Justice for the victims of the oil spill in Nigeria
Release date: Week of May 27, 2022
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Chima Williams has taken Royal Dutch Shell to court for negligence in preventing oil spills in two communities (Picture: Goldman Environmental Prize)
The 2022 Goldman Environment Prize recipient for Africa is Chima Williams, an environmental lawyer who worked with two communities to hold Royal Dutch Shell accountable for disastrous oil spills in Nigeria. Co-hosts Aynsley O’Neill and Bobby Bascomb talk about the devastation caused by the spills and how Chima Williams and her colleagues took the case to The Hague in the Netherlands to seek justice.
O’NEILL: So Bobby, on this show, we hear a lot about the many ways humans damage the environment.
BASCOMB: Oh man, that’s the truth.
O’NEILL: But the annual Goldman Environmental Prize celebrates the people who work to protect our planet, and we have a series of upcoming interviews with this year’s winners.
BASCOMB: It’s true, the Goldman Prize is sometimes called the Green Nobel and it is awarded to a winner from each continent. I heard you recently spoke with the winner from Africa.
O’NEILL: Yes! Chima Williams is a lawyer from Nigeria. He secured an unprecedented court victory in The Hague in the Netherlands against Royal Dutch Shell for its negligence in preventing oil spills in the Niger Delta.
BASCOMB: Yes, I know oil spills happen too often in Nigeria, but we rarely hear of companies being sued for them.
O’NEILL. Exactly. And taking on Shell, one of the biggest oil companies in the world, wasn’t exactly easy. Chima says some people told him it couldn’t be done.
WILLIAMS: How can you challenge the almighty Shell, you know, how dare you challenge them, for the conduct and the practice that they have engaged in for years? But for us, because we believe, because we believe, until you think outside the box, you may not create the positive change that is needed.
BASCOMB: So how did they manage to bring Shell to justice?
O’NEILL: Well, Chima and his legal team started by reviewing dozens of examples of Shell oil spills in the Niger Delta, looking for those that seemed most clearly related to negligence. And they landed on two in particular that appeared to be open and closed cases, in Goi and Oruma communities. In 2004, Shell’s Trans-Niger pipeline developed a leak near Goi, but it didn’t stop there.
WILLIAMS: There was an explosion, an explosion of fire, which again helped destroy the things left over from the spill pollution.
O’NEILL: And Chima says that while the spill explosion was big news, Shell didn’t bother to clean it up until 33 months later.
BASCOMB: Wow, it took them almost three years to clean it all up?
O’NEILL: That’s right, and in 2005 another Shell pipeline near Oruma leaked for 12 days, polluting land and drinking water.
BASCOMB: Wow, that’s awful. How did these spills affect the people of Goi and Oruma?
O’NEILL: That was pretty devastating, here comes Chima again.
WILLIAMS: People couldn’t use their farmland anymore. People could no longer harvest fish from their fish ponds. People could no longer harvest from their economic trees, which provided them with a source of income. It was a huge and massive loss, and it affected the majority of the community of people because there are indirect impacts and effects on people who will unsuspectingly drink, for example, polluted water, l will use to cook their food, will use it to bathe.
O’NEILL: The spills also released air pollutants that these communities were unknowingly breathing in.
WILLIAMS: So people would die mysteriously or suffer from strange, inexplicable illnesses. And we find that in some situations, people either start accusing each other of poisoning or they will attribute it to the activities of witches and wizards. Because what they can’t explain, they have to name.
O’NEILL: Fortunately, Chima and his colleagues at Friends of the Earth Nigeria, of which he is the executive director, were able to help set the story straight for the villagers that it was not their neighbors who were poisoning them or used black magic. . A powerful corporation did this to them. Specifically, it was Shell’s failure to install leak detection systems. They are common practice in oil pipelines in Western countries, but Shell simply did not bother with them in Nigeria. And during their investigation, Chima and his legal team had access to internal Shell documents that revealed the company knew the Goi Pipeline was poorly maintained and needed replacement, and that executives had lied about it to the tribunal.
BASCOMB: Wow. So I think you said they won that court victory in The Hague. But why did they have to go from Nigeria to the Netherlands to seek justice?
O’NEILL: Well, they wanted to try something different because the status quo just wasn’t working. Chima and his colleagues won a previous case against Shell in 2005 over the company’s practice of gas flaring, another way oil extraction has polluted the air people in the Niger Delta breathe. Nigeria’s Federal High Court ordered Shell to stop flaring, but three years after the ruling the company had still not complied.
WILLIAMS: The idea was, well, since multinationals don’t respect the judgments of Nigerian courts, and the Nigerian authorities who are supposed to enforce that judgment don’t, let’s take them to their own country of origin, where we believe that they will obey the law, they will obey and comply with the judgments of the courts.
O’NEILL: But Bobby, they actually lost the oil spill case, in the beginning. The High Court of The Hague ruled in 2013 that Shell could not be held responsible for the actions of its Nigerian subsidiary. But that didn’t stop Chima.
WILLIAMS: Of course, that’s the beauty of the right to appeal, if you feel strong about yourself, like we did. When we lost in The Hague Magistrate’s Court, we were convinced that we were not supposed to lose the case, especially on the grounds that the court was in charge of making the judgment against us.
O’NEILL: So they appealed and eventually, in January 2021, The Hague Court of Appeal ruled that Royal Dutch Shell ultimately had oversight and control of the operations of its Nigerian subsidiary, including the obligation to prevent oil spills. As a first step, the court ordered Shell to install a leak detection system on the Oruma pipeline, which hopefully won’t happen again.
BASCOMB: Well, that’s something, I guess. But what about the farmers whose lands have been polluted?
O’NEILL: The court ruled that Shell should compensate them, but the amount is pending, so these farmers are still awaiting justice almost 20 years after these spills. But Chima says it’s not just about the money.
WILLIAMS: When you’ve wronged someone, a change of attitude brings a lot of help. To see that there is restitution from within will mean that if you have the chance, you will not repeat those things that happened. And I think that’s the biggest debt the oil companies owe the people of the Niger Delta. Show this empathy to people for the long years of destroying their source of income, their environment and creating problems for them. There can be no better way to offer compensation than this. That’s what I expect from them.
BASCOMB: I hope so. Well, thank you Aynsley for telling us the story of Chima Williams, and I really look forward to hearing from the other Goldman Prize winners in the weeks to come.
O’NEILL: Yeah! The prize is awarded to one winner from each inhabited continent. We will therefore hear, among others, from the recipients from South America and Central America, two young indigenous leaders who got Ecuador to cancel dozens of illegal gold mining concessions in their territory.
BASCOMB: And I spoke with the winner from Asia, a Thai activist who led a campaign against a blasting project that would have destroyed nearly 250 miles of the Mekong.
O’NEILL: Wow, I can’t wait to hear that.