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.

Chief Sylvester Kobara, Chairman of Bodo’s Council of Chiefs
Amnesty’s happiest visit to Bodo yet, 11 March 2015: Pictured from left: Patricia Barima Bakel, researcher Mark Dummett, Pastor Christian Lekoya Kpandei, campaigner Joe Westby, Beatrice Vimonge and John Barima Bakel.

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.

Joe Westby

Bodo’s compensation

£4,000
Shell’s first compensation offer, 2009
£55M
Final Shell payout, 2015
£2,200
Estimated amount paid each to 15,600 people in Bodo

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.

Joe Westby

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.

Pastor Christian Kpandei, 2011

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.

On 28 August 2008, equipment failure causes the first oil spill in Bodo. Shell claims it started on 5 October, but Nigerian regulators confirm the August start date. Shell finally stops the oil pouring out into the swamp on 7 November 2008 (pictured).
Bodo’s second oil spill begins on 7 December 2008 – also caused by equipment failure. Shell stops it on 21 February 2009, having let the oil flow into the environment for 10 weeks. In this photo from May 2011, Pastor Christian Kpandei shows the effect the spills had on his fish farm.
Nigerian NGO, the Centre for Environment, Human Rights and Development, and Amnesty start researching the oil spills together. These false-colour satellite images of Bodo from 2006 (left) and after the oil spill in 2009, show healthy vegetation turning from bright red to black, indicating plant death in an area of around three square kilometers.
After negotiations break down, UK law firm Leigh Day & Co sues Shell on behalf of the Bodo community in London’s High Court, 23 March 2012.
Activists in the Niger Delta and worldwide call on Shell to ‘Own up, Pay up, Clean up’. It results in over 300,000 signatures, which we hand over at Shell’s offices, The Hague, Netherlands, on 4 July 2012 (pictured).
Amnesty’s Secretary General Salil Shetty visits Bodo in October 2012 to show that we continue to support them.
The Bodo community is featured in Amnesty’s yearly Write for Rights letter-writing campaign in December. Community representatives, including Dinebari David Vareba (left) and Pastor Christian Kpandei, visit Amnesty France to speak at a human rights rally.
Tireless activism and worldwide support – including from this congregation in Mississauga, Canada – pays off: On 7 January 2015, Shell agrees to pay the Bodo community an historic £55 million in compensation.

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.

Pollution costs and oil profits

100,000
Minimum oil barrels spilled in Bodo, August 2008 (no estimate exists for the second spill)
$1BN
Estimated initial five-year clean-up cost for all of Ogoniland (Source: UNEP)
$3.2BN
Shell’s first quarter profits January-March 2015

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.

Joe Westby

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.

Pastor Christian Kpandei