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