Lagos, Nigeria – It took 13 years for Fidelis Oguru to achieve the victory he and a group of other farmers in Nigeria’s oil-rich Niger Delta region so wanted.
The Hague Court of Appeal on Friday ruled that Shell’s Nigerian subsidiary, the Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria (SPDC), was responsible for environmental degradation caused by pipeline leaks in villages around Oruma and Goi in the Niger Delta region.
The Dutch court ordered the Nigerian branch of the Anglo-Dutch company to pay undecided compensation to the affected villages.
“I am very happy and thank God,” said Oguru, an 80-year-old farmer and one of the complainants from Oroma village.
He told Al Jazeera that oil leaks from the pipelines had devastated the region’s farmlands and waterways, and that the SPDC’s reluctance to replace old pipelines had led farmers to watch with anguish as their crops such as cassava and plantain were succumbing to oil pollution and their livelihoods were eroding.
Frequent calls to the SPDC for environmental compensation and cleanup have been unsuccessful, he said.
In 2008, four farmers from the villages of Oroma, Goi and Ikot Ada Udo received the support of an environmental campaign group, Friends of the Earth Netherlands, to sue Shell in a Dutch court over oil spills linked to the SPDC between 2004 and 2007.
“In 2013, I went to the Netherlands when the judgment was pending and [court] ruled against us, ”Oguru recalled.
SPDC and other oil companies often attribute oil leaks to sabotage. Under Nigerian law, applied in the Dutch civil case, the company is not liable if the leaks were the result of sabotage.
But on Friday, the court ruled that it could not establish “beyond a reasonable doubt” that the saboteurs were to blame for leaks which spat oil over an area of around 60 football fields in Oruma and Goi.
Although the court ruled sabotage was to blame for an oil spill in the village of Ikot Ada Udo, it said the Shell liability case would continue.
Eric Dooh, a 50-year-old Goi plaintiff, told Al Jazeera that the victory meant that “oppressed people” such as farmers in the Niger Delta can take their “rightful place in society”.
He said the ruling sets a “world-class precedent” that could be a turning point in giving hope to those with similar cases against multinational oil companies that they can obtain justice regardless of “the number of years and of tribulations they have experienced. Go [through]”.
“Other multinational companies must also know that they must adhere to international best practices in their oil exploration activities and respect basic human rights,” he said.
“Winning isn’t just for me,” Dooh added. “It is for the entire Niger Delta region.”
Nnimmo Bassey, a Nigerian environmental activist, also believes that Friday’s decision is the start “of a process that should bring hope … [because] lies told by the [oil] industry cannot hold water forever ”.
“Victory means that no matter how long an injustice lasts, justice must come someday and that means the people have not persisted for nothing for 13 years,” said Bassey, former executive director of Environmental Rights Action , a local rights advocacy NGO. Jazeera.
Shell discovered and began exploiting Nigeria’s vast oil reserves in the late 1950s, and has long faced strong criticism of oil pollution and its allegedly close and favorable ties to the government.
Bassey said large swathes of the Niger Delta remain “sacrifice zones” and that there are still oil spills and contaminations on a daily basis in many areas. He also cited a fire in an oil well in Ondo State which has been raging since May without “any shutdown, no cleaning”.
The only place where a serious effort is made to carry out an environmental cleanup in the Niger Delta is Ogoniland, Bassey said, and even that is “very tentative and not yet complete.”
Meanwhile, Shell said it was appalled by Friday’s decision, as it believes the spills were caused by sabotage.
“We are … disappointed that this tribunal has reached a different conclusion on the cause of these spills and in its conclusion that SPDC is responsible,” the company said in a statement.
The SPDC said in a statement: “Like all businesses operated by Shell around the world, we are committed to operating safely and protecting the local environment.”
But Bassey said sabotage had been ruled out in many oil pollution cases in the Niger Delta.
“To say that the spill was caused by sabotage was a formula for evading responsibility, which needs to be debunked,” he said.
Too little, too late?
Despite the ruling, Dooh lamented the damage – he said oil leaks in Goi ruined his fish farm and destroyed his father’s bakery.
Like many others, he was forced to move with his family to a nearby town to escape the contamination.
“It was very difficult and hectic for me to cope,” he says.
Successful claimants are now waiting to see the amount of compensation they will receive.
Dooh said he hoped to use the funds to restore his damaged land and businesses, as well as to build a school.
“If I reinvest [in my village], it will give me the opportunity to create employment opportunities for people.
But for Oguru, the compensation will probably come too late.
He said Shell had destroyed all the land it used for its fish farms. “The loss [caused by the spill] gave me a very bad setback which affected my livelihood – farming and fishing, ”Oguru said.
In 2018, he started to develop eye problems and went blind in 2020. His age and health issues will likely prevent him from using the compensation to restore his land.
“I am blocked.”