November 21st, 2008
01:12 PM ET

"Nothing but death in the toxic air"

Editor’s note: CNN’s award-winning Planet in Peril returns this year to examine the conflict between growing populations and natural resources. Anderson Cooper, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, and Lisa Ling travel to the front lines of this worldwide battle. Ling has been a co-host of The View, correspondent for The Oprah Winfrey Show, National Geographic and Channel One. She filed this blog from Nigeria.

Lisa Ling
AC360° Special Correspondent

I’m so upset by what I experienced here today that I can barely think straight.

I’m in the Niger Delta in southern Nigeria, a place essential to the U.S. economy.
The communities along the delta literally live atop a virtual goldmine—black gold that literally make’s the world’s engines run. Oil. Underneath the surface of the ground here, lies one of the richest sources of crude oil on the planet.

Nigeria is the 5th largest supplier of oil to the United States and is the 12th biggest oil producer in the world. It was discovered here in the 1950’s, and big oil companies have been pumping hundreds of billions of dollars worth of oil out of the ground here ever since. Over the years, it’s made some people colossally rich. Colossally.

Logic would suggest that the people living above this tremendously lucrative resource would benefit from its riches. But the situation here defies logic. The millions of people who live along the delta are considered some of the world’s poorest. There is no electricity and clean water and basic services like medicine and quality education are severely lacking.

How can this be?
The exorbitant amount of money that’s been made here has flowed not into the pockets of the locals, but into the coffers of oil companies and the hands of corrupt government officials. For years, oil companies have been extracting oil from here with little regard for how it’s affected the communities that surround their operations. Allegations of payoffs to local officials here are rife. Anyone with a pair of eyes would see that the fortunes being generated from Nigeria’s abundant oil supply have not been distributed anywhere close to fairly.

It gets worse. Since 1976, there have been well over 6,000 oil spills that have resulted in the contamination of the water and land off of which these communities have lived for generations. The amount of oil that’s been spilled here is 50 times more than what the Exxon Valdez released. Miles and miles of pipeline have been laid underground in the region, some of which are decades old and corroding. While in country, we were told that four months prior, a large oil spill had occurred in the Bodo region, which had only recently been clamped—three months after the breach. Contrary to Shell’s initial reports of sabotage, were told from community members that an old pipeline had fractured resulting a massive spewing of oil into the delta. We traveled by boat to find the source of the spill.

The whole way there we witnessed miles of waterway and territory blanketed by unrelenting thick brown sludge. It is a region surrounded by mangroves that should be incredibly diverse ecosystems. Typically crawling with bugs and mosquitoes, nothing but death wafted in the toxic smelling air—it was devastatingly apocalyptic. If this happened anywhere in U.S., the National Guard would have to be immediately deployed to quell the mutinous uproar that would inevitably ensue. To put it bluntly: heads would roll.

The people who live along the Niger Delta have survived on subsistence fishing and agriculture for decades. When oil spills occur, they cannot even fish for their own survival. Contamination reigns in every conceivable way—it pollutes the water, kills the fish, soils the land, fills the air—it destroys everything. We saw a small group of thin boys wearing tattered clothes and carrying fishing poles. They told us that they had been walking for several miles and were in search of an area that was less contaminated for fishing. They said they hadn’t caught anything since the spill occurred. Our escort whispered that he felt the boys would have to travels for many miles more if they are to find a place even remotely clean in which to fish. I spent only a few hours in the area and my eyes started to water and I began to feel nauseated. Imagine what it’s like for the people who live here. I was told that it will take 10-15 years to clean up, if the process even begins at all. Ten to fifteen years!

We had an interview scheduled with of Shell operations in Nigeria and were promised a visit to their largest off shore site in the country. We traveled all the way to Lagos and incurred large costs to secure the required permits and miscellaneous obligatory extras as per the government and Shell. When the day arrived, we were told that both the interview and the trip to the platform had been canceled. Whether it was their intention or not, we certainly felt like we’d been jerked around.

I couldn’t help but think about the rancorous debate that’s being waged in American over off-shore drilling in the Alaskan Arctic. It’s been pitting environmentalists against the oil industry for years. When oil spills happen in the Niger Delta, hardly anyone—even in Nigeria—hears about it. Yet, it obliterates people’s way of life and literally blackens an entire area that is already severely challenged.

The tension in the region is rising fast. Without other viable alternatives, people are rushing to link up with the many militant groups that have sprung up over the years that proclaim that the only way to get anything is through violent means. Robbery, kidnapping and murder have become rampant in this paradoxically oil rich nation.

I thought about the boys I’d met earlier in the day. I wondered how long they would continue to walk and walk before deciding to just take what they need to live—by force if necessary.

Filed under: Lisa Ling • Nigeria • Planet in Peril
soundoff (6 Responses)
  1. Jeffrey Burger

    Its unfortunate that we have reached a point that we need oil at any cost.

    I drive a car like everyone else.

    Dont spend a lot of time dwelling on the oils spills and effect on the local countries.

    I just wish that our politicians spend less time on fixing our financial system and more time on working out any renewable resources or biodiesel as alternatives to Gasoline.

    Thank you,

    Africa is still Crying...

    November 22, 2008 at 8:27 pm |
  2. Eric and Kumyul Albone

    Thank you Lisa for your report. The shocking thing is that this doesn’t shock because it too often what we have come to expect. The importance is that you highlight it so that it isn’t hidden, and the more people know about these situations the better. The only real solution can come from within the communities themselves, not from outside, but the more we can do to help the communities mobilise their own institutions and shame their governments, the better. Your report is a very important part of that process.

    Eric and Kumyul Albone, Bristol, England

    November 22, 2008 at 5:39 pm |
  3. pat

    Amazing story Lisa. How we don't hear about this is unconscionable. thank you for always enlightening us.

    November 22, 2008 at 10:05 am |
  4. KAREN

    IM so thankfull you reporting this ,we need to help this land get what is rightfully theres,how can we help the people and make the oil companys pay for there unjustes?

    November 21, 2008 at 2:44 pm |
  5. jim

    I don't know why the African countries cannot govern themselves. It seems like they are getting used to getting aid from the American people. Why can't the European couniries negotiate with the Nigerians? They are closer than we are. African countries have always been corrupt. I don't believe negotiations can solve anything.

    November 21, 2008 at 2:35 pm |
  6. Lilibeth

    Hi Lisa, thanks for your report. Sadly, the situation you describe, abject poverty due to corruption, happens in many countries throughout the world. The poorest countries wouldn’t be where they are today if they have a decent government that truly looks after its people. These governments have broken their promises to their electorates and pocket the wealth for themselves. I’ve always thought that situations like these should be intervened somehow by the richer and more powerful countries. It doesn’t seem right to me that we just sit back and do nothing. Wherever we are in the world, we are interconnected, thus we should strive to take care of everything and each other, and that includes all human beings, animals, plants, oceans, lands…our whole planet.

    Edmonds, Washington

    November 21, 2008 at 2:02 pm |