nigeria: legal resistance to corporate abuse
The two major causes of environmental destruction in the region are oil spills and gas flaring. Oil spills cause debilitating environmental damage, polluting agricultural land and disrupting people’s livelihoods and community life.
Gas is often found mixed with crude oil and must be separated. Burning the gas, known as gas flaring, is the cheapest way to do this, yet also the most environmentally destructive. It acidifies lakes and streams and damages crops and vegetation. It also increases the risk of respiratory illnesses, asthma and cancer, and can cause painful breathing, itching, blindness, impotency, miscarriages and premature deaths. It also has global impacts: gas flaring is a major cause of climate change.
It’s also a waste of a valuable commodity. While nearly three-quarters of Nigerians live in extreme poverty, Nigeria loses US$2.5 billion every year through flared gas. It’s unsurprising, therefore, that gas flaring is a major factor in the tension and conflicts raging in the Niger Delta region.
Yet companies such as Shell have refused to put a stop to gas flaring in the Niger Delta, even though it has been illegal in Nigeria since 1984. Most people in the region are poor fishermen and women and farmers, unable to stand up to multi billion dollar corporations. The Nigerian government has also failed to enforce its ban on gas flaring.
FoE Nigeria/Environmental Rights Action is using legal channels to force oil companies in Nigeria to clean up their operations, and raising awareness among Nigerian citizens of the need to end gas flaring.
Litigation to stop gas flaring is being pursued through the Nigerian courts, and FoE Nigeria has been closely involved in developing a legal case on gas flaring with the lead counsel.
At the same time, Shell, the leading corporation in the Nigerian oil and gas business, is being called to account in the Dutch courts for damage caused by its oil spills in Nigeria. FoE Nigeria and FoE Netherlands/Milieudefensie are supporting four Nigerian fishermen and farmers who filed an unprecedented lawsuit against Shell’s headquarters in the Netherlands, in November. FoE Nigeria remains in constant contact with legal representatives in the Netherlands.
FoE Nigeria also distributed factsheets and newsletters, placed ads in local newspapers and held ‘town hall’ meetings in the affected communities, to keep local people up to date with the legal work and to strengthen their faith in both cases. FoE Nigeria staff also made field trips in the Niger Delta to identify communities affected by new spills, and to record damaging impacts which will be presented as further evidence.
FoE Nigeria also coordinated a petition, which was presented to the government in December.
These high profile legal campaigns have pushed the issue of gas flaring high up the agenda for Nigerian policy-makers and the public, both in Nigeria and internationally. Chima Williams of FoE Nigeria said, ‘The attention and awareness so far created has been so huge that almost everybody is talking about the issue of gas flaring in Nigeria.’
Communities across the Niger Delta – including those that are not directly affected – have gained a huge amount of confidence in their ability to challenge the oil companies, and are more resolved in their demand to end gas flaring in the region. More communities are actively asking to be involved in the case, and some policy makers have now declared their support for an end to gas flaring. There have also been at least two new court cases demanding a stop to gas flaring in the Niger Delta, and a community youth organization has made a political demand for the Agip oil company to cease gas flaring in their community.
The oil spill case, even though it still continues, has succeeded in putting Shell under a global spotlight, and forced the corporation to reveal at least some information about its operations in Nigeria. FoE Nigeria’s working relationship with local communities in the Niger Delta, and particularly with the communities involved in the case, has also been greatly strengthened as a result of the campaign.
The government is introducing new measures, including stiffer penalties for companies that continue to flare gas, and a proposed ‘Gas Oil Ratio’ formula, whereby wells with more gas than oil will be shut down.
“We won the confidence of the people and thus increased their participation, by painstakingly and truthfully explaining every issue of concern to them to the best of our knowledge and understanding…The problem now is limiting the number of plaintiffs in the oil spill case in the Netherlands, as many communities with grievous environmental destructions want to join the case.” said Chima Williams.
Both cases enjoyed excellent media support globally.
The legal cases continue and there is the prospect of more legal and policy work – and collaborating with the many communities wanting to be involved in lawsuits on both gas flaring and oil spills. A bill to prohibit and punish gas flaring has also been put before the Senate.
Campaigning must continue – in Nigeria and globally – until gas flaring ends, and the oil and gas companies are brought to account for the devastation they have caused in the Niger Delta.
with thanks to our funders: the isvara foundation and the sigrid rausing trust