Challenges to Food Security in Nigeria’s Oil-Rich Niger Delta Region
Although narratives of environmental degradation in the Niger Delta region are increasingly shifting attention to the human security challenges affecting the area, one significant component of human security—food security—has received limited scholarly attention. It is important to analyze food security in the context of livelihood security because food security is crucial to the sensitivity, resilience, and sustainability of livelihood systems. Food security is not only about the availability of food, but also its accessibility in terms of the purchasing power to obtain it. Cultural values must be taken into consideration as well, particularly regarding the fear of not having enough to eat.
The Threat to Food Security in the Niger Delta
In the Niger Delta, environmental degradation has led to a substantial decline in local food production. This has contributed to scarcity and an astronomical increase in the price of food, placing it beyond the reach of a vast majority of the local people. The consumption patterns and quality of food consumed are equally vital, with most local people lacking access to sufficient safe and nutritious food for their dietary needs.
Most farmers have complained that staple foods, particularly cassava, now yield very tiny tubers when harvested. Cassava is indigenous to the region and is usually fermented and processed into garri (fried cassava flour). In Owodokpokpo-Igbide, Isoko LGA, Delta State, foods produced from cassava include garri and other forms of the starch eaten with banga (palm kernel) soup or fish pepper soup. Local chiefs in Goi, Gokana LGA, Rivers State have claimed that the cassava has been contaminated by oil spills, to the extent that crude oil has seeped out of the fermented cassava as it is processed by local women. These contaminated cassava tubers are inedible or unsafe to eat.
Other staple crops consumed in the local communities—such as yam tubers, plantains, and cocoyams—are no longer plentiful due to poor harvests. Farmers in Beneku, Ndokwa LGA, Delta State have reported that the high cost of yam seedlings and the menace of pests prevent most farmers from cultivating yams, even though the primary local staple, utala-iji (pounded yam), is prepared with yam and eaten with ofe-nsala (pepper soup). The lack of storage facilities further compounds the problem of food scarcity. Many farmers have been forced to harvest their crops prematurely, because crops left for too long in the soil are at risk from both floods and oil spills. For example, in 2008 and 2012, flooding devastated farmlands and food crops, and displaced many local people from their communities. Many farmers also lack access to modern implements, fertilizers, and herbicides capable of helping to boost crop yields. In most communities, the farmers seem unaware of facilities or programs designed to boost agriculture offered by the State’s Ministry of Agriculture and government interventionist agencies. In Ikarama, Yenagoa LGA, Bayelsa State, some farmers complained that they were not able to afford seedlings for planting farms and had to resort to begging to be given such seedlings. Some also lamented their inability to afford hire laborers to weed their farms before the planting season.
The local communities, which used to have rich varieties of fresh and saltwater fish, can now hardly catch nor afford to buy enough fish to meet their dietary needs. Many species of fish, such as catfish, are no longer seen, while the tilapia and mudfish populations have been seriously depleted. Oil pollution has affected artisanal fishermen more significantly than fish farmers (aquaculturists), because oil companies do not pay compensation for their pollution of rivers and damage caused to fishing nets and traps. According to Mr. Paul, a prominent seventy-two-year-old artisanal fisherman, they could catch up to twenty or so large fish each day in the 1970s using nets and fish cages (ikide in the Isoko language) with hooks attached to them. Now, fishermen only catch three to five large fish on a good day, and one or none at all on a bad one. An edible beetle that is gathered from the raffia palm is also gradually becoming extinct as a result of the destruction of the swamps and rain forest due to oil-related activities. In Bayelsa State, this insect is called Bayelsa suya (palm weevil larvae), and it serves as a supplementary source of protein for many people, given the scarcity or depletion of fish.
Some food crops have also disappeared from the region because of the adverse effects of gas flaring and thermal pollution on nutrients in the soil. In Otuosega, Ogbia LGA, Bayelsa State, Mr. Simeon, a thirty-eight-year-old farmer, spoke of the disappearance of mama coco (known as amasi in the local dialect), a species of cocoyam that used to be cultivated in the community and had been a local delicacy eaten with palm oil and smoked or dried catfish. Mr. Simeon lamented that, since the completion of the Nigerian Liquefied Natural Gas (NLNG) plant project, the mama coco crops have all withered after being planted. Finally, the activities of militants who have been blowing up oil pipelines in the region have recently reached unprecedented levels. This has further aggravated the pollution of farmland and rivers in local communities and engendered a vicious cycle of environmental degradation, poverty, and violence in the Niger Delta region.
Food security in the Niger Delta is threatened by several regional challenges. In addition to the direct threats posed to individuals’ livelihoods by food insecurity, it also further compounds the other environmental, socio-economic, and physical threats facing the people. It is therefore critical to pay attention to food security, in addition to the vast amount of resources and attention expended on checking the resurgence of violence in the oil-rich but impoverished region. If food security is not considered as part of the equation, the ongoing peace processes in the Niger Delta may be unsustainable in the long run.
It is imperative that the Nigerian government provide modern implements, training, agricultural inputs, and credit facilities to assist the local farmers, aquaculturists, and small-scale food processing enterprises in the Niger Delta. This should allow them to produce food as well as the crops and raw materials needed for agro-based industrialization. The government and private sector should support agriculture as a source of employment for the significant number of unemployed and restive youth. This will go a long way in addressing problems of youth militancy and violence, which have long been sources of threats to Nigeria’s economic and national interests. Massive infrastructural development is also needed, including linking roads and railways, as well as bolstering the food processing and agro-industries that will lead to increased food production at more affordable prices.
The Buhari administration’s decision to implement the UNEP report in Ogoniland and the launch of the clean-up exercise on June 2, 2016, is a good example of an initiative geared toward addressing some of the environmental problems confronting the Niger Delta. However, such an initiative must include a comprehensive food security component within the context of an integrated Niger Delta development program. Furthermore, the government’s proposal in October 2016 to invest $10 billion to end the conflict in the oil-rich Niger Delta, and the recent pledge by the World Bank to increase its commitment to the Nigerian agricultural sector—adding $200 million to its initial $400 million pledge—should revolutionize food production in the region. Such interventions will, no doubt, provide the Nigerian government with yet another opportunity to tackle the security challenges confronting the region in a more holistic manner, including focusing on food—one of the most basic needs of the people.
1. Cyril Obi, “Oil Extraction, Dispossession, Resistance and Conflict in Nigeria’s Oil-Rich Niger Delta,” Canadian Journal of Development Studies 30, no. 1–2 (2010): 219–36; Annegret Mähler, “An Inescapable Curse? Resource Management, Violent Conflict, and Peacebuilding in the Niger Delta,” in High-Value Natural Resources and Peacebuilding, ed. Päivi Lujala and Siri Aas Rustad (London: Earthscan, 2012).
2. Alexander de Waal, Famine that Kills: Darfur, Sudan (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989).
3. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2009 (Rome: FAO, 2009), http://www.fao.org/docrep/012/i0876e/i0876e00.htm.