Up to 13 million barrels of oil have spilled in the Niger Delta ecosystem over the past 50 years, representing about 50 times the estimated volume spilled in the Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska in 1989. Niger Delta Natural Resource Damage Assessment and Restoration Project, PDF.
These spills equal the amount of 1 Exxon Valdez sized oil spill per year. And this is taking place in one of the most sensitive wetlands of our planet, part of the lungs of the planet. The spills pollute the land, pollute the water, clog the creeks, and gas flaring pollutes the air and the rainwater, bringing down toxic acid rain on land and water and all that live there.
As one Niger Delta fisherman stated:
If you want to go fishing, you have to paddle for about four hours through several rivers before you can get to where you can catch fish and the spill is lesser … some of the fishes we catch, when you open the stomach, it smells of crude oil.
The Niger Delta is one of the 10 most important wetland and coastal marine ecosystems in the world and is home to some 31 million people. The Niger Delta is also the location of massive oil deposits.
Under Nigerian law, local communities have no legal rights to oil and gas reserves in their territory.
This report focuses on one dimension of the crisis: the impact of pollution and environmental damage caused by the oil industry on the human rights of the people living in the oil producing areas of Niger Delta.
This report is a report from Amnesty International Nigeria: Petroleum, Pollution and Poverty in the Niger Delta – Report PDF. The report was released June 30, 2009.
The main human rights issues raised in this report are:
- Violations of the right to an adequate standard of living, including the right to food – as a consequence of the impact of oil-related pollution and environmental damage on agriculture and fisheries, which are the main sources of food for many people in the Niger Delta.
- Violations of the right to gain a living through work – also as a consequence of widespread damage to agriculture and fisheries, because these are also the main sources of livelihood for many people in the Niger Delta.
- Violations of the right to water – which occur when oil spills and waste materials pollute water used for drinking and other domestic purposes.
- Violations of the right to health – which arise from failure to secure the underlying determinants of health, including a healthy environment, and failure to enforce laws to protect the environment and prevent pollution.
- The absence of any adequate monitoring of the human impacts of oil-related pollution – despite the fact that the oil industry in the Niger Delta is operating in a relatively densely populated area characterized by high levels of poverty and vulnerability.
- Failure to provide affected communities with adequate information or ensure consultation on the impacts of oil operations on their human rights.
- Failure to ensure access to effective remedy for people whose human rights have been violated.
The report also examines who is responsible for this situation in a context where multinational oil companies have been operating for decades. It highlights how companies can take advantage of the weak regulatory systems that characterize many poor countries, which frequently results in the poorest people being the most vulnerable to exploitation by corporate actors. 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. They have been systematically denied access to information about how oil exploration and production will affect them, and are repeatedly denied access to justice. The Niger Delta provides a stark case study of the lack of accountability of a government to its people, and of multinational companies’ almost total lack of accountability when it comes to the impact of their operations on human rights.
More oil is being prospected and discovered throughout Africa. Rather than an outdated holdover from an ugly past, Shell’s pollution of the Niger Delta is probably the model for oil exploitation across the African continent. Only if African countries stand up for themselves and their people, can the devastating effects be mitigated. Far too many governments in Africa are not accountable, or only barely accountable to their people. And even where there is a will, the outside powers and donor countries will not make it easy. Look at what is happening in Somalia, another potential source of oil. The international donor countries are keeping it destabilized in the name of fighting “terrorism”. When Somalia did develop its own government in 2006, it was rapidly crushed by the US using Ethiopia as a proxy. This is what is known as stability operations.
In response to a question, I was talking to someone in the neighborhood where I work about pollution and oil exploitation in the Niger Delta. He was not really interested and brushed it off, saying, “we have to get our oil from somewhere.” This is someone with whom I’ve had a number of friendly conversations, and generally think of as a nice guy. I think his response typifies the attitude of people in the US, and in the developed and rapidly developing world.
Just as the European colonial powers spoke of bringing Africa the 3 Cs, Christianity, Civilization and Commerce, the US, and the US Africa Command speak with straight faces of bringing Africa the 3 Ds, Defense, Diplomacy, and Development. It was a mirage the first time, and this is pretty much the same thing, minus Christianity. It is not done to benefit the people of Africa but to fool them. It is like the distraction of a magician, so you don’t see how he does the trick.
To paraphrase Kenyatta’s allegory, “when the Whiteman came to Africa, he was holding a Bible in one hand and asked us to close our eyes and pray. When we opened our eyes after the prayer, his other hand was holding a gun and all our land was gone!” Africa’s colonial history was characterised by military occupations, exploitation of its natural resources and suppression of its people. After testing decades of independence, these countries are now jealously guarding their sovereignty and are highly suspicious of foreigners, even those with good intentions.
There are many professed good intentions, and very few genuine good intentions among the powers gathering around for this latest scramble for Africa, particularly in the search for oil. It behooves Africans to be very wary indeed.