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Nigerian environmental activist receives human rights prize
by Staff Writers
Oslo (AFP) Sept 27, 2012

The Rafto Prize, a Norwegian human rights award, was awarded to Nigerian environmentalist Nnimmo Bassey on Thursday for his campaigning on behalf of victims of climate change and environmental damage.

"Nnimmo Bassey links human rights to the climate by demonstrating how climate change has the greatest effect on the world's most vulnerable people, the very people who have contributed least to the problem in the first place," the Rafto Foundation said.

Heading up several environmental organisations, 54-year-old Bassey has been a vocal champion of the rights of people in the Niger Delta, a region heavily polluted by oil production.

Life expectancy in the area is only 41 years, compared with 48 years in the rest of Nigeria, which is Africa's biggest oil producer, the foundation noted.

"By awarding its annual prize to Nnimmo Bassey, the Rafto Foundation underlines how the challenges we face regarding climate and the environment also have a human rights aspect," the foundation said.

Bassey told AFP in Lagos, Nigeria's economic capital, that the award was important because it stressed the link between environmental rights and human rights.

He pointed to the example of impoverished Niger Delta residents who live amongst gas flaring and polluted waters that used to be fishing grounds.

Bassey's group Environmental Rights Action has been the most prominent tracking pollution in the delta recently, issuing detailed reports when spills are reported and pressuring the government and oil firms to take action.

He said the struggle for improvements in the delta has seen some progress in recent years, but still has an extremely long way to go.

A landmark report from the UN's environmental agency in August 2011 said decades of oil pollution in Ogoniland, part of the Niger Delta, may require the world's biggest clean-up.

"One year has passed and the government is still sleeping," he said of the release of the report.

Bassey said government agencies must be strengthened -- both with enforcement powers and equipment to carry out their jobs -- in order to prevent pollution and properly investigate when oil spills occur.

He spoke of the so-called "oil curse" in Nigeria, which has led to huge amounts of government revenue but little development, with much of the money squandered through massive corruption.

Other aspects of Nigeria's economy have been neglected because of the revenue that flows from oil. Nigeria's government relies on the oil industry for some 80 percent of revenue.

"If Nigeria had not found oil, Nigeria would have been a much better place today," he said. "Now, all the different sectors of the government just wait for the oil revenues to be shared out every month."

The Rafto Prize, founded in 1986 and named after Thorolf Rafto, a Norwegian professor who devoted much of his life to the defense of human rights, is often given to people who are not well known to the general public.

The prize sum of $20,000 will be awarded to the winner on November 4 in Bergen in southwestern Norway.

Bassey has already won several awards, including the Sophie Prize for environment and sustainable development in 1998, Time magazine's Heroes of the Environment Award in 2009, and the Right Livelihood Award in 2010.

Four Rafto laureates have gone on to win the Nobel Peace Prize (Aung San Suu Kyi, Jose Ramos-Horta, Kim Dae-Jung and Shirin Ebadi), which is also awarded in Norway.

This year's Nobel Peace Prize winner will be announced on October 12.

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