Dutch Court Orders Shell Nigeria To Compensate Nigerian Fish Farmer

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In a landmark trial brought against the Royal Dutch Shell Plc., Europe’s largest oil company in a Dutch court by Nigerian farmers and campaign group Friends of the Earth, a verdict has been reached finding Shell guilty in one case and dismissing the four others.

The suits was filed in 2008 at The Hague, where Shell has its global headquarters, seeking damages for lost income from contaminated land and waterways in the Niger-Delta region, where Nigeria’s oil industry is sited.

The Nigerians – fishermen and farmers – said they could no longer feed their families because the region had been polluted by oil from Shell’s pipelines and production facilities.

The pollution is a result of oil spills in 2004, 2005 and 2007, they said.

“Shell Nigeria has been sentenced to pay damages in one of the cases,” Henk Wien, judge of the District Court of The Hague, said today. “In the four cases as regards an oil spill in 2004 near the village of Goi and as regards an oil spill in 2005 near the village of Oruma, Shell Nigeria had taken sufficient precautions to prevent the sabotage from its underground pipelines.”

The farmer who won compensation, 52-year-old father of 12 Friday Akpan, said he was very happy with the judgment because it would allow him to repay his debts.

“I am not surprised at the decision because there was divine intervention in the court. The spill damaged 47 fishing ponds, killed all the fish and rendered the ponds useless. “Since then I have been living by God’s grace and on the help of good Samaritans. I think this will be a lesson for Shell and they will know not to damage people’s livelihoods,” he said in the Niger Delta city of Port Harcourt.

However, the other claimants who lost were dissatisfied with the ruling.

Friends of the Earth spokesman Geert Ritsema said they would appeal against the acquittals “because there is still a lot of oil lying around. These sites need to be cleaned.”

Ritsema said hundreds of other Nigerians in the village of Icot Ada Udo, where farmer Friday Akpan lives, can now take similar legal action. He also said it was also new that an oil company was being held responsible for failing to prevent sabotage.

Shell, in its own reaction, said the case would not set a precedent because its parent company was not held responsible.

“We’re satisfied with the outcome, but none of this helps resolve the local situation which is serious because of the sabotage,” Allard Castelein, Shell’s vice-president for environment, told reporters at the court. “It’s too early to say whether we will appeal, we will study the ruling, but I don’t think this will give us reason to appeal.”

“We will pay compensation. We didn’t lose the case. It was not operational failure. The leak was the consequence of sabotage,” he added.

“Shell Nigeria should and could have prevented this sabotage in an easy way,” the court ruling said. “This is why the district court has sentenced Shell Nigeria to pay damages to the Nigerian plaintiff.”

It had before the judgement claimed that the oil spills were caused by acts of sabotage which it repaired and cleaned up the spills and that the court lacks jurisdiction to rule on the liability of a unit that is based in Nigeria, which the court agreed with, and not poor maintenance as argued by the claimants.

A legal expert said the ruling could make it possible for other Nigerians who say they also suffered losses due to Shell’s activities to file lawsuits in the Netherlands.

“The fact that a subsidiary has been held responsible by a Dutch court is new and opens new avenues,” said Menno Kamminga, professor of international law at Maastricht University.

The court did not just examine the role of the parent company, but also looked “at abuses committed by Shell Nigeria, where the link with the Netherlands is extremely limited,” he said. “That’s a real breakthrough.”

There were 198 oil spills at Shell facilities in the Niger Delta last year, releasing around 26,000 barrels of oil, according to data from the company. The firm says 161 of these spills were caused by sabotage or theft, while 37 incidents were caused by operational failure. Local communities say Shell under reports the amount of barrels spilled.

People who live in the Niger Delta say their land, water and fisheries have been blighted for years by oil pollution and activists have called for oil companies in Nigeria to be held to the same standard as elsewhere in the world.

Shell is facing ongoing legal action brought in a UK court on behalf of 11,000 members of the Niger Delta Bodo community, who say the company is responsible for spilling 500,000 barrels in 2008. Shell has admitted liability for two spills in the Bodo region but estimates the amount spilled is far lower. Bodo’s case could be heard in the High Court in London next year.

It is the first time a Dutch-registered company has been sued in a domestic court for offences alleged to have been carried out by a foreign subsidiary.

The suit targeted Shell’s parent company in the Netherlands and its Nigerian subsidiary, which operates a joint venture between the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, Shell, Total E&P Nigeria Limited and Nigerian Agip Oil Company Limited.

Shell Nigeria is the largest oil and gas company in Nigeria, Africa’s top energy producer, with an output of more than 1 million barrels of oil or equivalent per day.

In October, Shell lawyers said the company has played its part in cleaning up the Delta, which accounts for more than 50 percent of Nigeria’s oil exports.

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