Oil and gas are Nigeria’s largest export by a massive margin, but they come with a huge environmental price. Robin Hinsch travelled to the south of the country, which has been blackened by corporate greed and corruption for the last 60 years, revealing what the world’s reliance on pollutants looks like up close.
Along Nigeria’s southern tip, the Niger Delta was once home to some of the highest concentrations of biodiversity in the world. Yet over the last 60 years, the country has become engulfed by its complex relationship with oil and gas. These natural resources pump billions of dollars into the global economy. But Nigerians see very little of this money, with recent research finding more than 82 million people live in extreme poverty – around 40% of the population.
Now the region is occupied by sprawling oilfields, where much of this wealth is unearthed. Since drilling began in 1956, the local population has been continuously exploited, with foreign companies and corrupt officials responsible for thousands of major oil spills and billions in stolen wealth. As locals struggle to hold those responsible accountable, the decades-long road to recovery has only just begun.
“The region is, unfortunately, a pretty clear example of how wrong we are living on this planet.”
In July and August of 2019, German photographer Robin Hinsch travelled to Nigeria to document the lives of those most affected by an insatiable global desire for oil and gas. Entitled Wahala, meaning ‘trouble’ in Hausa, the project highlights those caught amid the region’s entangled web of oil companies, government officials and black market operations. Each of these factors contributes to a relative standstill on clean-up efforts that have an ever-increasing cost.
Produced as part of a larger project on the environmental impact of global logistics companies, Wahala saw Hinsch make his way between the affected areas of Lagos and Port Harcourt, while also visiting numerous communities throughout the Niger Delta.
“I was immediately struck by the enormous, disastrous effects the oil industry caused on the natural environment,” says Hinsch. “I felt an urgency to develop a project around this ambivalent cradle of wealth.”
There’s no simple solution to the Niger Delta crisis. The issue has received some media attention in recent times, although nothing compared to an event like the Gulf of Mexico’s 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, despite the scale being magnitudes worse. The Rise for Bayelsa campaign estimates that 40 million litres of crude oil are still spilt annually in the Niger Delta, with half attributed to pipeline and tanker accidents, alongside sabotage and general operations.
Studies have found that the drinking water in heavily impacted areas along the Niger Delta includes benzene, a known carcinogen, at 900 times above World Health Organization guidelines. Meanwhile, surrounding mangroves have become layered with a “bitumen-like” coating.
“The work is trying to emphasise that it is all our responsibility to change the situation.”
Beneath the surface of the Niger Delta, the region is awash with some of the world’s highest quality crude oil, but it’s particularly difficult to extract. Instead of being centred around a few major oil-fields, the Niger Delta is a series of smaller sections connected by badly ageing pipelines. These pipes often go years without maintenance or inspection, rotting away and eventually leaking oil into the surrounding environment. This has devastated the local agricultural industry, with many people having almost no choice but to become involved in a black market economy of oil thefts, pipeline vandalisation and illegal ‘artisanal’ refineries.
“The region is, unfortunately, a pretty clear example of how wrong we are living on this planet. The situation shows what happens if the hunger for energy and economic growth takes over,” says Hinsch. “But I think the work is also trying to emphasise that it is all our responsibility to change the situation for all people.”
Locals have found holding the oil companies accountable for oil spills largely unsuccessful, but in 2015, Shell accepted their role in operational faults that caused two spills in 2008. In an attempt to clean up the region, approximately $360 million has been spent of the $900 million recommended by the United Nations Environment Programme. But locals have seen the situation improve relatively little, with vast sums tied up in government corruption or used to enrich local elites. As one Nigerian academic states: “People are pitted against one another in the quest for oil-related benefits or means of livelihood.”
Meanwhile, the Niger Delta’s widespread pollution has been linked to increased rates of kidney disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, among many other serious conditions. This has led to an average life expectancy of just 45 in the Niger Delta, compared to the already low 55 years seen across the rest of Nigeria.
“The situation in the Niger Delta shows us how ruthless the global economy is.”
To document the devastation, Hinsch moved between gas flaring sites in Ughelli, artisanal refineries in Bodo and various communities located within the Delta, capturing a truly ravaged setting. Using a compact Leica M 10, Hinsch shot portraits of local workers and security guards while turning his lens towards blackened landscapes where oil and gas residue has seeped into every surface.
Assisted by prominent Nigerian activist Fyneface Dumnamene, Hinsch also captured members of local artist communities who organise parties and performances that encourage discourse around the region’s complicated politics – actions that have little positive impact on the situation. “Most of the people I have met explained almost none of the existing actions are cleaning up the Delta,” describes Hinsch.
“The situation in the Niger Delta shows us how ruthless the global economy is. The region is pretty much the cradle of wealth for a lot of international companies. But this generated wealth stays outside the country. The local population is not benefitting at all from this process,” says Hinsch. “They are left behind and have to deal with the ecological consequences.”
Wahala is one of Hinsch’s first projects with a clear environmentalist angle, but his previous work has also tackled a variety of issues facing the global community in the 21st-century. From Ukraine’s ghostly towns following the Orange Revolution to the shattered buildings left behind by ISIS, his work has appeared in Rolling Stone, National Geographic and The Guardian. Meanwhile, Robin draws inspiration from the research-driven photographic work of Taryn Simon and the infrared creativity of Richard Mosse. “Both are great photographic artists who are always pushing the boundaries of the genre and have an open eye and heart for the marginalized,” says Hinsch. “But inspiration can come from everywhere. It could be the news, a book, or just life itself.”
“The global north is still heavily exploiting the south.”
Hinsch has travelled to other parts of the globe to support his work in Nigeria. He recently completed Zanziabad, a project that took him to India’s coal mining heartland of Jharkhand. Here, Hinsch captured the repercussions arising from some of the largest open cast mining areas in Asia. “The global north is still heavily exploiting the south, while taking almost no responsibility for their actions,” explains Hinsch. “This story is the continuation of the colonial past of the continent.”
Across far-reaching projects like Wahala, Hinsch’s images depict a world struggling to control its need for fossil fuels and constant economic growth. In his lucid style, Hinsch’s photos present the devastation in all its gloomy reality, highlighting how these problems are likely to continue far into the future unless solutions are acted upon soon.