Don’t privatize forests, educate the people

In this edition’s ‘Temperature Check’ column, campaigner Adesuwa Ero argues that local knowledge will be key to any transition away from fossil fuels in Nigeria.

In Nigeria pressure on natural resources driven by climate stress, alongside government. The link must be broken with Religion and climate change
In Nigeria the pressure on natural resources is driven by climate stress Photo: Stefan Heunis/Getty

Nigeria sits at both ends of the climate justice story. While the government gets around 80 per cent of its income from oil and gas extraction, large swathes of the population are on the frontline of the impacts of climate change. In my country, changing weather patterns have brought droughts and floods, destroyed crops, disrupted harvests, spread disease and exacerbated local conflicts. We need to break the link between religion and climate change. 

Erratic rainfall

Farmers in Nigeria – who make up 30 per cent of the population – face particular challenges. They rely on ever-more erratic rainfall for their crops, livestock, fisheries and for washing and preparing agricultural products. When I went to meet growers in central Plateau state for the NGO I work for, Environmental Rights Action (ERA), I encountered a bitter irony. Mystified farmers were turning to local religious leaders for an explanation for the destructive weather and being told that they themselves were at fault – their sinful behaviour provoking God’s wrath.

when people understand that bad energy policy is to blame – not bad behaviour – it means they are open to learning

In particular, the religious leaders blamed the recent surge in violence between cattle herders and farmers. In reality, pressure on natural resources driven by climate stress, alongside government failings and the spread of illegal arms, is a key factor behind this conflict, which has already claimed more than 1,300 lives in 2018. But local leaders believe the opposite to be true, mistaking the cause for the effect. They say it is the blood of the people being spilt upon the land that is making the rains falter, the rivers surge and crops fail.

Indigenous to scientific

These misconceptions must be challenged. Because when people understand that bad energy policy is to blame – not bad behaviour – it means they are open to learning and sharing the techniques that mean they can continue to produce food and sustain themselves. ERA staff and volunteers work with the most-affected communities on sustainable forestry, climate-friendly farming and renewable-energy projects, which bind indigenous knowledge to the latest scientific research. Without this local engagement, programmes for climate adaptation or mitigation are far less likely to succeed, whether run by charities, governments or other agencies.

Yet when it comes to the question of wealthy governments paying for climate damages – a key topic on the table at UN climate talks in Poland this December – local knowledge is sidelined. Instead, governments often prefer to finance ‘more efficient’ mining or privatized forestry schemes that generate financial returns for their country’s corporations, but barely help – or even obstruct – the transition to a sustainable world, and definitely don’t improve the daily lives of farmers in Nigeria.

At the COP24 summit in Katowice, wealthy governments will be under pressure to pay their fair share for the damage done by historical greenhouse emissions and aid poorer nations to adapt and make the transition to clean energy. But the crucial question of how that money is spent also needs to be decided. We risk large amounts of money being poured into government programmes that look good on paper but fail in practice.

Nigerian youth activist Benson Dotun Fasanya likes to say: ‘One person at a time, one family at a time, a group at a time, a community at a time can take an action that affects all.’ But, of course, local action by itself will not create the scale of change needed to achieve climate justice.

Energy transition

ERA is also working to bring about an energy transition in Nigeria itself. We want a shift away from an oil-driven economy – with its history of pollution, corruption and unequally distributed wealth – and develop democratically controlled renewables as part of a just transition that prioritizes green jobs. A Renewable Energy Bill, drafted by ERA and its partners, is due to be discussed soon at the National Assembly. If it passes, it would support the research, development and financing of clean energy, making it available and affordable to Nigerians.

Whether successful or not, the bill is a reminder that everyone, especially in industrialized nations that pollute the most, needs to pressure their governments on climate finance. There are many grassroots groups out there already doing this work. One way to measure the success of the Katowice talks will be to see whether, at the end of it, more of these people end up with the support they need.