The Nigerian activist trying to sell plants to the oil company that destroyed them

Seedlings for a vast mangrove plantation Martha Agbani and an all-woman work crew are planting in part of the Niger Delta ravaged by oil industry pollution, in Bodo, Nigeria, May 3, 2021. (Photo: NYTimes)
YAATAAH, Nigeria — When the women arrived in the quiet waterside village of Yaataah on an afternoon in May, some local young men hurried over to them. They offered to carry the women’s loads — old rice sacks and tin basins full of seeds, ready for planting — down to the swamp.اضافة اعلان

They seemed helpful, but the women’s leader, Martha Agbani, sensed danger. “No, leave it!” she said sharply. “Let the women carry.”

It was not the first time she had run into these men in Yaataah, perched on a small hill in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria, and she knew their offer contained menace: If she did not pay them, there would be trouble. And one of her main goals was to create work for the women.

All her life Agbani had watched as women from Ogoniland, a part of the oil-rich Niger Delta famous for standing up to polluting oil companies, struggled to get by and struggled to be heard over men.

And she was determined that men would not disrupt or muscle in on her new project: establishing an enormous nursery to grow hundreds of thousands of mangrove plants to sell to the Nigerian subsidiary of Royal Dutch Shell, the dominant oil company in Ogoniland and the one responsible for wiping out many of them in the first place.

Agbani, a hardy woman with a ready laugh and a kind but no-nonsense manner, was trying to turn her hand to a business that could put money in women’s pockets and go some way to restoring their devastated environment.

Mangroves have prodigious natural powers, filtering brackish water, protecting against coastal erosion and providing a sheltered breeding ground for aquatic life, which in turn sustains humans.

The Niger Delta is home to one of the largest mangrove ecosystems in the world, one that humans lived in harmony with for centuries. But with the advent of oil production — something that the Nigerian government has come to depend upon for most of its revenue — the mangrove forests suffered.

In 2011, the United Nations Environment Program released a major report documenting pollution in Ogoniland, saying it could take 30 years to clean up. But the government agency set up to clean the land and water, the Hydrocarbon Pollution Remediation Project, has been grindingly slow to act.

After two oil spills in 2007 and 2008 killed off thousands of acres of mangrove forests near the village of Bodo, Shell agreed to compensate the community, clean up the oil and replant. Agbani spotted an opportunity.

The company would need thousands upon thousands of mangroves, tropical trees that grow in the spaces between land and sea, protecting the coastline and providing vital habitat for baby fish and periwinkles, the sea snails that are a staple of Niger Delta cuisine.

She started by growing mangroves in her yard, then started looking for a place to establish a nursery.

That is how she came across Yaataah. Once, its creek was home to thick forests of mangroves, but now most were gone, the victims of past environmental disasters and encroachment of invasive nipa palms, brought there long ago by the British. She started planning the project’s rollout there and bused in more than 100 female mangrove planters to celebrate its launch in late 2019.

But at the party, Agbani said, she had her first experience with the young men, who suddenly arrived and demanded money as well as the snacks she had brought for the women.

When she remonstrated with them, pointing out that the women had come to help restore the land so that their mothers and sisters could once again harvest periwinkles, they physically attacked her.

“They were dragging me from behind,” she said. “It all went bad.”

Shaken, Agbani and her team left and did not return to Yaataah for months. She decided to base the nursery elsewhere; a local leader agreed to lend her land close to the polluted sites in Bodo.

But she could not quite let go of Yaataah. It had a good creek where they could practice cultivating mangroves out in the wild, directly from seeds, rather than first establishing them in the plastic grow bags of the nursery in Bodo.

And now, in May 2021, the women were back to plant.

Hoisting the sacks onto their heads, and with their skirts above their knees, the women descended the little hill barefoot and slipped into the clear water of the creek. It did not stay clear for long, though, as dozens of feet stirred up the soft sediment.

“Something’s sizzling round my legs,” said Agbani, 45, laughing, leaning on a stick and struggling to get a foothold in the mud. “Oh, my god, Martha is an old woman.”

The spot was perfect. There was very little oil pollution. Birds, frogs and crickets still sang from their clumps of foliage. Like many a creek of the Niger Delta in southern Nigeria, it was choked by nipa palms. But Agbani had arranged for villagers to clear a large patch of the palms.

The women squelched nimbly through the mud over to the patch and worked quickly, passing the seeds — technically, podlike “propagules” that germinate on the tree — from hand to hand and sticking them in the mud at foot-long intervals, directed by Agbani.

“Carry me dey go-o,” one of the women, Jessy Nubani, sang, bobbing up and down as she worked, adapting a popular call-and-response song. The other women sang back in harmony: “Martha, carry me dey go, dey go, dey go.”

The young men had shown up again and summoned their friends, who buzzed in on motorcycles to see what they could get. But they stayed on shore. Agbani had given them a round telling-off.

In Ogoniland, men often go deep-sea fishing, but women traditionally stay close to shore, collecting crustaceans for their thick, fragrant soups or to sell.

When there are no mangroves and thus no shellfish to harvest, Agbani said, “they now depend solely on men.”

“That overdependence has been leading to a lot of violence, too,” she said. “You are there just to serve the man.”

The way Agbani saw things, the Ogoni people were custodians of a borrowed environment — borrowed from their forefathers and from a generation not yet born.

And it pained her to see local young men obstructing and trying to profit from the women’s efforts to rebuild it.

“We have a lot of motivation,” she said. “We feel they’ve not really understood what it means, restoring the environment.”

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