Estimated reading time: 23 minute(s)
Residents of Elebute, the host community of a factory of French cement manufacturing giant, LAFARGE, in Ogun State, South West Nigeria, are living with poluted air and water as well as skin and respiratory ailments, ABDULQUDUS OGUNDAPO, who visited the community, reports.
The road to Elebute in Ewekoro Local Government Area of Ogun State is
rough, dusty and winding. As this reporter approached the community, however, what immediately caught his attention were the houses clothed in thick dust, and the vegetation that has turned pale.
Elebute is the host community of a factory of French cement giant, Lafarge.From the plant, plumes of dust blow round-the-clock into the village of mainly smallholder farmers. The people told bitter tales of how the dust and effluence from the factory have affected their lives and livelihoods.
Abayomi Opatayo, a motorcycle taxi rider, has lived in the village with his family for over a decade. In June, as the Muslim faithful prepared to celebrate the Eid el Adha festival, a sickness struck Mr Opatayo’s family.
His 12-year-old daughter, Janet, woke up one morning feeling dizzy. She soon
fainted while doing her morning chores.
“When I regained consciousness at Elebute health centre, the nurse told me that my blood pressure was too high,” the preteen recalled.
Little Janet felt her health had since not been the same, when she spoke with the reporter.
“I still breathe fast and sometimes I cannot see properly,” she said.
Janet said although the nurse did not give an explanation for her condition, she knew it had something to do with the dust from the factory that dominates the village’s sky.
“I heard from our teacher in school that inhaling dust, especially from cement, can cause something like that,” she said.
At the only health centre in the community, a nurse said cases of asthma and other respiratory tract infections were common among children brought to the centre. The nurse refused to give her name because she was not authorised to speak for the facility.
She attributed the ailments to exposure to cement dust and other fumes from the factory.
“Most of our young patients present with irregular breathing, in many cases they are diagnosed with asthma,” she said. “At least three children currently in our care have been confirmed to be asthmatic.”
She said the elderly patients mostly presented with high blood pressure for which she believed old age and dust inhalation were causative factors.
“We are all suffering from the effects of the dust,” she said.
“Look at how it damages car paint, do you think it would be any kind to the human body?” she quipped.
Air, Water Pollution
The community chairman, Ogini Ezekiel, started living in Elebute before the factory was established. He has since witnessed his village become a shadow of its former self.
“I have suffered eye problems many times, and people in my family too,” he said. “It is because of the cement dust. In some days, we try not to come outside.”
Mr Ezekiel said water sources in the community have been polluted over the years, causing further health problems.
“At one point, all my family members had rashes at the same time. At first,
I thought it was measles and we tried different treatments without success. We were later told it is because of the pollution of the water we use,” he said.
“We drink from cement water, we bathe with cement water and do everything with cement water.”
Ola Oresanya, the Commissioner for Environment in the state, agreed that the processes of mineral extraction in the area by Lafarge has an impact on local water resources.
The main concern, he said, was groundwater extraction
a process that can lead to a decline in the resource for the surrounding communities.
“Overlaying the limestone beds are aquifers,” he explained. “So, to access
the limestone, these industries will normally use massive pumps to draw out water. This affects water extraction in the communities,” he added.
Mr Oresanya said entities involved in such activities are expected to provide clean water for domestic use by the residents, something that Lafarge did initially.
According to the management, the company constructed a four-kilometre long pipe to supply water to communities around Elebute, as an alternative to the local water resources affected by limestone extraction.
But Mr Opatayo refuted this claim. He said the boreholes dug in the area by the company had not been operational for almost a year.
“We have complained but nothing was done, so we have no choice than to continue using our shallow wells and river water,” the commercial motorcycle operator stated.
Two Kinds Of Emissions
The process of cement production, according to the commissioner, produces two kinds of emissions which can be blamed for the effects on these
communities and their ecosystem.
“There is a particle emission and gaseous emissions,” he said.
He explained that when the company uses much hydrocarbon which goes unprecipitated, a lot of carbon fumes would be released into the air.
“From the cement kiln, you have a lot of particle dust that comes out and they have to precipitate those particles as well otherwise it will accumulate in both plants and animals around and even buildings around,” he further explained.
He added that particles settling on plants stifle their respiratory processes, leading to wilting and thus affecting the entire ecology of the area.
Many Have Left
Many businesses and homeowners have deserted the area due to the risk posed to their health and businesses.
First Bank Plc is one of the major organisations to have deserted the
community. The bank had a branch beside the Lafarge Cement factory.
The abandoned bank building is clothed in dust and locals point to it as an emblem of the growing pessimism about the potential of the area to bounce back.
Enforcing Environmental Laws
Despite existing environmental laws in Nigeria, nothing has been done to stop these extractive industries from releasing toxic substances that endanger people’s lives.
Section 27 of the National Environmental Standard and Regulation Enforcement Agency Act (NESREA) prohibits, without lawful authority, the discharge of hazardous substances into the environment.
A breach of the law is punishable with a fine not exceeding one million Naira (just over 2, 200 USD) and an imprisonment term of five years. In the case of a company, there is an additional fine of fifty thousand Naira for every day the offence persists.
According to an environmental lawyer, Charity Anuoluwapo, environmental
protection laws are not easy to enforce in Nigeria, largely due to corruption and negligence.
“Generally in Nigeria, nobody cares. The approach is that you can just do
whatever you like. Environmental law is not something that is sacrosanct,” she said.
However, Mrs Anuoluwapo explained that communities can overcome this challenge by pursuing such cases as human rights abuse on grounds of health hazards.
“Once you identify the effects of pollution to human health within your community and have evidence to prove the same, you can have a viable human rights violation case.
But “corruption is another thing. As long as you can give some money, you will always find your way out.”
Capacity To Implement Laws
A minor problem is that some of the entities tasked with maintaining the regulation lack the capacity to enforce compliance.
The state environment commissioner, Mr Oresanya, noted that the enforcement of extractive industry regulations for example is the responsibility of state and local governments. These offices, however “lack experts who can challenge the industries to any length,” he lamented.
He therefore called on the government at the federal, state and local levels to engage experts in the environment ministries for a possible solution to the problem of ensuring compliance of policies by extractive industries.
“Knowledge, skills, knowing fully well how to run an investigation or how to do routine inspection of compliance, these are still lacking and now the government must find solutions before it is too late,” he said.
As Ms Anuoluwapo noted, funding for the institutions tasked with the protection of the environment is also low.
“Most of the environmental agencies lack funding. Before you can sue a corporate offender, you will need money,” she said.
In the dust-clothed community of Elebute, families spend much of their already diminished resources on healthcare. They are hoping that something can be done soon to ensure that in the pursuit of economic prosperity, people and the planet can thrive together.
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