Witness from Amnesty International: Episode 5 – Bodo

Amnesty International has launched a brand new podcast series ‘Witness from Amnesty International’. The series introduces listeners to the organization’s Research and Crisis Response teams – whose investigations take them to some of the most dangerous and volatile places on earth.

TANYA: I’m Tanya O’Carroll. And this is Witness from Amnesty International. We are going to take you behind the scenes to follow our investigations into human rights abuses around the world. Stories about what it takes to uncover the truth when there are people who would prefer the truth to stay buried.

MARK: The Niger Delta is one of the world’s largest and most important wetlands. The huge area of creeks and rivers and streams is where the Niger Delta, comes down and meets the Atlantic. And its home to about 30 million people who live as farmers and fishermen and women reliant traditionally on the land.

It’s also one of the world’s most valuable oil producing regions. If you look down from space you’ll see all these creeks crisscrossing, a network of creeks, but on top of that in your mind, a network of enormous pipelines crisscrossing this whole area as well. And there are a massive number of oil spills every year… hundreds of oil spills every year along these pipelines. And so this environment has been destroyed and the lives of many many people living there has been appallingly badly affected by this pollution.

TANYA: That’s Mark Dummett, a business in human rights researcher here at Amnesty International. He’s telling the story this episode – and it’s a David and Goliath tale about what happened when a little town in the Niger Delta took on a giant of the oil industry – Shell.

MARK: So my job is to try and hold companies to account for human rights abuses. And that often means working in the Niger Delta because the oil companies there are serial offenders.

A lot of the work I do results from events that took place in a small community called Bodo in 2008.

Back then, my colleague Audrey Gaughran, a former Nigeria researcher got a phone call.

AUDREY: I think a key thing with the first phone call on Bodo was that it came from someone who was from Bodo, a contact of ours who’s from Bodo. And it was the level of his, ‘this is urgent. This is big. Can you look into this? Can this be part of what Amnesty is doing?’

MARK: The call was from Zabbey Nenibarini, an activist who worked for one of Amnesty’s key partner NGOs in the area, the Center for Environment, Human Rights and Development. He said there’d been a massive oil spill in water close to Bodo and that Shell’s response had been wholly inadequate.

AUDREY: It was the sense that a company was able to dismiss a community so totally, that the oil could just keep spilling and lines could be spun and no one seemed to care. It was something very disturbing about how all of those people’s lives could just be so completely dismissed as ‘that’s just another story from the Niger Delta.’

MARK: Then another one of my colleagues – Makmid Kamara – visited the community .

MAKMID: The first thing that greeted me was the stench of crude oil. I’ve never experienced proper crude oil smell. That was the first time. And it choked me. We first went to a fish farm. It was all black. What will normally be green… water where you can see fishes and all sort of aquatic animals living – was all covered black. Dead frog, dead crab, periwinkle shells scattered on the floor. Cassava leaf – black. White sandy beaches were all black sandy beaches. Wooden canoes and boats with different colours and flags – people decorate their boats and stuff – everything there was covered black and lifeless and empty, and it was not just the emptiness of the space. It was emptiness of life. You can feel that something had been killed here. Life had been destroyed.

MARK: The impact on the people of Bodo was absolutely devastating. The oil slick covered the creek where generations had fished. And Shell’s response?  They’d offered food. 50 bags of rice, 50 bags of beans, 50 cartons of tomatoes, 50 tins of ground nut oil… to feed a community of 69,000 people.

AUDREY: We went to see Shell and they just stonewalled, in fact, they kept talking to us about the breakdown in our relationship, which – as my colleague in the Netherlands said – it’s not like we were married! We had engaged with them before constructively. The minute we brought a problem to them, they just shut down and gave us line after line, several of which we’ve just demonstrated ‘that is not factually correct’. That was the kind of conversations we had with Shell. They were on some level, they felt unreal.

MARK: Conversations with Nigerian officials were also frustrating.

AUDREY: Based on the reaction that we got from, particularly from people in the government sector, who we interviewed, who would go on the record, Shell is God. Shell runs everything here. You do not go into the area where you are publicly criticizing Shell -that would be seen as bad for your career. Politically, a bad thing to criticize this company. And there must’ve been a pre-existing sense that Shell was not happy with information being disclosed, because we knew there was a study called the Niger Delta environment survey. We had heard of this massive study funded by Shell, and we met people who had been part of it. And the study is, is apparently about a foot and a half off the ground. If you, if you hard copy it. We met people who had worked on it. We met professors and we interviewed them and every single one of them, and I’ve never encountered this as a researcher, every single one of them refused to give us access. Normally when you’re an Amnesty researcher, somebody will give you something, nothing. It’s never been leaked.

MARK: But in some ways, Bodo was lucky. Certainly compared to other communities in the region.  Zabbey, the activist who originally alerted us to the spill, is an environmental scientist. And Bodo’s his home. He’d actually taken samples from the water in the Bodo creek before the spill, as well as after – therefore providing hard evidence of the impact of the contamination.

And the Bodo community had one other advantage.

Unlike many villages in the Delta, they’d actually kept the documentation that Shell gave them about the spill. The company admitted there’d been an incident, but said that it was a relatively small one. It was obvious that this was way off. This is important because the Nigerian government calculates compensation claims based on how much oil is spilt. In claiming it was a small incident, Shell could therefore try to avoid paying a fair amount to the affected community.

But how to prove that Shell was wrong? The team began to gather their evidence.

AUDREY: So we gave the coordinates to Amnesty’s tech team and ask them to see what they could find. Their stuff was absolutely compelling. It was a huge area. The satellite imagery was extremely clear.

MARK: What are the satellite images actually show because there’s the spill and it’s pumping out crude oil into water. Five years later on the, in the satellite image, what was actually visible?

AUDREY: You can do a spectrum analysis, which shows whether there’s healthy vegetation or not. And the satellite image experts who did it, were able to demonstrate the extent to which the vegetation had died off, the extent to which there was pollution ongoing and absent any other explanation, it was consistent with everything the community had told us. So it was a very exciting piece of evidence to get hold of.

MARK: There was also a lot of work to do on the ground in Bodo itself, slowly building connections with the community and gathering testimonies. This is something I’ve been involved with since I joined Amnesty. There’s a process in getting to know these communities. You begin with a formal ceremony. For example, you take cola nuts, or Palm wine or gin, and you’re greeted by the elders. You deliver a speech explaining who you are and where you come from. And then the villagers give speeches in turn. In one community close to Bodo, I visited the chief’s right hand man, who talked about the village’s history going right back to the first time a British colonial officer arrived in the community.

‘Who are you?’ They want to know, why have you come here? What do you want to take?’

The history of the Niger Delta is very much of outsiders coming in and taking slaves and then oil. And so it’s understandable that they think we’re just coming to take their stories. Makmid Kamara:

MAKMID: It took us months to build these relationships. We go there, speak to the people. Try and keep in touch, give your numbers and just sit in, sitting in people’s homes for instance, and watch them cook, eats their bole, their roasted plantain and, and, uh, and fish. It it’s heavenly. It was really good. So I’ll go. And because people knew that I love that roasted plantain and roasted fish and very spicy they’ll prepare it and keep it for us.

So this was all eating together. Paramount ruler of Bodo… He used to call me his son cause we’ll go there. And we sort of talking about same….We’ll talk about football. He use to support…I think he supported Liverpool, my father supported Liverpool and I support Manchester United so we’ll have a whole argument about football before talking about, um, pollution  and the serious issues that were there for.  That helped in, in letting them know that we were not just there as robots trying to collect information. We were actual people who cared about them and the life behind the stories that we were going for.

MARK: It was also important to be honest about what Amnesty could – and couldn’t – do.

MAKMID: We let them know our own limits. I will tell them that, okay, we don’t have money will not give you money. We’ll take the information. I will amplify it. We’ll let people know, and then they will put pressure on the government, but will not tell you that the government will do what we ask them to do because the government can make their own decisions.

MARK: In 2011, the Amnesty team published a report that brought together all of the evidence and testimonies they’d gathered about the Bodo spill. And around the same time, the Bodo community also approached a legal firm here in London who were interested in bringing a case against Shell. Other communities have found it impossible to hold Shell to account in Nigerian courts. Cases there can literally last decades and most of the lawyers with the experience to mount a case of this size and complexity, were already employed by Shell or the other oil companies. The lawyers here proposed suing Shell, a British Dutch company, in a UK court. The Bodo community agreed to the proposal, and now it became more important than ever to gather evidence.

This was when all the trust-building work really started to pay off… and Zabbey, the activist in Bodo, forwarded Audrey a video that a local man had taken of one of the oil spills.

AUDREY: And this just showed Shell coming in at a certain point to one of the spills still ongoing and the oil spurting way up in the air out of the pipeline, that Shell was sort of digging out to do whatever patch job that it was going to do on it. And, first of all, it was a great piece of footage to use for campaigning.

Then we looked at it and said, well, is there any way to use this to start measuring the flow of oil? And that’s when we sent to an expert to start to gauge how much oil is flowing per minute. And what would that be over the period of time that the community say that the oil was not turned off

MARK : A few days later, Audrey got an email from the experts.

AUDREY: I think I went straight down to our media department and we started to talk about how we would put this out, because this was an explosive piece of evidence that we could talk about. Like we’re talking about thousands and thousands, tens of tens of thousands of barrels of oil have been spilled. And they said four, and we have the paperwork where they said four and we have them on record saying it’s four, and then on top of this, we have this flow rate thing. So that the amount of oil spills could not possibly have been the small amount.

MARK: In March, 2012, Bodo’s legal team filed papers at the high court in London on behalf of thousands of community members. It was the first time Shell or any other oil company had faced claims in the UK of this kind. A few weeks later, Amnesty joined together with Nigerian activists and communities for a global week of action to highlight the situation in the Niger Delta. Makmid led a group, including many people from Bodo, to Shell’s office in Port Harcourt.

MAKMID: We are marching along the streets of Port Harcourt going into Shell’s office. We had informed the police, we had informed the authorities and because it was Shell, the authorities were worried because of the level of hatred against the company. And they were worried that people will join this protest. People will come and go out of control. So we were escorted by two armoured tanks, a lot of anti-aircraft weapons. And it was true because the moment we walked along, the crowd increased and I got worried because I was a man in charge of security and the crowd was just increasing and we were going to Shell.

And the last time people did this, people were killed.

So we got to the shell compound, heavily guarded military all over the place. And people were inside. Even the shell staff were inside watching and you can see people and the soldiers were getting restive and everybody was getting nervous. So this guy came up and stood on top of this open hill and took the mic and started speaking. And reciting Ken Saro Wiwa’s speech. You know, this was his last speech in court and people were going all over the place, shouting and singing the solidarity songs. You’ll have goosebumps if you were there.

But we were able to do this because people hated Shell. And, but even the military who were there. You had military officers like giving us thumbs up. You don’t get that from the Nigerian Military to protestors showing solidarity with protestors this is what also made me feel I was doing the right thing for the right people. I was standing on the right side of history.

MARK: Of course, Shell pushed back. The company claimed that there had been other spills in Bodo, caused by community sabotage, and that was why the damage was so extensive on the satellite photographs. To counter this, Audrey began to look into the Nigerian government’s regulatory practices in the Delta and specifically the oil spill reports that its watchdog – the National Oil Spills Detection and Response Agency, or NOSDRA – produced.

If there had been other spills in Bodo as Shell claimed, there would be other reports, but could Audrey get access to the database to find out?  The agency, although technically impartial, works closely with Shell… the company notifies them of a spill, tells them when to inspect it…  sends cars to collect their staff and accompanies them into the field.

Audrey and her colleague –Marlene-  decided to doorstep NOSDRA in Port Harcourt. The agency’s director showed them into his office and began to explain for the benefit of two women, how things worked.

AUDREY: We decided in the course of that conversation, that if you’re going to treat two female researchers as dumb, then we would play with that and we sat down and just ‘really, wow. That’s fascinating.’ And the guy just kept telling us stuff. So towards the end, we knew we wanted to get hold of any database they had. And we asked about all the old oil spill investigation reports, and we asked him in quite innocent way since it, but ‘how do you do that? How do you capture it? Oh, but you couldn’t possibly then be able to go back.’

And he told us that, of course we were completely wrong and of course they could. And we asked him. ‘Could we see it, that will be so interesting for our research?’ And he led us into a room where his colleagues, his more junior colleagues did look at him as if to say don’t do that. But he led us into the room and he showed us the database, which had every spill from 2006, seven, I think on it.

And he started to show us how to use the screen. And he then left the room. So we sat there and we just photographed as many screens as we could until he came back and threw us out. It was, it was enormous fun. I have to say sitting in that office and just thinking, okay, just keep, keep going.

MARK: The report showed that there were no additional spills, no community sabotage. Shell’s claims were false.

And the court case in London too, was generating more evidence against the oil company.

AUDREY: The first thing I remember was when Shell had to admit in those documents, having for years said, these spills were just this amount of around 4,000 barrels for two spills. Having consistently repeated that over and over and over in the documents had to admit not only were those figures not right, but they were under, they didn’t say how far under, but it was such a huge admission.

And I do think a lot of people at Amnesty who’d worked on the case and who’d had the financial press and the investors, essentially believing shell felt incredibly vindicated because it can be very hard when you’ve got hard evidence that something’s wrong and nobody’s picking it up. And the second thing that came out of the court papers was the level of disrepair of shells infrastructure in the Niger Delta and internal reports that show that they had known there were serious problems in the geographic area, where Bodo is, they had known about it. They had failed to do anything about it.  So that level of negligence, of knowingly allowing risk to continue would not have come out without a UK court case. Never would have come out in Nigeria. But without the capacity to get a court to compel this, who is ever going to be able to do anything about it?

MARK: Shell finally offered the Bodo community an acceptable level of compensation – 55 million pounds… substantially higher than its original offer of 4,000 pounds.

AUDREY: It was almost scary because we looked at the 55 million. Then we looked at what was the original offers. They might’ve had to accept the original offer if they hadn’t found the lawyers. It was insane what could have happened in that case, but nobody pays over 55 million if they have not, if there’s not a serious, serious issue there. So it exposed shell enormously.

MARK : It was huge news and a great victory for the community. When I visited a few months after the compensation had been paid, the place was buzzing. People were building new houses… and I spoke to one fisherman, who’d been able to buy a powerful outboard motor that allowed him to go beyond the pollution in the creek and fish in clean water once again.

But four years on, it’s now a much more complicated picture. Shell still hasn’t cleaned up the creek despite promising to do so. And Bodo is once again considering whether to take the oil giant to court here in the UK.

And, of course, there are many other Bodos… other communities suffering from oil pollution in the Niger Delta.

AUDREY: Environmental pollution in the Niger Delta is a lived reality today and cannot go away without a massive effort to clean it up. If no one will admit responsibility and pay for the clean-up, you might as well just say you, your children, your children’s children. This is your legacy. This is all you’ve got because no one’s ever going to change it.

And that, I can’t believe that that’s actually, a situation that is permitted to persist, but I don’t think that there’s a government and I know there’s no company that will do anything about it. They can’t admit liability for all of this because their shareholders would never take it.

And frankly, when I started working on this issue on oil spills in the Niger Delta, I used to meet people who sounded quite, I thought strident on how bad Shell was, and I remember thinking, God, you sat a little bit OTT …. over the top on this. I can’t believe how much they were containing it to some degree.

And you’re trying as a researcher with a human rights organization, always be as measured as possible, neutral as possible in your language. It’s almost impossible in the face of just this insane refusal to engage with what they have done in the Niger Delta. And what they’ve done at Bodo is just one example.

It’s one of the worst, but it’s by no means the only example of what Shell has done in the Niger Delta.

TANYA: Amnesty’s calling on Shell to finally clean up its pollution in the Niger Delta. If you’d like to join our campaign, go to Amnesty.org

This episode of Amnesty’s Witness was presented by Mark Dummett. It was produced by Cathy FitzGerald, with original music by Stephen Coates. Our thanks to Audrey Gaughran and Makmid Kamara.