The Shell oil corporation has blood on its hands, and a worldwide boycott of Shell products is under way. Two recent reports on the Shell subsidiary in Nigeria have documented massive environmental destruction in the Niger River delta region, where Shell has spilled some 210 million litres of oil onto farmlands and into community water supplies. The destroyed land and water formerly provided sustenance for an indigenous people, the Ogoni.
When Ogoni activists organised to demand that Shell clean up spilled oil, and share oil profits more equitably with the Ogoni people, the Nigerian military dictatorship — with financial assistance, logistical support and guns provided by Shell — conducted a campaign of terror in which at least 1800 Ogoni people were murdered, some of them tortured to death.
On November 10, 1995, the Nigerian dictatorship executed nine Ogoni environmental activists, including Ken Saro-Wiwa. Saro-Wiwa had received the Goldman Environmental Prize for Africa on April 17, 1995, in recognition of his environmental work on behalf of the Ogoni people. Saro-Wiwa had also received the Right Livelihood Award on December 9, 1994. Both awards are said to carry prestige equivalent to the Nobel Peace Prize.
Within weeks of the executions, Shell contracted with the Nigerian dictatorship to build a large liquefied natural gas plant, thus sending a signal that it was business as usual and that Shell was continuing to support the military dictatorship.
According to the World Council of Churches, key witnesses for the prosecution at Saro-Wiwa's trial have signed sworn affidavits saying they were bribed by Shell to testify against Saro-Wiwa.
Since late 1995, the dictatorship has been holding 19 more Ogoni environmental activists, charged with the same crime for which the nine were executed. The WCC reported in late 1996, "... as a result of the inhuman treatment, torture, denial of medical care, starvation and poor sanitary conditions, most of the detainees are in very poor health".
The Ogoni people — 500,000 of them — inhabit a 1046 sq km area called the Rivers State. They represent 0.05% of the Nigerian population. Saro-Wiwa compared the Ogoni to other indigenous people around the world: the Aborigines of Australia, the Maori of New Zealand and the native people of North and South America.
"Their common history is of the usurpation of their land and resources, the destruction of their culture, and the eventual decimation of the people", he wrote.
Since 1958, $30 billion worth of oil has been taken from beneath their land, yet essentially zero benefits have accrued to the Ogoni themselves. When the WCC sent observers to Ogoniland in 1995, they found no piped water, no good roads, no electricity, no telephones and no proper health care facilities.
Shell is the 10th largest corporation in the world, and number one in profitability. It has 96 oil production wells in Ogoniland, five flow stations (large pumping stations) and numerous gas flares which have operated continuously for 35 years.
In addition, Shell maintains many high-pressure oil pipelines criss-crossing Ogoniland, carrying oil from other parts of Nigeria to the shipping terminal at Bonny.
In response to growing pressure for reform in Ogoniland in 1993, Shell ceased oil production there, but retained its network of pipelines. (The WCC finds evidence that Shell has not in fact ceased oil production in Ogoniland, but Shell insists its production wells are idle.)
Between 1976 and 1980, Shell operations caused 784 separate oil spills in Nigeria. From 1982 to 1992, 27 additional spills were recorded. Since Shell "ceased oil production" in Ogoniland in 1993, Shell admits another 24 oil spills have occurred there.
Shell operates in 100 countries, but 40% of all its oil spills have occurred in Nigeria. Shell says the spills result from "sabotage", but the WCC reports, "There has not been one single piece of evidence produced by Shell to back up its claims that oil spills in Ogoniland were caused by sabotage".
Shell controls at least 60% of oil reserves in Nigeria, and oil accounts for 80% of Nigeria's total revenues and 90% of its foreign exchange earnings. As a result, Shell is an extremely powerful political force in Nigeria.
The WCC has described a revolving door — Shell executives becoming Nigerian political officials and Nigerian political officials becoming Shell employees. However, Shell maintains that it has no political influence and cannot affect the fate of political prisoners in Nigeria.
Shell admits to 3000 polluted sites affected by oil operations on Ogoni soil. According to the WCC, Shell also admits to flaring 31 million cubic metres of natural gas each day for 35 years, causing acid rain in the Niger delta during about 10% of the days in each year. Furthermore, the flares produce a rain of fine particles, a cancer-causing soot that permeates everything.
Shell's environmental abuses came as a shock to observers sent by the WCC."Having followed all the events in Ogoniland, reading all the reports and seeing the videos such as Drilling Fields and Delta Force 3, did not prepare us for the devastation we saw at the numerous spill sites we visited", they wrote.
Observers from the WCC describe a site where Shell had spilled oil in 1969: "Even though this spill occurred 26 years ago, its devastating impact is still very apparent. The soil and oil are caked together into a thick black crust which covers the area. Liquid crude oil is still present in deep crevices (2 to 3 feet deep), formed in spots where trees once stood ... The air remains polluted by the vapour from the spilled crude oil; this becomes particularly noticeable when the south-west wind blows. The oil spill seems to have polluted the creek nearby. The oil flowed into the body of water and we were told that it can still be seen floating on the surface of the creek water that people still drink. We were unable to move near the creek as the earth was dangerously soggy with a combination of soil, oil, and water."
Since the death of Ken Saro-Wiwa, his brother, Dr Owens Wiwa, has been touring the world describing the Ogoni people's struggle against the combined forces of Shell and the military dictators. Dr Wiwa, an articulate, soft-spoken physician, was himself held prisoner (without charges) by Nigerian authorities on more than one occasion. He is now a political exile living in Toronto, Canada, though most of his time is spent on the road, urging people to boycott Shell products.
In late March, US environmental justice activists met in Atlanta, Georgia, to discuss struggles across the US and abroad. Dr Wiwa gave the keynote address.
"Our people are dying at the hands of our government and Shell Oil", Dr Wiwa told the assembled activists.
Dr Robert D. Bullard, a well-known environmental justice leader and author of Confronting Environmental Racism: Voices From the Grassroots, told the Atlanta meeting, "The quest for healthy and sustainable communities and environmental justice does not stop at US borders ... we have a moral and ethical obligation to direct our collective action and purchasing power to respond to Dr Wiwa and the Ogoni's struggle in Nigeria, just as we responded to the oppression of apartheid in South Africa."
[From Rachel's Environment & Health Weekly. Like Green Left Weekly, Rachel's is a non-profit publication which distributes information without charge on the internet and depends on the generosity of readers to survive. If you are able to help keep this valuable resource in existence, send your contribution to Environmental Research Foundation, PO Box 5036, Annapolis, Maryland 21403-7036, USA. In the United States, donations to ERF are tax deductible.]
[Nigerian Komene Famaa from the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People is on a speaking tour of Australia. See pages 29-31 for details.]