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Nigeria: campaigners won’t let Saro-Wiwa die

The Observer: Nigeria: campaigners won’t let Saro-Wiwa die

Sunday June 26, 2005

People living in the shadow of Shell refineries and pipelines will be converging on the oil giant’s annual meetings in London and The Hague this week in order to draw attention to its record on pollution and human rights.

Community representatives and environmental campaigners from Siberia to Texas, and from Nigeria to the Philippines, will be among those seeking to put polite but embarrassing questions to Shell’s board this week.

Co-ordinated by Friends of the Earth, it’s an increasingly well-organised – and impatient – campaign, which this year marks the tenth anniversary of Ken Saro-Wiwa’s death.

‘Shell keeps promising to make improvements, but we’ve yet to see anything done,’ says US campaigner Tashica Miles. ‘Now I want to stop talking, and see some action.’

Saro-Wiwa, a poet, was executed by Nigeria’s then-military dictatorship after leading protests against Shell’s activities in the West African country’s Ogoni region.

Although Shell has always strongly denied playing any part in his fate, the episode badly damaged its public image. Ever since, the company has emphasised its commitment to social responsibility and tried to appear sensitive to the concerns of local people.

So an ‘alternative’ annual report on Shell – compiled by Friends of Earth and published this week, to coincide with the AGM – will not be welcome reading for company chiefs. The Observer has seen an advance copy of the report, a renewed assault on Shell’s much-vaunted ‘green’ credentials.

Miles represents inhabitants of Port Arthur, Texas, who live close to a major refinery run by Motiva, in which Shell has a 50 per cent stake. They allege that sporadic accidents in plants run by several oil companies in the area have contributed to respiratory diseases and above-average levels of cancer in the local population.

‘Shell’s official line is that there’s no direct cause,’ says Miles. ‘They say they have employees working there whose health is fine. But those workers don’t live next to the refinery, they’re not subjected to it all the time. The employees are also middle class people, with access to good healthcare. The communities I represent are poor.’ People living closest to the refineries are about 1,000 in number, says Miles, yet in 2003 four of them – all under the age of 25 – died of brain cancer. One in four children, she claims, is born with a respiratory problem.

‘We know we can’t ask them to shut the refinery,’ says Miles. ‘But we would like them to invest in relocating communities to a safer distance from the refineries, and to contribute more to healthcare … We’d also like more consultation. We want to be a part of all the things they say they’re doing to help.’

Yesterday Shell said that it had achieved a 75 per cent reduction in emissions at the plant since 1990, and that data from the Texas environmental regulator showed that air quality in the area was good. A spokeswoman added that Lord Oxburgh and Jeroen van der Veer had visited Port Arthur and met community representatives last year.

Another advocate in London this week is Patrick Naagbanton from Nigeria, where Shell has a greater presence than any of its rivals. Naagbanton is spearheading legal efforts to end Shell’s practice of ‘flaring’ close to residential areas in the Niger Delta. This involves burning excess natural gas from oilfields near ground level and leaves some communities constantly overshadowed by towers of flame. The environmental consequences of flaring are not established and Shell denies it is damaging to health, but the practice is rare in the West.

‘People in the Niger Delta don’t have the resources to get scientific studies done to assess the health impact,’ says Naagbanton. ‘But when huge pipes emit fire and soot in the heart of communities 24 hours a day, then it is clearly a grave threat to life.’

Shell says it has put out a third of its flares in Nigeria in the past year, and, in a slight delay to its original plan, will phase out flaring entirely by 2009.

Naagbanton also criticises Shell for frequent oil spills and leaks that damage wildlife and agricultural land. The company says it has reduced the volume of oil spilled by 19 per cent in a year. The overwhelming majority of incidents, it says, occur because of sabotage, and harassment from locals is often responsible for delays in cleaning up environmental damage. Naagbanton and Friends of the Earth reject this and allege that Shell’s pipeline network is falling into disrepair.

‘We are not saying Shell should not be in Nigeria,’ says Naagbanton. ‘But we have come here once again to tell the shareholders of Shell about the damage their company is causing at home. None of the assurances that Shell gave us last year has changed anything.’

The company will also face allegations about pollution and public health from residents and activists from the Philippines, South Africa, Ireland, Brazil, Curaçao in the Dutch Antilles, and Sakhalin, off Russia’s Pacific coast.

Shell denies it is causing excessive pollution and insists all the protesters’ fears are unfounded. It rejected Friends of the Earth’s allegations and added: ‘We contribute to sustainable development. We work with a lot of communities all over the world, and have good relationships with many campaign groups.’

But some politicians are not impressed. Norman Baker, the Liberal Democrat environment spokesperson, will host a reception for the Shell protesters tomorrow.

Richard Howitt, a Labour MEP who will protest at the company’s Hague meeting, last week called for the European Union to impose stiffer social and environmental obligations on Shell and other multinationals.

Whoever is right, Shell’s shareholders are not known to be overly concerned about social and environmental matters. But they may soon change their view – if only to stop their own gripes against the company being drowned out.

http://observer.guardian.co.uk/business/story/0,,1514502,00.html

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