The Crude Oil Curse

Bodo, affected land
Bodo, affected land

Oil exploration and exploitation have brought more curses than blessings to the people of the Niger Delta

By Pita Ochai  |  Dec. 24, 2012 @ 01:00 GMT

ANDREW Ewadafe, a fisherman in Bodo, Rivers State, is yet to recover from the devastating effects of the September 2008, oil spills in his area. The oil spill was attributed to Shell equipment failure. Ewadafe, 57, had lived all his life as a fisherman – a trade that has been passed on from one generation to the other in his family.

Before the oil spill, Ewadafe’s income from the sale of fish, though meager, was enough to meet much of the family needs. This has changed after the oil spill. The waters from which the fishes were sourced are now polluted. The air and water stinks, the few fishes and crabs caught in Bodo creek smell of pure “sweet bonny” light crude oil. The oil has found its way deep into the village wells, and also lies thick in the mudflats. Everywhere in Bodo, there are brown and yellow slicks all along the lengthy network of creeks, swamps, mangrove forests and rivers that surround it.

This has brought untold hardship on the family. Apart from the fact that it has become very difficult for the family of seven to feed, it has also become difficult to send his children to school. His two sons in the secondary school were sent home twice in the last academic term for his inability to raise their school fees.

Thomas Young, a farmer in Bodo, can no longer cultivate the ancestral land inherited from his father. His plantain and banana plantations were all destroyed by the toxic effect of the oil spill. He lost the N150, 000 invested in the purchasing of seedlings of the two crops that year. He did not just lose his investment in the seedlings, Young has not been able to cultivate the land due to the pollution.

To most communities in the Niger Delta, oil has brought them nothing but suffering and it seems to be getting worse. In 2011, the Royal Dutch Shell in Nigeria, the country’s largest oil company, recorded twice as much oil spill than in the previous year. In that year, 6,000 tons of oil was dumped into the delta due to operational failures, up from 2,900 tons in 2010. This figure does not include spills from other major oil companies, like Chevron, Exxon-Mobile and Total, or from oil theft and illegal refineries.

Villagers fetching crude oil-laden water
Villagers fetching crude oil-laden water

The Niger Delta is regarded as one of the largest wetlands in the world with diverse and rich mangroves and fish-rich waterways. But oil drilling has turned it into one of the most oil-polluted places on earth, with more than 6,800 recorded oil spills since 1958 when oil exploration started in the country. The total oil spill in the delta is between 9 million and 13 million barrels of oil spilled since 1958.

In communities affected by oil spill, plants and animals are destroyed. Along the banks of the creeks, muddy fishing villages are slick with oil that washes ashore. Some of the communities with no better choice drink and bathe in the oily waters. A study conducted in 2011 by the United Nations Environment Program showed that oil spill in the Niger Delta contains 900 times more carcinogens than what is safe for human lives. The assessment, commissioned by the Nigerian government and funded by Shell, concluded that the restoration of the area could take up to 30 years, and cost $1 billion. By implication, this would become the largest cleanup operation in history.

According to Benjamin Olubunmi Akindele, head, National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency, there is no week without a report of oil spill in the Niger Delta. According to him, his agency does not have the means or mandate to clean up the oil mess as it is the responsibility of company that caused the spill to do that. Akindele said that the oil companies that pollute the environment with the spill also blame the government for its inability to provide the security that would enable them do the cleanup. “So many companies complain that the areas where the spill occurred are not safe for their experts to do the cleaning,” he said.

The oil companies have also attempted to exonerate themselves from some of the spills. They shift the blame to criminal activities within the Niger Delta. According to Jonathan French, Shell’s spokesperson, 75 percent of all oil spills in the delta between 2006 and 2010 were caused by illegal refining and sabotage. “The real tragedy of the Niger Delta is the widespread and continual criminal activity, including sabotage, theft and illegal refining that cause the vast majority of oil spills. It is this criminality which all organisations with an interest in Nigeria’s future should focus their efforts on highlighting and addressing,” he said.

To ensure that the oil companies do the right thing within their operational areas, four Nigerian farmers, and the Friends of the Earth, an environmental group, sued Shell in the Netherlands to demand a proper cleanup and compensation for pollution in the Niger Delta. The farmers want the Anglo-Dutch multinational to clean up the oil pollution in their fields and fishponds and make sure their pipelines are maintained and kept secure to prevent leaks in the future. The civil case has been filed against the Nigerian subsidiary of Shell, the Shell Petroleum Development Company, SPDC, and its international headquarters in the Netherlands, the Royal Dutch Shell.

According to Friends of the Earth, the three villages affected by the spill are Goi, affected by a 2004 oil spill, Oruma, affected by a 2005 oil spill, and Ikot Ada Udo, in 2007. The argument of Shell is that it has cleaned up the oil spills to the satisfaction of the Nigerian authorities, and therefore it has no case to answer. But the Friends of the Earth said that the oil pollution has had a devastating and continuing impact on vegetation, water supplies and local fishing ponds. Consequently, it demands that compensation be paid. French insists that his company has even gone the extra mile to clean up three leaks at three locations, from 2004 to 2007, which were caused by sabotage. Under the Nigerian law, oil companies are not liable to pay compensation for oil pipeline damage caused by sabotage.

This is the first time a Dutch company has been brought before a court in the Netherlands over environmental damage caused abroad. It is also the first time that the headquarters of a multinational concern on the European continent has been summoned to appear in court for environmental or human rights violations in a developing country. The court will probably deliver a verdict late this year or early in 2013.

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