Lessons from Ecuador: Curbing Health Risks in Nigeria

Patrick Chakauya – Zimbabwe

There are some instances where disease burdens are so disproportionately stacked against one particular ethnic group that they face a risk of accidental ethnic cleansing. One example is the west-African country of Nigeria.

There are several intuitive reasons why health disparity exists: financially less secure people cannot afford health care, some people live in areas that have greater health risks, and there are certain occupations with greater health hazards, to name a few. However, there are also discriminatory laws that create a wedge between the privileged sections of society and the politically weaker sections, leading to health issues that may not have existed if not for the institutionalized preferential practices. Quite a few of these issues follow a pattern of different ethnic groups being pitted against one another by political power.

Nigeria, as part of OPEC, is an important player in the global economy, as the country has a direct hand in the distribution and pricing of oil. Not only is Nigeria Africa’s biggest economy, but it is the second-biggest major oil producing country in the world. This prominence as an oil-exporting nation has resulted in major environmental damage. This environmental harm has led to major health issues for the people living in the region around the delta, mainly the Igbo people, an ethnic and religious minority.

The effect on human health has been disastrous. On average, almost a quarter million barrels of crude oil are spilled into the Niger Delta every year. These oil spills reduce food security to almost a third of what it would be without the spills, reduces the nutritional value of food by 36%. This leads to a significant increase in the prevalence of childhood malnutrition, and studies have indicated that crude oil contains toxins that lead to infertility and cancer. Due to the distribution of ethnic and religious groups in Nigeria, it is minorities that face the brunt of the situation.

On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, Ecuador faced a similar situation in past decades. Another oil exporting country, it, too, faced years of environmental degradation which resulted in serious health issues for those in geographic proximity. For the last half-century, natives of Ecuador, especially indigenous populations such as the Waorani people have faced serious health risks due to the lack of regulation concerning oil extraction. The oil exports brought temporary economic prosperity, but at a cost of damaging the health and depleting the resources of indigenous populations, who were displaced from their lands and exposed to countless oil spills for the overall economic benefit of the nation. Studies indicated that the people living near the oil pits in Ecuador had elevated rates of cancer of the stomach, rectum, skin, soft tissue, kidney, cervix, and lymph nodes.

The indisputable fact is that human health was jeopardized for economic prosperity, but were the people living in these regions targeted intentionally?

An initial look at the situation makes it seem as though there were coincidences of oil being found where indigenous populations happened to reside. However, after serious detrimental effects due to oil extraction were discovered, the governments of these nations did not attempt to seek alternatives.

So the question remains, why is it that high-risk health issues in these countries continue to be overlooked by seemingly unconcerned governments? Race and religious politics play a huge role in the disregard of public health of minority populations. These situations aren’t limited to developing oil exporting countries alone. There are examples of minorities in the United States facing avoidable health issues due to race politics, the British government not imposing laws to curb health risks in majority-black areas, and the Canadian government dumping toxic waste in places inhabited by descendants of slaves forcefully brought from Africa.

In Nigeria specifically, the health issues of the minority Igbo people are related to existing tensions between the ethnic groups and not having a strong voice in the government to change policies. Corruption in Nigeria continues to fuel the existence of privileged groups, who in turn use their political power not to help the Othered minority, but rather the people of their brethren. Minorities in Nigeria have given up faith in government run services and turned to privatized options instead, which many Nigerians cannot afford. The illnesses and diseases in the country continue to increase.

With this great disparity of health resources available for the ethnic majority and minority, one can only assume that there is a latent issue of ethnic cleansing involved. While this might not be the intent of the political elite, it is definitely the impact.

Ecuador’s situation with their indigenous populations facing major health risks is quite comparable to that of Nigeria today. They are both former colonies of European powers that exploited their resources; both countries were left in economically destitute conditions post-independence, and both countries have used oil export as a means to support their economy. Unfortunately, both countries have also increased wealth disparity, health issue disparities, and (perhaps unwillingly) targeted minorities within their border. Nevertheless, Ecuador’s situation has improved in the last five decades and the non-spurious links to health issues, such as oil extraction in minority-majority areas, in the country seem to be continually dissipated.

So what did Ecuador do right that Nigeria can do too? The answer is not simple. There was a massive political movement by the indigenous populations rallying behind a liberal candidate for the presidency, Rafael Correa, who overturned a lot of discriminatory policies in place after this election. The oil and gas industry in Ecuador, which was previously privately owned by foreign companies, was extensively nationalized, increasing government revenues from oil exports from 13% to 87%. Health and economics both improved not only for the marginalized populations but the country as a whole. Indigenous political mobilization helped overturn serious health problems.

There is a pattern of systemic ignorance on the part of political elites, who deliberately disregard the dire situations they put unprivileged groups in due to economically beneficial policies. This has resulted in an increased disease burden in populations who are already socially and politically disadvantaged. The institutional discrimination can be stopped by increasing public awareness and involvement, but a simple solution is usually one that is difficult to implement.