Rebuilding Environment and Community in Nigeria

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“We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.” (Romans 8:22)

What a beautiful verse in a wonderful section of Paul’s writings. The pain and the promise in one verse. The pain of our current time and the promise of the birth of a renewed world. Romans 8 brings these together, as it was in Paul’s day, with the pain inflicted upon the world by Rome, and in the sufferings of the church, as they bore witness to a new sharing and caring community that cut across ethnicity and social structures. This is our witness in a torn world today, a world torn between the interests of nations and economic interests. We don’t choose one side against another, but we pick up the pieces to heal and this presents the solution to the problems that bedevil humanity: a world that turns from scapegoating to restoring.

I thought of this verse again recently, as I stood and looked out over the plains where we live, in Plateau State Nigeria. Until recently, it was forested, like much of the state and region north of us, reaching up towards the Sahara Desert. The almost absence of trees, in the plains around where I stood, sounded a groan within my emotions. I felt the groans of our natural environment.

For a Western Christian, this may sound strange. It may sound like the Asian cults, which taught that mankind and nature were one, united in a kind of pantheism. Or the Aboriginal stories of Australia, where the people saw themselves as an integral part of the creation around them, cousins to the plants and animals. I had been taught not to think that way, a child of industrialism, of global colonial power, where the world was our resource for rule. We had adapted our Christian ethic to this idea, where Adam was told to “have dominion” over the creation. In our modern world, a huge gulf (a large distance) has developed between our lives and the natural environment. We have tamed the environment so it can’t hurt us, but in doing this it may in the end hurt us much more.

These are clashing ideas in today’s world, which divide many of us as we debate religion, ethics, morality, economics, the natural environment and our place in the world. Societies often swing on a pendulum between views. The path between these ideas into truth is often hard to find, muddied by our conflicts of interest. “Narrow is the way that leads to life, and there are few who find it.” (Jesus) This “path of life” isn’t just an individualistic matter, but it’s also a way of leadership, that brings those around us into a way of peace, that rebuilds communities and restores environmental health to our world, that pushes away the destruction that greed and competition bring to us all.

So what happened to the trees in the plains around where I stood? It’s a mixture of things. One is the growing population. Modern medicine, education and the reduction of local wars has meant more people reach adulthood than before. These benefits were brought into our regions by Christian missionaries, who served with benevolence. They didn’t serve the interests of the colonial empires.

With the blessings have also come the new challenges that population growth brings. This brings population into the centre of debates about the environment. Issues have now come to the fore that maybe weren’t as pressing in earlier days, and it won’t do for the church to ignore these, as matters “alien to the gospel.”

But there are also extreme views here. We are sometimes made to feel guilty for having larger families, or for eating meat. “Too many people eating too much meat is destroying our environment,” we are told. And there is truth here. As the comfort of mankind grows, as we further tame our environment and live in better houses and conditions, it is the environment that pays, more and more habitats that are destroyed. As suburbs grow, prime habitats for animals are decimated. It starts with the largest and most magnificent old trees, sold for wood and then more and more areas are cleared for farming and for residences. The advance of humanity has been at the expense of the animal kingdoms and their habitats. As things improve for us, they get worse for other creatures. Warfare and the spread of cities have destroyed forestation all over the world. As far as the impact of this upon our climate goes, there is plenty of argument today.

Such population debates can be intimidating, trying to build a culture of control rather than working together with different views to find solutions. It’s the same with the beef industry. There are environmentally friendly ways of agriculture. Practice has already shown this. But there is also a growing meat-substitute industry today and sometimes environmental activists have strong economic interests in these new industries. Most people voluntarily reduce their family size when they become more educated. Population growth is statistically shown to level off once it reaches a certain level.

Many activists today call for a reduction of the world’s population, even to less than one tenth of current levels, opening us to a kind of eugenics we saw in Hitler’s day, or that we see today in abortion or euthanasia theories, about the right or non-right certain people have to live. There are dangers in these areas that are real. We have seen them forced upon humanity before by non-democratic powers.
Living in northern Nigeria, we see many of these matters played out before us. The population of the nation isn’t the problem we face. Since we first came in 1986 the population of Nigeria has grown from around 80 million to 200 million. At least these are often the official figures. But the capacity of the nation to provide food for this number of people is far higher. The problem we see in rural areas all around us is the farming techniques. The fertilizers that are being used are degrading the soil. Chemical fertilizers and pesticides have been a main factor in the breakdown of the ecosystems around our agriculture. Previously, farms relied on ecosystems, the shrubs and weeds that are part of the natural environment, the trees in the area that provide habitat for insects and biodiversity in animal life, all contributed to the nourishment and rehabilitation of soils. Relying on chemicals has resulted in a clearing of shrubbery that enhanced composting and a clearing of trees in local areas to maximise output. But the yield of the farms per acre has steadily dropped. Managing habitat and increasing biodiversity sustains rich farming soils.

As soils have degraded, farmers have had to push further into interior regions to clear more habitat to take over new lands. They have again relied on chemicals in these new farms, until that soil also has become degraded. And then the process continues, until more and more habits are turned into farms that degrade soils. This, not population, is the main agricultural and environmental issue in our region. Chemical fertilizers, that in my youth were heralded as the means of providing food for the masses and breaking the cycle of poverty, have turned out in the long run to do the opposite, with a heavy cost for our environment. Overuse of chemical fertilizers produces poverty for man and beast in the long run.

This doesn’t only degrade our environment, but also degrades human community and peaceful coexistence. Farmers in our region used to rely on cattle herders for some of the fertilizer and biodiversity they needed. Instead of cattle herding being destructive for the environment, in a biodiverse system of farming they are highly beneficial. Farmers invited cattle herders onto our Plateau State for this purpose, to enrich their farming outputs. The two groups of people lived in mutual benefit and peaceful coexistence. But with the new reliance on chemical fertilizers and the clearing of more land, the mutual relationship between farming and cattle broke down and now they exist in competition for scarcer resources. In this environment, conflict is inevitable, and this is what we are seeing, and these are the reasons for it. For the most part, the underlying conflict is not a religious conspiracy between Muslim cattle herders and Christian farmers.

The issue is not over population but learning how to manage habitat and biodiversity. With the drying of conditions further north, around the Lake Chad and south of the Sahara Desert, again there is heightened competition for farming, grazing and fishing resources. Cooperation from regional governments can rebuild these habitats, but cooperative action isn’t common in our current divided world. This alienation between groups, which has been politically and economically motivated in the last century (motivated by greed), is our main problem, not over population. If we don’t love our neighbour, we will destroy everything, no matter how few or many we are. “Efficiencies” have told us to dispense with diversity, but it is diversity we need, in ecosystems and in relationships. “Efficiency” doesn’t produce wealth in the long run but destroys it.

It is not just the drying of conditions in the north that is producing competition, but also the conflict in the Middle East. In particular, the bringing down of Muammar Gadhafi by the Western powers. This has opened a movement of weapons and has brought an anarchy to the region that has permeated all the way down to northern Nigeria. There is more pressure now for herders to move due to hostile conditions further north, bringing higher levels of competition for resources in farming areas. Again, the problems we are facing aren’t due to over population, but to geopolitical conflict.

A recent example of this occurred in one of our mission areas in northern Nigeria. Two brothers of one of our pastors were beaten and wounded by cattle herders: a mixed group of local herders and herders who had joined them from further north. The cattle had eaten up all the crops of the farms and this had affected about 1,500 local farmers and their families. These farmers were from different racial groups, including the group who also herd cattle. So the conflict wasn’t ethnic or religious.

Our office called the head pastor in that region and told him, “Being a pastor isn’t just preaching on Sunday. It means helping your people suffering in your area.” The pastor called the farmers together, a very large group gathered in a square in the main city. The farmers said there is nothing they can do, but our pastor said they must respond for the sake of peace, so the situation doesn’t escalate, and they can lawfully respond through the proper channels. Eventually they agreed. They sought legal advice and issued a full report to the authorities. The pastor then went to the king of that state and to the police and they responded by calling the parties together on two occasions and chastising the herders.

But the herders didn’t listen. Our pastor discovered that the local government chairman had lawfully sold licences to the farmers to use this land, but traditional rulers had called for these licences and burned them, and then unlawfully sold rights to the cattle herders to use the same land. Because the herders had more money and could give bribes, the farmers were effectively powerless in the situation.
So our office told our pastor to go to the private television news network. This network sent a video camera to the affected region and recorded all that was happening, including the very large extent of the crops that had been destroyed and the ongoing destruction and aggression against the locals.

When that was aired in the federal capital of Nigeria, everything changed. The state police arrested the cattle herders involved. The non-local herders fled. Their guns were found in their tents. The traditional elders were also arrested. The farmers were afraid of their elders being arrested, for the revenge they expected would upon them from the elders later, but our pastor argued that they must allow it, for the sake of future peace. Our pastor there is himself a child of the local royal house and a convert to Christ from that family. The police demanded that a full compensation be made to the farmers and that the local government chairman reissue the farmers with their land licences.

At this point, our pastor called the farmers again. He reasoned with them that if the herders paid all the compensation, they would have to sell all their cattle, because the compensation for all the farms is very high. He said that after paying, there would be reprisal killings. The herders, not having cattle, would turn to crime, using their guns to make a living for themselves unlawfully. The pastor said the herders should only be made to pay for the legal costs the farmers had incurred. Everyone agreed to this. The king issued the herders with their own land, putting a large area of demarcation between the cattle and the farmers, with a strip in between now being farmed by the king, whom the herders must respect. Even though this was a great loss for the farmers, there is now peace between the groups and hope for the next farming season. The local cattle herders are now freely living together on good terms with the local farmers in their townships.

I spoke to our pastor at length about this incident. I asked him why the farmers were using this new very large section of land, clearing the trees and shrubbery. He said because the land they had used before had been destroyed by chemical fertilizer and weed-killing sprays. I also asked why the herders were paying money to use that land for their cattle. This means land is tight also for the cattle. Our pastor said that as militants are still an issue in areas further away, herders look for new areas that are safer, and the locals in many regions don’t welcome them due to fear. So there are problems here, with farming techniques and geopolitical issues. Former affections between religious groups have also hardened, bringing heightened polarisation, due in large part to the situation in the Middle East over the last 100 years, which we will speak about further below. It’s common for Christians to reinforce the propaganda, with no determined efforts to rebuild the relationships we once enjoyed, that can resolve the problems for both sides. We talk more on this in our conclusions at the end of this book.

One of our other pastors comes from a different state in northern Nigeria, where there is also abundant supply of land. There is a large sugar factory near where his family lives. The factory buys sugar cane from the local farmers. The factory has trained workers that go around the farms on motorcycles teaching on farming techniques. The cane grows so well that it’s too dense for local cattle to penetrate. But the cattle don’t want to, because the herders are also included in the local community arrangements in such a way that there is a plan for all sectors. Here is industry working together with small community holders, also working together with others whose livelihoods depend of different needs. This is all working well because business interests, or local leaders, or politicians seeking advantage over the others, aren’t permitted to do so. It may be more “efficient” from a profits point of view for the industry to take over the land and push out the farmers and destroy the communities, but this kind of profit destroys people’s lives.

In eighteenth and nineteenth century Britain, some British land was held in common community ownership and was utilized for the common people. The land was inefficiently run, and the parliament passed an act taking “common land” and giving it to wealthy citizens who could improve large scale farming techniques. It worked but also further impoverished common people. The people who then had no livelihood were employed very cheaply in the new factories of the rising industrial revolution, or in the army that needed to control foreign markets. The empire flourished. But if you go to some of these places today you still find many of the descendants of these commoners impoverished. Similarly, when the coal mines were closed more recently, with promises that workers would be retrained for new jobs, many of these promises were not fulfilled. Our new economic paradigms of efficiency often benefit the rich and neglect those pushed aside. When you add this to a political/ economic culture of low taxes for the wealthiest people in the world, then you have a growing disequilibrium and break down in community, where over half the world’s wealth is owned by 1 percent of the world’s population. The business sector is supposed to act as a responsible community citizen, not as an “economic efficiency.” A world that behaves like this isn’t truly interested in environmentalism, but in profits.

In Australia, large irrigation infrastructure was built to benefit thousands of farmers nationwide. This also is being diverted into the hands of the wealthy. The cost of water is so high that often only large companies can afford to buy it and many farmers are being pushed off the land. Farming is becoming “more efficient,” but families are being impoverished and their children have no future on the land. Large retail stores are buying up produce cheaply, so that farmers can no longer make a living. Community is being destroyed by the controlling interests of large wealth and this controlling sector is the same sector that is driving the “environmental activism” of our time. Sectors that can destroy community and people’s lives, without an effective investment in these people’s futures, is not genuinely concerned about the environment. It is business. The best way to achieve environmental enrichment is to give the land into the hands of the community, whose interests isn’t in short term profits (before investing in different opportunities) but in the long-term livelihood of their families. Politicians are more and more owned by this wealthy sector and are become less interested in the welfare of the small family. It’s hard to “believe” in a world that works like this.

We improve the environment by building the family and improving community, because they have the genuine interests in the environment. Otherwise you destroy community and all you have left is business interests that rape the environment, before shifting their capital, no matter what these interests may invest in “environmental activism.”