Nigeria: Oil Pollution, Human Rights Violations Still Rampant in Niger Delta
By Nicholas Tago
PORT HARCOURT---A new report by the human rights watchdog, Amnesty International chronicles the impact of pollution and environmental damage caused by the oil industry on the human rights of the people living in the Niger Delta.
“While there are other sources of pollution in the Niger Delta, the oil industry is a major contributor”, the report, Nigeria: petroleum, pollution and poverty in the Niger Delta says.
This report is based on fieldwork carried out in the Niger Delta in March and April 2008, as well as desk research and follow-up research from London between May 2008 and May 2009 by a multi-disciplinary research team, including experts in the oil industry and environment.
The researchers visited eight sites in Rivers and Bayelsa States, and interviewed members of the communities affected by oil pollution and by the human rights violations associated with pollution.
The research team met with and interviewed representatives of a number of civil society organizations in the Niger Delta, as well as academics at Rivers State University of Science and Technology. Researchers also conducted interviews with members of the Federal Government of Nigeria and representatives of the government of Rivers State, as well as presenting preliminary findings in writing to the Federal Government. Representatives of the organization held meetings with Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC) in Port Harcourt, Rivers State, Nigeria, on 1 April 2008, as well as with Shell at its headquarters in The Hague, Netherlands, on 15 September 2008.
The report documents the extent of pollution caused by oil companies and its impact on other economic activities.
“If you want to go fishing, you have to paddle for about four hours through several rivers before you can get to where you can catch fish and the spill is lesser … some of the fishes we catch, when you open the stomach, it smells of crude oil”, the report quotes a fisherman in a case study conducted in Bodo Creek in Ogoniland.
On 28 August 2008 a fault in the Trans-Niger pipeline resulted in a significant oil spill into Bodo Creek in Ogoniland. The oil poured into the swamp and creek for weeks, covering the area in a thick slick of oil and killing the fish that people depend on for food and for their livelihood. A local NGO, the Centre for Environment, Human Rights and Development (CEHRD), which investigated the case (including by taking video footage of the leak), reported that the oil spill has resulted in death or damage to a number of species of fish that provide the protein needs of the local community. Video footage of the site shows widespread damage, including to mangroves which are an important fish breeding ground.
A Ministry official is reported to have visited the site on 15 October. However, the leak was not stopped until 7 November. In October 2008, members of the community said they were desperate for action to stop the leak that was destroying their food source and environment.
The failure to stop the leak swiftly significantly increased the damage. “The creek is dead”, CEHRD concluded, finding that as a result, “there is real food insecurity in the area”.
But as if that was not enough, a second oil spill was reported to have occurred in the same area on 2 February 2009 further damaging the environment on which people depend for their food and livelihood.
According to the report, the Niger Delta is a complex operating environment, characterized by conflict – conflict within and between communities (often related to access to the benefits of oil operations), conflict between the communities and the oil companies and conflict between armed groups and the oil companies and Nigerian security forces.
While acknowledging the complexities that oil companies face in operating in the Niger Delta, this report underlines that much of the pollution and damage that has contributed to serious abuses of human rights is foreseeable and avoidable. Where problems do occur, timely and effective action can mitigate the consequences. The complexity of the Niger Delta is too frequently used as an excuse for failure to take action in line with international good practice and standards to prevent and address pollution and environmental damage and protect the human rights of communities affected by oil operations.
The Niger Delta is one of the 10 most important wetland and coastal marine ecosystems in the world and is home to some 31 million people. The Niger Delta is also the location of massive oil deposits, which have been extracted for decades by the government of Nigeria and by multinational oil companies. Oil has generated an estimated $600 billion since the 1960s.
Despite this, the majority of the Niger Delta’s population lives in poverty. The United Nations Development Programme (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.”
The majority of the people of the Niger Delta do not have adequate access to clean water or health-care. Their 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”.
The report notes that the activities involved in petroleum exploration and production produce wastes of varying chemical compositions, which are generated at each phase of the operation. The disposal of these wastes in the Niger Delta has polluted land and water, damaging fisheries and agriculture, undermining the human right to an adequate standard of living. According to a senior official from the Rivers State Ministry of Environment, “Effluent and waste from the oil industry which should be treated is dumped and finds its way into the surface water of the Delta.”
The oil industry in the Niger Delta comprises the government and multinational companies. The multinational companies, however, are the operators. Amnesty International’s research demonstrates that the government of Nigeria is failing in its obligation to respect and protect the rights of people in the Niger Delta. Some of the oil companies have exploited a weak regulatory system, and their operations are characterized by failure to take appropriate preventive and remedial action in relation to pollution and environmental damage.
A lack of accountability and the inability of those affected to access justice or receive adequate reparations and remedies, has perpetuated the context of human rights violations and encouraged them to occur again and again.
“So long as impunity for abuses of the environment and human rights remains entrenched, so too will the poverty and conflict that has scarred the Niger Delta. Only when there is effective accountability, access to justice and when people are given the information and space needed to participate in decisions that affect their lives, will the human rights tragedy of the Niger Delta begin to end”, the report says.
Amnesty recommends full implementation of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights. It asks the government to ensure robust, independent and coordinated oversight of the oil industry including the impact on human rights.
Oversight of the environmental, social and human rights impacts of the oil industry must be fully independent of the oil companies and the Ministry of Petroleum Resources.