By Okafor Akachukwu 11/10/2017
Maine is not popular with many people from Nigeria and Africa who visit for education, business or tourism or among many Nigerians living in the United States. It is officially the whitest state in the United States. Even amongst Americans it is not very popular, yet the most Northeastern state in the United State is well known for its lobster, lumber, pulp and paper industry, maritime history, rocky coastlines, beautiful spruce islands of Acadia National Park the northeastern most United States state known for its lobster, lumber, pulp and paper industry, maritime history, rocky coastlines, spruce islands of Acadia National Park. It has the 4th longest coastline in the US, 2nd after Florida on the East Coast and longer than the coastline of California.
As much as these are interesting features that may attract you to visit Maine someday, my six weeks of public management training at the University of Maine as a Mandela Washington Fellow which offered me extensive and diverse engagement across the state left me with much to reflect upon. Within the contexts of energy, environment, climate change governance and the politics of rights, sovereignty and movements, I found deep similarities with the struggles we face here in Nigeria and others that we may soon start facing.
Maine is 97% forested, being the largest forested area in the US with a once thriving lumber, pulp and paper industry. Its economy grew, citizens prospered as the jobs rolled in, while its rivers, environment and biodiversity suffered tremendously pollution and extinction from the growth and prosperity. The Penobscot River (the longest river in Maine) was used for log driving, a practice that meant that people couldn’t use the river for transportation, fishing and other forms of sustenance and recreation. Soon dams were built to control the flow of the river for better log driving and as hydroelectricity become the choice for electricity production, more sections of the river were dammed to power the paper mills. These dams became obstructions that endangered 11 species of migratory fish particularly the Atlantic Salmon to the Penobscot River. The livelihood of the Penobscot Indian Nation was threatened. The chemical waste from the paper mills caused even more problems, the remaining fishes in the river died, those that survived and adapted had chemical concentrations that were unsafe for human consumption. The rivers of Maine fast became stenches.
By the 1960s, Androscoggin River had become one of the most polluted rivers in the United States from the toxic chemicals discharged from paper mills and other industries on its bank. However, with the Clean Water Act legislation, clean ups started. The Clean Water Act protected rivers in the United States from further pollution but didn’t reverse the impact on the biodiversity particularly the fishes. The dams along the Penobscot River provided cheap electricity for Maine while the extinction of migratory fishes remained a huge concern., Fortunately the purchase of all the dams by a power company in 1999 provided an opening through an innovative river restoration project called the Penobscot River Restoration Project to rebalance fisheries population, plus hydropower production in Maine’s largest watershed.
The Penobscot River Restoration Project was designed to explore the development of a comprehensive solution to many issues regarding hydropower relicensing, migratory fish passage and ecological restoration on the Penobscot River. Two dams – Great works Dam and Veazie Dam were removed, Howland dam was decommissioned and a fish bypass channel constructed. Power production was increased at six other sites, and fish passages improved at four dams. June 2016 marked the completion of this most innovative and unprecedented restoration project in the history of the United States which was achieved through painstaking commitment and exceptional collaborative effort among diverse stakeholders including the Penobscot Indian Nation, 7 conservation groups, 2 hydropower companies and several state and federal agencies. The tours of these dams and interactions with some of the actors that made the restoration possible caused me to think of what can be possible in Nigeria, the opportunities we are missing in finding solutions to environmental problems we face as and the growing concerns that we may be causing irreversible damage to our environment, biodiversity and ecosystem.
In Nigeria, the challenge is usually how to strike a balance amongst diverse competing interests and still achieve desired results. The Niger Delta has witnessed one of the most devastating environmental oil pollution in human history in the pursuit of energy resources that many argue has become a curse for Nigeria, while stakeholders are yet to devise a solution causing more harm to our environment, biodiversity and ecosystem. Just, like the Penobscot Indian Nation people, the people in the Niger Delta cannot benefit from its waters and land until it can effectively mobilize her people under one strong voice to demand restoration of its waters and land. Unfortunately, the riches of her land have continuously been used without the actualization of a restoration project. Yet government and policy makers are relying on her vast gas resources to significantly increase Nigeria’s deficient electricity generation capacity. On another note, government’s interest to increase Nigeria’s electricity output through coal power has started to create water and environmental pollution in the states where coal is being mined. What has proven difficult over the years or impossible is for government and the private business sector to prioritize the environment above tax revenues and profits. By their nature and structure, they cannot have the interest to protect the environment more than the people and communities that own these rivers and lands that are exploited and polluted, for whom these are their homes and sources of living. On another hand, these communities, civil societies and environmental groups are yet to learn how to build effective movements and collaborations to take on the huge challenges including fighting against these profitable and corrupt structures.
The devastation that dams have caused to the environment is well researched and known, however government is unwaveringly interested in financing large hydro projects – it has commissioned some of which are more than 10 years in construction and still plans on building more for both agricultural and hydroelectric purposes. It is uncertain how these dams will adversely affect the environment and biodiversity and impact on climate change. The rights and livelihoods of the local communities and other ecological concerns where these dams are sited are not given considerate priority. With chemical pollution of water bodies, land, and destruction of ecosystems from coal mining and dams one wonders how these communities will survive, especially in the coming years with severe climate change and the impacts of drought, and dwindling water resources. The expected result will be a destabilization which will converge with climate change impacts in addition to other human induced and naturally occurring events that will defy immediate and lasting remedies.
With the Niger Delta, the worst is yet to happen as the region is still polluted, with no infrastructure in place and no significant efforts to fix these problems even as the world is signaling an end to the use of fossil fuels in the next few decades to help fight climate change. So where will the resources to fix, remedy and restore the ecosystem in Niger Delta and communities where coal is currently being mined come from? Where will the will power and commitment come from? Will there ever be a moral burden or committed resolve to solve the problem? How can we lead strong and effective collaborative efforts to follow through innovative restoration projects such as the Penobscot River Restoration Project? These are questions we must urgently find answers to.
Okafor Akachukwu is a 2017 Mandela Washington Fellow (Public Management, University of Maine) and a Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU), University of Sussex trained Energy Policy, Innovation and Sustainability Expert. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org