Shell’s clammy hand in the Niger Delta
For a company whose logo is the shell of a giant clam, a marine and freshwater creature millions of years old, it's ironic that Royal Dutch Shell is so cavalier about the pollution of watercourses that its operations frequently cause.
In the Niger Delta in Nigeria, Shells half-century of oil extraction has poisoned rivers, mangrove swamps and farming lands, and impoverished whole communities that depend on these natural resources for their survival.
Worst hit have been the people of Ogoniland (see this map of Ogoniland). Now numbering some half a million, the Ogoni, to quote Ken Saro-Wiwa, have in the space of less than a century been struck by the combined forces of modernity, colonialism, the money economy, indigenous colonialism and then the Nigeria civil war. And of course a multinational oil company that sank nearly 100 oil wells and pumped about 28,000 barrels of oil through their land a day.
Famously and notoriously in 1995 the organised resistance to the oil industrys pollution of Ogoniland by the Movement for The Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) saw its leader Saro-Wiwa and eight others put on trial before a military court and hanged. Shells website says it was shocked and saddened at this (as were Amnesty and millions of people around the world).
So, 16 years on, are the dark days of the MOSOP struggle (there were various horrible killings) a sort of nightmare from which local inhabitants and oil giant alike have moved on?
Shell would like you to think so. Its site contains an article published in the Guardian in 2009 about the out-of-court settlement made to the Ogoni people that year. In it, Shell's Executive Director for Exploration and Production Malcolm Brinded says he hopes its the start of something new for the Ogoni people as well as for Shell in Nigeria. He concludes with the observation that Shell is supporting a UN-led survey of Ogoni land to meet environmental concerns.
Hmm. Well, that survey is out today. Its not a pleasant read. See the full report here. In summary, the study found that oil contamination in Ogoniland is widespread and severe, and that Ogonis have been exposed to it for decades. For example, drinking water is highly contaminated. In one instance water contained a known carcinogen at levels 900 times above World Health Organisation guidelines.
Back in 2009 Brinded said Shell had promised to clear up any damage from oil spills whatever their cause, but the company has meanwhile expended much public relations energy in disputing responsibility for oil spillages (Amnesty and Friends of the Earth International have even reported Shell to the OECD for their use of misleading figures), shifting blame onto local saboteurs. The point here is that, under Nigerian law, when spills are classified the result of sabotage Shell has no liability to provide compensation for damage done to local people or their livelihoods.
Shell says it agrees that, in the past, not enough oil revenue has been returned to the oil producing areas for developmental purposes (a key MOSOP contention). And on spills it says that 25% have been caused by operational failure or human error, a situation it concedes is unacceptable. One key reason for spillage is that Shell has for decades failed to maintain its rusting, creaking pipeline infrastructure.
Spillages may represent a dent in profits for Shell, for local people theyve been devastating. Heres one viewpoint, that of Regina, a 40-year-old mother of six from the Bodo area of Ogoniland which suffered a major spill in 2008 wiping out fish in the creeks: The price of fish has increased a lot in Bodo Everybody is struggling I think that for someone with [such] a low voice as myself it is difficult to make a claim.
Make no mistake: this a David and Goliath struggle for justice by poor people whove had their lives and livelihoods turned upside down by one of the worlds biggest multinational companies.
Meanwhile, chickens are coming home to roost. Shell is being forced to settle expensive legal cases for some 69,000 affected people in Bodo. If I was an institutional investor in Shell (Im not) Id be worried about the wisdom of putting my money into a company as neglectful of its corporate responsibility as Shell.
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.