In a potentially precedent-setting ruling, a Dutch court said Friday that Royal Dutch Shell may be held liable for oil spills at its subsidiary in Nigeria—a win for farmers and environmentalists attempting to hold the oil giant accountable for leaks, spills, and widespread pollution.
The ruling by the Court of Appeals in the Hague, which overturns a 2013 decision in favor of Shell, allows four Nigerian farmers to jointly sue the fossil fuels corporation in the Netherlands for causing extensive oil spills in Nigeria.
"This ruling is a ray of hope for other victims of environmental degradation, human rights violations, and other misconduct by large corporations."
—Geert Ritsema, Friends of the Earth Netherlands
The scars of those disasters are still visible in the fields and fishing ponds of three Nigerian villages. In one village, drinking water has been rendered non-potable, while in another, an entire mangrove forest has been destroyed.
Alali Efanga, one of the Nigerian farmers who, along with Friends of the Earth Netherlands, brought the case against Shell, said the ruling "offers hope that Shell will finally begin to restore the soil around my village so that I will once again be able to take up farming and fishing on my own land."
Beyond that, the court's decision "is a landslide victory for environmentalists and these four brave Nigerian farmers who, for more than seven years, have had the courage to take on one of the most powerful companies in the world," said Geert Ritsema, campaigner at Friends of the Earth Netherlands. "This ruling is a ray of hope for other victims of environmental degradation, human rights violations, and other misconduct by large corporations."
Indeed, as Amnesty International researcher Mark Dummett said in advance of the ruling: "This case is especially important as it could pave the way for further cases from other communities devastated by Shell's negligence."
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"There have been thousands of spills from Shell’s pipelines since the company started pumping oil in the Niger Delta in 1958," Dummett said, "with devastating consequences for the people living there."
Decrying the "incredible levels of pollution" caused by the activities of Shell and its subsidiaries, environmentalists Vandana Shiva and Nnimmo Bassey said at a media briefing in July that "weekends in Ogoniland are marked by carnivals of funerals of people in their 20s and 30s."
Citing a 2011 United Nations Environmental Programme assessment, they noted that in over 40 locations tested in Ogoniland, the soil is polluted with hydrocarbons up to a depth of 5 meters and that all the water bodies in the region are polluted.
The UN report, they said, also found that in some places the water was polluted with benzene, a known carcinogen, at levels 900 above World Health Organization standards. "With life expectancy standing at about 41 years, the clean up of Ogoniland is projected to require a cumulative 30 years to clean both the land and water," they said.
In another historic victory for the plaintiffs, the Hague court on Friday also ordered Shell to give the farmers and environmental activists supporting their case access to internal documents that the court said could shed more light on the case.
Channa Samkalden, counsel for the farmers and Friends of the Earth, said it was "the first time in legal history that access to internal company documents was obtained in court...This finally allows the case to be considered on its merits."
The court will continue to hear the case in March 2016.