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Dutch Court Delivers Blow to Nigerians with Shell Acquittals

Setting terrible precedent, decision largely allows oil giant to walk away from 'most polluted place on earth'

- Jon Queally, staff writer

In a blow to environmental and human rights campaigners in Nigeria, a Dutch court has thrown most of a lawsuit brought by local farmers and residents against oil giant Royal Dutch Shell for vast pollution related to the company's extraction and refinery processes in the Niger Delta.

Plaintiff Nigerian farmer Eric Dooh showing his hand covered with oil from a creek near Goi, Ogoniland, Nigeria. (Photograph: Marten Van Dijl/EPA) As The Guardian explains,

The case involved five allegations of spills in Nigeria, and four of these were quashed by the court. On the fifth count, Shell was ordered to pay compensation, of an amount yet to be decided.

Shell said it was "studying the verdict".

The case was brought in the Netherlands because of Shell's dual headquartership, being both Dutch and British, and was brought by four Nigerian farmers co-sponsored by the international green campaigning group Friends of the Earth.

Friends of the Earth International spokesperson Geert Ritsema told Reuters the group would appeal the court's ruling "because there is still a lot of oil lying around. These sites need to be cleaned."

Though the verdict in support of the one plaintiff from the area of Ikot Ada Udo was welcome news, the court's squashing of the other four was a major disappointment.

“This win for the farmers of Ikot Ada Udo has set a precedent as it will be an important step that multinationals can more easily be made answerable for the damage they do in developing countries. We anticipate other communities will now demand that Shell pay for the assault on their environment,” said Friends of the Earth Nigeria’s Executive Director, Nnimmo Bassey.

Ritsema agreed, saying the partial verdict would give hope to victims of environmental pollution caused by multinationals. At the same time, he added, "the verdict is a bitter disappointment for the people in the villages of Oruma and Goi – where the court did not hold Shell liable for the damage."

The day prior to the decision, Bassey wrote an essay titled "Why Shell must be held accountable for its Niger Delta ecocide," which stated: "When it is said that the region is probably the most polluted place on earth the blame must be placed on the doorsteps of the oil companies operating there."

Bassey continued:

We should state here that as the clear sector leader in Nigeria, Shell’s  behaviour leads the way for others.

In the case before the Dutch court, the plaintiffs are demanding that Shell cleans up oil pollution in their communities, compensates those affected and ensures that new leaks do not occur from its pipelines.

These have been the cardinal demands of the communities of the Niger Delta because they depend primarily on the environment for their livelihood endeavours including farming and fishing.

The streams and creeks they depend on for portable water are serially hit by oil spills while forests have been set ablaze in inept efforts to clean up environmental damage or to cover up evidence of such spills.

And Reuters adds:

There were 198 oil spills at Shell facilities in the Niger Delta last year, releasing around 26,000 barrels of oil, according to data from the company. The firm says 161 of these spills were caused by sabotage or theft, while 37 incidents were caused by operational failure. Local communities say Shell under reports the amount of barrels spilled.

People who live in the Niger Delta region say their land, water and fisheries have been blighted for years by oil pollution and activists have called for oil companies in Nigeria to be held to the same standard as elsewhere in the world.

A United Nations report in 2011 on the Ogoniland region in the Niger Delta criticized Shell and other multinationals, and the Nigerian government, for 50 years of oil pollution.

It said the area, where Shell no longer operates, needed the world's biggest-ever oil clean-up, which would take 25 years and cost an initial $1 billion.

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