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I just read that Nnimmo Bassey, co-founder of the Nigerian NGO Environmental Rights Action (ERA) and the current Chair of Friends of the Earth International (FOEI), has been awarded the Right Livelihood Award for 2010.  As anyone who knows him and his work can attest, this award—often characterized as the “Alternative Nobel Prize”—is richly deserved.  Nnimmo has been working for decades to expose the environmental and human devastation oil production has wreaked in the Niger Delta, and to provide legal and advocacy support to communities affected by oil company operations.  ERI has had the privilege to work with him on a number of occasions.

As Executive Director of ERA, Nnimmo has led the charge in Nigeria to stand up to multinational corporations, by demanding accountability for their pollution of the delicate ecosystems of the Niger Delta and their complicity in human rights abuse by Nigerian security forces.  ERA trains community monitors, campaigns widely on issues like oil spills and gas flaring, and is involved in groundbreaking local and transnational litigation against oil companies – particularly Shell and Chevron – that are active in the region.  Among the organization’s many achievements is a landmark decision from a Federal High Court in Nigeria declaring that Nigeria’s law permitting some forms of gas flaring violates the constitutional guarantee of the right to life.  As Chair of FOEI, Nnimmo is an internationally recognized, leading campaigner for environmental justice, speaking out on climate change, the right to adequate food and water, and biodiversity.  His slogan of “keep the oil in the soil, keep the coal in the hole, keep the tar sand in the land” has become one of the most recognizable rallying cries of the international environmental movement today.

I first met Nnimmo when he came to the US in September 2008 to testify in front of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Human Rights and the Law about the human rights impacts of the oil industry in the Niger Delta.  ERI hosted him during his visit, and I got to spend time with him and watch his testimony.  The contrast between Nnimmo’s performance and that of the government representative who spoke about the U.S. efforts in this area couldn’t have been more stark – while the State Department rep tried vainly to defend the adequacy of existing voluntary multi-stakeholder initiatives, Nnimmo held his audience spellbound and horrified with stories of violent attacks on protestors, catastrophic oil slicks and gas flares in the midst of struggling communities.  After his testimony, Senator Durbin surprised many of us by suggesting that the U.S. needed to impose criminal penalties on corporate human rights abuses committed abroad, much as the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act does for foreign bribery.  (Video of the Senate hearing).

I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised at Nnimmo’s eloquence and the effectiveness of his advocacy.  In addition to being an accomplished organizer, he is an avid poet whose words carry the force of his convictions.  Just a quick sample from a poem he presented at the World Peoples Climate Conference Summit in April: 

I will not dance to your beat 
Unless we walk the sustainable path 
And accept real solutions & respect Mother Earth 
Unless you do 
I will not & 
We will not dance to your beat