The Environmental, Social and Economic Impact of illegal Oil Refining in the Niger Delta


  Do you know how illegal oil refining and crude oil theft happen?






 Environmental impact


The environment is severely damaged at all illegal refining sites. The most obvious signs are dirty water in the rivers, with sheen of oil visibly floating on the surface, and frequently littering the riverbanks with lumps of oil. As a result the vegetation along the riverbanks are dying, as are the vegetation in the vicinity of the camps.


Community representatives firstly highlight pollution of the water and the disappearance of fish for human consumption. There is a substantial reduction in the quantity of fish, with some communities reporting complete disappearance of fish. The communities highlight their concern for eating fish and other seafood from polluted waters. Wild animals are reportedly disappearing or die of unexplained causes.

Respondents emphasised the problems related to their use of the water for drinking, cooking and washing.

Beyond polluting the ground water, soil pollution makes farming difficult, with grass, plants, bushes, and trees dying. Many are also concerned about air pollution, with dangerous gases released during the refining process.

After diesel, petrol and kerosene have been distilled from the crude, the remaining waste is stored in a shallow pit near the ‘cooking’ equipment, and contains substances in bitumen and tar. Such substances pollute the ground. The ‘cakelike’ remains of the ‘waste’ are absorbed by the ground or used to add fuel to the fire that is heating up the refining process. This then adds to the air pollution and further impacts on the health concerns.


Some community members have observed an apparent increase in health deterioration and even deaths. The air pollution causes unexplained body pains. The deteriorating health aspects shall be a topic for further research by public health professionals.

Click on this link to view video footage on The Guardian showing the devastation and danger that illegal refining cause in the Niger Delta. Also click here to read an interesting account of the effect of illegal refining by The Sunday Times.

      Social impact


Many sources reported that traditional cultural values in the communities, including respect for elders and other forms of traditional good behaviour, seem to be eroding quickly. The negative effect on children of seeing their community members, and frequently even their parents, involved in illegal activity like the ‘cooking’ of oil, is also mentioned as a concern relating to eroding of discipline. Communities frequently use children for various assistance roles related to the ‘cooking’. It was noted that teachers were more interested in taking their share by working in a camp rather than just living on a teacher’s salary. The research highlighted the derelict school buildings and many questioned the decay in their children’s school education.


A reduction in overall crime levels in the Niger Delta creek has been observed, as a result of the increase in ‘cooking’ of oil, itself an illegal activity. This is perceived to come as a result of the increase in flow of money within the communities involved, to such an extent that petty crime and armed robbery have waned. On the other hand, alcohol and other substance abuse, as well as prostitution, is reportedly increasingly becoming a concern around dinking joints or ‘shacks’.


Several community members say that the ‘business’ undermines the long-term foundation for life in their localities. But for now, this seems to be a price that most are willing to pay. Long-term effects on human health from living in such an increasingly polluted environment would be important topics for further research.


For some the cooking of oil is also seen as a bit of a political empowerment. There is a strong sense of feeling marginalised by society at large. There is a sense of rightful ownership, being endowed with oil as a natural resource in their land. Since these resources are perceived as belonging to them anyway, no crime is seen as being committed. For those directly involved, it’s just a matter of making the most of a bad situation.


So while oil companies and political authorities help themselves to their fair share of the resources, and more, according to many community activists, the inhabitants of the communities in the local creeks have been left with next to nothing as a result – no water, no roads, no schools, no light, and no traditional means of livelihood, resulting in a resort to ‘illegal’ refining. 


  Economic impact


All communities report increased welfare and prosperity of some sort resulting from the illegal refining business. In fact, this is what constitutes the main benefit from the illegal activity. It is seen as a positive that some members of the community, previously more or less completely out of pocket, suddenly can afford to send their kids to school in faraway places, in some cases even abroad, and can build better houses and buy exotic cars or other luxury items. But the lack of public infrastructure still remains a concern for many. So short-term gain do not make up for community poverty.


Those unable to take part in the ‘bonanza’ sometimes find themselves even worse off than before, when the few resources around were shared. With such community values on the wane, many members of these societies seem to find making a living harder now – compounded by the fact that they are now without the opportunity to resort to traditional ways of livelihood, like farming, fishing and hunting.


It is obvious that the newfound wealth has had a positive economic impact on the communities that were involved in cooking of oil.

Research showed that many hard-working refinery workers might be short-changed by other operators involved in supplying the crude and running the distribution and sale of the crude. But just like with the concerns over pollution, people interviewed who are involved in the cooking camps, seem to be more than happy with the money they make and would rather accept this in exchange for the hardship and health risks involved.


                                                 What can be done?



This brief is summary of the research findings from a study titled  Communities Not Criminals- Illegal Oil Refining in the Niger-Delta by Stakeholders Democracy Network (SDN). The report gave details of artisanal and illegal oil refining by communities in three states of the Niger Delta; Bayelsa, Delta and Rivers states. The info-graphics used here were developed by BudgiT.