Look at everything on planet earth as though you were seeing it either for the first or last time, then your time on earth will be filled with glory – Betty Smith
Growing up in a village setting in my hometown in what was formerly Western Nigeria, then Mid-Western Region in 1963, Mid-Western State in 1967, Bendel State in 1976, and now Delta State since 1991, Christianity was settling down, making inroads into all towns and communities as fast as the missionaries and local converts could evangelize. The missionaries also brought very good things like schools, hospitals and the churches, not necessarily in that order, but all of which were institutions that taught us religious doctrines.
I recall as a young boy then that they had some issues with the elders. One of these was the pouring of libations as we break kolanuts at the commencement of any ceremony. Hard as they tried to abolish this practice, anglicise the language, or modernise the process, the elders stood by their rituals. Ever so curious, on one nice evening, I decided to ask my favourite paternal uncle the reason for the cultural conflict. He informed me that all they were trying to do was to make the missionaries understand that the ritual of pouring libation to officially herald the commencement of any ceremony was our way of giving thanks and offering supplications in respect to the land that gives us food, air, and water on which life depends. In that same ritual, we remember our ancestors who brought us to the world and whom we believe look out for us from the world beyond through the gifts of the land.
That explanation was the proverbial light bulb that sparked off in my brain. My uncle was not exactly a man of letters and so his ancestors could not have been either. Yet it was clear as daylight that they fully understood the cycle of life. They understood that the land is what anchors life as we know it. It is the platform on which everything resides. Then we know that all live forms breathe air and use this to burn their food for energy production and nourishment. Water, the universal solvent, constitutes from 25 per cent to 80 per cent of all life forms. It is the medium through which nourishment is transported in plant and animal tissues. Without water, all living things will wither and die. Even the land will cease to be fertile and productive without water.
But water without land cannot exist. Our forebearers knew this, they were not ignorant. They might not have been able to express their knowledge scientifically, but they knew that the sun, air, water, and land are all integral components that build life.
In my town in Delta State, my home is surrounded by a mini forest. Nearby is a small stream that flows all the way into the River Niger. One day, I decided to trace the course of the stream to the Niger. It was not an easy task; it took me three days to complete and even then I had to employ the services of the locals to cut through thick bushes to create footpaths. It reminded me of my years as a land surveyor working to chart the coordinates of the highways I was involved in during my years in Federal Ministry of Works. Back along the route of my river flow tracing, I found many fishing and farming communities living on both sides of the stream as well as on the banks of the River Niger.
On inquiry, I learnt that some of the inhabitants have migrated from all parts of the country over many decades. Majority are fishermen and others are farmers who enjoy two to three seasonal harvests in the year depending on their crops. They grow corn, varieties of vegetables, fruit trees and crawlers, yam, and cassava. The fishermen catch crabs, snails, periwinkles, and different fishes. I learnt that, in the dryer months, they have difficulties in finding snails and some fish species. Among the farmers are also hunters, who also experience seasonal bounties in hunting games locally, known as ‘bush meat.’ It appears that the seasons of plenty vary with the migratory tendencies of the animals, the spawning times of the fishes and snails, and in the, short term, the daily tidal variations of the Niger.
It is one thing to give thanks to the land as we do in my culture. But that is only one half of the equation. The greatest respect the land needs is conservation, the art of preserving and nurturing the land to retain and regenerate its nourishment for the benefit of all life forms. Early on, during the age of industrialisation, most western nations resorted to the use of fertilizers to maintain the consequential boom in agriculture. But no sooner than these practices became worldwide, man realized that the chemicals were turning the soil acidic, poisoning food crops and in turn the humans and the animals that consume them, poisoning underground water sources, as well as surface streams and rivers. Towards the middle of the 20th Century, it slowly dawned on the world that we would one day lose our abilities to harvest bountifully if we continue to abuse the land.
Putting on my conservative hat, I engaged the farmers and fishermen in discussions on sustainability and the benefits of biodiversity. I realised that one cannot take away their trades, but together we agreed to find a balance between conservation and hunting older animals and bigger, mature fishes. We agreed that we must do our best to preserve the younger animals, fish fingerlings, the unhatched eggs of fishes and birds, and the nursing mothers in the animal kingdoms.
I also explained to them the importance of the flood plains and the wetlands to their abilities to be successful in plying their trade crafts. They already know the reasons why the small rivers and ponds dry up during the dryer months causing the fishes and crabs to disappear, and leading the fishermen to venture deeper into the Niger and the delta plains to fish. I have also shared with them how they can maintain the flood plains and the wetlands so that with good rains in the rainy seasons, the flood plains and the ponds can retain their water and moisture the whole year round.
In the few years that I have engaged with the locals in the communities, we have all noticed remarkable differences. Some of the flood plains and the wetlands are beginning to recover at faster rates when emerging from dry spells. Due to reduced bush burning, the bushes have started to regain their greenness. The farmers are slowly adopting the age-old practises of bush fallowing, the way it was practised in the ancient African tradition. Generally, I made them realise that the respect we show to the land requires us to take care in the nurturing of the land too. I made them realise that our cultural practices are not in conflict with the two main religions.
My position, therefore, is the preservation of all living things; protect the trees from being felled or replacing those felled by planting new ones, and prevent the wildlife from being hunted into extinction. In essence, what we must do is give back a little from what we have taken from Mother Earth. We should appreciate the United Nations who we have given us days in the year that are dedicated to the celebration of Mother Earth. These include, World Environment Day on 5th of every June, World Desertification Day, 17th of June, World Wetlands Day, on 2nd February, and March 21 is the International Day of Forests. Can we not then see that there is no difference between all these celebrations and the ancient African religious practise of respecting and celebrating the land and the life forms on it which symbolise nature and greenery?
I have spent a lifetime of work preaching about the dangers of desertification to the Nigerian nation in particular and to the world in general. I have interacted with government functionaries, institutions, and organisations charged with pursuing solutions to this problem without being able to drive down recommended actions to sustainable implementation as national policies. I have written proposals and books on possible solutions, and I have been ignored. I have demonstrated that desertification can be reversed and contained but the authorities have looked the other way.
Fifty years is less than the average life expectancy of a Nigerian. Therefore, those of us who are teenagers today will witness this Great Climate Migration. We need to realise that the migration is not going to start then. It has already begun here and in other parts of the world. In Nigeria, we are currently battling Fulani herdsman, Boko Haram, and militants in the Niger Delta. And we are losing. But worse still, we do not even pretend to try and seek solutions to these climate change phenomena, be they temporary ones to buy time, or definitively finite ones to stop the creeping march to oblivion.
The irony here is that our leaders act as if the country Nigeria can be extended southwards as the north is rendered inhospitable. I have asked before, and I ask again, when the entire country is consumed, are we going to relocate the nation to the middle of the Atlantic or to Brazil? Shall we all become nomads and head to South America or Europe?
The current pandemic being experienced all over the world originated from the land. Land degradation is some process we must fight and mitigate. This means that we must first begin by cleaning it up, taking good care of the land through best practices in effluent and waste disposal, nurturing the land through replenishment of the living resources that we take from it to meet our needs, and preservation of endangered species and habitats. If we fail in this quest, this same land will clean most of us out and bury us in its bosom. How then do we explain our stewardships, or lack thereof, to our ancestors who will be waiting for us at the other end?
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change and courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference – Reinhold Niebuhr