Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Polluted Saro-Wiwa homeland turns green sixteen years after oil companies cease operations

Nigeria's oil-rich Ogoniland, famously home to Nigerian activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, is showing signs of recovery from pollution sixteen years after oil giant Royal Dutch Shell ceased production in the area due to insecurity.

OGONI, NIGERIA (RECENT) REUTERS -
Nigeria's oil rich Ogoniland environment is showing signs of recovery sixteen years after oil giant Royal Dutch Shell abandoned production due to growing agitation by the population for a share of the oil resources and an end to environmental damage.
Shell's disused oil well heads, flow stations, pipelines and gas flare terminals, all rusted beyond use and overgrown by tall grass, dot the vast Ogoni landscape.

They serve as a stark reminder of a tragic history in Ogoniland.

Experts point out that, as in many parts of the oil-producing Niger Delta, environmental degradation due to oil exploration in Ogoniland was never put in check and little or no redress for any environmental damage caused was given by oil companies. Oil spills poisoned soil, water, gas flaring caused air pollution, making life hard for local people whose livelihood depended on land for crops and water for fishing.

But today, 50 year-old Pauline Nomaa, a peasant farmer can feed her family through farming again.

"Right now I am very happy and excited. My crops are doing well. It is a good thing," she said.

Nomaa, who relies wholly on her farm to feed her seven children since her husband is unemployed, blames the oil companies for the pollution which had forced her family to live on the verge of starvation.

"My children and I went through a very rough time, we had nothing for food, nothing good came out of the land," said Nomaa.

Although Shell halted production from its 96 wells in Ogoniland in late 1993, oil from other parts of the Niger Delta continues to flow in pipelines running across Ogoni territory. This still poses a problem for Ogoniland since some of these pipes leak due to their old age or get vandalised by oil thieves.

Ogoniland became popular internationally in the 1990s when activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, outraged by environmental degradation, founded the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People to protest against oil companies in the area.

Saro-Wiwa and eight others were hanged in 1995 by the Nigeria's military regime of Sani Abacha after charges of murder were instituted against them. A tribunal considered a sham by many in Ogoniland found them guilty of instigating mobs to kill four Ogoni leaders from arrival faction.

But Royal Dutch Shell has agreed to pay 15.5 million US million to settle several lawsuits related to the executions of protesters in Nigeria in the 1990s, lawyers for both sides said on Monday (June 7).

The settlement came as the more than decade-long dispute was due to go to trial in U.S. District Court in Manhattan, said Paul Hoffman, a lawyer for the victims' families who had brought the cases along with the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights.

The lawsuit accused Shell of human rights abuses in the Niger Delta region, including violations connected with the 1995 hangings of Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other protesters.

Ledum Mitee, a practising lawyer in the oil hub Port Harcourt, is also the president of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP). He said that Saro-Wiwa's activities had made the Ogonis aware of their basic rights and it would be difficult for them to relive their past experiences.

"We didn't know what was night because the gas flares were 24 hours a day...things like corn, maize would not grow, would not fruit because they would just be attracted to the light and they were just growing without cobbing...that was the society I grew in. But today if you get to the place, since they (Shell) left you can see all that. I have always said that it will take a far more profound argument and conviction for the people to tell Ogoni people: 'Look, you need to get back to that area where you were many years ago.' It is going to be quite difficult," said Mitee.

Efforts by Royal Dutch Shell to return to Ogoniland were rejected by the Nigerian government last year.

Other oil majors who have been eyeing the lucrative Ogoni oil fields said they were weary of the Ogoni leadership's concern on safety and environmental issues, which often resulted into lengthy and sometimes hostile negotiations.

Harry Saro-Wiwa, brother of the late Ken Saro-Wiwa, leads the Ogoni Peace Initiative. He maintained that oil majors should heed to the needs of the host communities before starting production if conflict was to be averted.

"Let's get the modalities for which the oil will be taken, take the oil...that's all we are saying, dialogue but if you are not going to dialogue with us, the oil will remain there. And if you come by force we'll resist, even to the last man," said Harry Saro-Wiwa.

Harry Saro-Wiwa added that despite the successes made in Ogoniland to reduce pollution, there were new threats from developments in neighbouring oil producing areas.

"It's like we are now engulfed in a closed circuit, as if we were being heated in a closed circuit and I believe government should be concerned about this thing, before people keep dying again. Because the wind carries this thing around and when it rains it still pours it down, the flares might not be in Ogoni now but we are surrounded by flare, if you go around you will see," said Saro-Wiwa.

The Nigerian government has documented 6,817 oil spills between 1976 and 2001, but analysts have argued the figures could be much higher.