Shell has admitted liability but has a long way to go to make amends

Article 4 Aug 2011 admin

This article first appeared in The Guardian, Comment is Free on 4 August 2011.

by Patrick Naagbanton, as told to Ben Amunwa

Oil spills destroyed my village in Nigeria and decades of environmental and social injustice are still to be addressed

Shell’s admission of liability for two massive oil spills in 2008-09 in my village of Bodo in the Niger Delta is a step forward in the long struggle for corporate accountability. An impoverished village that yesterday lay in ruins has today felt a welcome glimmer of hope and justice.

We are happy with the news that Shell could be forced to clean up the environmental devastation it has caused and to pay more than $400m in compensation. But our jubilation is overshadowed by more than five decades of environmental and social injustice yet to be addressed.

Bodo village is a fishing community in the minority Ogoni region of the Niger Delta. Shell was forced out of Ogoni in 1993, following mass protests led by writer and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, who was executed on 10 November 1995 alongside eight other campaigners. Shell’s vast network of oil wells, pipelines, flow-stations and gas flares remained in Ogoni and are an everyday reminder of what we have suffered.

Many of Shell’s rusty, leaky pipelines date back to the 1970s and have beenpoorly maintained ever since (see pages 31-36 and 43 of Friends of the Earth Netherlands report). It was equipment failure that caused Shell’s high-pressure Trans-Niger pipeline to rupture on 28 August 2008, gushing an estimated 2,000 barrels of oil per day into Bodo for weeks. The land and water was covered in thick layers of crude. Shell was also responsible for a second spill from the same pipeline on 2 February 2009.

Oil spills have effectively destroyed my community. Local farmers and fishers were forced to abandon their traditional ways of life. Bodo Creek is, ecologically speaking, dead. The fish that were not killed by the heavy pollution now reek of petroleum and cannot sustain a village population of 69,000 people. Shell has violated our basic human rights to food, water and livelihood. The compensation Shell offered us – £3,500 plus bags of rice and sugar – was insulting and wholly inadequate.

Oil spills are a daily occurrence in the Niger Delta. According to United Nations Development Programme, more than 6,800 spills were recorded between 1976 and 2001, but many more have gone unreported (see page 21 of UNDP report). Independent estimates put the total volume of oil spilled in the Delta over the last 50 years at 9m to 13m barrels, twice that of BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster. This estimate does not include the wider forms of oil pollution for which there is no data.

I helped the Bodo community file a case against Shell in the high court in London because it is easy for Shell to abuse the judicial system in Nigeria. The oil giant spent decades fighting lengthy appeals that bled the victims dry in legal costs. Shell is appealing against a 2006 order to pay $1.5bn in damages to the Ijaw communities of Bayelsa State. Since 2005, Shell has refused to comply with a court order to end gas flaring in the Iwherekan community. The The Ejama Ebubu community has waited more than 40 years for Shell to clean an oil spill from 1970. Life expectancy in the Delta is around 43 years (see page 24 of UNDP report). Rural communities impacted by pollution in the Niger Delta are routinely denied access to justice.

Taking the Bodo case to London, the seat of one of Shell’s corporate headquarters and a European oil capital, was a last resort. On this occasion, it has proved harder for Shell to evade responsibility. Our hope is that this case will force Shell to compensate more victims in a timely and adequate manner and to clean up its widespread pollution in the Delta. We note with dismay that Shell is refusing to compensate victims in a legal case brought by Nigerian farmers and Friends of the Earth in The Hague.

Across the Delta, we still face a number of challenges. Shell and the Nigerian authorities must take immediately action to clean up and remediate more than 2,000 oil spill sites (see page 16 of Friends of the Earth Netherlands report). Every day that Shell delays clean up, the ecological damage worsens. Oil is spreading across the creeks and mangrove forests and seeping deeper into the water table. The cumulative impact on the environment will take decades to remedy. A new UNEP report is expected to confirm the depths of the environmental damage the Ogoni region.

Nigerian laws must also change. Currently, victims of oil spills have highly limited statutory rights to compensation. A single payment of $7,000 (see page 52 of Amnesty report) can discharge oil companies from having to clean up oil spills no matter how big. Such token fines must be replaced with meaningful penalties that are stringently enforced. Companies like Shell cannot be allowed to exploit lax regulations abroad, and no company should be above the law.

How long will Bodo village have to wait before it will be restored by Shell? Ejama-Ebubu is still waiting more than 40 years on. In cases like Oruma, Shell’s clean up efforts have done more harm than good. Shell has scooped and dumped the oil inside pits and set them ablaze, incinerating local farmland. The past 50 years shows us that Shell will only take action under intense public pressure from investors, governments, and the international community. We won’t be holding our breath.


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