Environmental Rights Versus Cultural Rights:
A Nigerian Perspective
Many of the articles in the Environmental Rights issue of Human Rights Dialogue (Spring 2004) show how governments, NGOs, and multinational organizations encroach on the environmental rights of individuals or communities. I would like to highlight an additional area of environmental rights concern: situations in which individuals and groups of individuals encroach on the environmental rights of others as they explore and exploit the environment for their sustenance and survival.
In my country, Nigeria, people cherish cultural and religious traditions that were passed down from their ancestors. Although contacts with other cultures, especially western ones, have introduced changes, many traditional values persist.
It is not uncommon, for example, to find dead dogs, cats, fowl, or a plate of food in a clay pot as a sacrifice on street junctions and by the banks of rivers in Benin City and other towns and villages in western and southern Nigeria. In addition, many villages and towns in Nigeria’s coastal areas situate their toilet facilities on the rivers — the same rivers from which inhabitants collect water for drinking, cooking, and bathing. Such actions might be considered encroachments on the rights of others to have access to clean water and air.
Certain tribes in Southern Nigeria — such as the Edos, Urhobos, Ijaws and Itshekiris — are predominantly hunters, fishermen, and farmers. Some of them hunt wild animals and fish with chemicals, which is hazardous to the life and health of others. Many set forest fires as a means of killing wild animals, which threatens or even destroys the existence of the flora and fauna. Further, farmers set fire to their farmlands in order to clear the farm before planting their crops. Because bush fires can spread to other farms, this often damages other farmers’ properties and in some cases injures or even kills people.
People who engage in such practices might not see their actions as violations of others’ environmental rights, but rather as their legitimate way of life. Should people be made to abandon their culture and way of life when they encroach on the environmental rights of others? Should the various cultures that infringe on the environmental rights of others be modified or changed? What is the way forward? I hope that contributors to Human Rights Dialogue will continue to consider such questions.
Lecturer, School of Education
College of Education Agbor Delta State, Nigeria