This is the first time that Shell has been ordered by a court to pay compensation for damage caused by its operations. The Nigerian justice system has never produced such a ruling.
The case is unique because it is the first time that a Dutch multinational corporation has been brought before the court in its home country for environmental damage caused abroad.
The case focused on just three of the thousands of oil leaks in Nigeria. The plaintiffs demanded that Shell clean up the oil pollution in the villages, compensate the farmers for the damages suffered and maintain the oil pipelines better in the future.
“This win for the farmers of Ikot Ada Udo has set a precedent as it will be an important step that multinationals can more easily be made answerable for the damage they do in developing countries. We anticipate other communities will now demand that Shell pay for the assault on their environment,” said Friends of the Earth Nigeria’s Executive Director Nnimmo Bassey, who played a pivotal role in bringing to light the havoc wreaked by Shell in the Niger Delta.
The ruling is a victory for Nigerian people and the environment, said Geert Ritsema of Friends of the Earth Netherlands, or Milieudefensie in Dutch.
“This verdict is great news for the people in Ikot Ada Udo who started this case together with Milieudefensie. But the verdict also offers hope to other victims of environmental pollution caused by multinationals,” he said.
“At the same time, the verdict is a bitter disappointment for the people in the villages of Oruma and Goi – where the court did not rule to hold Shell liable for the damage,” said Ritsema. “Fortunately, this can still change in an appeal.”
Friends of the Earth Netherlands and the Nigerian farmers will appeal the decision in the Goi and Oruma cases.
The plaintiffs will also appeal the principle point of the liability of the Royal Dutch Shell parent company.
The reason that the court did not decide to hold the parent company liable for damage done in Nigeria was that Friends of the Earth Netherlands was denied access to evidence proving that Royal Dutch Shell, based in the Netherlands, determines the daily affairs of its Nigerian subsidiary,
Royal Dutch Shell owns 100 percent of Shell Nigeria shares, while Shell Nigeria profits estimated at 1.8 billion euros annually, are deposited in the Netherlands.
Nevertheless, under existing laws, Royal Dutch Shell cannot be held liable for the damage done on the basis of these facts alone. The plaintiffs must prove that governance actually comes from the corporate headquarters in the Netherlands.
Because Shell has not been ordered by the court to allow access to internal company documents which would expose this governance, it has been very difficult to prove this.
Paul de Clerck of Friends of the Earth Europe, said, “Many European companies are involved in similar situations to that of Shell and are causing environmental damage outside Europe. We see a clear gap in European legislation. It allows European parent companies such as Royal Dutch Shell to pocket the profits from a foreign subsidiary, but these parents cannot be held liable for the damage they cause while making those profits.”
Friends of the Earth Europe is urging the European Commission to ensure that parent companies are automatically held liable for the actions of their foreign subsidiaries.
Next week, on February 6, the European Commission will discuss with stakeholders steps it can take to limit the adverse human rights and environmental impacts of business.
Friends of the Earth Netherlands finds it “incomprehensible” that the court ruled that Shell proved sabotage was involved in two of the three villages. The court has allowed itself be convinced by a number of blurry Shell photos and poor quality video images.
The environmental group remains convinced that poor maintenance is the cause of the spills. But even in oil spills where sabotage is involved, the group believes that Shell bears responsibility and is liable for the damage.
“An oil giant cannot leave 7,000 kilometres of pipeline and hundreds of installations unprotected and unguarded in a politically unstable and economically underdeveloped region,” said Ritsema.
Plaintiff Chief Eric Dooh lost his farm and fish ponds due to an oil spill from a Shell Nigeria pipeline.
“In September 2004, a leak occurred along the Trans-Niger pipeline, which is owned by Shell,” says Chief Dooh. “The spilled oil streamed from the leak into the creeks. A large fire quickly developed. It spread out over the oil slick in rapid tempo, and the whole creek was ablaze.”
“We gathered together a group of people as quickly as possible to take up contact with Shell,” recounts Chief Dooh. “Shell came here the following day with firemen, police officers and soldiers. For three days they tried to put out the fire, but when they were unable to do so, they simply let the fire burn itself out and all the mangrove trees were burned.”
“Because of the spill, I’ve lost everything,” he says. “The embankments around my fish ponds were destroyed by the fire, so oil streamed into my ponds and killed all my fish. The five canoes I owned burned, my cassava farm burned down and the trees I had planted have gone up in smoke. I have nothing left. All the money I saved, all my hard work, it was all for nothing.”
An oil disaster has been ongoing in Nigeria for decades. Tens of millions of barrels of oil have been spilled there since the 1950s.
Friends of the Earth Netherlands says that Nigeria’s oil spill disaster does not receive the attention it deserves, in contrast to other oil disasters such as the Exxon Valdez tanker in Prince William Sound Alaska or the Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico, where there was massive public outrage that resulted in an emergency plan.
The group said today, “The Nigerian disaster is a silent one, which has disastrous consequences for people, wildlife, nature and the environment, but little is being done about it.”
The Niger is the third-largest river in Africa and the oil-rich Niger Delta region, with its mangrove forests, is one of the world’s largest wetland areas.
But now a black layer of oil covers many of the Niger Delta’s creeks, ponds, mangroves and rivers. Many of the region’s animals are threatened, including chimpanzees, leopards and elephants.
Niger Delta residents experience the burdens of oil extraction, but reap no benefits. Most are dependent on agriculture, fishing and fish farming and gathering snails and other products from the forests. For them, oil pollution means a lack of drinking water, inedible fish, agricultural fields that must lie fallow for years and crops that never grow.
In August 2011, the UN Environment Programme issued the results of its 14-month investigation covering more than 200 locations, 122 kilometres of pipeline rights of way, more than 5,000 medical records and talks with 23,000 people at local community meetings.
UNEP found that control and maintenance of oilfield infrastructure “has been and remains inadequate. The Shell Petroleum Development Company’s own procedures have not been applied, creating public health and safety issues.”
UNEP concluded that environmental restoration of the section of the Niger Delta known as Ogoniland “could prove to be the world’s most wide-ranging and long term oil clean-up exercise ever undertaken if contaminated drinking water, land, creeks and important ecosystems such as mangroves are to be brought back to full, productive health.”