Pastor Christian Lekoya Kpandei showing the damage done to his fish farm in Bodo, Nigeria, May 2011. Photo credit: Amnesty International
You can clearly see, and smell, the oil that pollutes the waterways near Bodo, as well as the destruction it has caused to the mangrove trees lining the shore. But what shocked me most was the silence of the place.
As Africa’s most populous country, Nigeria is usually bustling with noise and activity. But amidst the oil-stained creeks of the Niger Delta I saw hardly a soul – no-one fishing, washing clothes or playing in the water. It was silent.
Seven years ago there were two large spills here. Thousands of barrels of crude oil gushed out from a Shell-owned pipeline, which the company later admitted was old, hazardous and poorly maintained. In both cases it took the company more than 10 weeks to plug the leak. Shell has still not started the clean-up.
Yet walk away from the creeks, and things become louder, and happier. Bodo town is a hive of activity. The school’s sports field is full of children in bright blue uniforms. Many people are building new homes, or repairing the roofs of their old ones. Lots of the young men seem to be driving brand new motorcycles.
The source of much of this activity is the compensation that Shell agreed to pay the people of Bodo earlier this year. Following a three year legal battle at the High Court in London, the company agreed in January to pay them £55 million. Each member of the community, including children, is now receiving 600,000 Naira (about £2,200), paid directly into their own bank account.
When I first heard about this thing it was a joy, because throughout this period Shell had not given even one Naira to the community. But in every home now something is happening.Pastor Christian Kpandei
No Nigerian community has ever received so much compensation from an oil company before. Communities mostly accept the small amounts of money that the oil companies offer them, knowing that cases can get lost in the Nigerian legal system. The people of Bodo were the first to complain to a UK court. Their success has raised hopes among a raft of pollution-affected communities.
I travelled to Bodo to see what impact the payout had had. Pastor Christian Kpandei, who worked closely with Amnesty International for years to highlight the damaging impact of the oil spills, showed me the new bore hole he had sunk to provide drinking water and fill a pond for fish farming.
“When I first heard about this thing it was a joy, because throughout this period Shell had not given even one Naira to the community” said Pastor Kpandei. “But in every home now something is happening.”
Meanwhile, Patricia Barima Bakel told me she could now afford to send her children to school. Her husband John has bought a new outboard motor for his boat so he can travel beyond the contaminated stretch of water in search of larger stocks of fish.
“The pollution destroyed our livelihoods, as we could not go fishing. We felt we were dying alongside those mangrove trees, but now I’m happy,” John Barima Bakel said.
Concerns over clean-up
With half of the compensation being paid directly to individuals, the rest is going to the community as a whole. Sylvester Kobara, the chairman of Bodo’s council of chiefs, explained that it is setting up a community-run foundation to pay for clean drinking water, new roads, and improve Bodo’s health and education facilities.
Yet speaking in the hall in the centre of the town where the council resolves disputes between community members, Chief Kobara said he was still frustrated, because of the ongoing pollution.
We still have not been given any dates. Shell told us they were going to start last year but nothing happened, then told us they were going to start this year but also nothing has happened. It is a mirage.Sylvester Kobara, chairman of Bodo’s council of chiefs
Shell has agreed to clean up the oil contamination, and a committee that also includes representatives of the government and civil society says it has started the process of hiring an international firm to carry out the work. If all goes well then the clean-up of Bodo could be a model for other affected parts of the Niger Delta. But Chief Kobara is worried, “We still have not been given any dates. Shell told us they were going to start last year but nothing happened, then told us they were going to start this year but also nothing has happened. It is a mirage.”
His scepticism is understandable. To begin with, it took Shell weeks to respond to the leaks. Then the company massively underestimated the amount of oil that was spilt, claiming much less harm had been caused to the creeks than the community said. When the people of Bodo originally asked for compensation, it offered them a paltry £4,000.
The final cost to Shell will be many times higher. The UN Environment Programme said it could take 30 years and billions of dollars to decontaminate the Ogoniland region, of which Bodo is a just a small part. Newly elected president General Muhammadu Buhari made the clean-up of Ogoniland one of his campaign pledges.
Meanwhile the spills continue. Amnesty International recently revealed that only last year Shell reported 204 spills while Italian company ENI, which operates in a smaller area, reported 349 spills.
Mark Dummett is a business & human rights researcher at Amnesty International. Follow him on twitter @MarkDummett