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Column: An oil spill in America provoked outrage, but other victims are more easily ignored

People in the oil-producing areas of the Niger Delta have suffered thousands of oil spills – which have ruined livelihoods, public health and the environment. Why are they not being listened to? Because oil companies control information about the spills.

Colm O'Gorman

“In 2008, life became very difficult in Bodo. All the fish died. We were paddling on top of oil. Our canoes and fishing nets were destroyed. It used to be much better. Now poverty is everywhere.”

EVERY YEAR there are hundreds of oil spills in Nigeria’s Niger Delta. By the end of September, more than 600 had been recorded for 2013 alone.

The oil spill in Bodo in 2008 was particularly devastating, especially to communities dependent on fishing.

Regina Porobari, 40, used to trade in fish. Her husband used to be a fisherman. They have six children.

After the August 2008 oil spill, all the fish in the creek died, moved away or were too polluted to eat. Regina became a petty trader and her husband now tries to find work in construction. Meanwhile, local food prices sky-rocketed.

‘Oil kills everything’

“The price of fish has increased a lot in Bodo,” Regina said. “Before the spill you could buy a fish for 50 naira (26c). Now you have to pay 300 to 500 naira (€1.45 to €2.45) for a fish.”

Many families can’t afford to buy food with enough nutrients, she explained, “Everybody is struggling.”

Farmers too have been seriously affected.

“We are stranded. There is no work for us now,” said Emmanuel Kuru, a farmer and fisherman whose land on the Kozo waterside was covered by oil. He told our researchers that he has not had a harvest since August 2008.

“I don’t think anything will grow there in the next 20 years,” he continued. “Nothing planted will grow. The land is wasted. Oil kills everything.”

The Gulf of Mexico oil spill

But compare the global indifference to what has happened to the communities living in the Niger Delta, with the reaction to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill off the coast of the United States in 2010.

It caused massive environmental damage and devastated the lives of tens of thousands of people.

Public reaction in the US was unsurprising – people demanded that the spill be stopped as fast as possible, that the damage be contained and cleaned up, that compensation be provided for lost livelihoods, and that the companies involved be held accountable.

People in the oil-producing areas of the Niger Delta, who have suffered thousands of oil spills, have been making very similar demands for years.

But the differences between the response to the Gulf of Mexico and the situation in the Niger Delta could not be more striking.

In the six months after the Gulf spill began there was a presidential inquiry; a criminal investigation was launched by the Attorney General; BP was compelled to set up a $20 billion compensation fund; and multiple government agencies and non-governmental bodies set up monitoring of health, food safety and a range of environmental parameters.

What happened in the USA within six months has not happened in Nigeria in 50 years.

People living in the Niger Delta are ignored

Women, men and children living in the Niger Delta have to drink, cook with, and wash in polluted water. They eat fish contaminated with oil and other toxins – if they are lucky enough to still be able to find fish. The land they use for farming has been contaminated.

After oil spills the air they breathe reeks of oil, gas and other pollutants. But when they complain of breathing difficulties and other health problems, they are often ignored.

Part of the reason people are not listened to is because the oil companies control most of the information about the oil spills in the Niger Delta.

Amnesty International and the Centre for Environment, Human Rights and Development (CEHRD) recently co-published research into Shell’s activities carried out by independent US pipeline specialists Accufacts.

They found that so-called official investigation reports into the cause of oil spills in the Niger Delta can be “very subjective, misleading and downright false.”

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The oil companies do not have to back up the claims with full and independent evidence. The evidence that does exist remains firmly under their control.

“Shell looks to blame others based on investigation reports that, in some cases, amount to nothing more than dodgy dossiers,” said Styvn Obodoekwe, Director of Programmes at CEHRD.

Access to independent, verifiable evidence

Shell has manipulated oil spill investigations in Nigeria, with the company’s claims on oil pollution in the region deeply suspect and often untrue.

Video footage of a leak from an oil spill in Bodo from 2008 reviewed by Accufacts shows that Shell seriously under-recorded the volume spilt.

Shell’s official investigation report claims only 1,640 barrels of oil were spilt in total but other evidence points to the amount being at least 60 times higher.

The amount of compensation a community gets for an oil spill is affected by how much oil has been spilled and the cause of the spill. But if communities don’t have this information, and oil companies are manipulating the evidence, how can they ensure enough compensation is paid out to repair their farms and fisheries?

This is the key difference between what happened in the Gulf of Mexico and what is happening in the Niger Delta – access to independent, verifiable evidence.

And until Shell comes clean about the scale of the problem in the Niger Delta, people like Regina, Emmanuel and their families will continue to suffer.

Colm O’Gorman is the executive director of Amnesty International Ireland.

Read Amnesty International’s full report: Bad Information – Oil Spill Investigations in the Niger Delta

Read: Amnesty: Shell made ‘false claims’ on oil spills

Read: Transocean fined $1.4 billion over Deepwater Horizon

About the author:

Colm O'Gorman

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