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Irish Times: Oil exploration is a tale of woe for ethnic minority

Irish Times: Oil exploration is a tale of woe for ethnic minority

Jun 16, 2005

NIGERIA: The environment in Nigeria’s Delta region is being devastated because of the activities of oil companies, a local activist tells Deaglan de Breadun

Multinationals are involved in “reckless and careless” oil exploration and drilling in the Niger Delta, with devastating consequences for the environment. This is the allegation made against the international oil companies, particularly Shell, by Nigerian environmental activist Annkio Opurum-Briggs. Her charges are denied by a Shell spokesman.

Nigeria is the fifth largest oil producer in the world and the country’s oil and gas production is centred in the densely-populated Niger Delta region.

Ms Opurum-Briggs is a member of the Ijaw ethnic minority, one of many such groups in the Niger Delta and runs a non-governmental organisation called Agape (Greek for “love”) Birthright, founded in 1998.

She was in Ireland to speak on “Corporate Social Responsibility” at the recent NGO Forum on Human Rights in Dublin, at the invitation of the Department of Foreign Affairs.

Whereas most communities would probably consider it a bonanza if oil were discovered under their fields and farms, it is “a source of sorrow and oppression” to the inhabitants of the Niger Delta, according to Ms Briggs.

“A lot of problems have arisen in the Niger Delta. It has been underdeveloped,” she says. “We don’t have access to the resources. A decree that was put in place in 1976 took away our rights to access the resource. Immediately oil is found, it automatically belongs to the government.”

Part of the problem, as she sees it, is that the Niger Delta or “South-South” geopolitical zone gets only 13 per cent of the revenue generated by the oil and gas. Ms Briggs says there is a “crisis” in the Niger Delta because the inhabitants don’t derive proper benefit “as the owners of the resources” in the region.

Shell and other oil giants are involved in a joint venture for oil production in the Delta with the Nigerian government and Ms Briggs claims the environment is suffering badly.

“Shell is the worst of the oil companies that operate in the Delta, as far as the devastation of the environment is concerned. Shell takes the cake.”

Ms Briggs paints a grim picture of oil pipes bursting with consequent water pollution and devastating fires. “The Nigerian government has failed in the sense that so far it has been unable to make Shell live up to the standard of both international and national environmental laws,” she says.

Although she does not blame any of the oil companies, Ms Briggs claims she and her colleagues have been subject to threats and intimidation because of their activities. In addition to threatening phone calls, she says she was attacked in her home last year by about 12 armed youths who beat her up and destroyed her laptop computer and digital camera.

“I was hospitalised for 10 days,” she says. Five of these were spent “in and out of consciousness”.

A Shell spokesman said the “vast bulk” of oil-spills in the Delta region were “deliberately caused for economic gain”. It took different forms: raids by heavily-armed criminal gangs or compensation scams. Last year, 97 per cent of spills, in volume terms, were caused by “wilful damage”.

As for restoring areas subject to environmental damage, the Shell spokesman said that 542 sites had been fully cleaned-up and restored since 1999. Last year alone, official inspections certified 231 sites as being fully-restored and all of Shell’s major oil and gas facilities in Nigeria were certified under the International Standards Organisation’s environmental management system.

The Shell spokesman added that 95 cents in every dollar of oil revenue from the Delta joint venture goes to the Nigerian government. “We also employ about 20,000 people directly or indirectly in Nigeria. Our sustainable community development budget last year in Nigeria was $25 million.” Shell also made a statutory contribution of $68.9 million last year to the Niger Delta Development Commission.

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