In a Land of Oil and Agony
by Alfredo Quarto
Earth Island Institute, Summer 2000
NIGERIA - I have just returned from the front lines of a battlefield
called the Niger Delta, where an intense war has been obscurely
raging for more than 40 years.
The Niger Delta contains the third largest contiguous mangrove
forest in the world. Once rich in biodiversity and teeming with
marine life, the area is now being rapidly degraded by petroleum
During the last 40 years, more than $300 billion worth of
crude oil has been extracted from the Niger Delta, earning huge
profits for a few, while robbing communities of life and livelihood.
The region suffers from high unemployment, failing crops, declining
wild fisheries, poisoned waters, dying forests and vanishing wildlife.
Even the rain is acidic and poisoned.
As one resident put it, "There are no fish near shore
now, the mangroves are dying, our food crops will not grow, our
well waters are contaminated, and even our rainwater is no longer
safe to drink!"
Hundreds of gas flares burning steadily for 30 to 40 years
have polluted the air with carbon dioxide and methane. One can
feel their awful heat from hundreds of yards away. These foul-smelling
fires light night skies over the villages, casting somber shadows
and eerie orange light. An estimated 75 percent of Nigeria's gas
is simply flared into the atmosphere - a waste of energy said
to equal the daily power use of the entire African continent.
Shell Oil Public Relations Officer Bobo Brown informed our
delegation that local residents actually benefited from these
flares because they could dry their foodstuffs near them - for
More than 40 years of ruthless military rule and reckless
industrial development have not quelled local resistance.
The l999 election of retired General Olusegun Obasanjo raised
hopes that democracy had been restored to Nigeria. Military presence
has declined in some regions of the Delta but many oppressive
laws decreed by previous military dictators are still on the books.
Meanwhile, US and European multinationals remain locked in
a deadly embrace with military officials and corrupt politicians
from the former regime. The political corruption encouraged by
big money interests ensures that social and environmental abuses
still abound. Tortures, rapes and murders have become commonplace.
The feared "Kill and Go" units of Nigeria's Mobile Police
- responsible for numerous extra-judicial executions during Abacha's
bloody reign - still operate with impunity.
Some regions of the Delta are still under military rule. Police
roadblocks regularly stop and stnp-search residents.
Several members of the Environmental Rights Action [13, Agadama
Avenue, D-Line, PO Box 13708, Port Harcourt, Nigeria, 011234-84
235-365, email@example.com traveled from Port Harcourt
to investigate reports of violence, and were themselves stopped
by the military police and threatened with automatic weapons pointed
at their bellies. They were forced to turn back, but fortunately
were not harmed.
The Case Against Shell Oil
Each community has similar complaints against the oil industry.
Shell, Chevron, Agip, Texaco, and Mobil are the companies most
often denounced. But Shell, which controls more than 50 percent
of the Delta's oil operations, was the firm most commonly accused
of human rights violations and environment disregard. Shell Oil
has been barred from Ogoniland since 1993, when the popular Movement
for Survival of the Ogoni People (MSOP) stopped several Shell
During the reign of President Sani Abacha environmentalist
and writer Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight of his co-workers were hanged,
following MSOP demonstrations against the multinationals. (Shell
Oil originally claimed that it was powerless to interfere with
Nigeria's execution of Saro-Wiwa and the others. Saro-Wiwa's brother
later revealed that Shell had offered to stop the executions if
Ken would halt the anti-Shell demonstrations.)
On average, three major oil spills are recorded in the Niger
Delta each month. Forty-year-old pipes, rusty and in disrepair,
criss-cross the land in cumbersome clusters. Oil companies often
are slow to repair leaks. One leak from a buried Shell pipeline
went unrepaired for months, reportedly spilling more than 800,000
barrels of crude.
In June 1999, Michael Fleshman, Human Rights Coordinator for
the Africa Fund, visited one Shell leak. "A thick brownish
film of crude oil stained the entire area, collecting in clumps
along the shoreline and covering the surface of the still water,"
he recalled. "Lacking any other alternative, the people of
the village have been forced to drink polluted water for over
a year." Community leaders told Fleshman that many people
had become ill and that some had died.
The Destruction of Akwa Ibom
The Akwa Ibom community in Iko once made its living by fishing
and farming. The community was economically stable and self-supporting.
After Shell Oil arrived in 1974, making a living from nature's
bounty became impossible. Repeated oil leaks killed parts of the
forest and gas flares poisoned the air and drinking water.
In 1987, community leaders asked Shell for compensation for
their lost resources and for a solution to their environmental
problems. Shell alerted the Mobile Police, who invaded the village
at night, burning down many houses and killing a schoolteacher.
Shell then built the villagers a fish-drying station and fish-processing
plant. But fishing was now nearly impossible and, to add insult
to injury, Shell provided no generator or electric power to run
the new plant.
In Ogoniland, we visited a hospital (supposedly supported
by Shell) that was nearly in ruins; its understaffed, beleaguered
workers unpaid for six months. Windows were broken, medicines
and equipment were lacking, and conditions were unsanitary There
was no clean water.
Though Nigeria is the world's thirteenth-largest oil producer
the country remains chronically short of fuel. Billions of dollars
disappear each year into private Swiss bank accounts while food
shortages abound, malnutrition ravages Niger Delta children, power
blackouts occur regularly, and road and buildings crumble for
lank of maintenance.
Nigeria needs to recover the nearly $55 billion in oil profits
stolen by military rulers over the past 15 years. The Nigerian
human rights community needs governmental protection, not persecution.
What You Can Do Join the campaign to create a non-aligned
international forum to monitor strict environmental and social
standards for multinational operations. Contact the Mangrove Action
Project [PO Box 1845, Port Angeles, WA 98362, (360) 452-5866]
MAP Director Alfredo Quarto visited Nigeria in September 1999
as part of an inspection team hosted by the ERA.