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The violence and destruction over Nigerian oil interests must stop

By Cam Walker - posted Thursday, 3 April 2003

In 1995, when the Nigerian dictatorship murdered Ken Saro-Wiwa and other Ogoni activists for their opposition to Shell and other oil companies, there was widespread global outrage. Thousands of people held vigils and protests outside Shell facilities, the media gave widespread coverage, and the public was aware of, and concerned about, the human rights abuses and environmental devastation.

Almost eight years later, Nigeria and the impacts of the oil industry are no longer news. This is ironic given the current global debate on the potential of war in Iraq and its underlying causes, which include access to and control over oil reserves.

Infrastructure that was old then - often leaking or exploding - is even worse now. New investment in the oil industry continues, often against the wishes of local communities. Those who oppose Big Oil continue to be massacred.


In an attempt to help put Nigeria back on the map Friends of the Earth Australia (FoEA) is organising an international mission to the oil-producing regions of Nigeria. This is at the specific request of Environmental Rights Action (ERA)/ Friends of the Earth Nigeria, and will be hosted by them. In his initial request, Nnimmo Bassey, director of ERA, asked us to organise a "pollution tour of the Niger Delta: to see the whole mess, hear the cries of the people and then speak out both here and back in Australia. Document what you see and show the whole world the meaning of corporate (ir)responsibility!".

The struggles against oil companies in the Niger delta are often literally of a life-or-death nature. There are widespread human rights abuses. One recent example occurred on November 31, 2002. A major oil company (Shell) was involved in a significant spill at Maroko community in Delta state due to a rupture in Shell's 24-inch pipelines, used to convey crude oil and gas from Forcados to Warri Refinery. Even more troubling than the spill is the fact that when Shell investigated the situation it claimed that villagers near the spill were living on land that belonged to the company. On 3 February 2003, a contingent of armed soldiers from the 7th Battalion stormed the community with military trucks and a bulldozer and subsequently destroyed houses and shops in the area. According to ERA, some residents who tried to protest or resist the demolition of their homes and property were brutalised by the soldiers. Many had to flee, leaving their property and possessions behind.

The eviction/demolition exercise lasted eight days and resulted in the destruction of more than 150 houses and shops. More than 5,000 people were displaced and made homeless.

Sadly, this is not an uncommon event. ERA sends field investigation teams to collect testimony from affected people and then report back to the national and global community through their Environmental Testimonial and Field Reports. It is for this reason FoEA is sending an international team. FoEA wants to help bring these human rights and environmental abuses to a wider international audience.

Nigeria is the world's sixth largest oil producer. The oil from the Niger Delta generates huge profits for transnational oil companies and the Nigerian government, yet the region where the oil comes from is poverty-stricken and in many places environmentally devastated.

The Niger Delta is more than 12,000 square kilometres of freshwater swamp forests, lowland rainforests, mangroves, rivers and coastal barrier islands - the second largest river delta in the world. It has the largest mangrove forest in Africa and is an important regional site for biodiversity.


The oil companies active in the Niger River delta have been dumping drilling mud, cuttings and sludge directly into local ecosystems for more than five decades. The pipelines, which take oil to the coast for export, have long histories of frequent (and dangerous) leaks. Many of these pipelines are old, well over their estimated safe lifespan of ten to fifteen years, with corrosion a significant problem. They pass through local communities, along rivers and farmlands, frequently leaking, polluting land and water. The official figures from the Nigerian National Petroleum Company (NNPC), which are based on reports from the operating companies, estimate that around 2,300 cubic meters of oil are spilled annually in an estimated 300 incidents. The real figure however, would be far higher, up to ten times this amount. Spills often lead to explosions. Many hundreds of people have died as a result of these incidents and farmland and rivers are contaminated, ruining livelihoods.

We live in a time when many resource companies are claiming to be both sustainable and responsible. However, in places like Nigeria, effectively operating out of sight of shareholders, they continue to operate in a way, which would not be acceptable in countries like Australia.

Friends of the Earth International is involved in a campaign to ensure the creation of an internationally binding code of conduct, which would control the behaviour of transnational corporations (TNCs). Although the outcome from last year's World Summit on Sustainable Development (or Earth Summit) held in South Africa was a bitter disappointment on most environmental issues, one of the more positive outcomes was the fact that the final wording of the agreement from the Summit included the possibility of negotiating codes of conduct at a later date. The information collected by the exposure team will be used to help build a case for binding international controls on TNCs.

FoE has carried out exposure tours, in Australia to monitor existing and proposed uranium mines, a mission to the Persian Gulf region to collect information on the impacts of the first Gulf War, and an investigation into the impacts of the oil industry in Venezuela. This tour to Nigeria is planned for the next few months and will see a small team of representatives from FoEA, a journalist and other members of civil society in Australia visiting communities in the Niger Delta, collecting testimony from affected people, then attempting to raise the profile of these impacts back here in Australia.

We hope, in some small way, to provide some practical and useful solidarity to the people of the Niger Delta, to remind people in Australia about the real costs of oil production, in human and environmental terms, and to highlight those companies who need to improve their operations.

We need help to organise this significant event. If you would like further information, please contact Cam Walker.

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About the Author

Cam Walker is National Liaison Officer for Friends of the Earth Australia.

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Cam Walker
Related Links
ERA/ Friends of the Earth Nigeria
Friends of the Earth International
Human Rights Watch
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