The Nigerian community that took on Shell and won
Joe Westby, business and human rights campaigner
Ever since two massive oil spills destroyed people’s lives in Bodo, Nigeria, Amnesty activists worldwide have supported their fight for justice.
Six years on, we won: Shell paid the community £55 million compensation in January. We visited to find out what difference the money is making, and what needs to happen next.
As our car turns the last corner of the dusty road leading through lush vegetation to Bodo, I feel excited to be back. This small town is less than two hours’ drive from the big industrial city of Port Harcourt in south-eastern Nigeria. But it might as well be another world.
Out here in rural Ogoniland – a small part of the Niger Delta region – people still fish and farm for a living like they have done for centuries. Or they did, until the oil took it all away.
Amnesty International has been a pillar of support for the Bodo community.
Compensation money bearing fruit
This isn't my first visit. Amnesty has followed this community’s story closely ever since sticky, black oil started gushing out of two broken pipelines and into their water and land – first in August 2008, and again four months later.
This is by far my happiest visit. For the first time in seven years, the people here are getting their lives back on track.
Today, Bodo is a hive of activity. People are building new homes, or fixing up their old ones. Many young men seem to be driving brand new motorcycles. Children are back in school, running around the sports field in their bright blue uniforms.
Shell’s compensation money – £20 million paid to the whole community and £35 million divided between 15,600 residents, including children – is clearly bearing fruit.
Beyond the pollution
My old friend, Pastor Christian Kpandei, greets us at his house, and we drink milk from coconuts on his neatly kept grass surrounded by vegetable patches. He introduces me to John and Patricia Barima Bakel, a married couple with four children.
For them, paying school fees became impossible after oil killed the periwinkles (an edible sea snail) Patricia sold for a living, and John couldn't fish anymore.
Even finding firewood became hard, because so many mangrove trees died. So no wonder Patricia says she was “very, very happy” when the Shell settlement was agreed. Their children are now back at school, and she can “put my hand in my pocket and buy food and phone credit”. John has bought a new engine and made his boat bigger, so he can travel beyond the pollution to catch fish.
A thank you to Amnesty's activists
Pastor Christian Kpandei, a “born and bred” Bodo fish farmer with a congregation of 300, is one of the community’s most vocal activists. He also lost everything when the oil spills killed the fish in his ponds.
"It was beyond my imagination," he told us in 2011. "As the tide came in with the crude oil, it covered all the fish ponds."
I saw all of my fish dying, in one day. Everything we put in, all the labour, all just in a moment disappeared.
Nowadays, his daughters are also back at school. He happily shows me a brand new borehole created to provide drinking water and fill a new fish pond. One day soon, he hopes to produce 10,000 catfish a year.
Pastor Christian is deeply grateful to Amnesty, our activists and our local partner organization, the Centre for Environment, Human Rights and Development (CEHRD). Together, we signed petitions and staged protests to make Shell pay for the damage they caused in Bodo.
Time for Shell to clean up
Chief Sylvester Kobara, Chairman of Bodo’s Council of Chiefs, greets us at the community hall in the town centre, where local disputes are resolved. “Amnesty International has been a pillar of support for the Bodo community,” he says. “You have given us quite extraordinary support.”
He says the compensation money will help improve local education and health services, and provide better drinking water.
But Shell’s payment will not fix all of Bodo’s problems. Above all, the people of Bodo want the pollution cleaned up. If your livelihood has been destroyed, compensation only goes so far.
Down by the creek, I can smell the oil. The water is dirty and lifeless, and the mangrove trees lining the shore black and bare. The whole place is eerily silent: no one comes to fish here anymore. This creek that was once the very soul of Bodo – the so-called “fish basket” of the local county, Gokana – is just a sad shadow of its former fertile self.
Making a difference together
Chief Kobara worries that despite Shell’s repeated promises to clean up, “we still haven’t been given any dates. It is a mirage”.
I understand his skepticism: in 2008 it took Shell weeks to respond to the first reported oil leaks, and the company massively underestimated the amount spilled and harm caused to the creeks. Its first offer of compensation in 2009 was a paltry £4,000 for the whole community.
If all goes well, Shell’s cleanup in Bodo could be a model for the rest of Ogoniland, where oils spills have destroyed lives and livelihoods since the 1950s. Amnesty’s research shows that in 2014 alone, Shell reported 204 spills in the Niger Delta region.
As I say my goodbyes, I feel proud of the difference CEHRD, Amnesty and our activists have made by standing by the people of Bodo.
And as our car heads back up the road to the big city, I know we will be back soon. For as long as the pollution remains here we will keep pushing, alongside the resilient and resourceful people of this town, for Shell to clean up their mess once and for all.
I don’t know how to express my joy. I thank you very seriously. I am happy for what you have done for the Bodo people.