On January 30, a Dutch court ruled that the Anglo-Dutch transnational corporation Shell is responsible for polluting the Niger delta, affecting heavily the lives of people at Ikot Ada Udo in Akwa Ibom State. Shell must clean up the oil pollution, compensate those affected and prevent further leaks from occurring. This case is unique because for the first time a Dutch multinational had to respond in front of a Dutch court for the acts of one of its subsidiaries.
The communities of the Niger Delta depend primarily on the environment for their livelihoods, including farming and fishing. This decision is a victory and important because “other communities will now demand that Shell pay for the assault on their environment”, according to Nnimmo Bassey from Oilwatch and Friends of the Earth (FOE) Nigeria. However, two important elements about what the court decided are important to reflect on.
First, in its decision in favor of the people in Ikot Ada Udo, the court decided to hold Shell Nigeria responsible and not the Royal Dutch Shell in the Netherlands. The latter, the so called ´parent´ company, is 100% owner of Shell Nigeria and therefore it is difficult to believe that it does not interfere in the decisions taken by its subsidiary and, what is worse, would not be responsible for what its subsidiary does. FOE Netherlands declared that it was denied access to evidence proving that the Royal Dutch Shell determines the daily affairs of Shell Nigeria.
Secondly, the verdict means a bitter disappointment for the people in the villages of Oruma and Goi. They suffer from exactly the same environmental destruction as the people in Ikot Ada Udo, but the court did not hold Shell liable; it evaluated that Shell had done enough to maintain their pipelines and would not have been negligent; the spills would be the result of ´sabotage´ by people that were stealing oil. The Nigerian farmers and FOE-Netherlands announced they will appeal against this decision.
In the Dutch newspapers, Shell declared it was “happy” because the ´parent´ company was not held responsible and that it was sabotage and not bad maintenance in the case where Shell was absolved.
We can say that we are also happy, but with the victory of the people in Ikot Ada Udo. At the same time, we are profoundly sad and concerned. How can the Dutch court affirm, far away from Nigeria and far away from the reality of the destruction in the Niger Delta, that Shell is not responsible in the cases of the oil spills for which it has been absolved? According to the press release of FOEI: “The plaintiffs declared that they find it incomprehensible that the court has allowed itself to be convinced by a number of blurry photos and poor quality video images submitted by Shell”.
Menno Bentveld, a Dutch journalist that made a documentary on the oil spills in Nigeria, commented that the local people he met admit that sabotage takes place and that they cause oil spills but they also argue that the pipelines are Shell pipelines and Shell therefore should protect them well. If not, they say: ‘do not come here and take the oil away’. Menno furthermore questions the underlying idea and logic that “We can extract their oil and that is no problem and Shell and the Western World earn billions with that, but when it comes to protect the pipelines and prevent oil spills and the stealing of oil, then we do not need to do anything”.
This raises the following question: What would have been the reaction in the Netherlands if a similar decision would have been taken by a Nigerian court, regarding activities of a Nigerian company in the Netherlands, causing tremendous harm to Dutch people? Does the fact that sabotage occurs in the Niger Delta mean that these particular cases of oil spills resulted from sabotage?
But let us hope that many communities follow the steps of the courageous Nigerian farmers that took Shell to court in its home country, with the support of FOE Netherlands and FoE Nigeria. And let us also hope that the court will attend their appeal for justice and less impunity in the corporate world!
Source: press release Friends of the Earth International (http://www.foei.org/en/media/archive/2012/dutch-court-ruling-against-shell-a-partial-victory) and http://www.radio1.nl/items/71044-shell-veroordeeld-voor-milieuschade-in-nigeria