A Dutch court ruled that Shell Nigeria is responsible for polluting farmlands in a landmark case brought by four Nigerian farmers and Friends of the Earth Netherlands. The court said Shell's subsidiary is accountable for damage caused by oil spills at Ikot Ada Udo, Akwa Ibom State, Nigeria. Though this is an important victory, Friends of the Earth International is disappointed that the court did not return a similar verdict in the cases brought by the plaintiffs from Goi and Oruma communities. The plaintiffs and Friends of the Earth Netherlands plan to appeal this ruling, as well as the principle point of the liability of the Royal Dutch Shell (RDS) parent company.
“This win for the farmers of Ikot Ada Udo has set a precedent as it will be an important step that multinationals can more easily be made answerable for the damage they do in developing countries. We anticipate other communities will now demand that Shell pay for the assault on their environment”, says Friends of the Earth Nigeria’s Executive Director, Nnimmo Bassey, who has played a pivotal role in bringing to light the havoc wreaked by Shell in the Niger delta.
Likewise, Friends of Earth Netherlands campaigner Geert Ritsema comments: ‘This verdict is great news for the people in lkot Ada Udo who started this case together with Friends of the Earth Netherlands. But the verdict also offers hope to other victims of environmental pollution caused by multinationals. At the same time, the verdict is a bitter disappointment for the people in the villages of Oruma and Goi – where the court did not hold Shell liable for the damage. Fortunately, this can still change in an appeal’, he added.
The four Nigerian plaintiffs have been demanding that Shell cleans up the oil pollution in their communities, compensates those affected and prevent further leaks from occurring. The communities of the Niger Delta depend primarily on the environment for their livelihoods, including farming and fishing. Oil industry operations in the Niger Delta have damaged or destroyed local food and water supplies, biodiversity and fishing ponds and crops that locals had used to earn money. Today's ruling follows a hearing in October 2012, which was a landmark in itself.
The court decided not to hold the parent company liable for damage done in Nigeria. Friends of the Earth Netherlands was denied access to evidence proving Shell’s international parent company based in the Netherlands (RDS) determines the daily affairs of Shell’s Nigerian subsidiary (SPDC). RDS owns 100% of SPDC shares. SPDC’s profits (estimated at €1.8 billion annually) are deposited in the Netherlands. Nevertheless, under existing laws, RDS cannot be held liable for the damage done on the basis of these facts alone. Friends of the Earth Netherlands must prove that governance actually comes from the headquarters in the Netherlands. Because Shell has not been ordered by the court to allow access to internal company documents which would demonstrate their governance of SPDC, it has been very difficult to prove this. ‘Apparently our justice system allows a company to pocket the profits from a foreign subsidiary without being held liable for the damage it causes while producing those profits.’ said Geert Ritsema of Friends of the Earth Netherlands.
The court also ruled that Shell has convincingly proven that sabotage was involved in two of the three villages. The plaintiffs find it incomprehensible that the court has allowed itself to be convinced by a number of blurry photos and poor quality video images submitted by Shell.
With the plaintiffs, Friends of the Earth International remains convinced that poor maintenance is the cause of the spills. Even where sabotage is involved, Friends of the Earth International believes that Shell bears responsibility and is liable for the damage.
The widespread devastation faced by communities in the Niger Delta as a result of oil spills by companies like Shell also demonstrates the urgent need for a global transition away from corporate-controlled dirty energy like oil, coal, gas, industrial agrofuels and mega-dams, and the development and roll-out of clean energy alternatives which are appropriate to the needs of communities and under their democratic control. This transition is urgently needed if we are to stop catastrophic climate change and avoid climate tipping points while at the same time addressing the inequalities that prevent millions of people from accessing clean, affordable fuel to meet their basic energy needs.