The Nigerian Activist Trying to Sell Plants to the Oil Company That Destroyed Them

“I need to help my women to stand,” says Martha Agbani, who helped a group of women from the Niger Delta build a flourishing mangrove nursery.,

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YAATAAH, Nigeria — When the women arrived in the quiet, waterside village of Yaataah on an afternoon in May, some local young men hurried over to them. They offered to carry the women’s loads — old rice sacks and tin basins full of seeds, ready for planting — down to the swamp.

They seemed helpful but the women’s leader, Martha Agbani, sensed danger. “No, leave it!” she said sharply. “Let the women carry.”

It wasn’t the first time she had run into these men in Yaataah, perched on a small hill in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria, and she knew their offer contained menace: If she didn’t pay them, there would be trouble. And one of her main goals was to create work for the women.

All her life Mrs. Agbani had watched as women from Ogoniland, a part of the oil-rich Niger Delta famous for standing up to polluting oil companies, struggled to get by, and struggled to be heard over men.

And she was determined that men would not disrupt or muscle in on her new project — establishing an enormous nursery to grow hundreds of thousands of mangrove plants to sell to the Nigerian subsidiary of Royal Dutch Shell, the dominant oil company in Ogoniland and the one responsible for wiping out many of them in the first place.

Mrs. Agbani, a hardy woman with a ready laugh and a kind but no-nonsense manner, was trying to turn her hand to a business that could put money in women’s pockets and go some way to restoring their devastated environment.

Mangroves have prodigious natural powers, filtering brackish water, protecting against coastal erosion and providing a sheltered breeding ground for aquatic life, which in turn sustains humans.

The Niger Delta is home to one of the largest mangrove ecosystems in the world, one that humans lived in harmony with for centuries. But with the advent of oil production — something that the Nigerian government has come to depend upon for most of its revenue — the mangrove forests suffered.

In 2011, the United Nations Environment Program released a major report documenting pollution in Ogoniland, saying it could take 30 years to clean up. But the government agency set up to clean the land and water, the Hydrocarbon Pollution Remediation Project, has been grindingly slow to act.

After two oil spills in 2007 and 2008 killed off thousands of acres of mangrove forests near the village of Bodo, Shell agreed to compensate the community, clean up the oil and replant. Mrs. Agbani spotted an opportunity.

The company would need thousands upon thousands of mangroves, tropical trees that grow in the spaces between land and sea, protecting the coastline and providing vital habitat for baby fish and periwinkles, the sea snails that are a staple of Niger Delta cuisine.

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Martha Agbani’s mangrove nursery in Bodo. Her two nurseries are home to about 250,000 plants that will soon be transplanted in their natural habitat.Credit…Yagazie Emezi for The New York Times

She started by growing mangroves in her yard, then started looking for a place to establish a nursery.

That’s how she came across Yaataah. Once, its creek was home to thick forests of mangroves, but now most were gone, the victims of past environmental disasters and encroachment of invasive nipa palms, brought there long ago by the British. She started planning the project’s rollout there, and bused in more than 100 female mangrove planters to celebrate its launch in late 2019.

But at the party, Mrs. Agbani said, she had her first experience with the young men, who suddenly arrived and demanded money, as well as the snacks she had brought for the women.

When she remonstrated with them, pointing out that the women had come to help restore the land so that their mothers and sisters could once again harvest periwinkles, they physically attacked her.

“They were dragging me from behind,” she said. “It all went bad.”

Shaken, Mrs. Agbani and her team left and did not return to Yaataah for months. She decided to base the nursery elsewhere — a local leader agreed to lend her land close to the polluted sites in Bodo.

But she couldn’t quite let go of Yaataah. It had a good creek where they could practice cultivating mangroves out in the wild, directly from seeds, rather than first establishing them in the plastic grow bags of the nursery in Bodo.

And now, in May 2021, the women were back to plant.

Hoisting the sacks onto their heads, and with their skirts above their knees, the women descended the little hill barefoot and slipped into the clear water of the creek. It didn’t stay clear for long, though, as dozens of feet stirred up the soft sediment.

“Something’s sizzling round my legs,” said Mrs. Agbani, 45, laughing, leaning on a stick, and struggling to get a foothold in the mud. “Oh my god, Martha is an old woman.”

The spot was perfect. There was very little oil pollution. Birds, frogs and crickets still sang from their clumps of foliage. Like many a creek of the Niger Delta in southern Nigeria, it was choked by nipa palms. But Mrs. Agbani had arranged for villagers to clear a large patch of the palms.

The women squelched nimbly through the mud over to the patch and worked quickly, passing the seeds — technically, podlike “propagules” that germinate on the tree — from hand to hand and sticking them in the mud at foot-long intervals, directed by Mrs. Agbani.

“Carry me dey go-o,” one of the women, Jessy Nubani, sang, bobbing up and down as she worked, adapting a popular call-and-response song. The other women sang back in harmony: “Martha, carry me dey go, dey go, dey go.”

The young men had shown up again, and summoned their friends, who buzzed in on motorcycles to see what they could get. But they stayed on shore. Mrs. Agbani had given them a round telling-off.

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Martha Agbani returning from the planting site.Credit…Yagazie Emezi for The New York Times

Mrs. Agbani learned activism partly from her mother, who in the 1990s was involved in the Ogoni people’s struggle against the Nigerian government and Shell.

Like her mother, Mrs. Agbani worked for years for the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People, set up in 1990 in response to the environmental destruction of the ecologically delicate area by multinational oil companies.

And like her mother, she was inspired by the work of the activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, Ogoniland’s greatest hero, who was executed by the Nigerian government under the military dictator Sani Abacha in 1995.

She remembers clearly the day Ken Saro-Wiwa was arrested, when she was a teenage student in Bori, his birthplace. She hid in a drain and watched the city erupt.

“People were running helter-skelter,” she said. “Soldiers got into the communities. In Bori, they were shooting. People were on the rampage.”

That experience, and Mr. Saro-Wiwa’s insistence on rights for the oppressed, made her want to fight for her people. And, she said, while there were many organizations focused on the ravaged environment, few looked at the rights of women, who suffered disproportionately from the effects of oil pollution.

“Women were always crying. Women were victims of so many things,” she said. “I need to help my women to stand.”

In Ogoniland, men often go deep-sea fishing, but women traditionally stay close to shore, collecting crustaceans for their thick, fragrant soups or to sell.

When there are no mangroves and thus no shellfish to harvest, Mrs. Agbani said, “they now depend solely on men.”

“That over-dependence has been leading to a lot of violence, too,” she said. “You are there just to serve the man.”

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Martha Agbani’s mangrove nursery in Bodo, where the young plants have to be raised in plastic containers.Credit…Yagazie Emezi for The New York Times

The way Mrs. Agbani saw things, the Ogoni people were custodians of a borrowed environment — borrowed from their forefathers and from a generation not yet born.

And it pained her to see local young men obstructing and trying to profit from the women’s efforts to rebuild it.

“We have a lot of motivation,” she said. “We feel they’ve not really understood what it means, restoring the environment.”

As a parting shot, the ringleader of the young men told Mrs. Agbani that he would see her in court. “I think he was joking. If he wants to sue, that would be nice,” she said ironically, laughing with surprise. “That’ll be a good one.”

As she headed out of Yaataah on a bumpy track, headed for the nursery in Bodo, the driver scooted out of the way of a bevy of motorbikes buzzing toward the village. More young men. They’d heard that there was money to be had, but they’d arrived too late. Mrs. Agbani was on her way out.

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