Niger Delta villagers turn to European courts, seeking redress for oil spills

A woman walks through an area of the Olugboboro village in the Niger Delta tainted by oil spills. (Photo credit: Sam Olukoya)

Environmentalists rate Nigeria’s Niger Delta as one of the most polluted oil producing regions in the world. For more than fifty years, frequent oil spills have plagued the area, mainly from Western oil companies’ installations. Pollution from crude spills has rendered farmlands, forests and fish ponds unproductive. But villagers rarely receive compensation when they seek redress in court. Many say the companies, especially the Anglo-Dutch oil giant Shell, have used their powerful influence to escape liability for the oil spills and resulting environmental damage. Now, villagers from Niger Delta are seeking justice through European courts. Sam Olukoya reports.

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A stone’s throw away from where youth play traditional drums in the Ikot Ada Udo village square is the scene of a major oil spill from a Shell facility, which changed the lives of many here for the worse.

“During the spill, the oil flooded everywhere,” says Friday Akpan, looking over the scene of the disaster. “The whole of this place was completely flooded with crude oil. It damaged every crop. The spill was so much, was so serious, the whole thing was so alarming, till it touches the neighboring villages. It was unbearable.”

Akpan said the spilled oil spread into forests and farmlands and flowed into his forty seven fish ponds: “Immediately [after] the spill took place, the rain water carries the oil down to the pond. Forty seven fish ponds, and since the pond is at a sloping portion, the whole oil was pushed into the ponds and it damaged all the fish I got from the Ministry of Agriculture. I did not get anything from the ponds.”

It’s a familiar story in villages across the Niger Delta, where spills from Western oil companies’ pipelines and facilities have wrecked the livelihoods of those who depend on local farmland and waterways.

Children swim in a river in Oruma, where villagers say they have yet to recover from an oil spill that occurred in 2005. Local resident Alali Efanga says the spill destroyed his fish ponds, leaving him with no other source of income.

“After this oil spill, Shell, when their oil spill occurred, all hopes have been lost. For now I live from hand to mouth,” says Efanga. “My children too, they are drop outs. I could not take care of their school fees, I could not also take care of their medical bills. If that those fish ponds were there, by now definitely life will be better than this.”

Attempts to seek reparations and damages via Nigerian courts have been largely unsuccessful as foreign oil companies wield considerable financial influence within the country. So Niger Delta residents affected by oil spills are seeking justice in European courts.

In March, residents of two villages filed a lawsuit against Shell in a British court. One of them is the Bille community, which villagers say has been so badly devastated by spills that crude oil is seeping into their property. The other village is the Ogali community, where residents argue incessant pollution has made the water dangerous for drinking, swimming or fishing. Instituting cases against Shell in Europe has yielded some positive results for Niger Delta villagers.

A legal challenge in a British court from one Ogoni village forced Shell last year to agree to an out of court settlement of $77 million. Shell had refused to compensate the villagers prior to legal action.

Another success story is that of Akpan, the fisherman from Ikot Ada Udo. In January 2013, a lower court in the Netherlands ruled that Shell Nigeria’s subsidiary should pay him compensation for the oil spill that polluted his fish ponds. In December last year, he got a landmark judgment from another Dutch court, which ruled that Shell can be sued in the Netherlands for the actions of its subsidiaries in other parts of the world. Shell is, however, appealing both judgments. Akpan received legal assistance from the international environmental organization, Friends of the Earth.

Suing Shell in Europe may give hope to a few victims, but thousands of others, like Abo John, say they are too poor to seek compensation from the company.

“So this our community, we suffered a lot in short. My father’s pond got spoiled. We are suffering because of poverty,” John says. “If not we would have sued these people to court on our own personally, but because of poverty, we cannot take any of them, that is the Shell, to any place.”

Relief is unlikely to come soon for Niger Delta residents affected by oil spills. A report by the United Nations Environment Program shows that, even if current pollution is stopped in Ogoniland, the clean-up of the area will take up to thirty years at a cost of $1 billion. Ogoniland covers just a small proportion of the Niger Delta. Beyond the costs and time needed for a proper clean-up lies the seemingly insurmountable hurdle of the lack of political will within Nigeria to hold powerful polluters accountable.

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