TreeHugger has covered the impact of oil development in the Niger River delta many times—from the fact that what we'd call a huge oil spill in the US happens there multiple times per year, to the infiltration of oil companies such as Shell into the Nigerian government, to the gargantuan task of cleaning it all up.
That said, we rarely get a personalized picture of the conflict there, which is where Brooklyn-based filmmaker Andrew Berends' latest project "Delta Boys" comes in. The film comes out for a digital release on iTunes on October 16th, is already available for purchase on DVD on Amazon.com, with further digital distribution via Netflix, Hulu, etc. slated for early in 2013.
This morning I had a chance to briefly talk with Berends about the film:
TREEHUGGER: What's the status of the militants today?
ANDREW BERENDS: I have a general picture of what things are like: There are some militants in training programs, that were part of the amnesty. That took a long for any of that to really start functioning. Some have been sent, even, to places like Texas, for education and training. That's a good thing, although some people are irritated by that. But for the most part not much is being done to take care of these guys. A lot more complain that the head guys got paid off, but the younger guys didn't see any piece of that.
In the bigger picture, nothing has really changed in the overall situation. There are plenty of armed gangs operating in the region. Some of whom say they are fighting the same cause as the militants [in the film]. There's a lot of crime in general. It's a less defined militancy that's going on. There are groups operating out of the same camps. For the most part, nothing has really changed.
TH: In the film you make very little mention of the oil companies involved, but there's plenty of evidence of deep involvement by companies such as Shell. What role do these corporations have in the fight in the Niger Delta, and who are the major players in this?
AB: I don't make much mention of them because some of that is my approach to making a film, which is focusing on people's experience within the context of this big struggle.
But yes, you have the oil companies that have profited enormously over the past half century from exploiting oil in the Niger Delta and in other parts of Nigeria. Partly it's so profitable because the environmental regulation is very weak. They don't spend much money on the infrastructure to keep the environment safe.
One of the other big players in the Nigerian federal government, who actually has probably made even more money than the oil companies. They keep the largest percentage of the profits. That could be a great thing for a country like Nigeria, but it's not—because most of that money gets embezzled. As of five years ago the estimates are somewhere between $300-500 billion have been embezzled by Nigerian government officials.
So there's a complicity between the oil companies and the Nigerian federal government. In some ways it's easier to point the finger at the government and say, "The oil companies are making legitimate deals with government. It's not their responsibility to tell the government what to do with that money." But that's a pretty weak argument because it's apparent that the way the oil is being exploited in the Niger Delta, it's not benefiting the people in that region, it's not benefiting the people in the rest of the country. At the same time, there's not enough environmental regulation in place so it's harming the environment, terribly. Definitely the oil companies are complicit in that. There's over 300 oil spills every year in the Niger Delta. The flaring, which was technically made illegal in Nigeria in 2008, that's going on even though it's been illegal for the past four years.
Who are the players? The federal government, the oil companies, and then the local governments. A lot of money does go back to the Niger Delta. The militants argue that they just want a bigger percentage of the profits coming back to their region. Enough money comes back to the delta, more than enough. The money that comes back is bigger than the budgets of a lot of similarly sized African countries. But, on the local level the money disappears into people's pockets and doesn't get used for development.
TH: Where do you think the militancy is heading? Will this conflict ever really resolve itself?
AB: I think it's going to continue—there will be flare ups again—until the oil is either gone or doesn't have the value it has today. The reason is going to be environmental devastation. Already the fish population have dropped enormously. I personally don't anticipate any major change in the dynamic. I think it will go on until the oil's gone, and then people will be as poor or poorer. There's going to be more hungry boys, more people frustrated, suffering. There aren't other opportunities for them.