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Shell Sued By Nigerian Farmers And Fishermen

By Countercurrents.org

12 October, 2012

Shell, one of the oil giants, has been sued by Nigerian fishermen and farmers. It’s a historic move by ordinary citizens against polluters.

Reuters reported [1]:

Four Nigerian villagers took Royal Dutch Shell to court on October 11, 2012 in a landmark pollution case that campaigners said could open the door to more compensation claims against international companies.

The fishermen and farmers, together with the Friends of the Earth campaign group, accuse the oil major of polluting land and waterways around their homes in the Niger Delta region of Africa's top energy producer.

Shell has denied responsibility, saying the leaks were caused by sabotage.

The villagers launched their claim in a civil court in The Hague, where Shell has its joint global headquarters.

It was the first time a Dutch-registered company had been sued in a Dutch court for offences allegedly carried out by a foreign subsidiary.

Friends of the Earth said the claim, if successful, could open up a new way for plaintiffs to take on multinationals - by suing their parent companies in their home countries.

The villagers, who appeared in court, want unspecified damages saying Shell and other corporations were responsible for pollution from three oil spills between 2004 and 2007.

"My community is a ghost land as a result of the devastation. We had good vegetation. Today people have respiratory problems and are getting sick," said one of the plaintiffs Eric Dooh, from the Goi community, which lives between two pipelines.

"Shell is aware of the whole devastation. I want them to pay compensation, to clean up the pollution so we can grow our crops and fish again," the 44-year-old told Reuters before the hearing.

Shell says the pollution was caused by thieves breaking into pipelines to steal the oil, and believes it has played its part in cleaning it up.

"The matter has been resolved as far as we are concerned and we do not properly understand why Friends of the Earth has submitted the case," Allard Castelein, Shell's vice president for environment, told Reuters before the hearing.

The biggest pollution problem in the Niger Delta was caused by thieves who steal oil from Shell's installations, he said. Around 150,000 barrels of oil are stolen every day in the Delta. That is worth about $6 billion a year.

Friends of the Earth said other companies could face similar claims in European Union cities if it won the case.

"It opens up a range of possibilities for people from poor countries to use the legal system to seek compensation from companies," said Geert Ritsema, international affairs coordinator at the environmental group during a break in the proceedings.

The Nigerians' lawyer Channa Samkalden told the court Shell had failed to maintain pipelines, clean up leaks and prevent pollution.

"It was insufficient maintenance, not sabotage, that was responsible for the leaks ... Shell did not operate as a conscientious oil company," she said.

With around 31 million inhabitants, the Niger Delta is one of the world's most important wetland and coastal marine ecosystems. It is an important source of food for the poor, rural population.

Last year, the United Nations said in a report the government and multinational oil companies, particularly Shell, were responsible for 50 years of oil pollution that had devastated the Ogoniland region, part of the Niger Delta.

The government and oil firms have pledged to clean up the region and other parts of the Delta, but residents say they have seen little action.

Shell Petroleum Development Co (SPDC) is the largest oil and gas company in Nigeria, with production capacity of more than 1 million barrels of oil equivalent per day.

It operates a joint venture in which state owned Nigerian National Petroleum Corp has a majority share. Total SA subsidiary Elf Petroleum Nigeria Ltd. also has a stake.

An AFP report [2] said:

Nigerian farmers took their battle to make Shell clean up oil damage that destroyed their land to a Dutch court in a case that could set a precedent for global environmental responsibility.

The civil suit could open the door for hundreds of similar cases.

"Shell knew for a long time that the pipeline was damaged but didn't do anything: they could have stopped the leaks," lawyer Channa Samkalden told the court, accusing Shell of having "violated its legal obligations".

The case, the first time that a Dutch company is being sued in the Netherlands for alleged damage in another country, relates to oil pollution from 2005 and was initially filed in 2008.

The farmers want Royal Dutch Shell to clean up the mess, repair and maintain defective pipelines to prevent further damage and pay out compensation.

In a landmark ruling, the Dutch judiciary in 2009 declared itself competent to try the case despite protests from Shell that its Nigerian subsidiary was solely legally responsible for any damage.

"I'm here because of the oil leakage that happened in my community in the Shell facilities and destroyed my 47 fish ponds"," Friday Alfred Akpan, from the village of Ikot Ada Udo, told AFP before heading into court.

"The destruction of the fish ponds caused serious damage to me in person and my family because I make use of that fish to take care of myself and my children."

Oil pollution has ravaged swathes of the Niger Delta in the world's eighth largest oil producer, which exports more than two million barrels a day.

Shell is the biggest producer in the west African country, where it has been drilling for over 50 years.

"We believe that the claims are unsubstantiated," Allard Castelein, Shell's Vice President Environment, told AFP at the court.

Environmental groups accuse Shell of double standards and treating spills in Nigeria differently from pollution in Europe or North America.

But Castelein fended off the accusations, saying: "We do have the same standards in Europe and Nigeria."

Shell's lawyer Jan de Bie Leuveling Tjeenk said: "Friends of the Earth believe that this trial will provide a solution to this problem but this is not the case."

Friends of the Earth however said the scale of Nigeria's oil pollution was twice that of the five million barrels dumped in the Gulf of Mexico after the explosion on BP's Deepwater Horizon rig in 2010, in the biggest ever marine spill. Shell disputes the Nigerian figure and puts it much lower.

The UN's environmental agency last year released a landmark report, saying decades of oil pollution in the Niger Delta's Ogoniland region may require the world's biggest ever clean-up and could take up to 30 years.

Jonathan Verschuuren, an environmental law expert at the Netherlands' Tilburg University, said that a win for the farmers would set a precedent.

"If they win the case then it will be an important step that multinationals can more easily be made answerable for the damage they do in developing countries," Verschuuren told AFP.

"Until now it's been very tricky because it's difficult to bring cases against these companies in developing countries themselves, because the legislation is often not advanced or properly applied," he said.

Environmentalists want the Netherlands, and other Western nations, to pass laws forcing companies to enforce the same environmental responsibility standards abroad as at home.

Judges said they hoped to hand down a ruling next January 30.


[1] “Nigerian villagers sue Shell in landmark pollution case”, dateline: The Hague, Oct 11, 2012, http://uk.reuters.com/article/2012/10/11/uk-shell-nigeria-lawsuit-idUKBRE89A11320121011

[2] Maude Brulard, “Nigerian farmers sue Shell over oil pipe leaks”, http://www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5iaBKrfiVMzB-ag2s_m2vy56W-PJQ?docId=CNG.365b03e7b26fdafeebcd8f1bc06d5b24.181




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