Human rights abuses, pollution, environmental destruction and wasteful gas flaring: the oil industry in Nigeria
The West African nation of Nigeria is home to some of the richest and most diverse ecological systems in the world. The Niger River Delta in particular, contains four separate ecosystems: coastal barrier islands, mangrove swamp forests, freshwater swamps, and lowland rain forests. Nigeria also has a major petroleum industry, ranking 12th in the world for production, 10th for known reserves and 8th in oil export. Unfortunately the environmental treasure trove that is the Niger Delta is also the country’s main oil producing region.
Amnesty International has spearheaded a campaign against Shell Oil in Nigeria. According to a BBC News report from June 30th, 2009 Amnesty claims that “the oil industry has resulted in impoverishment, conflict, human rights abuses in the region” as well as massive spills and pollution, of which the Nigerian government does not hold the petroleum companies accountable for. Shell maintains that 85% of this pollution comes from sabotage and attacks by local militants. Nigeria is a notoriously dangerous place for foreign oil workers, who risk being kidnapped or worse. Though the militants claim that they are fighting for the rights of the local population, it is also clearly a roundabout, albeit unscrupulous way for them to make money from Nigeria’s petroleum business.
Nigeria’s oil industry has its roots in British colonialism and it seems that much of the industry is still under foreign control, with various oil companies competing in a climate of ethnic and civil unrest. Political corruption, instability and poor management by the government are exploited and companies like Royal Dutch Shell, Chevron and Exxon-Mobil have avoided compliance with regulations and the maintenance of leaky pipelines. The hostility of the militants and of a population who feel that they have not seen the rewards of their own country’s resources contribute to a climate that is both fearful and lax, yet at the same time very profitable for the companies and the Nigerian government.
Another shocking practice of the oil industry in Nigeria is natural gas flaring, which is the burning off of excess gas released during oil production. Gas flaring results in massive amounts of toxic pollution and greenhouse gasses, causing compound negative effects such as poisoning plants, people and wildlife as well as choking the air and contributing to climate change. According to research scientists at National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the United States, some gas flares are so large it is said they can be spotted from space. Though flaring is known to be extremely wasteful and environmentally harmful, it maximizes crude oil production and harvesting this gas for use is more costly and less convenient than extracting natural gas from deposits. This is a typical example of what happens when industry is unregulated or laws are not enforced: a clear lack of corporate responsibility and a willingness by companies to maximize profits, whatever the human and environmental cost.
Hope for the future?
In a landmark case conducted at a federal court in New York, Shell recently paid $15.5 million to victims of human rights abuses including the families of nine murdered Nigerians, among them writer Ken Saro-Wiwa. The company still faces prosecution in international court for livelihood damages to Nigerian fishermen and farmers from oil spills. Hopefully cases like these will have some significant impact on how large corporations conduct themselves in Nigeria and other developing countries, both in terms of human rights and environmental responsibility.
Watch this Al Jazeera English report on the oil industry around the Niger Delta, where oil spills, gas flaring and other harmful practices carry on amidst an environment rife with fear and shocking poverty. This multi billion-dollar industry flourishes in a place where ‘most get by on less than a dollar a day […] neglected in one of the richest nations on earth’.
By Graham Land