The Anthropology of Oil: The Impact of the Oil Industry on a Fishing Community in the Niger Delta

By Fentiman, Alicia | Social Justice, Winter 1996 | Go to article overview

The Anthropology of Oil: The Impact of the Oil Industry on a Fishing Community in the Niger Delta


Fentiman, Alicia, Social Justice


Introduction

THE AIM OF THIS ARTICLE IS TO EXAMINE, WITH SOME PARTICULARITY, THE IMPACT of oil upon the lives of people in a small fishing community in the Niger Delta. (1) It is hoped that this data will contribute to the scarce literature available on the Niger Delta and help shed light on the various ways in which oil has affected the institutions of at least one ethnic group. Although it is a detailed descriptive study of one community, the basic problems and tensions discernible in the case study apply to much of the Niger Delta.

Ethnographic Background

My focus is on the village of Oloma, a rural fishing community on the Island of Bonny in the Eastern Niger Delta. Ethnically, the village's population consists almost entirely of the Ibani-Ijo. The population of Bonny Island is centered in Bonny Town with a number of satellite villages, of which Oloma is one, and several fishing ports dispersed throughout the meandering creeks and waterways. The island is situated within the tidal mangrove swamps of the Eastern Niger Delta. It is bounded by other Ijaw communities, such as those of the Elem Kalabari to the west, the Okrikans to the north, and the Andoni, Opobo, and Ogoni to the east. Bonny is located approximately 50 kilometers southeast of the industrial and commercial center of Port Harcourt. Tributaries of the Bonny River dissect the flat surface of the island, creating swamps and creeks that are bordered by mangrove trees. Much of the land is uninhabitable; fresh water resources are scarce.

Historical Overview

Traditionally, the Ibani were fisherfolk dependent on the creeks, waterways, and swamps of the Niger Delta for their livelihood. Fish were found in abundance, and salt was evaporated from the sea water trapped in the roots of the mangrove tree. The Ibani traded their fish and salt to the Ibo hinterland in exchange for agricultural produce. This interzonal dependency created the initial trade routes between the Ijo fisherfolk and the hinterland agriculturists. This internal trade network was well established before European contact and provided the mercantile infrastructure on which the success of Bonny's European trade was founded.

Bonny's coastal location certainly contributed to her involvement in the burgeoning trade (2) that followed the advent of European adventurers in Bonny as early as the 15th century. Bonny had a pivotal role as the fulcrum of a two-way trade between the Ibo hinterland and the Ibani, on the one hand, and the Ibani and the European traders on the other. Food, livestock, and, most importantly, slaves that came from the hinterland markets were brought to Bonny to be traded. The growing European demand for slaves assured the role of Bonny traders as middlemen in the West African-European trade. This lasted until the 19th century.

In the 19th century, the slave trade was abolished and during this period Bonny's merchants turned their attention from slaves to palm oil. The palm oil trade particularly flourished because this new commodity was easily traded along the old channels involving the same personnel. Fortuitously, palm oil became at the same time an important export item because of the Industrial Revolution in Europe. Palm oil was in great demand as a lubricant for machinery as well as for making soap and candles. Bonny prospered during the palm oil trade. Such was its success that the Bonny and Kalabari areas became know as the "Oil Rivers."

However, in the 20th century, the prosperity of Bonny began to decline. (3) The major factor was the discovery of coal in commercially viable quantities further inland. A new mainland port was built by the British colonial administration, to exploit better the new coal fields. In 1913, a new industrial city, Port Harcourt, located 50 kilometers up Bonny River was opened. Bonny's pivotal trading role was bypassed. "Business gradually moved away from Bonny and Bonny only saw ships passing their way up river. …

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