PORT HARCOURT, Nigeria – Roseline Dickson, 60, stirs a barrel of boiling palm fruits with a ladle, her left hand stretched out behind her. The thick smoke from the barrel forces droplets from her reddened eyes. Her two daughters, one a college student, stand close by, holding out bowls to collect simmered palm fruits into mill cylinders where they will be crushed into oil.
Every morning, Dickson wakes up to collect fresh palm fruits from her plantation, then engages laborers to crush them in local mills. She then separates the chaff from the kernel nuts, drying the chaff in the summer sun, boiling the nuts and pouring the resulting palm oil into gallons barrels for sales in markets near and far.
“We have done this for the past 17 years,” she says. “It’s difficult and complex, but it’s profitable, too.”
The Niger Delta is famous for profiting from oil, but not this kind. Crude oil and gas from the region have been at the heart of the Nigerian economy for decades, accounting for about 10 percent of the country’s GDP, and 83 percent of its total export revenue, according to the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries’ annual statistical bulletin 2017.
However, local communities have seen little of this wealth: Oil spills and gas flaring have ruined many of the lands and waterways they used to rely on for survival. Environmental Rights Action has revealed that more 2.4 million barrels of oil have spilled in the Niger delta since late 1950s. This has led to hunger, poverty, unemployment and stiff competition for the few multinational oil company jobs that serve the 30 million people in the region.
It is women who suffer most from the lack of opportunity, held back by patriarchal attitudes as well as wider economic insecurity. Nigeria‘s former minister for women affairs and social development, Hajiya Zainab Maina, says “70 percent of Nigerian women live below the poverty line.” But experts suggest that given the complex environmental challenges facing the Niger Delta, it’s likely the figure for the region could exceed the national average.
Betty Abah, the executive director of the Centre for Children’s Health, Education, Orientation and Protection and an environmental activist in her own right, says that though women across Nigeria face entrenched cultural inequality, women of the Delta “suffer higher level of physical, social and economic degradation.” Niger Delta women, she says, are “generally invisible, and the least to be considered for jobs or crumbs from the communities.”
Striking Oil in Palm Plantations
In the face of such discrimination and economic inequality, women like Dickson have turned palm oil to earn their own income.
“There was no job in the multinational oil companies and my husband was jobless,” Dickson says. “We needed a way out of our suffering.”
In the early 1960s, palm oil production contributed significantly to Nigeria’s external earnings, but it has diminished greatly in recent years as part of a general neglect of the agricultural sector after the discovery of crude oil. The remaining vestiges of the old plantations have benefited some women in their search for palm fruit seeds, while more and more are raising new palm fruit plantations from scratch.
Ibe Happiness has been in the palm oil business for more than a decade. She makes nearly $40 a week, and says that’s enough to send her kids to school and feed an “unhelpful husband.”
“Instead of fighting with the men for the oil company jobs, we turned to palm oil processing. It has saved many of us,” she says.
Yet the benefits of the palm oil business are also offset by the effect it has on the local environment. Palm oil may not have as large an environmental footprint as crude oil, but the region is nonetheless being stripped of its native forests to make way for plantations, a problem compounded by additional demand for firewood on the production line.
The Food and Agricultural Organization estimates that Nigeria’s tree cover is less than 6 percent, compared to the recommended 26 percent, and the country loses between 350,000 and 400,000 hectares of land to deforestation every year. The use of firewood has been identified as a leading driver of tree loss.
Wilfred Okonkwo, professor of agriculture and biotechnology engineering at the University of Nigeria, says structural deforestation has contributed significantly to rising rates of violence in the region.
“With escalating deforestation, the capacity of the ecosystem to sustain the people diminishes. This puts pressure … on the people,” Okonkwo says. “Among other factors, the pressure pushes many young persons into militancy and other forms of crimes in the Niger Delta.”
“The government needs to set up framework for the conservation of the forest and get serious with stamping out deforestation in not just the Niger Delta region but the rest of Nigeria.”
A 2017 report by Environmental Rights Action and Friends of the Earth Nigeria into the effects of the industry in the Edo state – one of the eight that make up the Niger Delta region – recommends turning away from palm oil production, and cites women and girls as being particularly vulnerable to the conversion of forests into plantations.
But the women of Port Harcourt are undeterred for now. Dickson says her palm oil business has allowed her to send her seven children to decent schools, and enrol one daughter in university.
“People say this is not a job for a woman, but I am sending my daughter abroad to become a doctor,” she says. “I own two houses and even my husband now joins us in the mill.”