Shell’s Niger Delta Pollution: The Good, the Bad and the Ongoing Quest for Justice

Oil spill in Nigeria's Ogoniland

An indigene of Bodo, Ogoniland region in Nigeria, tries to separate with a stick the crude oil from water in a boat at the Bodo waterways polluted by oil spills attributed to Shell equipment failure.(Photo credit: PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP/Getty Images)

By Audrey Gaughran, Amnesty International’s Africa Programme Director

This week’s ruling by a Dutch court in a case brought by four Nigerian farmers against the oil company Shell for pollution damage represents a small victory – but also underlines the real-world challenges facing victims of pollution and human rights abuses involving multinational companies.

The four farmers who brought the case had seen their livelihoods destroyed by oil pollution from Shell’s operations.

The court found in favour of one plaintiff, stating that Shell Nigeria had breached its duty of care in that case by failing to take reasonable action to prevent third parties tampering with oil wells and causing oil spills. Shell will now have to pay compensation to the affected farmer.

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A Shell Game: Kiobel vs Royal Dutch Petroleum

Kiobel vs Shell

Esther Kiobel stands alongside human rights activists outside of the US Supreme Court on Oct 1, 2012. © Erica Razook

Outside the United States Supreme Court on Monday, a staff member from Earthrights handed Esther Kiobel a page to read. “It’s her story,” he said to a small crowd of dedicated activists holding “#shameonshell” signs. Ms. Kiobel began to read, but soon put the paper down and started talking.

“In an executive meeting, they were trying to get my husband to help get rid of Ken,” she said, speaking of Ken Saro-Wiwa, the environmental activist who led a campaign against Shell’s operations in the Niger Delta, and who was executed by the Abacha government in 1995, together with Esther’s husband Barinem and seven others.

“I was myself charged. I was locked up twice. At night sometimes I go to sleep but then wake up and write what comes out of my head. I was stripped naked. Locked up twice.”

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Big Oil, Poisoned Water, And Nigeria

The Niger Delta is one of the most important ecosystems in the world and is home to some 31 million people. Yet it is being poisoned.

Oil is killing the fish, polluting the water, and endangering the people who make the Niger Delta their home.

Oil companies spill more oil into the Niger Delta each year than was spilled as a result of the Deepwater Horizon disaster that devastated the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.

A major source of oil pollution is the practice of gas flaring, or the burning off excess gas as waste. The government of Nigeria and multinational oil companies active in the Niger Delta, including Shell, ENI, Total and Chevron, are jointly responsible for gas flaring in the region. But for half a century, the Nigerian government has demonstrated that it can’t or won’t hold oil companies accountable.

As of today, critical questions that residents have raised about the associated health and environmental risks of gas flaring have not been answered. With our new Eyes on Nigeria project’s satellite imaging and mapping technology, we aim to not only validate residents’ concerns, but to expose serious human rights abuses.

Amnesty teams and partners have collected more than 10 years worth of evidence that shows gas flaring is happening dangerously close to the waters where people drink, bathe, fish and wash their clothes.

When Amnesty representatives meet with the Nigerian government and oil executives this summer, we’ll share these facts and push for the answers that have been delayed for so long. Above all, we’ll call on officials to set a solid deadline for ending gas flaring once and for all.

Cleaning up the Niger Delta and stopping gas flaring is a small, but necessary step toward ensuring that basic human rights to health, food, clean water and livelihood in the Niger Delta are protected.

Make sure companies won’t be able to  dodge accountability anymore.Sign our petition calling on oil companies to end gas flaring.

Davos and the Measures of Success

By Salil Shetty, Secretary General of Amnesty International

The oil continues to leak into the Niger Delta, fouling the water, killing the fish and slowly poisoning the people who live there. It has been that way for decades.

The spills are the legacy of a half-century of exploration and development in the oil-rich region. They have devastated the lives of local residents who rely on the area’s resources for their food, water and livelihoods and left many wondering about the future.

Oil spills in the Niger Delta have devastated the lives of local residents © Kadir van Lohuizen/NOOR

Arguments swirl around who is to blame. Residents say oil companies, including Shell, and the government, which owns about half of the oil industry, are responsible. The companies and the government counter that the spills are due to sabotage and theft, the result of armed raids and people stealing oil from the lines.

Demands by Delta communities and activists for information, independent systems for environmental clean-up and compensation, and for the oil companies to be held to account have been largely ignored by the government and dismissed as unnecessary, or unworkable, by the companies.

Incredibly, despite the obvious environmental devastation, there is almost no independent monitoring of food safety, health impacts or water quality. Companies like Shell effectively run the oil spill investigation and compensation processes, with a lack of transparency causing frequent conflict with and between oil-impacted communities.

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Shell Accused Over Misleading Figures on Nigeria Oil Spills

Shell has no compensation liability when spills are declared 'sabotage' © Kadir van Lohuizen/NOOR

Amnesty International and Friends of the Earth International today filed an official complaint against oil giant Shell for breaches of basic standards for responsible business set out by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

Amnesty and Friends of the Earth believe that Shell breached OECD guidelines by using discredited and misleading information, in order to blame the majority of oil pollution in the Niger Delta region on sabotage and criminal activity.

In the mid 1990s Shell accepted that much of the oil pollution in the Niger Delta was due to the company’s own failures.  However, Shell now blames sabotage by communities and criminals for most of the problem, citing misleading figures that purport to show as much as 98% of oil spills being caused by sabotage.

While sabotage is a problem in the Niger Delta, Amnesty International and Friends of the Earth have repeatedly challenged Shell’s use of such figures, which have been strongly criticized by environmental groups and communities.  Under Nigerian law, when spills are classified as being the result of sabotage, Shell has no liability with respect to compensation for damage done to people or their livelihoods.

Shell’s figures are totally lacking in credibility.  Widespread oil pollution is a key problem caused by oil industry in the Niger Delta, but the oil spill investigation system is totally lacking in independence.

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Nearly 100 Days of Pressure: Will Shell’s New CEO Come Clean on Niger Delta?

By Anna Phelan, Amnesty International USA’s Business and Economic Relations Group

Since the release of Amnesty International’s report Petroleum, Pollution and Poverty in the Niger Delta (30 June 2009), our global membership has acted to get Shell’s new CEO Peter Voser to come clean on the impacts of its operations in the Niger Delta, during his first 100 days on the job. Here’s one of my favorite actions:

Parisian AI-ers show Shell how to clean up

AI’s report looks at the impact of pollution and environmental damage caused by the oil industry on the human rights of the people living in the oil producing areas of Niger Delta. Some of the key concerns highlighted in the report focus on health and livelihood — the lack of access to potable water and damage to fisheries and local farming.

Shell was quick to challenge AI’s report, claiming that Amnesty International made no attempt at open dialogue with Shell and that the report contained no new insights. We set the record straight providing dates and evidence. Shell should not think its recent $15.5 million settlement in the landmark Wiwa v. Shell case remedies more than 30 years of environmental contamination and inadequate clean-up.

When will Shell do more? AI-France says that over 2,000 cards and 20,000 electronic postcards have been distributed, but the company has not heard appeals by Amnesty International. AI-UK’s Protect the Human blog says Shell has not responded to their 3500+ emails. AIUSA members can lend their support to this global action. Very simply, we’re asking Voser to clean up oil pollution in the Niger Delta, clean up Shell’s practices, and come clean on the information Shell holds on pollution in the region, but hasn’t made public.

:: Take Action Now. Tell Voser to come clean in the Niger Delta. ::

The reality is that Shell’s pollution and exploitation in the Niger Delta has created a hell on earth for the 31 million people who live in a region that’s home to one of the top 10 most important wetland and coastal marine ecosystems in the world. Voser’s 100th day as CEO of Royal Dutch Shell is October 8th. Remind him that we’re watching. Tell him to come clean on Shell’s pollution in the Niger Delta.

Sleeper Hits of the Summer – Part 1: The Curious Case of 30,000 Indigenous People vs. Chevron

By Anna Phelan, Amnesty International USA’s Business & Economic Relations Group

Among my picks for sleeper hits of the summer, is a powerful documentary film called Crude: The Real Price of Oil. The film is described as a real-life high stakes legal drama, set against a backdrop of the environmental movement, global politics, celebrity activism, human rights advocacy, the media, multinational corporate power, and rapidly-disappearing indigenous cultures. For the most part, the main characters aren’t actors… well, I mean Chevron’s invested a lot of money and time in their web of lies, so maybe they’ve been taking acting lessons. And so far, Chevron’s signature method of acting has been to deny responsibility and shift the blame for contaminated soil and groundwater in the communities of the Ecuadorian Amazon.

:: Learn more about the history of oil in the Amazon and Amnesty’s work ::

On Sunday, the United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon spoke of how indigenous communities suffer disproportionately from low health standards linked to poverty, malnutrition, environmental contamination and inadequate healthcare marking the International Day of the World’s Indigenous People. The hardship and discrimination faced by indigenous peoples has a lot to do with the fact that they are often excluded from decision-making processes – by both governments and corporations. In her Op-Ed piece, Navanethem Pillay, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, called for more than a symbolic celebration saying, after centuries of repression, they need comprehensive tools to defend their human rights, their way of life, and their aspirations.

And that’s what makes the case against Chevron a compelling story for film – not unlike the Doe v. Unocal lawsuit or, more recently, Wiwa v. Royal Dutch Shell. Indigenous peoples are gaining access to the legal system to challenge governments and transnational companies and defend their human rights. You might not know their names, but the 30,000 indigenous people who filed suit against Texaco (now Chevron) in 1993 are more than Extras. They are the real-life protagonists.

Sleeper hits are made by word of mouth recommendations. Crude: The Real Price of Oil opens to larger audiences on 09/09/09. Take action now to show your support of human rights for the indigenous communities of Amazon’s Ecuador.

Crude: The Real Price of Oil Trailer

Big Oil Finally Pays in Nigeria: A Victory for Corporate Accountability

By Anna Phelan, Amnesty International USA’s Business & Economic Relations Group

poster of Ken Saro-Wiwa during a rally on the Port Harcourt highway 10 November 2005

An Ogoni man carries a poster of Ken Saro-Wiwa at a rally in Nigeria, November 2005 ©AFP/Getty Images

My mom called me to tell me that a settlement was reached in the Wiwa v. Shell case.  She saw a report on the nightly television news earlier this week. That’s how I knew this story was really big news.  In Tuesday’s Guardian (UK), Ken Saro-Wiwa Jr. talks about the families’ decision to accept the settlement with Shell.  He says, the choice “enabled [the plaintiffs] to advertise the settlement as a living, breathing example of how and why the commitment to peace, non-violence and dialogue is the best way to resolve the challenges in the Niger Delta.” What better advertisement than international news coverage?

When I explain the work Amnesty International members undertake, I point out that there are different levels of success. Our letter writing can result in the release of a prisoner of conscience.  Meetings with diplomats and elected officials can lead to the passage of critical legislation in support of human rights. Many of us wrote countless letters to Nigerian government officials when Ken Saro-Wiwa was adopted as a prisoner of conscience in the 1990s.  After his execution, we continued to work closely with the Nigerian diaspora in the U.S., vowing to “Never Forget” Ken Saro-Wiwa and the Ogoni 9. We held ceremonies – outside the United Nations, in front of the Nigerian Consulate in D.C., and in our communities – to rename streets Ken Saro-Wiwa Place or Ogoni 9 Square in their honor.

Sometimes we don’t immediately see the success we hoped for.  And while Amnesty International has not participated in the lawsuits brought against Shell, our continued work on corporate accountability issues will benefit from Wiwa v. Shell’s successes. Michael D. Goldhaber’s A Win for Wiwa, A Win for Shell, A Win for Corporate Human Rights at The AmLaw Daily offers a comprehensive summary of the benchmarks achieved through the settlement.  Stay tuned for the next big news story, we’re well on our way towards more success.

Learn more about how Amnesty works to promote corporate accountability for human rights.