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On paper, a mechanism does exist for distributing oil revenues somewhat fairly. The federal government retains roughly half and gives out the rest each month, on a sliding scale, to the 36 state governments. The core oil producers—Rivers, Delta, Bayelsa, and Akwa Ibom—receive the most. During the month I was in the delta, those four states divided up more than 650 million dollars.

But there is no discernible trickle down.

Newspaper articles and court cases document spectacular misuses of the money by military men and public office holders—such as the now imprisoned former Bayelsa governor Diepreye Alamieyeseigha—who stash hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign bank accounts to buy mansions in the U.S. and send their children to private schools in London. For the delta's 30 million people—most of whom struggle on less than a dollar a day—seeing this kind of money coming into their states with essentially none of it reaching them has created conditions for insurrection.

Nigeria's oil money won't keep coming, of course—perhaps another 40 years, the experts say. Natural gas is a fallback. Nigeria's reserves are estimated at 184 trillion cubic feet (five trillion cubic meters), good for an estimated 240 years of production at current levels. In the meantime, Antony Goldman says, "The government is following a simple plan for oil extraction: We've got to get what we can now, now."

Isaac Osuoka remembers the first time he saw frozen fish. It was the late 1970s, and he was five. A peddler caused a stir as he entered Osuoka's delta town of Oeliabi (now Akinima) with a carton of what he called ice fish. "We never had fish brought in from outside," said Osuoka, who now lives in Port Harcourt. "We had no idea what frozen fish meant. There were rumors that this fish was kept in a mortuary."

Frozen fish was a harbinger of the changes that would traumatize Osuoka's community. "As a boy, I could stroll to the rivers or back swamps with a rod and a net and come back with enough fish to feed my family," he recalled. "There was usually enough left over to sell, providing income for us to go to school." This bounty would not survive the coming of oil. Leaks from pipelines and wells, and the building of roads and canals, have disrupted the wetlands. "The degree and rate of degradation," the UN report warns, "are pushing the delta towards ecological disaster."

In 1996, Osuoka joined Environmental Rights Action, an advocacy group that helps communities defend their resources and learn their legal rights so they can avoid Oeliabi's fate. "We're seeing that environmental damages often happen silently, with their effects not coming out until years later," Osuoka said. "Today, there is not a single person in my community you could describe as a fisherman. We depend almost totally on frozen fish." At market stalls, a piece of frozen croaker or mackerel, most of it imported, goes for almost a dollar, unaffordable for most villagers.

The best environmental studies of the delta were done at least 30 years ago, according to Jimmy Adegoke, a Nigerian-born research scientist at the University of Missouri. To help fill the void, he and a team of researchers conducted fieldwork and a satellite-based study of the delta. They found that between 1986 and 2003, more than 50,000 acres (20,000 hectares) of mangroves disappeared from the coast, largely because of land clearing and canal dredging for oil and gas exploration. "That is a significant amount given how valuable the mangrove ecosystem is," Adegoke said, referring to the coastal forest's high productivity for fish populations. "I think the loss of one acre is too much. You're wiping out the means for people to sustain themselves."

Oil companies operated in the delta for years with little environmental oversight. There was no federal environmental protection agency until 1988, and environmental impact assessments weren't mandated until 1992. What pressure the government exerts now is directed mostly at halting gas flares. Delta oil fields contain large amounts of natural gas that companies have traditionally elected to burn off rather than store or reinject into the ground, more costly measures. Hundreds of flares have burned nonstop for decades, releasing greenhouse gases and causing acid rain. Communities complain of corroded roofs, crop failures, and respiratory diseases. After first ordering companies to eliminate flaring by 1984, the government keeps pushing back the deadline. Shell, the main offender, recently announced that despite making considerable progress, it could not meet the latest target date of 2008.

On land, there are oil spills, polluting groundwater and ruining cropland. The government documented 6,817 spills between 1976 and 2001—practically one a day for 25 years—but analysts suspect that the real number may be ten times higher. Old, improperly maintained equipment causes many of the leaks, but oil operators blame sabotage and theft, speculating that disaffected community members deliberately cause oil spills to collect compensation money.

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