Nigerian farmers sue Shell in Netherlands


ANGLO-DUTCH OIL giant Shell has rejected a claim by four Nigerian farmers that their villages in the Niger delta in west Africa are so polluted by oil from the company’s pipelines and production facilities that they can no longer support their families, drink the water or eat the local fish.

The farmers, supported by the environmental campaigners Friends of the Earth, took their action yesterday in a court in The Hague, where Royal Dutch Shell Plc, the largest company on the FTSE 100 index, with a market capitalisation of £139 billion (€172.5 billion), has its global headquarters.

It’s the first time a Dutch company has been sued in the Netherlands for something allegedly done in another country. If successful, it could pave the way for thousands of additional claims against Shell – and set an international precedent for legal actions against multinational corporations.

An action seeking compensation and an order against the company to make good the alleged environmental damage is also being taken against Shell’s Nigerian subsidiary, Shell Petroleum Development Company, which operates more than 31,000 square kilometres and produces 39 per cent of Nigeria’s oil.

Shell maintains that the oil pollution which affected the three villages – Goi, which was hit by a spill in 2004, Oruma, which was polluted in 2005, and Ikot Ada Udo, which had various spills in 2007 – was caused by sabotage, theft of oil from their pipelines and illegal refining, which between them, it says, account for 75 per cent of the leaks in the region.

As the case got under way, counsel for the Nigerian farmers, Channa Samkalden, told the judges Shell had repeatedly “violated its duty of care” by failing to maintain its pipelines, clean up fresh leaks or take appropriate action to prevent pollution.

She said a UN report last year had shown that 50 years of oil production in the Niger delta by Shell and other companies had caused much greater damage there, and in Ogoniland in particular, than had previously been believed.

To restore the environment, it said, could take up to 30 years, cost $1 billion (€774 million) and would be the largest clean-up operation in history.

However, the plaintiffs – who appeared in court – had a right to a clean environment, and on that basis the Shell had failed to live up to its legal obligations, and the plaintiffs’ human rights had been violated, Ms Samkalden said.

Counsel for Shell Jan de Bie Leuveling Tjeenk rejected the claim of insufficient maintenance and argued that because the vast majority of spills were caused by theft and sabotage, the company should not be held liable.

“It is this criminality which all organisations with an interest in Nigeria’s future should focus their efforts on highlighting and combating,” the company said in a statement.

Mr Bie Leuveling Tjeenk said access to pollution caused by theft and sabotage had been a persistent problem.

“The company’s policy is that all leaks are cleaned up as soon as the local population gives us access, but there are times when they do not give us that access,” he said.

In the case of the villages at the centre of the legal action, he said, Shell had cleaned up the pollution at all three locations, and this had been certified by the appropriate Nigerian authorities.

The court is not expected to deliver its ruling until early in 2013.

With about 31 million inhabitants, the Niger delta is one of the 10 most important wetland and coastal marine ecosystems in the world and is a main source of food for its poor rural population.

Residents say government pledges to clean up the environment have resulted in little action.