Pollution, deforestation: How ignorance, unclear environmental policies influence booming fish smoking industry

In spite of the alternatives that have been put to use in other parts of the country, most women in the booming business of fish smoking in Oyo and Ogun States are unaware of the inherent dangers firewood burning poses to them, their immediate environment and the climate at large. IFEDAYO OGUNYEMI reports the lives of those in the fish smoking business who live with these silent killers: smoke, pollution and deforestation.

Rays of the afternoon sun pelted her head as she fanned the embers beneath the half-cut iron drum with the smoke permeating the air. “This smoke is unbearable, Iya Maria,” said one of the three neighbours conversing under a makeshift shed about five meters away. Their voices rose and fell intermittently. “Don’t be offended,” she replied from under the glow of the scorching sun, apologising for the inconvenience in the language of the Yoruba, a dominant group in Nigeria’s Southwest.

She turned to this reporter and said, “This is one of the challenges we face when smoking fish. But we cannot do away with this because it is the most important aspect of fish smoking. About three years ago, one of my competitors lost her little child as a result of this smoke. She later relocated to her hometown with the rest of her family.”

Ibadan-born and bred 37-year-old Iya Maria further told Nigerian Tribune this job hardly sustains her family. “When I’m done here, I have to take them to the market on time so I can make good sales,” she said while wiping droplets of sweat from her face.

‘There’s no damage that smoke can cause’

Iya Maria’s predicament is akin to that shared with Nigerian Tribune by Edo State-born Mrs Kennedy who smokes and sells fish in Ogijo, a suburb of Sagamu Local Government in Ogun State. But unlike her Ibadan counterpart, Mrs Kennedy’s children have acquired secondary school education. Kennedy who started the business in 2014 when she first came to Ogijo said, “I smoke fish for a living, I do this to feed my family and myself.”

When this reporter asked if she was aware smoke causes air pollution and has an effect on the climate, an unperturbed Kennedy argued: “I don’t know how to put this if you are saying this small smoke is affecting the environment. Firewood has been a method of cooking from the beginning and I can say that it is very popular and better for cooking. You talk of cutting down trees and preventing trees from growing. God has created everything for us and there’s no damage we can do. God made the wood for us to use before gas and other things.”

Nearly 600,000 Africans die annually from air pollution, inefficient and dangerous traditional cooking fuels and stoves, a World Health Organisation (WHO) survey says, adding that millions more suffer from chronic illnesses.

fish

Clean cooking, alternative to firewood

Alternatives have been devised and put to use across the country and in the continent including the clean cook stove of which more than 160,000 stoves have been sold so far. Its fuel is made from biomass such as sawdust and water hyacinth that would otherwise produce methane when they decompose; or particulate matter, when burned, are utilised to produce ethanol fuel gel.

Nigerian Tribune gathered that the Green Energy Biofuels (GEB) produces more than 10,000,000 litres of bio-fuel cooking gel – which offers 80 per cent in savings over wood fuel – every year.  GEB’s 10K litre per day biofuel gel production facility in Lagos now serves more than 600,000 households across Ghana, Togo, Cameroon, the Gambia, Senegal and Benin Republic. It also empowered some 38,000 women entrepreneurs across its 28 distribution centres, created 1,054 direct jobs and some 45,000 indirect jobs between 2013 and 2018.fish

Faraway in Cross River State, the Justice Development and Peace (JDP) Caritas distributed 1,650 cooking stoves worth N6.8 million to 19 communities in the state in 2017 in order to reduce the use of firewood and conserve the forest because “over the years, we have come to realise that burning and smoke are depleting the ozone layer.”

The leader, JDP Caritas, Calabar, Mr William Itorok, told newsmen that “the objective of the project is for the conservation of the area, as many people use firewood to cook. We can’t stop them from using firewood, but we want them to reduce the use. We are not stopping; we are going to look at more innovative ideas to conserve the forest.”

But when told there are alternatives which could reduce the health risks firewood offers, Kennedy said: “I don’t know of any, we have been using this for long, I don’t know of any alternative. Some people talk of oven but an oven cannot make it as good as the firewood method. I don’t know of any alternative but firewood has been the age-long method.

“We are in a modern age; if there’s anything that will make good smoked fish, we will accept it. When gas came out, people abandoned firewood. If there’s an alternative to firewood, we will take it.”

In Nigeria, about 69 per cent of households use solid fuels as their primary source of energy for domestic cooking. Also in Nigeria, the annual rate of deforestation as at 2005 stood at 3.5% (about 400,000 hectares) making Nigeria one of the countries with the worst deforestation rates in the world. The reason for this is obvious as about 90 per cent of rural households in Southern Nigeria and up to 98 per cent in Northern Nigeria depend on firewood as their source of domestic energy, according to the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) estimates. This situation is worsened by the depletion of forest resources for industrial, agricultural and housing purposes.

 

Fish smoking
Mrs Kennedy adjusting the fish on the iron net-tray

62-year-old veteran fish smoker

A large percentage of those who smoke fish in Nigeria inherited the business from their forebears. “My children both male and female also smoke fish with me; none of them can say he or she doesn’t know how to smoke fish because they also share from the proceeds,” said 62-year-old Serifat Arowoserere who has spent the last 30 years smoking fish.

This attraction to fish smoking may not be far from the fact that fish represents 18% of animal protein intake. It is even projected that fish as a source of animal protein could rise to 80% in coastal countries such as Sierra Leone.

“There are lots of troubles in this business but this is what we are destined for and we feed from, there is nothing we can do but accept our fate. There is usually smoke and it affects us and the hard work of the past is now taking effect on our body. We have frequent body aches. We use drugs as recommended by doctors because we go for check-ups at the general hospital. We also have a drug we use to protect our eyes from being affected by the smoke,” she further told this reporter when he came visiting at her Oke-Sokori shop in Abeokuta.

“We get the firewood from the forest. We don’t cut them ourselves, we buy from people. It used to be N15, 000 per truck but now it’s N17, 000. Those who sell firewood to us, I want to believe, are permitted by the government because they carry the wood from the forest and go through major roads before getting to us.

“Despite the availability of modern means of cooking, the use of firewood is still relatively high. We don’t know of any alternative to this drum and firewood but if there’s any alternative, we will gladly accept. Everyone wants an easy life. We don’t want to have smoke all over us all the time,” she said.

When they interacted with Nigerian Tribune, many of those who smoke fish in rural areas in Oyo and Ogun states portrayed a deep level of ignorance as to the effect of firewood use and burning on climate change and deforestation.

 

Fish smoking
Arowoserere in her kiosk

A business passed down generations

“Fish smoking is what I inherited from my parents; it is more like a hereditary job, passed down and I have no choice but to take it on and pass it down as well. I grew up to know the business of fish smoking,” Iya Dada said as she lit the firewood at the base of the makeshift oven (drum).

The smoke from the firewood swallowed the neatly arranged fish atop the drum. Iya Dada who also earned the cognomen ‘Iya Eleja’ loosely translated ‘mother of fish’ among her folks around Monipa expressway, Ijebu Ode, said “our generation started using sawdust to reduce the firewood we have to use. If you want to fry stew or prepare soup, smoked fish is the best.”

She added: “We are aware that this smoke is harmful to our health. When such health challenge arises, we visit the hospital where we will be given medication. I don’t know how smoke can be harmful to the atmosphere, I also don’t know why felling of trees is harmful to our environment as you claim. I think the use of wood for cooking or for any other purpose has reduced largely since the advent of gas. But we don’t know how to use gas for smoking fish.”

In Abule Ojere, a few metres away from the Moshood Abiola Polytechnic (MAPOLY), Abeokuta, Maria also called Iya Dare has eyes on another alternative. “My alternative to wood is charcoal. This emits less smoke but if there is advancement in this method, I will welcome it but that the ordinary smoke from the small wood that I burn is affecting the environment is unbelievable. Something that does not affect me, how will it affect the whole environment? I have not heard of this before. Cutting of trees does no harm. Our mothers have been using wood even before we were born. Besides, most of the trees we use are trees that have dried up, fallen in the forest, and we don’t cut trees which are in good condition,” she said.

For some, it’s the patronage that encourages them to continue smoking fish in spite of the health challenges and poverty that stare them in the face. Iya Anu who plies her trade at Orita in Ilaro, Ogun State, is one of them. She, however, prevents her children from getting near the fire or smoke.

“Fish smoking affects the body a lot as you can see from my eyes. When the smoke gets bigger, even the customer that wants to buy fish will move away. We cannot stop smoking fish because we have those who are interested in buying.

“I don’t allow my children to come close to it because of the smoke; it is too dangerous for children. May God have mercy on us with this fish smoking. It affects us a lot. I do go to the community hospital for treatment whenever I am ill.  But when I am through with administering the medication, I resume making smoked fish.

“I am using a drum and firewood because without the drum, the fish cannot be properly smoked. We do give the drum to the welder to help us cut it to size. If this place where I produce the fish is spacious enough, the smoke won’t affect the people because it will be far from where they are. We always try to find a way to contain the smoke

“This is the method that we have been using since inception even before civilisation. We don’t know how it affects people outside here. We only purchase firewood from sellers and we use it for the purpose we have bought it for.

“There are a lot of challenges. Since we are poor and we cannot steal, it remains the only source of income for us. When we bring back leftover fish from the market that is what we eat sometimes. The suffering associated with smoking is much when compared to selling fried fish.”

Just like Iya Anu, Grace Ajibodu who lives in Oyo town only knows about the health challenges. “It affects us a lot. When inhaled, the smoke always results in catarrh and cough. I have been down as a result of this sometimes. I don’t think smoking fish affects rainfall or how the sun shines. But yes, when we smoke fish, it disturbs the neighbours. The complaints over the smoke are there but without the smoke, we won’t be able to produce the smoked fish. We just have to plead with our neighbours.”

The cookstove being distributed in Oblan community Cross River State

Another smoked fish seller in Sango area of Eruwa who doesn’t want to be named said: “I smoke fish so that it won’t get spoilt. It does not have effects on my health or that of my children or my neighbours. I occasionally go for medical check-ups and I have not been diagnosed with ailment. We use charcoal here and some people use oven. I can use the oven or any other alternative device but it is not available here. There is nothing wrong with the climate. It is wide and spacious.”

It is not sure if efforts made by the state governments in Ogun and Oyo State to educate the citizenry about the effect of firewood burning and the alternatives to traditional cooking are effective. However, a state policy document on environment made available to Nigerian Tribune by the Ogun State Ministry of Environment pointed out that “environmental education is also an effective mechanism for the promotion of popular participation in environmental issues,” adding that “the goal will be to properly sensitise the populace to value the importance of sustainable environment for meaningful development and enhancement of people’s quality of life.”

The document also holds that “activities have resulted in the emission of gaseous pollutants into the atmosphere. There has been consistent fear about acid rain resulting from pollution.” To avert this, the government seeks to “ensure that all major industrial air polluters are monitored for their compliance with laid down national standards.”

Efforts to reach the Commissioner for Environment and Natural Resources in Oyo State, Lateef Oyeleke proved abortive. When Nigerian Tribune called him on the phone early November, he said he was on his way to the State House of Assembly and promised to call back in two hours.

Repeated calls to his mobile phone hours and days after were not answered. A seven-page text message sent to his mobile number is yet to be replied as at the time of filing this report.

 

Smoking of fish using drum at Sango-Eruwa

“Government must redirect use of firewood’

An environmental expert and lecturer in the School of Ecology and Environmental Studies, Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU), Professor Emmanuel Ifeanyi Ofoezie, told Nigerian Tribune: “It (firewood) has a very big effect on deforestation especially where people cut wet wood and expose them to dry. If it is the area where they only fetch already dried wood, it has little or low effect on deforestation but you know that there are people whose living depends on cutting wood and burning them and they even cut very small trees that have a very high carbon monoxide and then expose them to dry before they sell them. And firewood has a lot of environmental pollutants including carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, and sulphur dioxide.

“Government can help to redirect use of firewood to gas. Gas appears to be the cheapest alternative. You can never remove anything a hundred per cent. If the use of firewood is reduced to the level where it is only the fish smokers that are using it, it may have little effect.”

Another expert and Principal Consultant/CEO, Enviromax Global Resources, Gboyega Olorunfemi told Nigerian Tribune: “The effects (of firewood burning) are enormous, both documented and not reported. According to a global research published in 2019, almost every cell in the human body can be affected by polluted air – I know this being a former student of environmental toxicology and pollution management.”

When asked about the level of awareness at the grassroots, he said “there is no way they (women at the grassroots) would know because there is a huge gap in civic education and community engagement by those saddled with such responsibility.

“To handle this requires that everyone must be involved. There is a need to intensify campaign against illegal logging and indiscriminate felling of wood, encourage advocacy at the grassroots level especially to the informal sector. Those smoking fish are on the streets and are closer to the local government; empower the local governments to reach out to the people.”

On alternatives that those who smoke fish can use, Olorunfemi said: “There is a UNFCCC project – Efficient Fuel Wood Stoves for Nigeria which dates back to 2009. There has been collaboration in this aspect with local and international partners.”

 

Support for this report was provided by the Premium Times Centre for Investigative Journalism (PTCIJ) and is made possible through funding support from Ford Foundation.

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