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  • Symbolic Episodes in the Quest for Environmental Justice
  • L. Amede Obiora (bio)

The arguments in this article are laid out in four parts. Part I consists of two sections. The first section offers an overview of some symbolic implications of environmental protection. The second section delineates the normative framework for the protective enterprise. Part II traces the evolution of the paradigm for environmental justice and articulates its potentials to benefit disadvantaged communities. Beginning with a historical outline, it illuminates parallels between specific experiences of environmental discrimination and the struggles thereof. Focusing on the predicament of the Ogoni of Nigeria, Part III chronicles the genesis of the Ogoni struggle and addresses the legacy of Kenule Saro-Wiwa. The last portion, Part IV, situates the discussion within a broader global context, critiquing the dynamics of international norms and relations in environmental protection.

I. Symbolic Implications and Normative Framework for Environmental Protection

A. Background

Water, water everywhere, not a drop to drink. 1

The past few decades have witnessed a proliferation of instruments which document a daunting array of ecological problems. 2 Pursuant to these [End Page 464] findings, international and regional entities have adopted various environmental protection ideals, policies and strategies. In turn, many states have promulgated national laws and established agencies for environmental protection. The usefulness of the pious pronouncements of principles in these realms is without question. However, it appears that diffusion of environmental reform initiatives is not necessarily matched by effective implementation. Akin to Coleridge’s afore-mentioned observation, it is plausible to argue that the constraints which are militating against some of the recent environmental transactions considerably erode their practical utility.

Notwithstanding the apparent vacuousness of some relevant international imperatives, the nuances of the environmental question seem to be animating subterranean impulses and multidimensional claims for justice in diverse contexts. In the wake of the rapid dispersal of ideas which characterize the contemporary era of globalization, peoples across the globe are intoning and rallying around novel concepts, norms and standards of environmental protection as a social justice objective. The case of the Ogoni of southeastern Nigeria exemplifies this trend. This case captures a critical paradox of environmental protection which is that seemingly modest normative gestures do in fact publicize ecological problems and go some length in eliciting meaningful responses, even if often from marginal constituencies. Accordingly, the Ogoni episode is a forceful testament that every bit counts in the context of ecological conservation. With particular reference to the experience of the Ogoni, therefore, this article will explore the extent to the environmental movement or the so-called “greening” of international law is garnering material support around the world.

A few years ago, the world was stunned when the military government of the Federal Republic of Nigeria summarily executed Kenule Saro-Wiwa, an Ogoni environmental activist, and a number of his compatriots in utter defiance of international injunctions. Encouraged by the growing awareness about the reciprocal relationship between social and ecological welfare, these individuals invoked the environmental ideal as a symbol of self-determination for the Ogoni. For this, they incurred the wrath of power elites who had routinized brute force and violence as mechanisms for censorship and repression. The conflict culminated in the execution of the activists. Some called it sheer martyrdom. That the illegitimate military regime opted to sacrifice the activists to signify a lesson against radical resistance, epitomized its checkered history of tyranny and ineptitude. On the other hand, scape-goating the Ogoni statesmen transformed them into a collective icon of the struggle for environmental responsibility and justice.

The Ogoni incident underscores the tragic human costs and monumental environmental crisis that attend unsustainable patterns of production and consumption. In general, it highlights the extent to which vying for natural [End Page 465] resource control is an active ingredient, if not a recipe, for the social conditions of poverty, ethnic cleavage, and fierce political disputations. In particular, it reflects how the predatory practices of political and corporate economic elites, coupled with severely diminished options for disadvantaged ethnic minorities and rural communities, are apt to trigger a triangular trend of marginalization, impoverishment and degradation. More critically, the experience of the Ogoni sheds light on the environmental dimensions of...

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pp. 464-512
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