As a young girl growing up in a rural area of Nigeria, Olivia Chinonso Ihemeson never imagined that she would one day become a lawyer, let alone a leading advocate for environmental conservation and protection in her country. But after a series of fortunate events and hard work earned her admission into a prestigious secondary school, a scholarship, and eventually a law degree, Ihemeson found herself called to the Nigerian bar 25 years ago.
Over the years, Ihemeson has developed and maintained a huge interest in environmental law, particularly in the areas of conservation and protection. As the principal partner in Chinonso Ihemeson & Co., a general practice law firm based in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, she has used her legal expertise to fight for environmental justice in a country where modern environmental policies and regulations are largely nonexistent.
According to Ihemeson, corporations, both large and small scale, and individuals in Nigeria often lack the knowledge or choose to ignore the possible environmental consequences of their actions. This has led to massive pollution and degradation of the Nigerian environment, with little effort being made to conserve it. There is no proper waste disposal model, and gas is emitted into the air indiscriminately from sources such as motor exhaust, indiscriminate bush burning, gas flaring, and emissions from indiscriminate use of explosives. Additionally, there is adverse and unsupervised exploitation of land and ocean resources and uninformed reclamation of wetlands by individuals.
Case in point, for several years, the nefarious activities of national and multinational corporations have been producing soot which has been polluting the air around Port Harcourt and its environs, such as Obio/Akpor, Ikwerre, Oyigbo and the Ogoni areas. The atmosphere often turns black not from rain clouds but billowing black dust from hydrocarbon pollution which promptly covers all available surfaces and is breathed in by hapless folks.
Soot has made Rivers State the worst air-polluted state in the country. The once clean and green “Garden City” Port Harcourt has become a black dust metropolis. The annoying and shameful part of it is that some of the officials involved in these primitive regulatory activities have been identified as owners of illegal refineries, perhaps using their privileged positions to destroy the facilities belonging to their rivals.
At the bottom of it all is the age-old practice of regarding federal posting to the oil-rich Niger Delta as a juicy opportunity for self-enrichment by the staff of federal institutions: military, police and security agencies. People are known to bribe their way to get posted to the Niger Delta. Officials sent to help maintain law and order in the petroleum and maritime sectors turn around to join the lawlessness or protect lawbreakers for selfish gain.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), air pollution is the leading cause of death globally, accounting for 3 million fatalities yearly. Outdoor air pollution was responsible for 11.6 percent of global mortality in 2012, equivalent to 6.5 million deaths. Seven hundred eighty thousand (7800,000) people die prematurely because of air pollution in Africa yearly, which is caused by industrialization in Nigeria and South Africa, and to a smaller extent, by fire emissions in Central and West Africa. Air pollution occurs when harmful substances other than their natural constituents are present in the air, detrimental to human health and the ecosystem.
Ihemeson’s advocacy helps the public make informed decisions about using limited natural resources and facilitates conversation efforts. She joins and lends her voice in partnership with several non-state actors, particularly Non-Governmental Organizations, in the fight to protect and preserve the physical and human environment of oil-producing communities in Nigeria. The aim is to develop and promote home-grown environmental policies and create awareness on topical issues related to the environment, such as developing models for waste management and changing the ways of exploitation of land and oceans.
As a lawyer and environmental law expert, Ihemeson has also partnered with non-state actors to advocate for the rebuilding of the rural economy of indigenes of oil-producing states, who have been impoverished as their available land has been affected by degradation and dispossession by the government to build large companies and plants.
Ihemeson is at the forefront of ensuring that environmental governance is adaptable to changing environmental and social conditions as well as diverse contexts. She believes that the attributes of responsive environmental governance include learning, anticipation, adaptability, innovation, and flexibility. Continuous monitoring and evaluation, communication, and reflection on the social and ecological performance of environmental governance all contribute to institutional and social learning. The institutionalization of anticipation or foresight, which includes consideration, analysis, and planning for the consequences of both chronic and acute risks, can also improve knowledge and capacity to address disturbances. Adaptive environmental governance is enabled by institutionalized spaces for dialogue, reflection, and deliberation, as well as clear processes and steps to ensure that policies, institutions, and management actions are evaluated on a regular basis and actively updated or changed as needed. A culture of innovation, combined with a higher risk tolerance, encourages experimentation with new ideas, as well as the monitoring and documentation of successes and failures, allowing for the development of effective management actions.
In recognition of her work and advocacy for environmental development, Ihemeson has received several awards from non-state actors. She has also been involved in a lot of awareness campaigns for many impacted communities in the Niger Delta region and encourages them to speak out and demand that companies operating in their area conform to best practices in oil and gas exploration and exploitation activities. Ihemeson also renders many legal services like legal opinion, legal representation, and participation in workshops and seminars.
Despite facing many challenges, Ihemeson remains committed to her work and continues to advocate for environmental justice in Nigeria. Her tireless efforts to protect and preserve the environment, particularly in oil-producing communities, serve as an inspiration to others and demonstrate that with hard work and determination, one can overcome even the most seemingly insurmountable obstacles.