The Nigerian Activist Trying to Sell Plants to the Oil Company That Destroyed Them

YAATAAH, Nigeria — When the girls arrived in the quiet, waterside village of Yaataah on a day in May, some native younger males hurried over to them. They provided to carry the girls’s hundreds — outdated rice sacks and tin basins stuffed with seeds, prepared for planting — down to the swamp.

They appeared useful however the girls’s chief, Martha Agbani, sensed hazard. “No, leave it!” she mentioned sharply. “Let the women carry.”

It wasn’t the first time she had run into these males in Yaataah, perched on a small hill in the Niger Delta area of Nigeria, and she or he knew their supply contained menace: If she didn’t pay them, there can be hassle. And one among her predominant targets was to create work for the girls.

All her life Mrs. Agbani had watched as girls from Ogoniland, part of the oil-rich Niger Delta well-known for standing up to polluting oil firms, struggled to get by, and struggled to be heard over males.

And she was decided that males wouldn’t disrupt or muscle in on her new mission — establishing an infinite nursery to develop tons of of hundreds of mangrove crops to promote to the Nigerian subsidiary of Royal Dutch Shell, the dominant oil firm in Ogoniland and the one liable for wiping out a lot of them in the first place.

Mrs. Agbani, a hardy lady with a prepared chuckle and a form however no-nonsense method, was making an attempt to flip her hand to a enterprise that might put cash in girls’s pockets and go a way to restoring their devastated surroundings.

Mangroves have prodigious pure powers, filtering brackish water, defending towards coastal erosion and offering a sheltered breeding floor for aquatic life, which in flip sustains people.

The Niger Delta is residence to one among the largest mangrove ecosystems in the world, one which people lived in concord with for hundreds of years. But with the introduction of oil manufacturing — one thing that the Nigerian authorities has come to depend on for many of its income — the mangrove forests suffered.

In 2011, the United Nations Environment Program launched a serious report documenting air pollution in Ogoniland, saying it may take 30 years to clear up. But the authorities company arrange to clear the land and water, the Hydrocarbon Pollution Remediation Project, has been grindingly sluggish to act.

After two oil spills in 2007 and 2008 killed off hundreds of acres of mangrove forests close to the village of Bodo, Shell agreed to compensate the group, clear up the oil and replant. Mrs. Agbani noticed a chance.

The firm would wish hundreds upon hundreds of mangroves, tropical bushes that develop in the areas between land and sea, defending the shoreline and offering important habitat for child fish and periwinkles, the sea snails which are a staple of Niger Delta delicacies.

Martha Agbani’s mangrove nursery in Bodo. Her two nurseries are residence to about 250,000 crops that may quickly be transplanted of their pure habitat.Credit…Yagazie Emezi for The New York Times

She began by rising mangroves in her yard, then began searching for a spot to set up a nursery.

That’s how she got here throughout Yaataah. Once, its creek was residence to thick forests of mangroves, however now most had been gone, the victims of previous environmental disasters and encroachment of invasive nipa palms, introduced there way back by the British. She began planning the mission’s rollout there, and bused in additional than 100 feminine mangrove planters to rejoice its launch in late 2019.

But at the celebration, Mrs. Agbani mentioned, she had her first expertise with the younger males, who out of the blue arrived and demanded cash, in addition to the snacks she had introduced for the girls.

When she remonstrated with them, mentioning that the girls had come to assist restore the land in order that their moms and sisters may as soon as once more harvest periwinkles, they bodily attacked her.

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

Shaken, Mrs. Agbani and her crew left and didn’t return to Yaataah for months. She determined to base the nursery elsewhere — a neighborhood chief agreed to lend her land shut to the polluted websites in Bodo.

But she couldn’t fairly let go of Yaataah. It had a superb creek the place they might observe cultivating mangroves out in the wild, immediately from seeds, somewhat than first establishing them in the plastic develop luggage of the nursery in Bodo.

And now, in May 2021, the girls had been again to plant.

Hoisting the sacks onto their heads, and with their skirts above their knees, the girls descended the little hill barefoot and slipped into the clear water of the creek. It didn’t keep clear for lengthy, although, as dozens of toes stirred up the comfortable sediment.

“Something’s sizzling round my legs,” mentioned Mrs. 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 excellent. There was little or no oil air pollution. Birds, frogs and crickets nonetheless sang from their clumps of foliage. Like many a creek of the Niger Delta in southern Nigeria, it was choked by nipa palms. But Mrs. Agbani had organized for villagers to clear a big patch of the palms.

The girls squelched nimbly by way of the mud over to the patch and labored shortly, 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 Mrs. Agbani.

“Carry me dey go-o,” one among the girls, Jessy Nubani, sang, coming up and down as she labored, adapting a well-liked call-and-response music. The different girls sang again in concord: “Martha, carry me dey go, dey go, dey go.”

The younger males had proven up once more, and summoned their associates, who buzzed in on bikes to see what they might get. But they stayed on shore. Mrs. Agbani had given them a spherical telling-off.

Martha Agbani coming back from the planting website.Credit…Yagazie Emezi for The New York Times

Mrs. Agbani realized activism partly from her mom, who in the 1990s was concerned in the Ogoni individuals’s battle towards the Nigerian authorities and Shell.

Like her mom, Mrs. Agbani labored for years for the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People, arrange in 1990 in response to the environmental destruction of the ecologically delicate space by multinational oil firms.

And like her mom, she was impressed by the work of the activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, Ogoniland’s biggest hero, who was executed by the Nigerian authorities underneath the army dictator Sani Abacha in 1995.

She remembers clearly the day Ken Saro-Wiwa was arrested, when she was a teenage pupil in Bori, his birthplace. She hid in a drain and watched the metropolis erupt.

“People were running helter-skelter,” she mentioned. “Soldiers got into the communities. In Bori, they were shooting. People were on the rampage.”

That expertise, and Mr. Saro-Wiwa’s insistence on rights for the oppressed, made her need to battle for her individuals. And, she mentioned, whereas there have been many organizations centered on the ravaged surroundings, few checked out the rights of girls, who suffered disproportionately from the results of oil air pollution.

“Women were always crying. Women were victims of so many things,” she mentioned. “I need to help my women to stand.”

In Ogoniland, males usually go deep-sea fishing, however girls historically keep shut to shore, accumulating crustaceans for his or her thick, aromatic soups or to promote.

When there aren’t any mangroves and thus no shellfish to harvest, Mrs. Agbani mentioned, “they now depend solely on men.”

“That over-dependence has been leading to a lot of violence, too,” she mentioned. “You are there just to serve the man.”

Martha Agbani’s mangrove nursery in Bodo, the place the younger crops have to be raised in plastic containers.Credit…Yagazie Emezi for The New York Times

The method Mrs. Agbani noticed issues, the Ogoni individuals had been custodians of a borrowed surroundings — borrowed from their forefathers and from a era not but born.

And it pained her to see native younger males obstructing and making an attempt to revenue from the girls’s efforts to rebuild it.

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

As a parting shot, the ringleader of the younger males instructed Mrs. Agbani that he would see her in courtroom. “I think he was joking. If he wants to sue, that would be nice,” she mentioned sarcastically, laughing with shock. “That’ll be a good one.”

As she headed out of Yaataah on a bumpy monitor, headed for the nursery in Bodo, the driver scooted out of the method of a bevy of motorbikes buzzing towards the village. More younger males. They’d heard that there was cash to be had, however they’d arrived too late. Mrs. Agbani was on her method out.