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The Curse of Black Gold in the Niger Delta
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Creative Commons License photo credit: mackz
A new report from Amnesty international accuses oil companies, specifically Shell, or directly engineering the environmental devastation in Nigeria. But Shell isn’t backing down so easily.
Guest Article by Elaisha Stokes
Natural resources, in theory, bring prosperity to the countries fortunate enough to house them. But when Nigeria struck oil in 1956, it was anything but a blessing. The once friendly nation now suffers the curse of black gold. Nigeria is poorer than ever, violence is rampant, and the waters run black. Critics point to the paradox of plenty which seems to blight the potential of so many African nations. But last week Amnesty International declared that the failure of the Nigerian state has less to do with the existence of oil, and more to do with the oil companies, specifically Shell, that operate in the region.
The report, Petroleum, pollution and poverty in the Niger Delta, doesn’t mince words:
“The oil industry is responsible for widespread pollution in the Niger Delta…. oil spills, waste dumping, and gas flaring are notorious and endemic. Undoubtedly, in many parts of the Niger Delta, community action and reaction is part of the problem of pollution. However, as long as companies continue to deny that their poor practice is a major factor in community hostility, the situation will not improve.”
Strong words, but perhaps not unwarranted. The Niger Delta is the world’s largest wetland – a complex system of rivers and creeks vein the marsh that once provided food and livelihood for the over 130 million Nigerians who call Africa’s most populace nation home. But decades of oil spills and acid rain from gas flares have destroyed the natural landscape. Mangroves and fisheries have been replaced by contaminated waterways and carcinogenic fields. The once self sufficient food producing nation now imports more agricultural products than it domestically produces. And because the oil refineries are constantly breaking down due to technical malfunctions or rebel attacks, Nigeria must also import the bulk of its fuel.
Nigeria rates below all other major oil producing nations in terms of the quality of life index. Its annual per capita income of $1,400 is less than that of Senegal, which exports mainly fish and nuts. Oil accounted for $2.6 billion in revenue in the first quarter of 2009 alone. By all accounts, Nigeria should be an African success story.
Instead Nigeria has become a dangerous country, addicted to black gold.
Last month it looked like justice might finally be served in the Niger Delta. In a landmark settlement, Shell oil agreed to pay the family of Ken Saro Wiwa, a Nigerian environmental and human rights activist, $15.5 million in an out-of-court settlement. The case alleged Shell was complicit in murder, torture and other human rights abuses of the Nigerian government against local activists who were protesting the corporations presence in the oil-rich Niger Delta. For a brief moment, it looked as though big oil might finally be held accountable, if only financially.
But 2009 has been a year of violence for the region, with rebel groups declaring all out war on the oil companies. And although it agreed to a settlement, Shell continues to deny any wrong doing in the Niger Delta. In an official response to the Amnesty report, the corporation stated: “The root causes of the Niger Delta’s humanitarian issues are poverty, corruption, crime, militancy and violence. This report does not acknowledge these issues to any substantive degree, but concentrates on the impact of oil and gas operations in isolation — as such its value is limited.”
Perhaps it’s isn’t fair to point the finger square at Shell – Nigeria has a long colonial history, and ethnic tensions have existed in the fragile southern delta since time memorial. Certainly Shell should not be held accountable for the $14 billion in oil revenues that regularly go missing, siphoned by corrupt officials.
Then again, it was the oil companies that paid off village chiefs to build their pipelines, with little thought to community consultation or environmental impact assessments. It was the oil companies that opted to use the process of gas flaring, which poisoned the wetland and contributed to more greenhouse gas emissions than all other sources in sub-Saharan Africa combined. And between 1986 and 2003, it was the oil companies that let more than 50,000 acres of mangroves disappeared from the coast, largely because of land clearing and canal dredging for oil and gas exploration.
Ultimately, perhaps it’s us who are to blame. The United States and Western Europe are the primary consumers of Nigerian oil. It is our dependency on black gold that has ultimately allowed this environmental and human rights travesty to occur. It is our persistent ignorance that will allow it to continue.
elaisha stokesElaisha Stokes is an environmental filmmaker and journalist based in Toronto, Canada. For more on the relationship between international development and the environment check out her blog: www.theearthfeed.com
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