EXCLUSIVE: Environmental News Nigeria; Giving a Voice to Rural Communities

By some estimates, 90% of Nigeria’s rural population are employed in agriculture, making land the most valued asset of many rural people. Photo/Focusland.com

“Journalism should have a conscious”, said Augustina Armstrong-Ogbonna.

On a Saturday afternoon, two weeks ago, Nigerianreporter.com got the opportunity to speak with Augustina Armstrong-Ogbonna a Nigerian journalist who won the United Nations Foundation (UNF) gold medal as the world’s best Development Humanitarian reporter in 2015. Her focus is environmental field reporting that gives a voice to many Nigerians in rural communities that would otherwise not have one.

The seasoned reporter who also worked as a freelance journalist for Radio Nigeria got into environmental reporting after being told in 2010 that climate change was going to be the biggest issue of the 21st century.

She applied for a media fellowship and was one among six African journalists funded under the African United Nations Development Program to cover stories in their local communities, Armstrong-Ogbonna’s thorough breath of reporting won her a gold medal for her journalistic excellence. But she reminds me, during our phone conversation, that the accolades are great, but the story is not about her.

“Using social media to report is essential. The statement made in 2010 expanded the perception I had on reporting on climate change. I don’t wait for stories to come to me, I look for the stories. The people most affected by climate change reside in coastal and rural communities,” she said.

“They deal with debilitating land issues like desert encroachment, oil dredging, and gully erosion. I am happy a journalist is able to tell their stories.”

She emphasizes with me again and again the need for Nigerian business owners and conglomerates like the Dangote Group, who have heavy ties to the government, in terms of receiving tax subsidies for property expansion in rural communities to go about legally constructing on the land; specifically doing an environmental impact assessment prior to construction.

“These people, with houses close to the shoreline, their houses are cracked due to illegal oil dredging, when they [rural community members] see me, they are so happy someone has come to speak with them and cares about them,” Armstrong-Ogbonna said.

Environmental journalist, Augustina Armstrong-Ogbonna.

On a personal level Armstrong-Ogbonna wants Nigerians to look beyond tribal lines and work as a collective community to help those who may not be able to fight for their own rights. This comes as some reports say 90% of Nigeria’s rural and coastal population are employed in agriculture, making land the most valued asset of many rural people.  The land issues they are faced with, as well as in some cases complete expulsion from their land altogether, is what makes her feel she needs to be an advocate, as she put it, a “watchdog”.

Despite accusations of being paid in an unethical manner to report on the environment, Armstrong-Ogbonna says, “no one is paying me.” “I am seen as a rebel and confrontational, but I am not going to be internationally recognized for my reporting, and report on bullshit at home, I want to make an impact.”

“We journalists are the hope that they have, we can’t encroach on the rights of indigenous people, taking up massive amounts of land with no land rights, or an environmental impact assessment” she said.

She ends with commentary that the Cross River State government wants to build a super highway to positively affect the community and boost the economy, “It sounds great all good, yes, a super highway, but when I spoke with people in the community they say a highway will destroy an entire forest – the last rain forest in Nigeria that links Nigeria with Cameroon [the Ekuri Forest] – we need to focus on sustainable development”.