A case in which four Nigerian fish farmers have succeeded in taking the Anglo-Dutch owned oil giant Shell to Court in the Netherlands, marks a historic turning point on whether how oil pollution and oil damage cases are handled. The case has ramifications not just for Shell and other oil companies operating in Nigeria, but around the world.
What it means is that international oil companies like Shell and others may be held legally responsible for their activities, the activities of their subsidiaries, and even partners, abroad. The Nigerian farmers at the centre of the case going on in the Netherlands brought the case to the Netherlands because Shell has its headquarters here. The hearing of the case in the Netherlands means that oil companies may no longer be able to say they are not responsible or not to blame when disasters happen - away from home, where they have their operations.
In the case against Shell being heard in the Netherlands, the four farmers, all from different parts of Nigeria's vast oil rich Niger Delta - a region that produces close to 3 million barrels of oil every day - say that Shell has failed to maintain its pipelines and other infrastructure. This has caused huge quantities of oil to leak into their fish farms, they argue, destroying their livelihoods
In an ideal world, the farmers would have first tried to get Shell's Nigerian subsidiary held responsible. But the environmental action group Friends of the Earth alleges that because Shell is such a powerful and influence force with Nigerian government officials, and even among members of the judiciary, the case would have been unlikely to succeed here.
The truth of the matter is that there are hundreds of cases against oil companies in Nigeria, where victims allege oil pollution by companies. But few have gotten justice.
Shell denies the farmers' accusations, and says that the oil spills are being caused by Nigerians engaged in running illegal oil refineries in the area, who sabotage and burst pipelines, to siphon off oil. The oil rich communities say that is not true; that the oil in illegal refineries comes from the miles of leaking and poorly maintained pipeline lines that snake through their villages.
Judges in the Netherlands will hear evidence from the farmers and their legal representatives, Friends of the Earth, and hear what Shell has to say too. A verdict is expected at the end of the year. If Shell is found liable, not only may they be forced to clean up the oil spills and fix broken pipelines, they may also have to pay compensation to the victims.