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Slippery justice for Niger Delta's polluted communities

Amnesty International's Aster van Kregten is helping point the finger at oil pollution in the Niger Delta
(Wendy Bruere/IRIN)

Residents of Ogoniland, in Rivers State, have been struggling since 2008 to hold oil companies and the Nigerian government to account for catastrophic pollution. Recent reports and NGOs say the longer communities wait for action to be taken, the worse the impact on people's health and livelihoods will get.

A report by Amnesty International, a human rights NGO, and the Centre for Environment, Human Rights and Development (CEHRD), a Nigerian NGO, examines delays in addressing oil pollution caused by two spills from Shell's oil pipelines in Bodo, a Delta community of 69,000 people, in 2008.

The spills, which began in August and December 2008, each lasted for weeks before they were stopped. Royal Dutch Shell has accepted responsibility but local communities are still fighting for compensation and a clean-up of the oil that polluted water sources and destroyed livelihoods from fishing and farming.

This is not an isolated case, said Aster van Kregten, a researcher at Amnesty International.

A federal government committee looking into a study by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has submitted a report to the presidency, but the contents have not yet been made public. The UNEP study, released in August this year, revealed Ogoniland was so severely contaminated by oil pollution that a clean up could take up to 30 years and cost billions of dollars. Ogoniland communities have criticized the committee for not visiting the area or consulting residents while compiling the report.

"If the UNEP report is put on the shelf, [the government] will send a message that all this means nothing, and people will think the only thing that works is violent action," said Ledum Mittee, president of Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People (MOSOP), a peaceful activist group.

Militant groups in the Niger Delta, who were responsible for attacks on oil facilities and kidnapping oil workers but were pacified in an amnesty in 2009, appear to be preparing for renewed violence. Ex-militants and local NGOs say the root causes of the violence, including environmental destruction by oil companies, were not addressed by the amnesty.

Bigger risks

The longer people wait for clean-ups, the more the situation will deteriorate and the higher costs will be, warned Chris Newsom of Stakeholder Democracy Network, an advocacy group. He told IRIN that out of 10 communities where drinking water was found to be dangerously contaminated as a result of oil pollution, only two had been provided with safe water.

"If you don't do anything, liabilities go up every day because you're not acting on something you have been warned about," Newsom said. Residents already struggling financially due to damage to fishing and farming industries now have to buy water.

Contaminated water is not the only health concern - petroleum hydrocarbons can be absorbed from air and soil as well. UNEP has indicated there will likely be significant long-term impacts, although no comprehensive health study has been done yet. Anecdotal evidence points to respiratory problems, diarrhoea, rashes, a higher number of miscarriages and other health problems among Ogoniland residents.

In Bodo, damage to local industries has not only taken away people's livelihoods but has also led to other problems, say NGOs. Kregten argues that oil bunkering, where pipelines are tapped to extract and steal oil, only started in Bodo after the 2008 oil spills. Oil bunkering adds to oil pollution and endangers those who engage in it.

"There was no bunkering when people had a way to earn money," she said. Patrick Naagbanton, the coordinator of CEHRD, agreed that the loss of income from farming and fishing means "people turn to what they can".

Education has also suffered, damaging long-term prospects for the community's children, said Kpoobari Patta, who works in youth affairs in Bodo. He told IRIN that as life becomes harder financially, people can no longer afford to pay school fees. He estimates that around 60 percent of Bodo's young people are not attending school.

Kabari Visigah, who lives in Bodo, said the rising cost of living made it hard for her to continue her university studies in Port Harcourt.

Oil companies set the tone

The difficulties the government faces in holding oil companies to account include weak institutions that are unable to enforce environmental standards, partly because the Nigerian economy relies on oil revenues, so companies are often left to set their own standards. 

Tony Attah, vice president of health, safety and environment and corporate affairs for Shell Sub-Saharan Africa, said that as an international company, Shell's standards are uniform across all countries. But practices such as gas flaring - where gas associated with oil extraction is burnt off, adding to air pollution - continue in Nigeria, and Amnesty International points to delays in cleaning up the Bodo spills as just one example among many where the company has not adhered to its own standards.

Attah told IRIN a clean-up was done in Bodo after the 2008 spills, although full remediation is yet to take place, and blamed current visible oil pollution on bunkering. "Today, what you see there is the result of illegal activities," he said.

Martyn Day, of Leigh Day and Co Solicitors, a firm representing Bodo in seeking compensation in a British court, described this claim as "total nonsense". Kregten said all the evidence gathered by Amnesty International and CEHRD, including satellite images and witness testimony, "points to the 2008 spills as the main cause of the ongoing environmental devastation".

She said Shell repeatedly blames bunkering for oil spills, but as there is no independent monitoring it is impossible to verify these claims.

Independent monitoring

To address this, NGOs advocate stronger governance and independent monitoring to ensure responsible environmental practices.

Nigeria formed the National Oil Spill and Detection Agency (NOSDRA), in the Ministry of Environment, in 2006, but Kregten said the agency does not have the power to enforce good practices. "We looked at letters written from NOSDRA to Shell, and they are trying to make Shell clean up Bodo, but nothing happens," she told IRIN.

NOSDRA was a "good step forward", Kregten said, but it needed to be strengthened. Amnesty has recommended that the Nigerian government establish mechanisms for independent monitoring of the oil industry, and that NOSDRA impose effective penalties on oil companies for failing to adhere to regulations.

NOSDRA did not respond to repeated phones calls and emails from IRIN.

Overseas legal action

Communities have now begun to take their grievances to lawyers overseas. Earlier this year the Bodo community took Shell to court in the UK for the 2008 oil spills.

Shell has since accepted responsibility for the spills and the Bodo community is now seeking compensation. Solicitor Day told IRIN that part of the reason overseas action was an attractive option was because Nigerian courts "do not have a mechanism for bringing a case involving thousands of claimants".

In October, Ogale village in Rivers State filed a case against Shell in a US federal court, seeking US$1 billion in compensation for negligence. Ogale was described by UNEP as one of the world's most polluted places.

Some communities resort to Western courts due to a lack of faith in the Nigerian system, where lengthy delays make resolution difficult. Shell has also sometimes refused to comply with orders from Nigerian courts to end gas flaring or pay compensation, according to reports.

Amnesty's Kregten said, "Local communities and civil society are frustrated that they can't get justice here. The communities are becoming more vocal and looking for solutions elsewhere."


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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