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A Victory for Farmers in a David-and-Goliath Environmental Case

A Victory for Farmers in a David-and-Goliath Environmental Case

An appeals court said that a small group of farmers in the Niger Delta region whose livelihoods were affected by oil spills in 2006 and 2007 should receive payouts.

Elian Peltier and : Jan. 29, 2021Updated 11:52 a.m. ET

A Dutch court on Friday ruled that a subsidiary of the giant British-Dutch multinational Royal Dutch Shell was liable for oil spills in the Niger Delta in Nigeria in 2006 and 2007, ordering the company to compensate a small group of residents in the region and to start purifying contaminated waters within weeks.

The subsidiary, Shell Petroleum Development Company, acted unlawfully by allowing the leaks to occur and by failing to clean up the area that had been contaminated, the Court of Appeal in The Hague found. The delta, in southern Nigeria, is the heart of the country’s prolific oil industry.

The decision was the latest development in a yearslong judicial saga that pitted four Nigerian farmers against the company, and it could pave the way for more cases against the oil firm in the region.

The court ruled that the Shell subsidiary in Nigeria should issue compensation, but it did not hold Royal Dutch Shell itself responsible. The decision can be appealed to the Dutch Supreme Court.

Oil spills damage the environment in the Niger Delta every year, impacting the livelihoods of people living there, who argue that faulty maintenance and poor security measures by oil firms are responsible.

The farmers, along with the Dutch branch of the environmental group Friends of the Earth, sued Shell in 2008, arguing that the oil spills in 2006 and 2007 had ruined the workers’ livelihoods by polluting the agricultural land and ponds they rely on.

Shell, which is headquartered in The Hague, has long been accused by local populations and environmental organizations of causing serious environmental problems and human rights abuses through its activities in the Niger Delta region.

The leaks on pipelines affected fishing ponds and lands in two villages, Oruma and Goi, and residents are still affected by the spills 15 years later, according to environmental groups.

Nigeria is Africa’s largest oil producer, and Shell, through its Nigerian subsidiary, began exporting from fields in the Niger Delta in the late 1950s. It manages around 50 oil fields, five gas plants, and more than 3,000 miles of pipelines, according to the company.

Shell and other oil firms, like the Italian company Eni, have long been dogged by accusations of pollution in the region. In 1994, Bopp Van Dessel, the head of environmental studies for Shell Nigeria resigned, arguing that he felt unable to defend the company’s environmental record “without losing his personal integrity.”

“Any Shell site that I saw was polluted,” Mr. Van Dessel later said on British television. “It was clear to me that Shell was devastating the area.”

In 2008, a U.S. cable released by WikiLeaks revealed that three-quarters of pipelines in Nigeria were more than a decade overdue for replacement, with some that had a life expectancy of 15 years still in operation after 30.

Shell and Eni have argued that most of the leaks have been caused by sabotage. Nonetheless, under Nigerian law, oil firms are responsible for ensuring effective safety and practice standards.

“Sabotage, crude-oil theft and illegal refining are a major challenge in the Niger Delta,” Bamidele Odugbesan, a spokesman for Shell’s subsidiary in Nigeria, said in an emailed statement. “Regardless of cause, we clean up and remediate, as we have done with the spills in this case.”

One of the plaintiffs, Eric Dooh, welcomed the decision on Friday, although he called the ruling a bittersweet victory since two of the three other plaintiffs had died since the case began, including his father.

“Finally, there is some justice for the Nigerian people suffering the consequences of Shell’s oil,” Mr. Dooh said.

Rachel Kennerley, a London-based climate campaigner at Friends of the Earth, said the ruling should serve as a reminder to oil firms and governments.

“For too long, companies like Shell have been shirking their responsibility for the impact of the dirty industry they push on communities around the world,” Ms. Kennerley said in a statement.

“Thirteen years of fighting for justice has finally turned this around.”

Stanley Reed contributed reporting.

Elian Peltier is a reporter in the London bureau of The New York Times, focusing on breaking news. @ElianPeltier

Claire Moses is a writer for The Morning based in London. Before joining The Times in 2017, she worked at BuzzFeed News and other news outlets. She is originally from the Netherlands. @clairemoses

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