Spilling the Oil Corporations (Part I) – Niger Delta

2 Jul

In an Amnesty International report, ‘Nigeria: Petroleum, Pollution and Poverty in the Niger Delta’, the human rights organisation documented the previous and ongoing human rights violations perpetuated by the government and the oil corporations. This matter has recently resurfaced due to a landmark lawsuit in which an oil corporation, Shell, agreed to pay a $15.5 million dollar settlement to the relatives of the deceased plaintiffs as a humanitarian gesture though it continues to deny its complicit involvement in the execution of Nigerian environmental activist, Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight others.

Ken Saro-Wiwa was an environmental activist who founded the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), a local group which demanded the oil corporations and government to clean up their environment as well as adequately compensate the oil-producing regions. In 1993, local protests from the Ogoniland community stopped Shell from operating in the region. By early 1995, Ken Saro-Wiwa and 14 people were charged with murder, which was claimed to be politically motivated and linked to Shell.

Shell’s complicity with the the execution has since been documented by the American independent news and radio station, Democracy Now!. According to one of its report, the Nigerian government and Shell has a sinister and intimate relationship. It was hinted early in an interview with the then still alive Ken Saro-Wiwa who said, ‘

… Shell does not want to negotiate with the Ogoni people. Each time they’ve come under pressure from local people, their want has always been to run to the Nigerian government and to say to the Nigerian government, “Oil is 90 percent of your foreign exchange earning. If anything happens to oil, your economy will be destroyed. Therefore, you must go and deal with these people, these troublemakers.” And most times, the government will oblige them and visits local communities of poor, dispossessed people with a lot of violence.

And when these communities then protested and said, “Look. Look at the amount of violence that is being used against us, even though we are only protesting peacefully,” then the oil companies will come and say, “Well, there is no way we can determine how much violence a government decides to use against its own people.” So, basically, the local communities have no leverage with the oil companies at all…

… Well, recently, when the protests started, Shell, they had a meeting. And the operatives of Shell in Nigeria and of those at The Hague in the Netherlands, and in London, held a meeting, and they decided that they would have to keep an eye on me, watch wherever I go to, follow me constantly, to ensure that I do not embarrass Shell. So, as far as I’m concerned, I’m a marked man [emphasis mine]’.

Judith Brown Chomsky, the attorney acting for the relatives of the plaintiffs, in that same report, said she has gathered enough evidence for the case if it had gone to trial:

… Well, there’s the general evidence of the partnership between the military government and Shell. There are a lot of documents from Shell, statements by Shell officials, that show how intertwined Shell was with the military government.

Separate from that, there is specific evidence. One is Shell’s participation in the bribing of a witness—of two witnesses against Ken Saro-Wiwa and the others. And the other is a series of conversations between Dr. Owens Wiwa and three—and Brian Anderson, who had been the head of Shell in Nigeria, in which essentially Brian Anderson said, “We can free Ken Saro-Wiwa, we can free your brother, if you will guarantee to stop the campaign, the international campaign against Shell.”…

This lawsuit is however just the tip of the iceberg on the human and environmental rights violations still committed by oil companies operating in the region.

Back in 1999, Human Rights Watch released a report, ‘The Price of Oil, Corporate Responsibility and Human Rights Violations in Nigeria’s Oil Producing Communities’ documenting their study mission in the region and discovered:

… repeated incidents in which people were brutalized for attempting to raise grievances with the companies; in some cases security forces threatened, beat, and jailed members of community delegations even before they presented their cases. Such abuses often occurred on or adjacent to company property, or in the immediate aftermath of meetings between company officials and individual claimants or community representatives.  Many local people seemed to be the object of repression simply for putting forth an interpretation of a compensation agreement, or for seeking effective compensation for land ruined or livelihood lost (p. 1 – 2).

Even though the human rights organisation corresponded with the oil corporations questioning their alleged involvement on the attacks, all of them denied those accusations. They also ‘failed publicly to criticize security force abuses related to their positions’ (p.2).  The mission also found cases in which witnesses alleged that, ‘company staff directly threatened, or were present when security force officers threatened communities with retaliation if there were disruption to oil production’ (p.2).

In the latest AI report, two recent broken pipelines in late 2008 and early 2009 at Bodo Creek in Ogoniland which are the responsibilities of Shell have not been swiftly dealt with. The devastating impact of such leaks is the annihilation of the local fisheries and mangroves thereby destroying the ecology and livelihoods of the local people (p. 7-8).

On the  section to ‘corporate responsibility’ (p. 56 – 63) AI ‘believes that some oil companies have exploited the weak regulatory system in the Niger Delta, and their actions and failures cannot be attributed to ignorance or lack of understanding of how they should behave’ (p. 57). Or ‘In the case of corporate policies on social responsibility, ethics and protection of the environment and human rights, these are either inadequate or inadequately implemented’ (p.58). As for published reports on monitoring the environment, with the exception of SPDC or Shell, none of the other companies operating in Niger Delta has done this in a systematic manner (p. 61).

The collusion of oil corporations with the military government to exploit the environment and the plight of the locals has also been documented in another recent cross- NGO report, ‘The True Cost of Chevron- An Alternative Annual Report’ :

Along with economic and environmental harms, Chevron and other energy companies operating in the Delta have been complicit with and benefited from human rights violations committed by security forces against local communities protesting effects of extractive activities. Chevron continues to employ and pay the notoriously brutal Nigerian military to provide it with security services. The military are known to violently repress peaceful protest by villagers from the Delta communities (p.37).

In 1998, Chevron did not deny in a 2008 US court hearing that it had paid and transported Nigerian security forces to suppress a protest against the offshore Parabe Oil Platform. Though the company was acquitted by the jury, the demonstration resulted in injuries, torture and the deaths of two men (p.37/ Another Democracy Now! report on this case, ‘Drilling and Killing: Landmark Trial Against Chevron Begins over its role in the niger delta). In another recent incident last year, the company also sent for the Joint Task Force (the renamed Nigerian security force) to violently suppress another protest in Ugborordo (p.37).

The disastrous impact wrecked upon the environment and the local communities by the oil corporations would have been considered criminal under international law. It would have contravened the most basic human rights of the local people such as access to food and water:

It is important that the impact of the oil industry on the environment in the Niger Delta is understood as occurring in a context where the livelihoods, health and access to food and clean water of hundreds of thousands of people are closely linked to the land and environmental quality… the environmental damage that has been done, and continues to be done, as a consequence of oil production in the Niger Delta, has led to serious violations of human rights.

People living in the Niger Delta have to drink, cook with, and wash in polluted water; they eat fish contaminated with oil and other toxins – if they are lucky enough to still be able to find fish; the land they use for farming is being destroyed because of the lack of respect for the ecosystem necessary for their survival; after oil spills the air they breathe reeks of oil and gas and other pollutants; they complain of breathing problems, skin lesions and other health problems, but their concern are not taken seriously and they have almost no information on the impacts of pollution (AI report, p. 21).

The much touted benefits of oil exploitation, often claimed by oil corporations, as improving the well-being of the local people is a sham. The residents have not benefited from such ventures and are trapped in extreme poverty:

Oil revenues have brought little benefit to the communities of the Niger Delta, many of which lack access to clean drinking water and electricity. Limited access to education and healthcare continues to be a problem for Delta residents. After more than 50 years of oil production, almost $300 billion in oil revenues has flowed directly into the federal coffers. However, per capita income in 2007 stood at $294 per year, and for the majority of Nigerians, living standards are no better now than at independence in 1960. Negative economic effects of resource production are compounded by harmful environmental consequences of oil and gas production in the Niger Delta (Alternative report of Chevron, p. 36).

Oil explorations in the region have devastated its precious and irreversible diverse biodiversity as well as caused massive environmental degradation:

The Niger Delta hosts one of the largest concentrations of biodiversity in the world, including one of the largest mangrove forest ecosystems in Africa. This delicate habitat and the mainly subsistence farming and fishing that comprise the majority of the economy of the Delta have been devastated by Chevron and other oil companies’ operations in the region. Effects include land degradation, air pollution, biodiversity depletion, flooding and coastal erosion, noise and light pollution, health problems, and poor agricultural productivity (Alternative report of Chevron, p. 36).

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