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Oil industry has brought poverty and pollution to Niger Delta

Women next to an oil wellhead that has been spilling crude oil near the community of Ikot Ada Udo, the Niger Delta, since 2004

Women next to an oil wellhead that has been spilling crude oil near the community of Ikot Ada Udo, the Niger Delta, since 2004

© Kadir van Lohuizen/NOOR

30 June 2009

The oil industry in the Niger Delta of Nigeria has brought impoverishment, conflict, human rights abuses and despair to the majority of the people in the oil-producing areas, according to a new Amnesty International report.

Pollution and environmental damage caused by the oil industry have resulted in violations of the rights to health and a healthy environment, the right to an adequate standard of living (including the right to food and water) and the right to gain a living through work for hundreds of thousands of people.

Published on Tuesday, the report, Petroleum, pollution and poverty in the Niger Delta, also details how the Nigerian government is failing to hold oil companies to account for the pollution they have caused.

“Oil companies have been exploiting Nigeria’s weak regulatory system for too long,” said Audrey Gaughran of Amnesty International. “They do not adequately prevent environmental damage and they frequently fail to properly address the devastating impact that their bad practice has on people’s lives.”

The Niger Delta is one of the world’s 10 most important wetland and coastal marine ecosystems and is home to some 31 million people. It is also the location of massive oil deposits, which have been extracted for decades by the government of Nigeria and by multinational oil companies.

The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) describes the region as suffering from “administrative neglect, crumbling social infrastructure and services, high unemployment, social deprivation, abject poverty, filth and squalor, and endemic conflict.” This poverty, and its contrast with the wealth generated by oil, has become one of the world’s starkest and most disturbing examples of the “resource curse”.

Oil has generated an estimated US$600 billion since the 1960s. Despite this, many people in the oil-producing areas have to drink, cook with and wash in polluted water, and eat fish contaminated with oil and other toxins.

“More than 60 per cent of people in the region depend on the natural environment for their livelihood,” said Audrey Gaughran “Yet, pollution by the oil industry is destroying the vital resource on which they depend.”

Oil pollution kills fish, their food sources and fish larvae, and damages the ability of fish to reproduce, causing both immediate damage and long-term harm to fish stocks. Oil pollution also damages fishing equipment.

Oil spills and waste dumping have also seriously damaged agricultural land. Long-term effects include damage to soil fertility and agricultural productivity, which in some cases can last for decades. In numerous cases, these long-term effects have undermined a family’s only source of livelihood.

The destruction of livelihoods and the lack of accountability and redress have led people to steal oil and vandalize oil infrastructure in an attempt to gain compensation or clean-up contracts.

Armed groups are increasingly demanding greater control of resources in the region, and engage in large-scale theft of oil and the ransoming of oil workers. Government reprisals against militancy and violence frequently involve excessive force, and communities are subjected to violence and collective punishment, deepening anger and resentment.

The oil industry in the Niger Delta involves both the government of Nigeria and subsidiaries of multinational companies. The Shell Petroleum Development Company (Shell), a subsidiary of Royal Dutch Shell, is the main operator on land. The majority of cases reported to, and investigated by,
Amnesty International relate to Shell.

Oil spills, waste dumping, and gas flaring are notorious and endemic. Oil spills result from corrosion of oil pipes, poor maintenance of infrastructure, leaks and human error and at times are as a consequence of vandalism, theft of oil or sabotage.

The scale of pollution and environmental damage has never been properly assessed. The figures that do exist vary considerably depending on sources, but hundreds of spills occur each year. According to the UNDP, more than 6,800 spills were recorded between 1976 and 2001. According to the National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency some 2,000 sites require treatment because of oil-related pollution. The real total may be higher.

The regulatory system in the Niger Delta is deeply flawed. Nigeria has laws and regulations that require companies to comply with internationally recognized standards of “good oil field practice”, and laws and regulations to protect the environment but these laws and regulations are poorly enforced. The government agencies responsible for enforcement are ineffective and, in some cases, compromised by conflicts of interest.

"The people of the Niger Delta have seen their human rights undermined by oil companies that their government cannot – or will not – hold to account.” said Audrey Gaughran “They have been systematically denied access to information about how oil exploration and production will affect them, and they are repeatedly denied access to justice."

For more information

Summary: Nigeria: Petroleum, Pollution and Poverty in the Niger Delta
Campaign Digest: Nigeria: Petroleum, Pollution and Poverty in the Niger Delta
Corporate Policy v Corporate Practice – a reality check
Oil companies and the Nigerian government must clean up the oil industry in the Niger Delta
Video: Oil companies and the Nigerian government must clean up the oil industry in the Niger Delta

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