditions where the soils were very fertile the giant Silk Cotton Tree, Ceiba pentandra, would have towered above the forest canopy.
The animal population will have included many of the animals still found in refuges in Southern Nigeria, and some that are said to be extinct like the giant pangolin.
17.5 NATURAL AND VIABLE SOCIETY
In the Penguin Atlas of African History, Collin McEvedy says that the Negroes' original homeland was the forest and bush country of West Africa, so it is likely that mankind had been part of the Ogoni Forest ecosystem for hundreds of thousands of years.
However is was the advent of viable mankind into the area about 10,000 to 5000 years ago that the natural ecosystem would have begun to feel the their impact. Hunter gathering communities would have made tracks though the forest, provoking seed distribution of useful plants, and, where they were accessible, taking out trees for canoes. Moreover, the populations of some of the slower moving animals such as the elephant and the giant pangolin will have been subject to his hunting, while his dogs would have worried smaller faster ground moving animal such as duikers. Later, isolated forest exploiting settlements will have made small clearings and encouraged the local predominance of plants such as the raffia and oil palms, and bush mango.
However the overall impact of viable mankind would have been small and easily absorbed by the ecosystem: the area was generally inaccessible and unattractive to human settlement that preferred estuaries and riversides, and the open savannah country North of the rainforests.
Some tradition has it that the area was settled by people from Ghana: a conceivable theory because the Atlantic coast and the numerous protected and interlinked creeks and lagoons inland that stretch from the Volta Delta to the Bonny Estuary make a very good corridor for human movement. In any event it is likely that there was some movement of people up into the area from the South and the Bonny Estuary. However the Ogoni language is similar to the Ibibio and Efik languages and the most likely settlement theory is that the Ogoni people moved into the area from the lower Imo river which would have been a transport route of the family of people who now make up Ibibios, Efiks and Ogonis.
Like much of the interior of the Niger Delta, in more modern times, the more accessible parts of the Ogoni Forest may have been a place of refuge from more dynamic and better organised cultures around it. Although it will have been a refuge from slave trading, as both the Bonny and Imo Rivers were major routes, slave trading will have had the overall effect of inhibiting population growth.
Until the end of the last century the Ogoni probably lived in the more accessible areas of the Ogoni Plain, farming, fishing and hunting: along the Imo River, on the navigable creeks in the South and West, and along the Bori River. The most important settlements were Eleme, Nchia and Bori (transit points in the slave trade), and the major European influences were from Bonny and Opobo on the coast and missionary activity from east of the Imo River. Apart from small hunting camps and some nomadic movement there was very little settlement in the interior of the Ogoni Plain until the turn of the century.
Settlement was encouraged by population growth resulting from the ending of the slave trade and the pacification of the local people by the British (and conceivably by a desire to escape British taxes). Farming settlements were established in the forest, and from a small base in the 1920s the population grew very fast, women having from 4 to 8 surviving children.
Up to 1940/50, the forest would have been cleared to establish land title and to provide new farmland. However because land was until then relatively plentiful, farmers would have been happy to return to land to re-farm it rather than to take on the extra work of clearing new forest.
It seems that the present day forest shrines are the sites of early settlements, sometimes no more than single family homesteads, suggesting that some settlements failed or were abandoned like the more modern abandoned Korobo compound at Gbene-Ue. Some may have been burial grounds.
17.6 MODERN SOCIETY
By the 1930s the Ogoni Forest would have been substantially depleted, as useful tree species were removed, as animal species were hunted (elephants and chimpanzees were probably near extinction by then) as patches of farming and fallow land became larger, and as exotic trees invaded the landscape (primarily oil-palms which will not grow in high rainforest). However with long fallow periods the ecosystem would have remained viable, able to withstand shocks such as drought.
However accelerated population growth, caused by a combination of a peaceful settled life, high agricultural production and health services began to push the human population beyond ecological viability by about 1960. The last substantial areas of forest (apart from the shrines and the riverine forest) were cleared at this time.
Thus a vicious cycle commenced: growth of a human farming population on a fixed area of land, causing fallow periods to become shorter and thus the sandy, easily leached soils to become increasingly degraded, demanding harder work for lower yields of cassava which is all that can be grown on the impoverished soils. With each cycle the soils become more impoverished and the pressure on the land becomes greater, while the population continues to grow.
Today the pressure is so great that wet areas, previously not farmed, are being pressed into service for quick cassava crops in the dry season, thus threatening dryseason water sources. Even the forest shrines (the last forests and symbols of cultural pride) are being destroyed to provide extra farm land and those that remain are tiny, surrounded by a sea of cassava and fallow land and, in their degraded state, prey to uncontrolled bush burning.
The degradation is total and continues. The biodiversity of the area has shrunk dramatically: for instance the high tropical rainforest would have carried about 70 tree species per hectare but now one can walk for miles and see only oil palms, Anthocleista (a fire-resistant pioneer tree common as two species in dry and swamp conditions), and the occasional sick-looking Mango. Regeneration of woody species during fallow periods is restricted by the infestation of Awolowa weed (Chromalaena odorata) an exotic Southeast Asian weed which actively stops forest regeneration. Biological productivity has similarly crashed so that the acid sandy soils, without the addition of forest biomass, are undergoing rapid topical podsolisation.
Parallel to the spiral of land degradation has been the rapid growth of the oil industry, which arrived in Ogoni in the early 1960s. It is not surprising that the local community should blame the industry for all its problems, because as pipelines were laid across their land, as the oil was pumped out, and as surplus gas was flared night and day for thirty years, the land became poor. The apparent correlation is a coincidence, but the growth of the oil industry, the wealth of which might have been expected to mitigate the rural decline, has created additional problems: oil industry infrastructure has taken away scarce agricultural land and pipelines have, in addition, blocked footpaths; oil spills contaminate water; gas flaring, until 1993, took away the calm of the night and, in the rainy climate, produced local concentrations of sulphuric and sulphurous acid rain that damaged tin roofs and crops; but above all, the wealth of the oil industry, so visibly flaunted by a lucky few but tantalisingly out of the reach of most people exacerbates social discontent caused by the degraded environment.
The problems of the people of Botem-Tai and Ogoni are not helped by the poor general economic condition of Nigeria and the inefficiency of the government system that is unable to maintain public services in rural areas. Moreover, the rural aid that comes into Nigeria bypasses communities like Botem-Tai, which might, for instance, have been expected to benefit from the European Community oil palm belt project, that in the early 1990s was largely diverted to new agro-industrial projects rather than to the small, poor palm fruit, oil and kernel producers.
17.7 THE ECONOMY
17.7.1 AGRICULTURE AND RELATED ACTIVITY
The prime economic activity is farming of which there are three types: arable, on land outside the village; compound; and plantations. The three most important agricultural activities are: growing cassava and processing garri: palm oil and palm kernel production; and raffia wine and gin production.
Arable farming is dominated by cassava for the production of gari which is the staple diet. All the community land that is not riverine forest or forest shrines is farmed in the way common to most of Africa: land is left fallow until it is required (1 to 5 years depending upon availability), when is slashed, cleared, burnt and planted. Very rarely other crops are seen planted with the cassava: mainly fluted pumpkin, yams and pineapples. No fertiliser is used.
A major feature of the arable farming landscape is the oil-palms (sometimes planted, but usually opportunist) which farmers maintain at 2 or 3 to the hectare, and palm oil and kernel production, using primitive methods, is a long standing activity.
Compound farming, around houses in the village and outside, benefits from household manure which is often quite deliberate: refuse being piled around yams and plantains. Soil profiles through compound gardens often show nearly a metre of black humus-rich soil above a well structured sandy-loam. Also there are many clumps of plantains in villages that stand high above the general ground level on heaps of humus-rich soil.
A feature of the Botem-Tai, typical of compound agriculture, is the Loos (pronounced as in hello). A Loo is a homestead built away from the village by someone who is exploiting a resource: he may be a palm-wine tapper, a farmer, a hunter, a fisherman, a canoe builder or a sawyer. Typically loos are sited beside rivers, isolated from the village and sometimes cut off in the wet season (the original settlements in the district may have started as loos). From an environmental point of view loos are interesting because the occupant is essentially an agro-forester inasmuch as he is farming in an intensive sustainable manner with a mixture of trees and perennial and annual crops, on a very small piece of land. This points to a possible way of increasing agricultural production on small bits of land while at the same time increasing tree cover and improving soil conditions.
Tree crops in compounds include: Oil Palm, Coconut Palm, Raffia Palm, Mango, Breadfruit, Jackfruit, Citrus, African Pear (Dacryodes edulis), Avocado, Cashew, Papaya, Cocoa, Guava, Plantain, Banana, Kola Nut, Bush Mango (Irvingia gabonensis), and Bush Pepper (?). Other crops include: Pineapple, Alligator Pepper (related to the gingers and cardamoms in the Zingiber family), Yams, Cocoyams, Mammy Yams, Cassava, Cow Pea, Pepper (Capsicum), Garden egg, Bitter leaf, Hibiscus, Lemon Grass, Sweet Potato and Fluted Pumpkin. Livestock include goats, chickens and ducks. A typical compound is less than 1,000 square metres, and may have 10 people living in it.
Only four examples of plantation agriculture were seen in the district: a new small oil palm plantation, two small abandoned rubber and cocoa plantations (all of these less than one hectare), and a larger abandoned rubber plantation.
17.7.2 OTHER ECONOMIC ACTIVITY
Other primary industry includes hunting, fishing and timber felling. Hunting (except for grass-cutters - cane rats - and giant rats) and timber felling are not sustainable and are declining. This is because local forests are increasingly confined to a very narrow margin of swamp and seasonal swamp along the rivers, and even this is being cleared in places to give a quick dry-season cassava crop.
Non-agricultural secondary industry is limited and dependant partly or wholly on imports: tailoring; cabinet-making; (some timber now comes from Cross River State); canoe building (declining because there are few suitable trees left); baking (industrial and domestic); brick-making; and building and carpentry.
Service industry includes: local government (sic), traditional herbalists and midwives; bicycle repairs; sewing; watch repairs, and a restaurant and bars.
Generally the economic activity of the Botem-Tai district is dependent on declining agricultural yields. Cassava is the main crop and much food is imported including, rice, flower, beans, fish and palm oil. Incomes are low and it seems that much of the money in the communities comes from members who work in Port Harcourt and elsewhere.
17.8 THE ENVIRONMENT AS SEEN BY LOCAL PEOPLE
As Map 7 shows, Botem-Tai people see their village and the roads leading to it as huge, set in an incidental agricultural landscape; whereas to someone passing by on the Federal Road the landscape is an endless plain of oil-palm-bush, the villages so incidental to it as to be almost un-noticed. However, the local people are right, for the human element of the landscape is the most important: it is a landscape created by mankind.
They see themselves as part of a much wider world and their communications with that world are important (the bus stop is a very important place), because it represents access to resources that are no longer available at home. But the intrusion of that world into their lives as represented by the oil industry is sensed as a threat: the oil flares, the pipelines and the oil spills are constantly referred to.
The land is seen as the resources that are taken from it. Perhaps the area of cultivated land is seen as small compared with the village because it does not produce much, although the women who carry the produce into the village on their heads comment on the big distances between some of their farms and the village.
Little reference is made to forest apart from something that was in the past and only one chief who regretted its loss.
Chief S............ of Bien Guara:
There is no forest left; now we know the use of the forest; God did not make mistakes; we are misusing the land; it is we who make the forest to farms.
The typical understanding of the environmental problems facing the Botem-Tai people is voiced by two women:
Mrs D. A.:
The land is not fertile at all. This is not what used to be. I agree that there is great pressure on the land. But does that problem come from God? God has a way of balancing things. If not of these artificial problems created by other people, I think the problem of land pressure would have sorted itself out. Our grandfathers know how to do these things. They would consult the gods and everything would be all right. We have sinned and that is why foreigners have come to spoil our land. We must retrace our steps.
Mrs N. A.: The land has changed. ... I do not know what is responsible for the low yield. I do not believe it is over-pressure on the land... There must have been some outside influence, we do not understand. I do not know what is responsible for the low yield. ... Some say the ground has been poisoned. Others say the air is not good because it is polluted. Others say our ancestors are angry with us. ...Me personally, I do not know...
The general feeling is that pollution from the oil industry and extracting the oil away has made the soil infertile. No one has any doubt that oil spills have polluted water supplies and fishing resources: the evidence is clear.
17.9 SOCIAL AND POLITICAL STATUS
Except for schools, public services do not exist in Botem-Tai or in any of the communities that we visited in 1993/94. There is no piped water, no electricity and no health services.
Men, who make most of the decisions, run the society. The condition of women is wretched. They do most of the farm work; they process the gari (and in some communities there are no gari-grinders); they do all the cooking and they look after children; they bear in excess of 6 children and can expect 20% to die; if their husbands die or they give birth to children outside marriage they can expect little support; and they have to depend on traditional medicine (often very efficient and sensitive) in child-birth and for all the other usual women's ailments.
All members of society appear to suffer from frustration for themselves and for their children. This arises from poor agricultural yields, the lack of education and opportunities, their apparent abandonment by the government, but above all by the manifestation of the oil industry in their mist that seems to represent huge wealth and yet has given nothing to them except for the impoverishment of their land. This sense of frustration is most apparent amongst the young men and women who want a better education but if they get it find that they can do little with it. The young men particularly, hang aimlessly around their communities (sometime helping their mothers on the farm) or migrate to the slums of Port Harcourt in search of work and something better; we estimate that 40% of the males in Botem-Tai live outside the community.
17.10 ADDENDUM: SHELL IN OGONI
This book is supposed to be a technical guide to the human ecology of the Niger Delta and the current pressing human ecological issues which the local people, politicians and commercial interests have to face. It is not an emotional or political diatribe but an objective presentation of the facts. However it is utterly impossible for anyone to visit Ogoni without becoming painfully aware of the tragedy which has visited the land as a result of the arrogant and ignorant activities of the oil industry in the land.
In its 1994 report on a visit to Ogoni ERA wrote: the frustration (of the local people) expressed itself in a mass movement called the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People - MOSOP. MOSOP and its charismatic leader, Ken Saro-Wiwa, is seen as the prime focus of hope in many people's lives and the one positive thing in a modern society that is careless of them: the people whom we met were proud to belong to the movement and the MOSOP Ogoni anthem was often sung. But despite their many problems and partly due to the influence of MOSOP we were convinced that Botem-Tai and Ogoni society is well disciplined and self organised.
Since then many dramatic events have taken place in Ogoni which will be well known to the readers of this book. It is not the place of the book to judge these events which will be better judged in the light of historical perspective. However we have no doubt that the people of Ogoni have suffered a significant injustice as a result of the exploitation of oil in their land. Worse still, the Ogoni case is typical of the poor treatment that local people throughout the Lowland Equatorial Monsoon ecozone of the Niger Delta have suffered because of the carelessness and inhumanity of the oil industry.