It is the most unusual of stories. A workable solution to an environmental disaster.
Oil spill after oil spill has contaminated the Niger Delta in southern Nigeria, making it one of the most polluted areas on the planet.
It’s extremely dangerous – militant groups have blown up pipelines, oil companies have been accused of negligence, and kidnappings are on the rise – and there’s a deep mistrust of outsiders.
In an oil-soaked and fire-ravaged land, one scientist, Eucharia Nwaichi, arrives armed with knowledge and a calm but unwavering determination to detoxify.
“We want environmentally friendly, nature-based solutions. In everything we do, we strive to do no harm “In an interview with the BBC, she says
She was recently awarded the John Maddox prize, which recognizes scientists who persevere in the face of adversity. “Congratulations to me,” she exclaimed at the award ceremony in London, thrilled to be the first African woman to win.
Eucharia is a biochemist at Port Harcourt University. She uses a straightforward method to restore oil- and chemical-contaminated soils and water.
It’s called bioremediation, and it involves planting vegetation that naturally removes pollutants from the soil without the need for chemicals to be removed and disposed of elsewhere.
She is dispatched to oil spill sites, where chemicals and heavy metals such as mercury, lead, and chromium leak into the ground, to monitor the pollution.
She’s been working in the Niger Delta, Nigeria’s “garden” with vast oil and gas reserves, since 2003.
She discovered that waste from oil refining was clogging water when she was a PhD student. It was causing friction between the community and the oil company operating in the area; Eucharia explains that by proving the source of the problem with documented evidence, she persuaded the company to change the way it extracted oil.
Her use of science during violent conflicts earned her the Maddox prize.
“Eucharia engaged opposing hostile forces in asking scientific questions to ensure effective solutions,” Tracey Brown, director of the charity Sense in Science, which awards the John Maddox prize, said.
What distinguishes her is her diplomacy in winning over locals and convincing oil companies to pay for detoxification.
People have turned to the courts for justice after decades of suffering from the effects of major pollution. A Dutch court ruled in 2021 that Shell must compensate farmers.
But, according to Eucharia, the environment is suffering in the meantime. Cleaning up is not a priority during litigation, she claims. She believes that in order to gain their support, local residents must feel involved in the solution.
“You run the risk of being kidnapped if you don’t interact with people properly. First, I meet with the chief of the community, the women’s leader, and the youth leaders “she claims
Speaking Pidgin or the local language, as well as using traditional knowledge, she explains, helps to build trust.
“People get excited and feel like scientists because they’re collaborating with us researchers to solve the problem,” she explains.
“They teach us as well. They have planting techniques that we are unaware of, and they teach us how to make the solution work in their environment “She elaborates.
Instead of focusing solely on financial compensation, she believes the contaminated land should be restored so that crops can grow again and fishing can resume.
Despite being offered positions at prestigious US universities, she says she chose to stay in the Niger Delta to work because she has a “mission to make my country great.”
Many environmentalists undoubtedly view international oil companies as adversaries. Amnesty International and Friends of the Earth have fought to hold them accountable for the communities that have suffered from poor health, a lack of safe drinking water, and the destruction of their livelihoods.
Eucharia, on the other hand, refuses to take sides. “We are not here to fight. We simply want people to be accountable “she claims “Fighting is less important than being responsible. It lasts longer.”
She has, however, faced her own threats. She claims that in 2020, while documenting a new oil spill, she was threatened by an oil company, which confiscated her data and equipment. She claims the operator also challenged her, saying she should not be allowed to work there because she is a woman.
Despite the constant threat of violence, she persists because she believes “mother nature called on me to be a steward” and views facts as a force for good.
“The power of science is that it allows people to demonstrate that this was not done because of bias or someone’s personal interests,” she says.