Feb 1st 2013, 16:57 by G.P. | ABUJA
ON JANUARY 30th a Dutch court ruled that Shell, Nigeria’s biggest oil producer, must compensate Friday Akpan, a farmer from the Delta region, for the pollution of his farmland and destruction of his livelihood. The ruling could open a flood-gate to legal complaints against oil companies.In 2008, five Nigerians, including Mr Akpan, filed suits in The Hague where Shell has its headquarters. The other four cases were dismissed; the court said Shell could not have prevented the spills involved. Environmental campaigners insist the company was negligent. Amnesty International says the dismissal highlights how difficult it is for Nigerians whose lives have been affected by oil pollution to get justice.
Court orders and regulatory fines are rarely enforced in Nigeria. According to a 2011 United Nations report on the Ogoniland region in the Niger Delta, restoring the area, much of which is covered in thick, black oil, could take up to 30 years. It would cost $1billion just to start the clean up. Little progress has been made since the report was published. Bad laws, lax regulation and corporate exploitation make environmental degradation even worse in Nigeria.
Shell says that nearly 26,000 barrels of its oil was spilt last year in 200 incidents in the Delta. Some 55 were the result of “operational mishaps,” including poor maintenance of facilities but 144 were caused by sabotage or people siphoning oil from pipelines. Oil theft is increasingly a cause of oil spills in the region. The illegal refining of stolen oil is common in the Niger Delta. But in a region with few jobs, poor health care and dire schools, it is little wonder people resort to refining stolen oil. For some, it is the only way left to make a living.