Our appetite and our environment
By Levi Obijiofor
Guardian, Lagos, July 22, 2005
THERE is certainly a relationship between poverty and the level of concerns that people express for environmental protection and preservation. In our society, we are raised on the belief that anything that lives in the forest or sea must be hunted down, killed, roasted, fried, boiled and consumed. It is a predatory culture that positions most animals as preys for human consumption. This is perhaps why some animals in our part of the world are more aggressive than their counterparts in other parts of the world. Like humans, animals also have instincts for self-preservation. In some western societies, some audacious rare animals - birds, rats, rabbits, lizards, etc. -- would sing and hum and walk or fly into your house without fear of being captured.
A couple of weeks ago, I visited a recently arrived Nigerian family and two major events that occurred in their house generated a debate. As we sat discussing about national politics, a bird flew into the balcony of the house and looked at us in a strange way, as if we were occupying the bird's territory. Stunned by this display of boldness, the lady of the house shuddered and began to talk to the bird. "You're lucky," she told the bird, "that we were not at home (Nigeria) because," in her judgment, "I would have captured you and used you to prepare a delicious soup that day." Everyone laughed off the encounter but the message was clear. In our consciousness or psyche, animals are enemies and are fit only for consumption, not for preservation as household pets. For that reason, it is uncommon to see birds and animals approach human beings in our society in a friendly manner.
Perhaps the most astonishing revelation occurred when a television news programme showed over 100 whales that beached themselves off the coast of Tasmania. There was no shortage of volunteers that helped to revive the whales and to push them back into the deep sea. As environmentalists and animal rights groups worked tirelessly to keep the whales alive, the woman in the house exclaimed that if the whales had beached themselves at the Bar Beach in Lagos, Nigerians would have praised God for listening to their prayers. The Bar Beach, you can imagine, would have turned into an immediate fish market, where everyone would converge to cut and ferry free fish to their homes for roasting or drying. Again, another case of a different culture and its attitude to sea animals!
In Tasmania, those whales were regarded and treated as human beings that required assistance. In Nigeria, the same whales would have regretted the elemental force of nature that pushed them into the jaws of hungry citizens. In a nation that is gripped in religious fervour, the arrival of the whales in Nigerian shores would have been interpreted as a merciful act of God who never abandons His flock in times of hunger. In the estimation of the preachers in our society, the whales would be perceived as automatic gifts from God. Not so in Australia!!! The same scenario would also be replayed in Japan and Norway where whale meat constitutes part of a major delicacy.
The battle to save whales has not only attracted international attention, it has also taken on a nasty direction. At the recent meeting of the international whaling association, animal rights groups campaigned vigorously for the retention of the ban on whale hunting, to prevent Japanese and Norwegian whale hunters from decimating the population of whales. However, there were equally vigorous campaigns by other nations seeking to end the ban on whale hunting. The international debate has raised the question of differences in national gastronomy. Basically there are two sides to the debate and they both lead to the same conclusion: what is abhorred in one culture constitutes a national cuisine in another culture.
The argument often tendered by defenders of whales and other endangered animals is that the campaign for their protection and preservation is driven by the need to ensure that the animals do not become extinct owing to human activity - in this instance, hunting either for sport or culinary reasons. This is perhaps a reasonable argument. However, there are animal rights groups who fight to prevent the consumption of certain breeds simply on humanitarian grounds. Some animals, they say, are simply too beautiful and exotic to be slaughtered for consumption purposes.
While these animal rights groups are appalled by cultures that consume horses, dolphins, rabbits, dogs, cats, and so on, they cannot advance any justifiable reasons why they tolerate the slaughter and consumption of other birds and animals such as goats, cow, fish, chickens, turkey, snakes and so on. For example, in France, horse meat is freely served and eaten in restaurants. In Australia, many people would be offended at the suggestion that one of their most beloved animals - horses -- should be killed for culinary reasons. In some subcultures in Nigeria, a catfish makes a wonderful recipe in the preparation of stews and soups. In Australia, catfish are generally regarded as poisonous and should not be consumed. Also in some parts of Nigeria, dog meat is freely consumed although they can be quite expensive. In many western countries, a dog is a man's/woman's best friend and must not be killed for consumption purposes. The same goes for cats which are popular household pets.
We have operated over the years as if the environment, including the animals and birds, is irrelevant to our existence. Yet the environment is as important to human lives as it is to the success of economic activities. There is now a growing realisation that an endangered environment is a threat to life, and this realisation explains the increasing concern over environmental issues such as pollution (air and water) and the depletion of animal populations, depletion of natural resources evident in soil erosion, deforestation and declining water tables and the ozone layer. Ecological sustainability is central to any model of development that is concerned with the preservation of the future.
Even as the world draws our attention to the hazards of environmental degradation, we need to recognise a dilemma in sustainable development. To fight poverty, every nation needs to engage in economic activities which, understandably, accelerate economic growth. However, many of these economic activities which enhance growth have negative impact on the environment.
Nigeria's efforts at environmental protection and preservation can be regarded as appalling. As an oil producing and exporting nation, exploration of oil in Nigeria has taken precedence over environmental issues and that perhaps explains why oil spills have continued to occur despite the dangers posed to human lives and marine ecology. Worst still, the federal government, the major beneficiary of revenue generated through oil, has remained nonchalant over the destruction of the environment in the oil producing parts of the country. Let's examine a few statistics to underscore the gravity of the situation. Research shows that between January and June 1979, a total of 47 oil spills were recorded in Nigeria. Also, between 1972 and 1979, no fewer than 900 oil spills occurred in the country. Also, a total of 784 oil spills were reported to have caused the loss of more than 1.8 million barrels of crude oil in Nigeria between 1976 and 1980. Since then, oil spills have become a common feature of Nigeria's oil producing areas.
Oil spills have raised national concern about the hazards posed to the environment by oil, a major foreign exchange earner. This represents a major dilemma for the country. Oil exploration and production generate much needed foreign revenue. At the same time, oil exploration and production have destroyed human lives, the ecology and wildlife in the oil producing areas of Nigeria. We simply cannot continue to carry on this way. The people who reside in the oil producing parts of Nigeria deserve a better deal from the federal government and the oil exploration (multinational) companies. In the same spirit, the animals that inhabit our seas and forests should be saved from extinction.