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[Published: Wednesday September 22 2010]

 Pollution and poverty in Nigeria’s oil rich Niger Delta

 For the majority of the people in the oil-producing areas in the Niger Delta of Nigeria, the oil industry has brought impoverishment, conflict, human rights abuses and despair.

Pollution and environmental damage caused by the oil industry have resulted in violations of the rights to health and a healthy environment, the right to an adequate standard of living (including the right to food and water) and the right to gain a living through work for hundreds of thousands of people.

Amnesty International, the human rights organisation, in a new report, details how the Nigerian government is failing to hold the oil companies accountable for the pollution they have caused.

“Oil companies have been exploiting Nigeria’s weak regulatory system for too long,” said Audrey Gaughran of Amnesty International. “They do not adequately prevent environmental damage and they frequently fail to properly address the devastating impact that their bad practice has on people’s lives.”


“More than 60 per cent of people in the region depend on the natural environment for their livelihood,” said Gaughran “Yet, pollution by the oil industry is destroying the vital resource on which they depend.”

Home to some 31 million people, the Niger Delta is one of the world’s most important wetland and coastal marine ecosystems with massive oil deposits extracted for decades by the Nigerian government and multinational oil companies.

 Shell in particular has been operating in the region for more than 40 years, and a for greater part of that period the oil giant denied that its operations in Nigeria caused any damage. More recently, they have responded to revelations of environmental damage by promising to do better. Although Shell had promised to replace their ageing pipelines, an investigation by Environmental Rights Action revealed that they had yet to make good on that promise.

Shell flares 88% of the gas from Nigerian oil fields compared with .06% in the US. Gas flaring contributes to local air pollution, emitting nitrous oxide, sulfur dioxide, volatile organic hydrocarbons and particulate matter. It is also a significant source of global warming.


The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta ("MEND"), one of the largest militant groups in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria, has been linked to attacks on petroleum operations in Nigeria as part of the conflict in the Niger Delta, engaging in actions including sabotage, theft, property destruction, guerrilla warfare, and kidnapping. MEND's stated goals are to localize control of Nigeria's oil and to secure reparations from the federal government for pollution caused by the oil industry

A report by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) describes the region as suffering from “administrative neglect, crumbling social infrastructure and services, high unemployment, social deprivation, abject poverty, filth and squalor, and endemic conflict.” This poverty, and its contrast with the wealth generated by oil, has become one of the world’s starkest and most disturbing examples of the “resource curse”.

Estimates suggest that oil has generated some US$600 billion since the 1960s. Despite this, many people in the oil-producing areas have to drink, cook with and wash in polluted water, and eat fish contaminated with oil and other toxins.

Oil spills and waste dumping have also seriously damaged agricultural land. Long-term effects include damage to soil fertility and agricultural productivity, which in some cases can last for decades. In numerous cases, these long-term effects have undermined a family’s only source of livelihood.

The destruction of livelihoods and the lack of accountability and redress have led people to steal oil and vandalize oil infrastructure in an attempt to gain compensation or clean-up contracts.

Communities were outraged after a three-year investigation by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) said only 10% of oil pollution in Ogoniland had been caused by equipment failures and company negligence, but that the rest came from local people illegally stealing oil and sabotaging company pipelines.


The disclosure, by Mike Cowing, the head of a UN team studying environmental damage in the region said that the 300 known oil spills in the Ogoniland region of the delta caused massive damage, but added that 90% of the spills had been caused by "bunkering" gangs trying to steal oil.


Cowing’s comments have caused deep offence among the families of Ken Saro-Wiwa and the eight other Ogoni leaders who were hanged by the Nigerian government in 1995 after a peaceful uprising against Shell's pollution.

 With 606 oil fields, the Niger delta supplies 8.2% of the crude oil imported by the US. Life expectancy in its rural communities, half of which have no access to clean water, has fallen to little more than 40 over the past two generations.

Communities accept that bunkering has become rife in some areas of Ogoniland, but say this is a recent development and most of the historical pollution has been caused by Shell operations.

 Last year, Amnesty calculated that the equivalent of at least 9m barrels of oil has been spilled in the delta over the past half a century, nearly twice as much as the 5m barrels unleashed in the Gulf of Mexico by the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

 Nigerians and environmental groups said the study – paid for by Shell and commissioned by the Nigerian government, who both have massive oil interests in the region – was unbalanced.

 Ogoni activist Ben Ikari said: "Nobody from Ogoniland would be surprised, because the federal government of Nigeria and Shell are the same cabal that killed Ken Saro-Wiwa and others."

Others suggest that the report’s focus on sabotage and bunkering will be used to justify military repression in the Niger delta.

Franklin Adesegha

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