Thick black smoke and flame billows from a Nigerian gas refinery.
Thick black smoke and flame billows from a Nigerian gas refinery. (Photo by PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP via Getty Images)

In Nigeria, Gas Giants Get Rich As Women Sink into Poverty

Women in Niger Delta say gas flaring is destroying their land and livelihoods while international gas companies like Eni and Shell make millions of dollars.
June 10, 2021, 1:45pm
tipping point callout
Tipping Point covers environmental justice stories about and, where possible, written by people in the communities experiencing the stark reality of our changing planet.

This article is published in partnership with VICE World News and The Fuller Project

For Beauty Alozie, a 28-year-old seamstress and mother of one, the heat in Ebocha is not normal. The rural, oil-rich town in Rivers State, at the heart of Nigeria’s Niger Delta region where Alozie was born and raised, is uncomfortably hot.

The source of this heat, which has a fume-like quality that stings the eyes, is man-made; industrial fires continuously spew in a process called gas flaring, the controversial practice of disposing waste gas from oil exploration by openly burning it. Flares eject ominous dark clouds, releasing harmful greenhouse gases that pollute soil and water sources, and contribute to the burden of climate change. It was previously seen as a necessary measure—if the gas from oil drilling is not flared, it could become explosive. It is possible to avoid: Newer, albeit more expensive technologies, now allow for the safe capture and transportation of the gas.

Advertisement

In Ebocha, gas flaring is wreaking havoc on the land and on its people, sinking women, in particular, into financial ruin and food insecurity. Women in Ebocha, who are often breadwinners as well as caretakers, say gas flaring is ruining their bodies, making it that much more difficult to work and support families. Alozie is just one of thousands living close to a gas flare in the Niger Delta. A few hundred meters from Alozie’s home is the root of some of her deepest worries: Ebocha’s crude oil flow station. Operated by Italian oil giant Eni through the local Nigerian Agip Oil Company subsidiary, or ‘Agip,’ the facility has been active for at least 30 years, well before she was born. 

“A lot of things don’t survive here anymore,” said Alozie, perched on a plastic seat in front of her house,  looking at a neighbor’s healthy cassava farm nearby. Alozie thinks it might do poorly come harvest time: “The common cassava, because of the flaring, doesn’t yield as bountifully as it used to and the waters are condemned.”

A new Nigerian oil refinery in Port Harcourt was built in 2015.

A new Nigerian oil refinery in Port Harcourt was built in 2015. (Photo by PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP via Getty Images)

For decades, Nigeria has made commitments to phase out gas flaring, but in oil-producing Ebocha, where gas flaring is still common, trucks of Nigerian soldiers protect the community’s two active flaring sites and oil-processing tanks that tower like giant, frozen robots.

“A lot of things don’t survive here anymore.”

Meanwhile, Nigeria has missed two self-imposed deadlines since the turn of the century to stop gas flaring, and after failing to meet a third deadline last year, shifted the goal post again, this time, indefinitely. As international gas companies like Eni and Shell reap millions of dollars off the resources in the region, women here say gas flaring is destroying their lives. Though Ebocha quite literally sits on oil money, the crude has been a curse.

“I’ve always been aware of this heat, this gas flaring, ever since I was a child,” Alozie said. “As much as gas is helpful, the flaring has caused more harm than good in this area.”

Advertisement

Early in the mornings, tireless women of the Niger Delta push wheelbarrows filled with farming tools. They balance baskets on their heads, wrappers tied over their chests as they set out to till the land. Their skin bears the marks of years of toiling under the baking sun. Here, it is women who feed families. 

In Ebocha, where women have traditionally farmed or fished as breadwinners, the flaring’s effects are visible and punishing. On a given day, women on bicycles ramble past a row of flare stacks that look like tall torches of golden flames licking angrily at the sky. Gas released during flaring mixes with water in the atmosphere and causes acid rain—dark sooty rainwater that people here say is corrosive, poking huge holes in zinc roofing sheets and killing crops. As more farmlands fall to oil spills and low yield, there is less profit to be made.

The Nkisa River, which flows beneath the bridge on one end of town and from where women once fetched water, now carries filmy, rainbow colors.

In Okwuzi, a community close to Ebocha and where Peace Bathuel, a middle-aged farmer and former spokesperson for a women’s collective in Ebocha, grew up, gas leaks have caused explosions and oil spills destroying women's farms. It’s difficult to get good crops from a parcel of land once touched by oil, Bathuel said. The Nkisa River, which flows beneath the bridge on one end of town and from where women once fetched water, now carries filmy, rainbow colors. 

Oil pollutes the water close to an illegal oil refinery on in the Niger Delta region near the city of Warri.

Oil pollutes the water close to an illegal oil refinery on in the Niger Delta region near the city of Warri. (Photo by STEFAN HEUNIS/AFP via Getty Images)

The degraded land sinks women into poverty, according to Idongesit Smart, a project manager at Kebetkache, an NGO helping women organize in the Niger Delta. In recent years, the cost of garri, a starchy flour made from cassava root and a staple in Nigeria, has soared in the region. Many women plant cassava, but they say their yields have been decreasing, although, they add, it’s hard to tell by how much. 

“So many women in the Niger Delta are poor because their source of livelihood has been destroyed,” said Smart, who is also from the region. Although Rivers State is among the top 15 richest states in the country, data from Nigeria’s statistics agency shows that women living in rural areas like Ebocha and surviving only on subsistence agriculture are poorer than those in urban areas. In the past, Smart recalled, garri was plentiful. Recently, she called her mother in search of the root. But she didn’t have any cassava from which to make it, Smart said. “The ones she planted had died.” 

Advertisement

Understandably, the further away from the flares farmers plant crops, “the better the yield will be,” according to Robert Onyeneke of the Ebonyi State-based Center for Climate Change and Development. The heat from gas flaring, coupled with acid rain, negatively affects the soil, and crops like cassava can’t easily recover. The pollution has driven farmers who can afford to abandon their land to search for more fertile soil in non-flaring communities. 

Women get fish on the Bodo river which has been damaged repeatedly by devastating oil spills.

Women get fish on the Bodo river which has been damaged repeatedly by devastating oil spills. (Photo by YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP via Getty Images)

Children wade through a mangrove swamp covered with crude oil on their way home from fishing in Goi, Nigeria.

Children wade through a mangrove swamp covered with crude oil on their way home from fishing in Goi, Nigeria. (Photo by Jacob Silberberg/Getty Images)

An Eni spokesperson from the Italian company rejected blame for environmental damage. “NAOC [the Nigerian Agip Oil Company, Eni’s local subsidiary] has a program of continuous monitoring of air quality at its facilities, in line with the applicable regulatory requirements,” the spokesperson said. “Results show that the air quality parameters are within the regulatory limits." The company, they added, has reduced “flaring by 92% in the last 14 years and is committed to reduc[ing] routine flaring to zero within 2025.” Shell Nigeria did not respond to requests for comment.

But with fewer farmers in the community and soaring inflation rates across Nigeria, food prices, in general, are increasing, prompting fears of food insecurity. Unemployment is high in Ebocha, especially for women, and the coronavirus pandemic has only made things more dire. 

Advertisement

Meanwhile, the cost of living is rising, with Nigeria facing the worst inflation in four years. Instead of farming, women like Alozie opt for other more dependable but historically less profitable or revered professions, like tailoring. She earns roughly $360 a month from sewing dresses for women in Ebocha, which she said is double the earnings of an average farmer.

Alozie dreams of leaving Ebocha and Nigeria entirely, to join the migration exodus of tens of thousands of the country's young men and women to places like Canada and Europe. Most of her friends have already left Ebocha, she said, to look for jobs in the bustling state capital city, Port Harcourt. Like her, they looked for vocational jobs right after high school, instead of pursuing farming or college degrees since there are so few white-collar jobs available.

“Education is a waste of time,” said Alozie.

Sometimes, when fear takes hold, Alozie picks up her smartphone and Googles how gas flaring harms the human body. But there’s not much she can do; inevitably, she closes the internet tabs, one by one.

She can’t escape the side effects of the flares. Angry red dots cover the insides of her arms, contrasting sharply with her fair skin. “It’s uncomfortable, it itches,” she said. Her baby also has the pink rash dotting his body. “I try not to think about it. It is God that saves most of us here,” she said.

Angry red dots cover the insides of her arms, contrasting sharply with her fair skin.

The rashes are common in the area, as are eye infections, chronic cough and pneumonia according to a local nurse at a government hospital who wished to remain anonymous due to fears of reprisal. “For pregnant women, it is even worse,” she said. In January, a severe “strange cough” made its way around Ebocha, residents say, sparking fears that both the gas flaring and the COVID-19 pandemic were taking their toll.

Then there are the distressing number of stillbirths, reported anecdotally by both the nurse and local women. The Fuller Project and VICE World News could not independently confirm that gas flaring is causing stillbirths, due to lack of local research, but the effects of gas flaring have been found to lead to potentially negative outcomes for pregnant women. In Eagle Ford, Texas, women stand a 50% chance of having preterm births, according to researchers at the University of California in Los Angeles. 

Advertisement

Around the world, countries like Nigeria continue to flare gas despite the known risks and enormous toll it takes on communities and on the environment. Russia flares the most gas, followed by Iraq, Iran, the United States, Algeria and Venezuela, according to recent World Bank data. Nigeria is the seventh biggest gas-flaring country.

Around the world, countries like Nigeria continue to flare gas despite the known risks and enormous toll it takes on communities and on the environment.

Nigeria is part of the World Bank’s Global Gas Flaring Reduction Partnership (GGFR), a campaign to end flaring by 2030, which the institution says will help mitigate global warming effects. Over the past fifteen years, Nigeria has “steadily reduced its flaring by some 70% percent,” said Zubin Bamji, the program manager of the World Bank’s project. The country has also attempted to outlaw gas flaring and has introduced fines for erring oil companies. Still, these flares make the country one of Africa’s biggest polluters. A bill that would penalize the practice except for emergencies has been delayed for more than 10 years.

Gas flaring seen from above at Shell's Cawtharine Channel in Niger Delta on March 22, 2013.

Gas flaring seen from above at Shell's Cawtharine Channel in Niger Delta on March 22, 2013. (PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP via Getty Images)

In 2004, through a public-private agreement, the Nigerian Liquified Natural Gas project (NLNG), which turns gas into liquids for sale to Middle Eastern and European markets, was launched. The volume of gas flared in ratio to gas produced fell to 10% in 2018, down from 53% in 2002, partly due to the activities of the NLNG and other gas utilization efforts.

But despite relative progress, gas flare rates have been ticking back up in recent years, according to investigations by Deutsche Welle, and data from Nigeria’s National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency. Flaring levels dipped again in 2020, but only due to the pandemic, according to a recent report by the World Bank.

Advertisement

Bathuel, the local farmer, is distinctly unmoved by Nigeria’s gas vision. She’s heard it all before, she said. Alozie, too, has little hope that anything will change. She’s afraid of raising her son here. 

It’s more than just the impacts on farming and health: In recent decades, militant gangs have risen, protesting against the government and big oil companies, accusing both of environmental destruction and slow development that have seen youths go jobless. Sometimes, the militants turn on each other. When fighting between gangs breaks out, women are rarely spared. Although claiming to protest environmental degradation, some of these gangs, mostly young, unemployed men from all over the Delta, sometimes break open pipelines to steal and cook crude oil themselves, setting up dangerous, illegal refineries, adding to the sooty dust that often settles over Rivers State and other Niger Delta states. 

Many people here say they have lost the will to fight or protest, resigned to an oily fate as protests against Agip in Ebocha often yield little or end in violence. Bathuel blames the oil companies for fueling instability in the Niger Delta with what she calls “their divide and rule” tactic.

Empty oil drums are seen at the site of a recently destroyed illegal oil refinery on April 19, 2017 in the Niger Delta region near the city of Warri.

Empty oil drums are seen at the site of a recently destroyed illegal oil refinery on April 19, 2017 in the Niger Delta region near the city of Warri. (Photo by STEFAN HEUNIS/AFP via Getty Images)

Women here, in particular, have little say over their future—or their land. They currently cannot hold positions of power in their communities and they cannot inherit the land on which they work, according to local laws. Only men are allowed on the council of chiefs, the group that speaks for the community, headed by a local traditional leader. It is the men who negotiate with big oil companies in the region, despite women often taking on more of the invisible work in the homes as food providers. 

“Women have to be included in all decision-making processes in the Niger Delta. It is important. It is a must. You can’t speak for me when I am not there,” said Smart of Kebetkache, the women-focused NGO. “If you want to know my problems, invite me and listen to me talk, know where my pain is, know where my anger is.”

“The money they are taking is blood money. They are not better than Judas.”

For a long time, women collectives in the community have been pushing for the Rivers state government and international oil companies like Agip to equip them with vocational skills as farming proves less profitable. But so far, they say, they’ve yet to see meaningful action.

The Niger Delta is “the goose that lays the golden egg,” said one 54-year-old in Ebocha, a man who asked not to be named out of fear of reprisals. He blames the Nigerian government for profiting off of its own people’s misery. “If the goose dies, they don’t care as long as the golden eggs continue to come,” he said. “The money they are taking is blood money. They are not better than Judas.”

Shola Lawal is a Lagos-based contributing reporter with The Fuller Project, a nonprofit newsroom reporting on global issues affecting women.