Indigenous Plants to the Rescue
Environmental remediation in Nigerian oil regions
More than four decades of oil exploration and production activities have left
a severely degraded environment in Nigeria's southern, Niger Delta oil region.
Spills - the uncontrolled discharge of oil or its by-products including
chemicals and wastes, which mainly occurs through equipment failure, operational
errors, or wilful damage - have been identified as the main source of
environmental damage in the region over time.
But adverse impacts on the ecology have also resulted from oil drilling; the
dredging of the swamp waters by oil multinationals for access to pipelines and
facilities; and natural gas flares that occur in the course of oil production.
After many years, during which these adverse effects either received scant
attention or were simply ignored, fresh efforts have been mounted in recent
years by both environmentalist non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and oil
multinationals to remedy the situation.
The Centre for Environmental Resources and Sustainable Ecosystems (CERASE) a
Nigerian NGO is spearheading a unique programme, with the backing of the World
Bank, which aims at improving the capacity of local people in the Niger Delta to
launch bio-remediation efforts without waiting for government intervention.
A pilot project started by the group at Ogbogu, a community in one of the
largest oil producing areas of Ogba/Egbema/Ndoni local council of Rivers State,
uses plants and micro-organisms to clean up oil spills from the environment,
particularly those affecting farmlands and fishing areas.
"The concept of biological remediation being proposed by CERASE does not
only cover microbial treatment, but also the direct use of other natural
resources to combat degradation by involving the people in a participatory
development approach," Uzo Egbuche, the group's executive director, told
"The advantage this method has is that involves rural people in a
programme to protect their lands and provide them economic opportunities,
thereby reducing cases of civil unrest due to frustration over ecological
degradation," she added.
Essentially two plants, kenaf (Hibiscus Cannabinus) and vetiver (Vetivera
Zizanioides), are being used in the project. Kenaf, an annual herbaceous
plant, indigenous to West Africa, apart from use in production of pulp and paper
products, has proved very effective as an oil absorbent in cleaning oil spills.
In experiments carried out by CERASE, dried pulp made from kenaf was flattened
into sheets and placed over oil spills which they readily soaked up.
The soaked up bags were then taken to special clean up sites where they were
subjected to microbial breakdown. Several microbes have been identified that are capable of naturally breaking down a large variety of
The vetiver plant is then applied in the next stage. A perennial which
requires very little maintenance, its extensive, fibrous root system binds the
soil to a depth of three metres. Apart from a high chemical tolerance, it has
the capacity to decontaminate soils of harmful chemicals. "CERASE intends
to use vetiver grass for biological remediation and soil stabilisation in order
to control and arrest soil degradation," Egbuche said.
To make the programme sustainable, CERASE is encouraging local people to
create nurseries for kenaf and vetiver. According to Egbuche, this has already
become an income generating activity in the project community. When the project
is replicated in other communities in the oil region, it is hoped that an
important economic activity will have been set in motion whereby commercial
operators will provide seedlings and processed kenaf absorbents to oil
companies. In this respect, the organisation is collaborating with Living Earth
Nigeria Foundation, an environment NGO which specialises in participatory
However, the task of battling the effects of environmental pollution due to
oil spills in the Niger delta is huge, as studies conducted by Alex Chindah and
Solomon Braide of the Institute of Pollution Studies, Rivers State University of
Science and Technology, Port Harcourt, show. Over a 20-year period spanning 1976
and 1996, an average of 300 cases of oil spills per year were recorded in
Nigeria's oil region. On the average, some 370,000 barrels of crude spilled into
the environment each year, out of which only about 40 percent was recovered.
"The environmental effect of spilled oil is a function of time, type of
oil spilled, its degree of weathering, the sedimentary characteristics of the
receiving environment and the season of the year," said Chindah at a recent
workshop. The immediate impact on vegetation are wilting, defoliation and loss
of the productive cycle or outright death of affected plants.
On freshwater swamps, the studies showed, the effects are more devastating
due to the longer water retention time. Lower plant forms, such as algae and
lichens die off immediately. Animals, fish and other water organisms dependent
on such ecosystems also die off sooner or later. In turn the communities in the
affected areas suffer loss of livelihoods, poor health and other adverse
To help deal with the huge environmental damage caused by oil spills, Shell,
(the biggest operator in Nigeria which has most of its operations onshore and
is, therefore, responsible for most of the spills) has evolved a scheme whereby
communities are involved in the remediation efforts. Participating communities
are required to nominate people who are trained as "Remediation
Technicians". This, the company says on its web site www.shellnigeria.com,
has proved an effective way of implementing the less complex remedial actions.
To improve coordination of its own remedial efforts, Shell had by the end of
2000, conducted an assessment of 786 operational sites (700 on land and 86 in
swamp areas), with 424 sites still due for assessment. "Of the sites
assessed, 219 have been identified as requiring remedial action," the
company says. "To date, some 55 sites in 15 fields have been returned to
environmentally acceptable conditions since the inception of the
According to Egbuche, CERASE has opened communication with the oil companies
in Nigeria on how their community participatory approach could be incorporated
in the industry's oil spill response plans. "The philosophy behind this
concept was the promotion of integrated environmental conservation and rural
development buttressed by community participation," she told IRIN. "It
is envisaged that this highly sustainable rural development approach will create
multiple avenues for poverty alleviation."
IRIN-WA Tel: +225 22-40-4440 Fax: +225 22-41-9339 Email: IRIN-WA@irin.ci
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the United Nations.