Nigerians crack open Shell case on environmental destruction



Anglo-Dutch oil giant Shell appeared in a Dutch court on Wednesday to answer claims by four Nigerian villagers that the company is responsible for environmental damage in the country’s Niger Delta region.

The plaintiffs, backed by Friends of the Earth Netherlands/Milieudefensie, allege that three separate oils spills dating back to 2004 have destroyed their livelihoods.

The case is being heard by a local court in The Hague, home to Shell’s joint global headquarters, because thousands of similar court cases in Nigeria have been unsuccessful.

Shell tried to argue that its Nigerian subsidiary (SPDC) was legally responsible for the damage but in a landmark ruling the Dutch judiciary agreed to try the case.

As well as an unspecified amount of compensation, the four men – whose livelihoods as farmers and fishermen has been destroyed by the oil spills – also want Shell to clean up the remaining oil pollution in their villages, and repair and maintain pipelines to prevent further incidents.

But Shell claim that the damage was caused by illegal oil bunkering and sabotage, and that insecurity in the region has prevented them from completing a clean-up operation.

This is the first time that a European company has appeared in a Dutch court to answer accusations of wrongdoing in a foreign country, and it could set an international precedent.

“This court case will have groundbreaking legal repercussions for multinational corporations globally, and especially for European corporations,” Geert Ritsema of Friends of the Earth Netherlands/Milieudefensie said in a statement.

“Due to the poor maintenance of pipelines and factories, Shell let tens of millions of barrels of oil leak in the Niger Delta, with disastrous consequences for local people and the environment.

“The Anglo Dutch oil giant must now stop its pollution, compensate the damage and prevent more oil spills from happening.” he adds.

Nigeria is the largest oil producer in Africa and the eight largest in the world but the discovery of oil by the British in the 1950s has produced a raft of socio-economic problems.

The Niger Delta is the heartland of Nigeria’s oil industry but little of the wealth produced has trickled down to local people.

According to the Nigerian National Bureau of Statistics almost 100 million people are living on less than US$1 a day and the percentage of Nigerians living in absolute poverty rose to 60.9 per cent in 2010, compared with 54.7 per cent in 2004.

The Niger Delta is also one of the biggest wetland and coastal marine ecosystems in the world; millions rely on it for food, water and work, and decades of environmental damage has had a huge impact on the area’s rural poor.

Last year, a United Nations Environment Programme report blamed the Nigerian government, multinational oil companies and Shell in particular for 50 years of oil pollution that has devastated the Delta’s Ogoniland region.

Nigerian environmentalist Nnimmo Bassey, who was recently awarded with the 2012 Rafto Prize for Human Rights and runs Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth Nigeria, said of the court case: “Nigerians have to sue Shell in the Netherlands to obtain justice.

“They pollute with impunity, destroy livelihoods and block dissent. This is deplorable.”

The case is set to last a day. Lawyers for both sides will present arguments before the judges retire to consider the verdict, which is expected later this year or early next year.