Nov. 10 marks the 20th anniversary of the execution of Ken Saro Wiwa and eight other Ogoni leaders, hanged by the Nigerian state after they spoke out against the government and campaigned against Shell’s operations in Nigeria’s Ogoniland. Their executions sparked a global outcry.
It’s a fitting moment to take stock of the oil industry’s legacy of contamination of the Niger Delta.
Why are women, men and children in the Delta still having to drink, cook with and wash in polluted water, eat toxic fish and farm on contaminated land?
Amnesty’s researchers visited the region in summer 2015 to find out, focusing on four sites at which major oil spills had occurred, all of which are in the vicinity of Shell’s network of pipelines. The results of this fieldwork provide a stark reminder of why the Niger Delta has become Shell’s nemesis.
The soil encrusted with oil at all four of these locations belies the repeated claims by Shell that it has cleaned up these sites. Misinformation about having remediated sites that remain contaminated has become a hallmark of the company’s operations in the Delta. But why? What has Shell to gain by pretending to be responding effectively to oil spills when all the evidence suggests otherwise?
Part of the answer lies in the success of the Bodo community in securing a £55m settlement from Shell in January 2015 after taking legal action in the UK for damage to their livelihoods and health. There are other communities waiting in the wings to obtain justice for the harm caused to them by oil spills. The company is worried about opening the floodgates to future claims so it must be seen to be taking action.
The problem facing Shell is that more than 50 years of accumulated contamination of the Niger Delta has created a culture of fatalism and cynicism within the company. This is reflected in multiple failings which instead of being addressed are being continuously obscured by denials, obfuscation and misinformation.
The company’s process for identifying the volume, cause and impact of oil spills has been found to be grossly inadequate as revealed in the Bodo case court documents. In addition, Shell’s techniques for cleaning up oil spills are flawed. They neither reflect the recommendations of the United Nations Environment Programme nor the Delta’s geological conditions. This is compounded by inadequate supervision of sub-contractors undertaking clean-up operations, and by collusion in a failed certification process with Nigeria’s oil spill detection and response agency.
The outcome of these failings is a continuation of the company’s history of neglect with devastating consequences for the communities affected who are exposed to long-term pollution, which damages their livelihoods, contaminates their crops and drinking water and puts their health at risk.
Amnesty International urges the Nigerian government and Shell to take decisive and effective action to overhaul oil spill clean-up processes and ensure that decades of damage to the environment of the Niger Delta is properly addressed. Perhaps the most appropriate starting point for Shell would be to provide detailed information about what remediation measures they are carrying out in specific cases and to end misinformation about having remediated sites that remain contaminated.
The 20th anniversary of Ken Saro Wiwa’s grossly unfair and politically- motivated execution provides another reminder that, after decades of environmental damage, conflict and political upheaval in the Delta, it’s time for Shell to get serious about addressing its oil spills.