Nigeria, Niger Delta - Communities Say 'Leave Oil in the Soil'

"People are born into pollution, they live in pollution, and they are buried in pollution.'' - Nnimmo Bassey, Executive Director of Environmental Rights Action, and Chair of Friends of the Earth International

Ogoni land, in the vast Niger Delta, is the ancestral home of communities who have lived there for centuries. To the Ogoni people their land is sacred and the souls of humans and animals are intertwined. Rituals, often with yam, are performed to honour the land and give thanks for its rich gifts of abundant food and water. Ogoniland was the home of Ken Saro-Wiwa, a human rights and environmental activist, who campaigned to protect his peoples' beautiful delta from the violations of the oil industry, until he was assassinated in 1995.

This was one of the many reactions to the fact that in 1993, the Ogoni people united and expelled Shell Oil from Ogoni land. Environment Rights Action (ERA) (Friends of the Earth Nigeria) work with the Ogoni to help them deal with the devastating impact which Shell Oil continues to have on their homeland and communities. It is hard to imagine, but when people visit the area they leave deeply shocked and outraged. For example there were two major oil spills in 2008 and 2009, which continued unabated for months. The local community were forced to abandon their traditional ways of farming and fishing as the thick oil killed the plant life and the rivers, suffocating the fish and caking the birds and animals in oil. An average of 2 oil spills are recorded EVERYDAY in Nigeria, so this is also a reality for many other communities in Nigeria.

Gas flaring is another major challenge in Nigeria, which is having devastating implications locally and globally. The burning off of associated gas from crude oil extraction is contributing to acid rain, desertification and drying up of rivers such as Lake Chad, and to global warming. These conditions are forcing pastoralists and fishermen to migrate as environmental refugees, which increases pressure on land elsewhere. Diseases, such as bronchitis, from fumes of the gas flaring, are also rife.

In 2011 the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) Report on their assessment of the environment of Ogoni land confirmed the concerns and claims of the Ogoni people. The Report found that, in over 40 locations tested, the soil is polluted with hydrocarbons up to a depth of 5 metres. Further, that all the water bodies in Ogoni land are polluted. UNEP also reported that the levels of benzene (a chemical known to cause cancer) in approximately 90 of the locations, is more than 900 times above accepted World Health Organisation standards. Yet this contaminated water is the source of drinking water for local communities. The UNEP estimated that it would take 35 years to clean up Ogoni land and water systems, and an estimated one billion US dollars to begin the clean up.

As Nnimmo Bassey (Executive Director of Environmental Rights Action, and Chair of Friends of the Earth International) highlights: "The figure in this report assumes all the funding comes in and the conditions exist to use them effectively. We have estimated that it will take between 300-500 billion dollars to clean the entire Niger Delta, and almost a lifetime to restore Ogoni land."

ERA has been supporting local communities in their call for 'leaving oil in the soil', and they have presented a proposal to the Nigerian government for no new oil fields. ERA have been involved in numerous campaigns and lawsuits to hold corporations to account, including the 2005 landmark ruling by a Nigerian High Court that gas flaring is unconstitutional, damages people and the environment, and must stop. Recently, the Bodo community filed a case in the High Court in London to sue Shell for damages to their ecosystems and community, and, in 2011, Shell admitted liability. However the struggle to stop oil spills continues - in December 2011 Shell spilled nearly 2m gallons of oil off the coast of Bonga, Nigeria, in the worst spill in Nigeria in 13 years.