Why Shell must be held accountable for its Niger Delta ecocide

By Nnimmo Bassey

 

Four Nigerian farmers and fishermen who are victims of multinational oil giant Shell’s unrelenting polluting activities in the Niger Delta are striving for justice.

The four Nigerian plaintiffs stand with supporters outside the court in The Hague. If their case against Shell is successful, it will be the first time that a Dutch multinational has been held accountable for environmental damage caused overseas (Photo/Pierre Crom/Friends of the Earth)

They have high hopes that on 30 January 2013 a Dutch court will issue a verdict in their favour as part of a ground-breaking legal case they filed against the Anglo-Dutch oil corporation.

When, on 11 October 2012, the court in The Hague heard their case against Shell, it was the first time in history that a company was brought before a Dutch court to account for environmental damage caused overseas.

Royal Dutch Shell’s pollution in Nigeria is caused by its subsidiary known as Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC) in Nigeria.

The company has faced several court cases in Nigeria and in the USA on charges of environmental and human rights abuse.

Having Shell in the dock at The Hague sends a number of signals. For one, the days of ‘business as usual’ for multinational corporations may be drawing to a close.

Secondly communities may expect some respite if the company assumes more responsible working practices.

If the company has a change of attitude, oil workers would have easier community access and probably enjoy better protection from the same pollution that damages these communities.

At present many local workers are as impacted by the pollution as the poor communities.

 

Impunity

After decades of ruinous extraction of crude oil and gas in Nigeria, the October 2012 date was a landmark by itself as it signalled that the days of unbridled impunity may be drawing to a close.

The case was brought to the court through the instrumentality of Milieudefensie (Friends of the Earth Netherlands) working closely with the Environmental Rights Action (Friends of the Earth Nigeria).

The case commenced in 2008 with four victims from the villages of Goi, Ikot Ada Udo and Oruma in the Niger Delta as plaintiffs. Their complaints are emblematic of the horrendous environmental degradation that the oil industry has visited on the Niger Delta.

When it is said that the region is probably the most polluted place on earth the blame must be placed on the doorsteps of the oil companies operating there.

And we should state here that as the clear sector leader in Nigeria, Shell’s  behaviour leads the way for others.

In the case before the Dutch court, the plaintiffs are demanding that Shell cleans up oil pollution in their communities, compensates those affected and ensures that new leaks do not occur from its pipelines.

These have been the cardinal demands of the communities of the Niger Delta because they depend primarily on the environment for their livelihood endeavours including farming and fishing.

The streams and creeks they depend on for portable water are serially hit by oil spills while forests have been set ablaze in inept efforts to clean up environmental damage or to cover up evidence of such spills.

One other serious problem in the oil fields of Nigeria is the matter of illegal oil bunkering through which an indeterminate quantity of crude oil is stolen daily. 

Oil companies like Shell point accusing fingers at local communities, saying their interference with pipelines in an attempt to steal crude oil has resulted in the environmental problems we see today. However, the amount of crude stolen yearly is so huge that only theft on a massive scale can account for that.

In June 2012, the Financial Times quoted the Nigerian Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as saying that 400,000 barrels of crude oil are stolen every day.

Illegal bunkering persists because the oil companies refuse to install metres at well heads and flow stations that would allow Nigeria to know exactly how much oil is extracted on a daily basis and by extension how much oil is lost. Illegal bunkering is a massive international enterprise of horrendous proportions.

 

Ogoniland

One of the communities, Goi in Ogoni, has been completely ruined by oil spills and fires. It may well be a record that a community has been rendered desolate with no one living there anymore due to the activities of a giant fossil fuel company.

A visit today to Goi presents evidence of ecocide or unusual crimes against Mother Earth that cannot be denied. Burnt fishponds, burnt mangroves, collapsed buildings and an oiled water body welcomes all.

Sadly, some kids and old women still use this polluted water for food processing – despite the perpetual film of crude oil on it.

When asked why they still dare to step into the murky waters their stock response is that they simply have no choice.

The issue of choice is important here. In August 2011, the United Nations Environment Programme issued a damning report on the assessment of the environment of Ogoniland.

One of the things the report revealed was that all the water bodies in Ogoniland are polluted with high levels of hydrocarbons.

It also revealed that at some places the soil is polluted to a depth of five metres.

The most troubling aspect is their assessment that it would require about 30 years of work to clean up the Ogoni environment. In an area where life expectancy is barely above forty it is clear that most people will never see a clean environment in their lifetime.

The Ogoni people expelled Shell from Ogoniland in 1993 because of the company’s lack of respect for the people and their environment.

Despite the fact that Shell has not been operating the oil wells in Ogoniland since then, oil spills have not ceased in the territory, due to the presence of high-pressure pipelines conveying crude oil across the area to an export terminal (at Bonny).

The destruction of the environment of Ogoniland and the other communities of the Niger Delta offers a classic context in which so-called Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is seen clearly as oxymoronic.

Companies such as Shell engage in construction of health clinics as CSR projects. However, in a situation of unabating pollution through oil spills and gas flaring it is akin to pumping poison into one’s veins while occasionally dropping an aspirin  down the throat as an antidote.

Moreover, by peculiar arrangements, CSR projects in the oil communities of Nigeria are accounted for as part of production cost of crude oil and are thus not actually funded from the massive profits of the companies. They constitute nothing more than smokescreens.

 

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