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 production.

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 free.

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, 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 operations.

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.

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