Shell Nigeria has to appear before a Dutch judge to account for the contamination of agricultural land in Nigeria, according the district court in The Hague. The four Nigerian farmers and Friends of the Earth Netherlands, or Milieudefensie, who instituted the proceedings, say they are pleased with the decision.
A spokesperson for Friends of the Earth Netherlands, Geert Ritsema, said, "For years these people have tried to get Shell to clean its rubbish and stop polluting their habitat. But they were repeatedly left empty handed, which caused them to seek justice in the Netherlands. The judge's decision is the first victory for all Nigerians who for years have been fighting for justice and a cleaner habitat."
The Nigerian farmers say they lost their income after crude oil from a Shell pipeline poured over their fields. Fishermen also lost money when the leak contaminated their fishponds.
Residents of the villages of Oruma, Goi and Ikot Ada Udo, in the oil-rich Niger delta, are demanding compensation from the Anglo-Dutch multinational. They also want Shell to clean the polluted soil in the area.
Comrade Sunny Ofehe is the founder and president of the Hope for Niger Delta Campaign.
"We've been waiting for this decision with a lot of anxiety," he told RNW. "This is a moral victory for the Niger Delta. For the first time a multinational oil company will be prosecuted in a country where they have their headquarters. So for us it's good news."
"I've actually met two of the farmers, face to face. These are very poor people who rely of the food production that comes from their farm. Their farm has been transferred from generation to generation. Right now, the only means of living has been destroyed by oil spills into the environment. They can't produce anything and they don't get any compensation. They are completely lost."
Shell claims it cannot be held responsible for the pollution. The oil in the Niger delta is exploited by the Nigerian subsidiary Shell Petroleum Development Company, which, according to the multinational, operates independently. The company also argued that the pollution was a result of sabotage to its equipment.
Ofehe said that his organization accepts that there sabotage does happen in the Niger Delta, "but there is enough evidence that in this case there were leakages from oil pipelines that were positioned very close to their farms. When they started leaking, they were not attended to promptly. So the spill came out and went on over the farms. It took a lot of time and it ended up by destroying their farmland."
"We want to present the evidence as it is and let the people know that this is the situation in the Niger Delta," Ofehe adds. "So if somehow the case grows positively for the farmers, then it will bring to bear what they are asking for, which is: Shell should operate with proper corporate social responsibility and clean up their mess and also carry out systems that can allow for a very clean way of exploiting oil in the Niger Delta."
"If it works out positively for these people, we're likely to see more lawsuits in The Hague in the Netherlands. Because these four people are just a symbolical figure compared to the number of people that are facing the same situation in the Niger Delta."
The multinational said it is disappointed by the court's verdict.
This is the first time a company in the Netherlands has been called to account over an alleged crime committed abroad. The initial proceedings will start on February 10th, 2010.
Additional coverage: The Guardian/UK