In Lagos, vulnerable communities buried by urbanization

As Nigeria’s mangrove forests are covered with sand, dredging threatens the livelihoods of local people

Published December 20, 2021 7:27PM (EST)

A slum in area Sura in Lagos, Nigeria (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
A slum in area Sura in Lagos, Nigeria (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

This article originally appeared on Undark.

Welcome to The Undark Podcast. In this episode, join freelance journalist Maggie Andresen and podcast host Lydia Chain as they navigate the profound social, economic, and environmental consequences of dredging for sand in Lagos, Nigeria.

Below is the full transcript of the podcast, lightly edited for clarity. You can also subscribe to The Undark Podcast at Apple Podcasts, TuneIn, or Spotify.


Maggie Andresen: At 5:30 in the morning, the water is still in the Lagos Lagoon, at the edge of Nigeria's most populous city. A group of fishermen on small-engined boats chat as they submerge branches to attract and trap fish in a traditional technique called Acadja, using light from their cell phones to cut the darkness.

As the sun breaks over the water, several boats head back to shore — passing two mammoth dredging machines stirring up muck as they collect sand from the lagoon floor. The dredgers are meant to clear built-up sand that blocks jetty traffic, but the churning silt has to land somewhere. That ends up being in the middle of the fishermen's navigation channels. In some places the water is so shallow, the fishermen have to turn off the boat's motor and use a large wooden stick to navigate the lagoon. These fishermen live in Ago-Egun Bariga, a small fishing community on the coast of mainland Lagos that's been here since before Nigeria achieved independence from Great Britain in 1960. But this enduring community has been disrupted by the dredgers sitting in the lagoon, which have displaced enough sand to create 73 acres of land on a neighboring swampy area slated for a tourism redevelopment project.

Samuel Denapo: These dredging activities, this dredger, it created a lot of problems.

Maggie Andresen: That's Samuel Denapo, a fisherman who's been navigating these waters since boyhood.

Samuel Denapo: Because after we establish this fish trap, the dredger will come and they will put their pipe there, they will start sand-filling everything. Once they do that, they destroy the fish trap. And all the fish that we expected to catch, we won't see them again. So apart from the one that blocks our way — they can destroy our fish trap, the second one they block our way.

Lydia Chain: This is the Undark Podcast. I'm Lydia Chain. Many coastal cities across the globe are struggling to find space to grow with their populations, especially as their coast lines erode and the sea begins to rise. Some cities are responding by making that space, creating more ground to build on by filling in wetlands or making artificial islands. In Lagos, Nigeria, the ecological and societal impacts of projects like this are far reaching — and vulnerable communities struggle to balance the opportunities of development with preservation of their way of life, and sometimes to have their needs considered at all.

Maggie Andresen has the story.

Maggie Andresen: The city of Lagos is made up of a coastal mainland and several low-lying islands connected by bridges. The megacity is home to at least 13 million people and counting — though by some estimates its population is much higher. Security threats in other parts of Nigeria and the regional search for economic opportunity by some estimates bring more than 2,000 new residents every day — and living space is coveted. Take a walk down almost any street and you can find block letters warning against scammers and land grabbers painted on building walls: "This house is not for sale." The city's growing population and limited space has prompted those with financial privilege to invest not just in the claiming of land, but the building of it. [Fade out ambient Lagos traffic/market sounds]. Building land requires a lot of sand, the second most consumed natural resource globally after water. In Lagos, that sand comes from the lagoon floor and the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. After extraction, sand is used to fill marshy wetland areas, building a solid foundation for new construction.

Alade Adeleke: Sand is needed every day. People who are making money, thousands of dollars from sand ... And the coast is there for them to exploit. So they go to the powerful people in government, they get their licenses, even when the communities make noise they don't worry. Unfortunately, those who are doing dredging are not living where they are dredging. That's what I call remote power.

Maggie Andresen: That's Alade Adeleke, a researcher focusing on the role of ecosystems, biodiversity, and enterprise on sustainable development. He's a past director of the Nigerian Conservation Foundation, an environmental NGO, and currently leads a project commissioned by the Lagos State Government to assess the condition of its coastal wetlands and evaluate current policies governing the ecosystem. That includes measuring the impact of dredging and other human activities on those environments.

Alade Adeleke: The environment has always been exploited by people who don't really value it....The communities are really, they are on the receptive side. Everywhere in the world they are just there, and you bring your problem to them. They don't really create the problems that they have. Dredging is done by rich people. Poor people don't dredge.

Maggie Andresen: Dredging removes sand from the bottom of a body of water, but it doesn't make the water universally deeper. The process stirs up silt and drags sand around, creating new shallow areas and sandbars. Globally it's considered one of the methods with the lowest enforcement of regional and national extraction protocols, according to the United Nations Environment Program. In Lagos, dredging and sand mining require permits and authorization at federal and state levels, but official channels are easily dodged, and illegal extraction tolerated. Although regulations overseeing sand mining for commercial use prevent the interference and obstruction of waterways, that continues to be the lived reality for Ago-Egun Bariga residents. Insufficient or unenforced policy means that people living in communities where dredging takes place don't have much in the way of legal recourse when environmental consequences begin to mount.

Alade Adeleke: It perturbs the coastal ecosystem, the water system changes, the fisheries is affected. A lot of things will happen, as you are dredging the equipment are bringing oil and gas and introducing it into the water systems, so you have pollution. You have plenty of things. You change the life of the dredging communities.

Maggie Andresen: Before Lagos was colonized by the British, this area was lush with wetlands and mangrove forests that thrive in salty or brackish water and support a diverse ecosystem of plants and animals. From their first interactions with Lagos, the imperialists ill-tolerated the marshy coastal settlement. A bleak description by a British tradesman in 1853 termed the city "a filthy, disgusting, savage place," pointing to a glaring ignorance of the ecological importance of the coastal forests, and a deeply racist ethos that defined the colonial relationship.

In their bid to cement control of the region and mitigate malaria, the imperial government began a huge campaign of land reclamation that included racist policies preventing Lagosians from commercially profiting off their land. This pitted colonial overseers against Indigenous people who had long sustained livelihoods based on the swampy wetlands and creeks.

Tunji Bello: For us in Lagos, a lot of wetlands that we have, they are a saving grace.

Maggie Andresen: That's Tunji Bello, the Lagos State Commissioner for the Environment and Water Resources.

Tunji Bello: During colonial rule they could see them as marshy and disturbing for them. But for us, they are just natural, they are not something to be seen as marshy or disturbing and so ...You go to Victoria Island, you go to Ikoyi, and several others, they used to be wetlands in those days ... And the colonial masters in those days and so on, when they were looking for highbrow areas to settle ... Today, they're the most expensive part of Lagos.

Maggie Andresen: The history of wetland destruction in Lagos is braided with its colonial past, but that doesn't mean it stopped after Nigeria achieved independence. As the city expands, it continues to sand fill wetland and mangrove forests. While Nigeria still is home to the most mangroves on the African continent, they are being destroyed at a rapid clip. And those losses can have cascading negative effects for Nigerians.

Alade Adeleke: All what you see at the back here used to be mangroves, both left and right. But that is what urbanization can do. Lagos should plan retaining these eastern parts of the mangroves the way they are.

Maggie Andresen: That's Alade Adeleke in the field near one of the wetland study sites.

Alade Adeleke: Wetlands are very, very important ecosystems for Nigeria.

Maggie Andresen: He describes them like a sponge: taking in dirty water and expelling clean water.

Alade Adeleke: So when you lose the mangroves, you lose the opportunity for breeding stock of fish ... And keeping the mangroves intact and the coastal wetlands well-managed is an additionality to promoting, you know, food, food security, and reducing the issue of poverty.

Maggie Andresen: Mangrove loss in the Lagos area is largely caused by land reclamation projects for large-scale urban development — it's where that sand dredged from the lagoon will end up. The projects range from luxury man-made enclaves like Banana Island, housing Nigeria's wealthiest, to coastal expansions, some intended to protect the eroding shoreline. But many of these projects are walled off to anyone outside the highest income bracket.

Taibat Lawanson: So with regards to those man-made islands, I'm totally and fundamentally against them. I think they will cause more problems than the solutions they claim that they are trying to solve.

Maggie Andresen: That's Taibat Lawanson, who teaches urban planning and governance at the University of Lagos and is the co-director for the university's Center for Housing and Sustainable Development. According to Lawanson, these projects often further entrench existing inequalities in the city's infrastructure, even while their proponents claim they will increase economic opportunity.

Taibat Lawanson: What I see that is happening is that the very wealthy want to move further away from you know, the mess or the perceived mess of the city, so kind of take, you know, be apart from the rest. And so it doesn't work well for social cohesion. It just further segregates, you know, the haves from the have nots.

Maggie Andresen: Nearly three in four Lagosians live in informal settlement and slum areas, but Lawanson says those voices are often overlooked in formal urban planning. Thanks to grassroots documentation efforts, it's easy to track the city's expansion by charting the forced evictions and slum demolitions. One of the most infamous was the violent removal of more than 300,000 people from the Maroko slum in 1990. Maroko was slated for destruction by the then-military government because the below-sea level settlement posed danger to its residents. But after it was destroyed in the "overriding public interest" and the area filled with sand, its former residents weren't permitted to return. Today, it hosts some of the city's most expensive real estate.

Recent high-profile evictions of waterfront communities Otodo Gbame and Tarkwa Bay mirror this pattern. Neighborhoods termed as informal are destroyed in preference of creating what are perceived to be legitimate, planned spaces. But in Lagos, the lines between formal and informal blur together — more fluid than static.

Taibat Lawanson: But it's also a largely informal city mostly because people have to respond to the deficits ... and so have to create ways of survival.

Maggie Andresen: Lawanson says that informality is often criminalized in Lagos, and the power to determine the legality of urban space often lies at the center of development disputes. On an even bigger scale, that power decides what public interest means, which doesn't always include the needs of the urban poor.

Taibat Lawanson: The responsibility on those who take these decisions is now to reflect before those decisions are taken, that, is it for the public good? And what are the social, economic, and environmental impacts? And I think more fundamentally, who benefits? And that's the real question in the development or re-development of Lagos.

Maggie Andresen: Back in Ago-Egun Bariga, that question is at the heart of the development debate.

Zannu Saphire: My name is Zannu Saphire. I am 13 years old now. But I normally go to school before. Now when the water is not dry, no school again. My mother and my dad did not have money to get to take me to school, that's why I'm not going to school again.

Maggie Andresen: Saphire's family home was demolished in 2011, along with every other house in the community built on wooden stilts above the water. Today, most homes adjacent to the lagoon in Ago-Egun Bariga are constructed on compacted refuse, leaving residents at increased flooding risk. The eviction was significant for Saphire's family. Her uncle fell sick while the family was displaced. After they resettled in another house, problems returned with the onset of dredging.

Celestine Agajun: The dredging stops my husband of going to river. And if my husband doesn't go catch fish, there is no way I can … sell the fish. The profit I make there we use to feed our family. But my husband is not going ... And if I don't get money, the children — what are they going to eat?

Maggie Andresen: Here, people's livelihoods rely almost exclusively on fishing. When nearby dredging in the Lagos Lagoon began four years ago, it became difficult to fish at a fast enough pace to maintain livelihoods. Time spent on the water diminished as mud logged boats in place early in the day, cutting the hours spent fishing.

Sangoloke Moses: So the impact of dredging activities is affecting us, and I think it will affect our children's future. Because our parents were not educated, because they were fishermen. And we are hoping that the children will be educated ... So when they starting, these children start going to school, we don't hope that they will stop. But dredging activities has come and stayed. So that's makes the withdrawal of the student from the school ... We are having difficulty in feeding our children. And we don't have hope of education for our children again.

Maggie Andresen: Sangoloke Moses is the Ago-Egun community development association chairman and a coordinator of the grassroots network Communities' Alliance Against Displacement. He works as a community paralegal with the legal-aid nonprofit organization, Justice and Empowerment Initiatives. Sangoloke grew up in Ago-Egun Bariga, and is advocating against the dredging project that has devastated his community.

Sangoloke Moses: Our livelihood was affected totally because major livelihood is fishing, and the dredging affecting us to the extent that we cannot go and fish anymore.

Maggie Andresen: This small fishing enclave's problems began between May and June 2017, when the neighboring district — called Oworonshoki — began to redevelop. The plan was to rebrand the area as a tourist destination, needing 73 acres of land to make it possible. The first step was dredging, first to create material for sand filling and then to keep the waterways clear for jetty traffic. Construction projects in Nigeria are supposed to undergo an environmental impact assessment, or EIA, to determine the potential social and ecological consequences of a proposed development. The original 1992 laws stipulate that a hearing be held "in a manner that offers the public an opportunity to participate in the assessment." But 25 years later, just a stone's throw from Ago Egun Bariga, dredging and sand filling began as if the law never existed at all. No environmental impact assessment was ever done for the project. And the residents of Ago Egun Bariga never had a chance to make their concerns known publicly.

Sangoloke: When the project started, we wrote a letter to the company that is working, which is Westminster.

Maggie Andresen: Nigerian Westminster Dredging and Marine Limited is a subsidiary of Dutch construction company Boskalis. Based on reporting from local news outlets, the company was said to be conducting the dredging activities, but Boskalis claims their subsidiary is only leasing out their equipment, and has no part in active dredging for this project.

Sangoloke Moses: We wrote them that they should come so that we can sit on roundtable and discuss the way forward, because the thing is affecting us. So they reply us, then that we should write a letter to the Lagos State Government. And we wrote to them, and we didn't get any response from them.

Maggie Andresen: And when did you write that letter?

Sangoloke Moses: It was two years or three years (ago). And we didn't get any response from them.

Maggie Andresen: Sangoloke says that he and other community members visited the Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources for Lagos state, which handles environmental impact assessments. It's where Commissioner Tunji Bello now works, but didn't at the time. Sangoloke said he was told the ministry was unaware of any ongoing dredging work for the waterfront project. That's partly because there was no record of any consultation between developers and the EIA office.

Tunji Bello: The EIA for that area was not done. That was the quarrel we had with that government at that time. And that is why one of the reasons therefore for the government for not being able to be accepted back was because the consultation was not done.

Maggie Andresen: He's referring to the fact that the governor was only in office for a single term.

Tunji Bello: And that was between 2015 and 2019.

Maggie Andresen: To date, there's never been an assessment or consultation of the Oworonshoki project's impact on the Ago Egun community made available to the public. The story of Ago Egun Bariga shows the potentially devastating impacts of major unauthorized development in Lagos, but theirs isn't the reality of every waterfront community in the city. Others are still on the precipice of development — and are working to ensure potential projects will benefit the lives of their residents. The island community Agala Ajebo is unknown to many Lagosians. It's part of a small natural island cluster a short boat ride from the Apapa Port Complex, where a large portion of Nigeria's imports make landfall from long-haul ships. Agala Ajebo isn't on the power grid, it has no health center, and has no official school. People fish to support their livelihoods, others sell food, and others take up trades like tailoring — traveling off the islands for work when local demand is low. The island cluster is buttressed by mangroves — some of the last remaining in central Lagos.

Saheed Onisiwo: You see how everywhere is so calm, and we are enjoying the atmosphere and at the same time in the mangroves we will be seeing a lot of birds, monkeys.

Maggie Andresen: That's Chief Saheed Onisiwo, the leader of Agala Ajebo. These islands were settled generations ago. People have used the neighboring mangroves sustainably — harvesting them as fast as they can regrow — for years. Aside from their role as habitats, carbon sinks, and barriers for flooding and erosion, they offer firewood and building materials for houses and fish traps.

Saheed Onisiwo: The mangrove is a tree who grows up close to the ocean and our creek(s) here. And the trees are also useful for some things; some people comes to cut to use for some things to make their daily bread.

Maggie Andresen: People fish here the same way they do in Ago-Egun Bariga, using the group Acadja method.

Saheed Onisiwo: It absorbs the winds, and also provide food for us. We'll pick some natural foods from the water, from the mangrove.

Maggie Andresen: The coastal forest ecosystem surrounding Agala Ajebo has another side effect — one incredibly desirable in the tropical heat. Just stepping off the boat onto shore, there's a palpable difference in temperature. It feels cooler here than the rest of the city, which has almost no natural respite from the sun.

Samuel Udofia: Temperature is exceedingly high. And it's even not supposed to be because of its proximity to the coast.

Maggie Andresen: That's Samuel Udofia, a Ph.D. candidate in geography at the University of Lagos.

Samuel Udofia: So it's supposed to be actually, you know, cooler. But because the wetlands are destroyed, vegetations are destroyed, the little water bodies are now being encroached upon. So nothing controls the temperature or the weather anymore, or the climate.

Maggie Andresen: Samuel works with computer-based geographic information systems to map and analyze different effects of climate change, including deforestation and forest degradation. He analyzed a hand-drawn map of Lagos from 1897, creating a spatial reference to compare it with a topographical map from 1964 and satellite data from 1984, 2000, and 2020 to identify the reduction of vegetation and wetland ecosystems as urbanization increased.

Samuel Udofia: Surprisingly, I never expected that urbanization would have grown that fast in Lagos as of 1964.

Maggie Andresen: Looking at the color-coded maps corresponding with the studied years 1897 and 1964, the former was almost entirely covered in mangrove and vegetation areas. Small red markings signifying community settlements are peppered around the Lagos mainland and islands. By 1964, a blaze of red covers half the city.

Samuel Udofia: As of 1964, even though it's a long time, but the urbanization had already taken over the entire, you know, the entire area, the entire state. Then again, the way the wetlands have been reclaimed too is alarming.

Alade Adeleke: They cannot be the one that will actually destroy much of the mangroves.

Maggie Andresen: That's conservationist Alade Adeleke.

Alade Adeleke: What do destroy are factors far away from the communities. Decisions that are taken from far away. And decisions that are taken by powerful people. Those that can either co-opt the community leaders, or settle the community leaders, or bribe the community leaders. Not decisions taken by communities.

Maggie Andresen: Even when development does arrive in these off-grid areas, critical decisions about build-up are often left out of the hands of communities. What was once a sustainable relationship allowing for continued germination of mangroves is lost to construction that destroys coastal forests from the root.

Alade Adeleke: The rural communities in wetland areas, especially in the coast are used to their coastal life. They are proud of it. Their children are born into it, they are used to it, but when they are surrounded by you know, flashy urban life, they also want to look like one. But they don't know that it's a give and take thing. You give something, you lose the other. So some of them have lost the value of the wetlands ecosystem functioning ... Because they have, 10 years after their communities urbanized, they are suffering.

Saheed Onisiwo: Right now, we don't have any infrastructure in Agala ...The major problem and the challenges we have is that electricity ... If electricity can come to the island generally it will change the system. It could change, it even boost the economy of the island ... I am looking for a developer who will come and develop my community with me.

Maggie Andresen: For a place like Agala Ajebo, there's a balance to consider between one extreme and the other. Chief Saheed wants development to come to his community, and he wants its natural beauty preserved. On the other side of the city, Ago-Egun Bariga never had the choice. But perhaps it isn't too late for this verdant corner of Lagos to work alongside developers, creating a shared view of the future.

Saheed Onisiwo: I believe development is coming to my community, my environment. I believe this development is coming. So my prayer is for the development to come.

Taibat Lawanson: Everybody in the city has a right to aspire, both rich and poor, and also has a right to be given the opportunities for a better life.

Maggie Andresen: That's Lawanson again.

Taibat Lawanson: It shouldn't be either or, both can go hand in hand, because indeed, we need, you know, a collective of wealthy individuals, we need a collective of economically buoyant individuals for taxpaying purposes first of all, so that the city, the economy can flow for job prospects, also, you know, job opportunities and employment opportunities across the city. But we also must not cater to the needs, or the wants of the rich by crushing the poor.

Maggie Andresen: But is a middle ground possible? One that develops, with community buy-in, and does so in a way that preserves a balance between economy, equity, and ecology?

Countries everywhere are facing the linked challenges of increasing urbanization and extreme climate events. The lives and livelihoods of low-income people are most heavily impacted by these related factors in a phenomenon sometimes termed climate adaptation apartheid, where the rich are able to flee environmental disaster zones, while poor people have little choice but to bear the impact.

Natural weather and water barriers like mangroves and wetlands are being razed for expanding development not just in Lagos, but coastal cities everywhere. As these ecosystems disappear, people are considering all kinds of solutions for ecological preservation. But so far, that balance has been hard to find. Just across the water from Agala Ajebo sits a development enterprise that purported to offer an environmental safeguard and opportunities for economic growth. It's also one of the most controversial projects in Lagos today.

Dreamed as a sustainable private city complete with its own power grid and water supply, Eko Atlantic City sits on four square miles of sand reclaimed from the Atlantic Ocean. It was advertised as a stately financial district and as a buttress to stop the rapid erosion of Victoria Island's shoreline. It also encompasses what used to be Bar Beach, a community once home to 80,000 people who, in 2008, were evicted by the state police in a violent show of force. Their homes were burned to the ground before construction of Eko Atlantic began. The environmental impact assessment for the project, which broke ground in 2009, wasn't approved until three years after construction was well-underway, in 2012. It never addressed the social impact of the mass eviction. After construction began, troubling news of fatal sea swells and displaced erosion from neighboring waterfront communities was reported. The management of South Energyx Nigeria Limited, the project's sponsor, declined to be interviewed for this piece.

Taibat Lawanson: Particularly in the last 15 or so years when we started to aspire to be a modern day Dubai, to aspire to be like the Manhattans of this world and things like that... these threats are responding to this aspirations to belong to this cadre of world class cities, global cities ... people are entitled to their aspirations, right? But it should not be at the expense of the survival of others.


Lydia Chain: Maggie, thank you so much for this story and welcome to the show.

Maggie Andresen: Thank you so much for having me

Lydia Chain: Early in the story you talk about the effects of racism and colonialism in the ways that Lagos has been shaped. Can you elaborate on that?

Maggie Andresen: Certainly. So I think that it's important to note that Lagos as a colony was controlled by the British before Nigeria as a country was. So Lagos was annexed by the English in 1861. And Nigeria wasn't established as a formal British colony until 1914, which gave quite a bit more time for the English to leave their mark on Lagos as a, in terms of infrastructure, and, and build up the city. So it kind of starts where you have these campaigns that are kind of branded as malaria mitigation and different swamp land clearing ordinances that actually took away the ability of Indigenous Lagosians to have control and autonomy over their lands. And this is well documented in different academic sources, of traditional leaders in Lagos approaching colonial governors and asking for some reciprocity in the use of their lands. It then makes more modern landfall in the continued proliferation of mass evictions in communities ranging from several hundred people to several thousand people. And this is a continuing issue that Lagos has been plagued by even as recently as last year where several thousand people were evicted from their homes in Tarkwa Bay in a pretty high profile eviction. And so you can see with the forced displacement of many of these that really kind of posits the question of who has the right to shape the city?

Lydia Chain: That was an important thread throughout your piece. What sorts of avenues or opportunities does the average person have to share their opinion on what happens in their neighborhood?

Maggie Andresen: So I think that's a really important question when we think about the formal and informal feedback loops that are supposed to involve the public, especially looking at something like an environmental impact assessment, right? So that's supposed to be a platform where the public is explicitly and expressly involved in talking about what potential social and economic impact that a project, a building development project might have on their, on their society. And so it's not just about what the environmental impact is, although that is obviously incredibly important, but it's supposed to be taking into account the social impact, right. And so that element of public discourse is super important. When you look at, for example, the fact that the environmental impact assessment was never done for Ago-Egun Bariga. And so if you don't have the public's input on a project like the Oworonshoki waterfront development project that has significant impact on the social and economic livelihoods of the people of Ago-Egun Bariga it doesn't really, it's not really fair to say that that project is serving the public interest.

Lydia Chain: Maggie Andresen is freelance journalist based in Nigeria. Our theme music is produced by the Undark team and additional music in today's episode is from Kevin McLeod at Incompetech. I'm your host, Lydia Chain.

This article was originally published on Undark. Read the original article.

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