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Environmental Justice from the Niger Delta to the World Conference Against Racism

by Sam OlukoyaSpecial to CorpWatch
August 30th, 2001

200 villagers died in this Nigerian pipeline explosion a year ago.
Disasters in Nigeria's oil operations are common. 200 villagers died in this pipeline explosion a year ago.AP/Clement Ntaye

NIGER DELTA -- Erovie, a community in the Niger Delta, is thousands of miles from Durban, South Africa where delegates from around the globe are gathering this week for the World Conference Against Racism. But the tragedy that befell the citizens of Erovie, who were poisoned by toxic waste from Shell Oil's operations, is a graphic example of what the Conference's NGO Forum refers to as environmental racism: the disproportionate impacts of pollution borne by communities of color around the world.

At the Durban Conference fifty Nigerian non-governmental organizations are working with others from around the world to underscore the drastic consequences of these practices and to demand environmental justice. Unlike many other critical issues being addressed at the Conference, they are not only looking to governments to make change, they are also demanding that corporations be held accountable for their abuses. Some even insist that corporations-including the many foreign oil companies operating in the Niger Delta-- pay restitution to communities that have been devastated by their actions. The World Conference Against Racism marks an important opportunity for dozens of groups to inject an environmental justice and corporate accountability perspective into the mix, according to participants in the NGO Forum.

"We want to highlight the need for the multinational oil companies to stop the devastation of the Niger Delta and for the Nigerian government to enact laws that will compel them to respect the people and their environment," explains Annie Davies of the Nigeria based NGO DevNet.

Erovie and Shell

Local residents began to experience health problems soon after Shell Oil company injected a million litres of a waste into an abandoned oil well in Erovie two years ago. Many who consumed crops or drank water from swamps in the area complained of vomiting, dizziness, stomach ache and cough. Within two months 93 people had died from this mysterious illness. Independent tests by two Nigerian universities and three other laboratories, conducted in the year after the health problems emerged, indicate that the substance was toxic. All the tests confirmed poisonous concentrations of lead, zinc and mercury in the dumped substance.

"The presence of heavy metals at above acceptable limits and the unusually high concentration of ions make the substance toxic. Therefore, if these substances were to infiltrate the underground water or aquifer, it would have serious environmental and health implications," says one of the reports.

In the year and a half since the reports were released, many residents have fled the community to avoid illness from the waste contamination. But Shell has refused to respond to the community's appeal to clean up the toxic mess. Rather, the oil company and the Nigerian government claim the substance is harmless. The Nigerian government even ran a newspaper ad saying its own test showed that "the substance had no obvious significant harmful impact on human and the immediate environment." In an attempt to foreclose the controversy, the government described the advertisement as the "full and final report" on the waste's toxicity.

But for the community, the controversy has just begun. Community members have gone to court seeking an order to compel the Nigerian government to conduct a fresh independent scientific inquiry on the nature of the waste. The community is also seeking a court order to compel Shell to immediately remove the hazardous waste and undertake a comprehensive clean up.

"Our land should not be turned into a waste dump for Shell, our ancestors forbid it, they are angry," says Odhegolor Abikelegba a community leader.

Shell, which is responsible for half of Nigeria's production of two million barrels of crude oil a day, denies the charges of human rights and environmental abuses. "Shell has always conducted its business as a responsible corporate member of society which observes the laws of Nigeria and respect the fundamental human rights in line with the United Nations declaration of human rights," asserted Ebert Imomoh, the company's Deputy Managing Director in Nigeria, when he recently appeared before a government panel investigating human rights abuses.

Shell Not the Only Corporate Villain

Reports of environmental and human rights abuses by multinational oil companies operating in the Delta are common. And Shell is not the only corporation under fire. In one instance, six youths engaged to clear an oil spill from a pipeline belonging to the Italian Oil company Agip, were burnt to death while eleven others sustained seriously burns. "We were bailing the crude oil with buckets and our bodies were soaked with oil when suddenly there was fire," says Reuben Eteyan who survived the incident.

In another case, documented by foreign journalists in 1998, Chevron flew in troops by helicopter during a peaceful protest on one of their oil platforms in the remote Ilaje community. Those troops shot dead two youths and wounded several others.

Terisa Turner, coordinator of the non-governmental International Oil Working Group, described multinational oil companies conduct in the Niger Delta over decades as an expression of environmental racism. "These practices are not, and could not, be pursued in Western Europe or North America, nor should they be practised anywhere," she says.

Turner says Northern countries benefit from the abuses taking place in the Niger Delta because the bulk of the oil extracted there is used in the North. The profit, she said, also accrues to shareholders in the North.

She observes that environmental racism in the Niger Delta persists due to propaganda "devised by corporate public relations conmen, blinding oil consumers in the west from knowing or caring about the blood that is mixed with the oil they consume."

By contrast, residents of the Niger Delta sleep in mud houses, drink dirty water from ponds and rivers and live far below subsistence level. The oil wealth accruing from their land is shared between the Nigerian government and the oil companies with very little or nothing getting to the communities. The government's share of the money often end up in the private bank accounts of government officials. This perhaps explains why the Nigerian government is quick to side with foreign oil companies in conflicts with the communities.

Reparations is a crucial issue in the struggle for environmental justice in Nigeria. Many of the ethnic groups in the Niger Delta have drawn up various demands. A key document is the Ogoni Bill of Rights which seeks reparations from Shell for environmental pollution, devastation and ecological degradation of the Ogoni area. Shell's abuses in Ogoniland were made infamous by the late playwright and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, who was executed by the Nigerian government.

The issue of reparations for colonialism and slavery are also a hot button issue at the World Conference Against Racism. Northern governments are loathe to accept responsibility for 18th and 19th Century slave trade. But the pillaging of Southern countries continues-oil extraction in the Niger Delta is just one example. The challenge for activists trying to inject an environmental justice perspective into the debate, will be to raise the issue of reparations from corporate violators, like Shell, Agip and Chevron, not just from governments.

Sam Olukoya is a freelance journalist based in Lagos.