Conflicts of interest and exclusion in Niger Delta oil spill investigation and clean-up

By Audrey Gaughran, Amnesty International’s Director of Global Thematic Issues, Madhu Malhotra, Director of Amnesty International’s Gender, Sexuality and Identity Programme, and Oluwatosin Popoola, Amnesty International’s researcher on Nigeria.

We have just come back from the Niger Delta, where we talked to scores of women and men from communities impacted by oil spills.

In our conversations, the women in particular shared their anger, anxiety, fear, pain and hopes with us. For many of them, being excluded from the process in the aftermath of oil spills compounded the damage they suffered from the events themselves.  

After oil spills in the Niger Delta a lot hinges on a form called a JIV, a Joint Investigation Visit.

Whenever an oil spill occurs – and there are hundreds in the Niger Delta every year – all the relevant details get recorded on these few pages: when the spill started, its cause, the volume spilt, the area impacted and if the oil slicks cover people’s farm lands and the waters they fish in. The information is then used to decide whether and how much compensation is given.

If the spill is found to be caused by sabotage or “third party interference”, the affected people get nothing. If the cause is equipment failure, they get compensation. The amount the community receives depends on how much oil was spilt and how it affected the impacted area.

In theory, the JIV process should involve the oil companies, the regulators and the community. However, based on our investigations, in practice it can be quite different. Communities are sometimes allowed to participate and sometimes excluded. Almost always the police or army are present.

Key data on the JIV form is filled in by the oil companies themselves – who clearly have a conflict of interest as they are liable for payment of compensation if the cause of the spill is equipment failure. Regulators show up for the investigation – but often without the necessary capacity to challenge company assessments. The weakness of the Nigerian oil regulators is well known – the World Bank and UN have noted how poor the system is. The UN Environment Programme, in a 2011 assessment of oil pollution in the Ogoniland area of the Niger Delta, described the regulators as being “at the mercy” of the oil companies when it came to conducting site visits.

In the past Amnesty International has found evidence that spills can be wrongly attributed to sabotage and the volume of spills caused by operational failures can be significantly underestimated. Both are serious for the communities – they either get no compensation, no matter what damage has been done, or they get far less than they should.

Many people in the oil-affected communities we spoke to knew very little about the JIV process.

When we asked women in communities affected by oil spills how they have been involved in various processes including the JIV, almost invariably their response was: “What is that?” Some had heard of the JIV, but even those who knew a bit more about it only did so through secondary sources in the community, rather than being directly involved themselves.

In many of Niger Delta communities we visited in Rivers and Bayelsa states women take a prominent role in economic activities, particularly farming. But even though it is the land they worked that is so often destroyed by oil, they are almost always excluded from the JIV process. The oil companies deal with village elites and chiefs, who are almost invariably male. Compensation is usually paid to leaders and landowners – again, almost always men.

One focus group of women we spoke to made their feelings plain: “We don’t need a mediator. We want them to talk directly to us as we are the ones who have to bear the pain of making sure that there is enough food for the family as our land has got polluted after the oil spills and is no longer productive, and there is no more fish left in our rivers to feed.”

Whether unwittingly or not, the oil companies and Nigerian oil regulators are reinforcing gender discrimination and economic disadvantage in the Niger Delta. Because oil companies only deal with a limited elite in most communities, many people have never heard of the JIV process and do not know its significance.

We also looked at clean-up processes, dominated by mostly male “contractors”.  We heard numerous complaints about the poor quality of clean ups carried out by contractors who were not qualified. A lack of transparency in the award of clean-up contracts feeds tensions and exacerbates distrust between some communities and companies.

Oil companies know that the JIV and clean-up processes are central to human rights and the environment in the Niger Delta – indeed, some are making efforts to improve their response.

But the problems run deep and cosmetic changes to the JIV forms or the communications are not enough. Real transparency about where all the data comes from and meaningful community participation are essential.

There is an urgent need to ensure that women in particular have direct access to information about oil spill investigation and clean up processes, which should be inclusive and transparent. This would be a significant step towards empowerment of women who are bearing the brunt of the impact of oil spills – on their livelihoods and overall well-being.

Read more:Shell’s Niger Delta pollution: the good, the bad and the ongoing quest for justice (Blog, 1 February 2013)
Nigeria oil judgment – A small step in the journey from travesty to justice (Blog, 21 December 2012)
Nigeria: The true ‘tragedy’: Delays and failures in tackling oil spills in the Niger Delta (Report, 10 November 2011)