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U.S., Africa activists unite voices to fight environmental injustice

By La Risa Lynch -Contributing Writer- | Last updated: Apr 10, 2014 - 8:37:11 AM

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Emem J. Okon joined other environmental activists in Chicago to speak on environmental issues in the U.S. and Africa.
CHICAGO ( - Environmental disasters such as the January 2012 Chevron gas tanker explosion six miles off the Nigerian coast have deeper ripple effects than just the release of deadly toxic gas and chemicals into local fishing and drinking waters.

Oil spills adversely affect women’s rights by increasing their risk for HIV, prostitution, violence and affecting their reproductive health, says Emem J. Okon, a community organizer and women’s rights advocate. Ms. Okon has witnessed firsthand the human costs of these environmental disasters in the Niger Delta region, near where the Chevron tanker exploded and burned for more than 40 days.

She was in Chicago March 27-28 as part of a ten city tour to unite voices to speak against multinational companies that show little regard for the human and ecological toll mining natural resources has on both the U.S. and the African continent.

Ms. Okon cited Chevron and Exxon Mobile, both U.S. companies that have drilling operations in the Niger Delta for their poor environmental record. She hopes taking her cause directly to a U.S. audience will rile others to demand accountability and divestment in fossil fuels for alternative energy sources such as wind, solar or hydropower.

“If there is pressure in the United States [then] these huge, big and powerful corporations might possibly change their practices in the Niger Delta,” Ms. Okon said.

According to Amnesty International, more than 600 oil spills have occurred in the Niger Delta between January and September 2013 and more than 2,500 between 2008 and 2012. The region also suffers from gas flaring, a technique used in oil production, which produces hydrocarbon and is a major contributor to global warming and climate change.


“The environmental issues in the Niger Delta, to women, have several implications beyond the destruction of the environment,” said Ms. Okon, founder of Kebetkache Women Development & Resource Centre. KWDRC is an advocacy and education group that promotes the rights of women in the Niger Delta, which Ms. Okon said is a very patriarchal society.

Women in the region do the farming and fishing. When oil spills into farmlands “it disrupts the economic activity of women,” Ms. Okon said. Women cannot fish or farm because of polluted water, fish kills and useless farmland she added. It also prevents them from getting clean and safe drinking water for their families which is also due to hydrocarbon and benzene contaminating surface and underground water.

This forces women to become sex workers for the area’s booming oil industry that attracts a large number of male workers. This has resulted in high HIV/AIDS prevalence rates in the Niger Delta region and child motherhood from the exploitation of young girls in the sex trade. In Bayelsa state alone, Ms. Okon said, that area has a HIV/AIDS prevalence rate of 9.1 percent. Women’s issues, she said, are not addressed when talking about environmental issues.

“It is a result of poverty,” she said. “[Women] have been displaced from their traditional economic activities and they have to make ends meet. In order to survive, they have to go into sex work to keep body and soul together.”

Violence is also a byproduct of the oil industry. She noted the Nigerian government has become more militarized to counter activism against the oil companies. This military intervention by the government has forced the  youth to take up arms to fight back against the government and oil companies. The result, she said is increased violence.

“This violence between all these forces – the government, [oil] companies and the armed youth—has also created a situation of insecurity particularly for the women,” said Ms. Okon. “A lot of women have experienced sexual violence. A lot of women have been killed. A lot of women have been harassed.”

The March 28 meeting at a church on Chicago’s West Side brought together other environmental activists from the city who spoke about similar struggles with air pollution from petcoke. Petcoke is a byproduct of exacting gas and petroleum products from tar sands, a tar-like substance that can be turned into oil. They also discussed hydraulic fracking that occurs in 30 states. Just recently a British Petroleum oil refinery in Whiting, Ind., spilled up to 1,638 gallons of oil into Lake Michigan.

Organizers of the tour said the purpose was to create a global perspective on environmental injustices occurring in other corners of the world and build relationships to address it. The aim is to foster greater understanding of how environmental injustices impact climate change.

“In Africa we see how multinational corporations would behave if we didn’t have any semblance of a rule of law protecting us from their abuses,” said Will Lawrence, climate justice coordinator for US-African Network (USAN), which sponsored the tour and included stops in Washington, D.C., Detroit and Oakland, Calif.

Mr. Lawrence said Africa is the first to experience climate change because of environmental injustices and offers a glimpse of what’s to come in the U.S.

Mithika Mwenda, Kenya’s Secretary General of the Pan African Climate Justice Alliance Photos: La Risa Lynch

Kenya’s Secretary General of the Pan African Climate Justice Alliance, Mithika Mwenda said the impact of climate change is already being felt in the U.S. not just in Africa. Mr. Mwenda co-founded PACJA in 2008 to mobilize voices of millions of unheard Africans in the climate change debate. He also accompanied Ms. Okon on the tour.

While massive floods, followed by torrential rain and drying riverbeds are common on the continent even in Kenya, those same weather extremes occur in the U.S., Mr. Mwenda pointed out. The devastating Washington state mudslide, the destruction of hurricanes Sandy and Katrina are examples of climate change, but Mr. Mwenda said people are not calling it as such.

He called on world leaders to “do what the scientists say to address it” including changing models of production and changing from fossil fuels to more sustainable fuels.

The tour, Mr. Mwenda added, gets a global conversation started on how to do that. But he said the conversation must be a collective one that involves people from developing countries and industrialized nations.

Change will not happen said Mr. Mwenda, “unless we mobilize ourselves” instead of relying solely on NGOs (non-Governmental Organizations) to advocate action on climate change.