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UNEP scientists investigating an oil-contaminated site in the Niger Delta accompanied by Ogoni community guides. Photo: Victor Temofe Mogbolu / UNEP.
UNEP scientists investigating an oil-contaminated site in the Niger Delta accompanied by Ogoni community guides. Photo: Victor Temofe Mogbolu / UNEP.
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Nigerian farmers' win right to sue Shell in Netherlands courts

The Ecologist

18th December 2015

In a landmark judgment today, four Niger Delta farmers have won the right to sue Dutch oil multinational Shell in the Netherlands courts after oil spills destroyed their farms and fish ponds. The case sets a precedent for other victims of corporate environmental and human rights harms around the world.

Today's ruling is a landslide victory for environmentalists and these four brave Nigerian farmers who, for more than seven years, have had the courage to take on one of the most powerful companies in the world.

Four Nigerian farmers and Friends of the Earth Netherlands (Milieudefensie) have won the right to sue multinational Shell in Dutch courts for oil spills in Nigeria.

It's a key stage in a legal battle that began in 2008 after repeated oil spills polluted fields and fish farming ponds in the Niger Delta in a densely populated wetland area used for self-sufficient agriculture and fish-farming.

Four Nigerian citizens affected by the pollution - Friday Alfred Akpan from Ikot Ada Udo, Eric Dooh from Goi and Alali Efanga en Fidelis Oguru from Oruma - joined with Friends of the Earth Netherlands (as co-plaintiff) to take Shell to court over the oil spills.

Once proud owners of flourishing farms, they were reduced to poverty and forced to survive on odd jobs, because the oil spills were never properly cleaned up. Their land and fish ponds remain unusable to this day.

Alali Efanga, one of the Nigerian farmers who brought the case against Shell, said: "This ruling offers hope that Shell will finally begin to restore the soil around my village so that I will once again be able to take up farming and fishing on my own land."

Shell ordered to disclose internal documents to plaintiffs

The plaintiffs demand that Shell cleans up the oil spills, compensates them for their losses and prevents new leakages by ensuring that the company's pipelines are properly maintained and patrolled.

In January 2013, the courts in The Hague ruled that Shell was guilty of causing pollution on the land of Friday Alfred Akpan, but not that of the other three plaintiffs. Shell appealed the decision in favour of Mr Akpan, while Milieudefensie and the other three Nigerian farmers appealed against the rejection of their claims.

One of Shell's arguments was the the plaintiffs lacked 'competence' to sue in Netherlands courts because the damage occurred in Nigeria - and any legal remedies should therefore be sought in the Nigerian courts.

But the Appeals Court of The Hague has now ruled in favour of the farmers and Milieudefensie on all the question of 'competence' and all other procedural issues in the case - which has now dragged on for more than seven years because of legal obstacles raised by Shell which seriously delayed proceedings.

The Court also ruled in favour of Milieudefensie and the Nigerian farmers that Shell should disclose internal company documents to them - a claim that had earler been refused by a lower court.

A landmark ruling

Channa Samkalden, legal counsel for the plaintiffs, said: "This is in every respect a landmark case. This is the first time in legal history that access to internal company documents was obtained in court - an appropriate ruling, because these documents may contain important corroborating evidence regarding the oil spills caused by Shell affecting these farmers' land and fishing ponds. This finally allows the case to be considered on its merits."

The ruling is unique, she continued, because it sets a precedent that opens the way for victims of environmental pollution and human rights abuses worldwide to turn to Netherlands courts for legal redress when a Dutch company is involved.

And Shell is surely quaking in its mighty boots at the implications: the four farmers taking this legal action are just a few of tens of thousands of Niger Delta farmers that have been impacted by oil spills associated with Shell's operations.

The combined impact of the legal claims could be Shell's 'Deepwater Horizon', costing the company billions in long overdue damages and clean-up costs, much as BP has suffered from its 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

According to Milieudefensie, "For decades, Nigeria has been the stage of the largest oil spill on earth. Over the years, an amount of oil double to that of the sinking of the Deep Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 has leaked into the environment."

A 2011 report published by UNEP - the environmental organisation of the United Nations - also shows Shell doing far too little to clean up the leaked oil.

Geert Ritsema, campaigner at Friends of the Earth: "Today's ruling is a landslide victory for environmentalists and these four brave Nigerian farmers who, for more than seven years, have had the courage to take on one of the most powerful companies in the world.

"This ruling is a ray of hope for other victims of environmental degradation, human rights violations and other misconduct by large corporations."

 


 

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