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May 14, 2012 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

The Dying Delta

Big Oil’s crimes against Nigeria.

Chances are you’ve heard about the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill. Certainly you will be familiar with the Rena oil spill which occurred last year. However, you may not be aware of an environmental disaster which has taken place – and is taking place today – in the oil rich Niger Delta region of Nigeria. In fact, the amount of oil spilt in the Delta each year is more than that lost in the Gulf of Mexico spill.

The environmental destruction resulting from over 50 years of commercial oil extraction in this region has brought poverty, conflict and human rights violations to the local people. Oil giant Shell has been accused of allowing this disaster to happen, denying involvement and not responding effectively.

“What does this have to do with me?” you may be wondering. Here is an issue of the destruction of land and exploitation of powerless individuals at the hands of a greedy multinational corporation. Is this of any relevance to us as comparatively well-off New Zealanders living many miles distant? Should we care about using our power of free speech to campaign on behalf of the repressed? Perhaps you would say no: it isn’t relevant and I don’t care. But I appeal to all you students who feel strongly about environmental and social justice issues, to those who watched in horror the footage of oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico, those dismayed to see a similar situation play out on our own shores – it is to you that I address this article. Please, read of the plight of the Delta and its people, and take action for positive change.

The Niger Delta is a vast and densely populated region of mangrove swamps, forests and farmland that extends 70,000kms – about half the area of the South Island – and is home to some 31 million people. A region of great natural significance, the Delta comprises the world’s third largest mangrove forest and one of its most important wetland and coastal marine ecosystems. The Niger Delta is also rich in oil. It is no coincidence that those countries with the greatest oil reserves are also among those experiencing the gravest human rights violations. Multinational oil corporations such as Shell, Eni, Chevron, Total and Exxon Mobil have been extracting the dark nectar of the Delta since 1958, and now, 54 years on, the environment has been ruined and the local people are suffering.

Driven solely by financial incentive and having no ethical or environmental regard, oil corporations exploit the land and its resources. Gas flaring pollutes the air and devastates farmland; oil spills damage agricultural land and waterways. For the local people reliant on the land and waterways for subsistence farming and fishing, the exploitation of the Delta has had dire consequences. Fish stocks have dwindled, leaving thousands unable to support themselves and their families. Soil has become infertile, so farming is impossible. The people suffer high rates of disease, both respiratory and water-borne. They have lost their jobs and their livelihoods and now face poverty, sickness, and hunger.

As the first and continuing today as the biggest oil company to operate in the region, owning around 90 fields, multinational oil giant Royal Dutch Shell bears significant responsibility for the devastation of the Delta. In particular, Shell has been charged with denying responsibility for two major oil spills in 2008 and with failing to organise clean-up operations. Caused by faults in a pipeline, these spills resulted in thousands of barrels of oil every day polluting the land and creek surrounding the town of Bodo in the Delta’s Ogoniland. The spills continued unchecked for weeks and no proper clean-up has ever taken place. After conducting significant scientific assessment, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) concluded that it will take over 25 years to rehabilitate the Ogoniland. In the meantime, the rights of the local people to good health, a healthy environment, a means to earn money and an adequate standard of living are being violated.

Desperate to maintain its image as a “responsible” company acting as a “positive force” in the Niger Delta, Shell denies responsibility for the destruction caused by the 2008 spills. It claimed only 1,640 barrels of oil were spilt, when independent assessment concluded the total was closer to 200,000 barrels. It claimed spills started on the 5th October 2008, whereas the Bodo community and Nigerian regulators confirmed a start date over a month earlier. Shell has also provided no adequate compensation to the Bodo community. Initially, it offered a meagre 50 bags of rice, beans, sugar and tomatoes – Bodo is a town of 69,000.

Shell’s historical record in the Niger Delta is similarly troubling. In the early 1990s, thousands of Ogoni people, led by activist Ken Saro-Wiwa and his organisation Movement of the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), took part in peaceful protests against Shell. In response, Shell allegedly co-operated with the Nigerian army which conducted tortures and killings of dissidents. Shell provided the army with patrol boats and ammunition, and assisted in planning raids and terror campaigns against the Ogoni people. Most significantly, Shell was implicated in the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other prominent activists. Shell faced charges in New York, in 2009, for human rights violations but just before the start of the trial agreed to pay $15.5 million (US) in settlement of legal action.

Today, the situation in the Niger Delta has not improved. Shell concedes that oil spills in Nigeria are a “tragedy.” However, the Bodo community still awaits proper compensation and clean-up. Following recommendations from the United Nations, human rights organisation Amnesty International is insisting that Shell contribute an initial $1 billion to the clean-up of Ogoniland. Amnesty is calling on Shell to “Own Up, Pay Up and Clean Up.” Shell should be aware of its responsibility to uphold human rights, and it should establish an international fund to clean-up the Ogoniland. Amnesty is appealing to the international community to put pressure on Shell to accept these demands. As members of the public, we can sign an online petition urging Shell’s Chief Executive Officer, Peter Voser, to have his company Own Up, Pay Up and Clean Up the Delta. The petition is accessible on Amnesty’s New Zealand’s website,  By signing, you are holding Shell accountable for its actions, ensuring that the human rights abuses it commits are not going unnoticed. Help support the environment and people of the Delta! ▲


Amnesty International is a worldwide movement of more than 3 million people in 150 countries who campaign to protect human rights. Vic’s Amnesty on Campus group meets every Tuesday evening at 5pm in Room 217, Student Union Building. Feel free to join us if you’re keen to learn about and take action on human rights issues.  Email us on for more info.


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