Oil Among the Mangrove Trees: a Portrait of Destruction in the Niger Delta, Then and Now

Oil Among the Mangrove Trees: a Portrait of Destruction in the Niger Delta, Then and Now

. 7 min read

There is change in Nigeria’s Niger Delta: this year, farmers in the region reaped little to no harvest, a sharp contrast to the image of thirty years ago. Some residents, such as Aibakuro Warder, a 51-year-old mother of five, noted that before oil spills spoiled the earth, the yam harvest was bountiful, with some tubers growing up to three feet long. Today, Warder struggles to even pay the cost of her children’s schooling with the revenue of her meager yield.

One reason for this dramatic change is the land, which beyond growing local crops, is home to a deep bed of oil and gas reserves that, since the 1970s, has made up more than 70 percent of Nigeria’s foreign revenue. In the years since oil was discovered in the region, the Delta has become one of the most polluted places on Earth, with roughly 300 oil spills occurring every year. One such spill in Shell’s Bonda oil fields released 40,000 barrels into the Atlantic Ocean, forcing 30,000 fishermen to abandon their livelihoods, and affecting 350 farming communities just like Aibakuro Warder’s.

For the people living in the region, the discovery of oil has ruined livelihoods and devastated the land and the health of residents, resulting in high rates of poverty and unrest. Worse, despite revenues, the Delta’s peoples have yet to benefit from the oil extracted from beneath their feet.

As with many of Nigeria’s current problems, this issue sees its roots in the days of British colonialism, in an era when the Delta was still fertile farmland with petroleum beneath.

Black Gold: Beginnings

The Niger Delta region is composed of nine states: Cross River, Akwa Ibom, Rivers, Imo, Bayelsa, Delta, Edo, and Ondo states. The region is known for its mangrove trees, rainforests, and swampland. Even after the discovery of oil, farming and fishing remained the main economic activities of the region. In 1908, the search for oil began, though it wasn’t until 1936 that Shell D’Arcy, now known as the Royal Dutch/Shell Group, would be created. 20 years later, the first successful well was drilled in Oloibiri, a town in Bayelsa state.

In 1970, Ogoniland, located in Nigeria’s southeast, saw the region's first major oil spill. Thousands of gallons spilled into farmlands and rivers, a mistake for which Shell would only pay for thirty years later when it was faced with an 80-million-pound fine by Nigerian courts. Spills continued: according to the Nigerian government, more than 7,000 occurred in the years between 1970 and 2000.

Indeed, Shell stands out among Nigeria’s five international oil companies. Producing 39 percent of Nigeria’s crude oil, Shell has dominated Nigeria’s oil industry since 1956. Local groups, however, claim there has been a steep cost, namely ecological disaster, a health crisis, and economic ruin for the Delta’s residents.

Negligence, Abuse, and Pollution: a Glimpse at Shell Oil Company

There is a price to being on top. For Shell, it comes in the form of a reported 1,010 oil leaks since 2011, equalling 17.5 million liters of oil spilled, the equivalent of seven Olympic pools. On October 10, 2004, one such leak, in the village of Goi in Rivers state, led to the forced evacuation of an entire town. The initial leak met a cooking fire, which then set the oil-coated creek and the mangrove canopy alight. It would be two years before clean-up efforts began, at which point one resident, Eric Dooh reported, “eating, drinking, and breathing the oil.”

The instance underscores what sources like Amnesty International call a willful disregard for human well-being by Shell. The claims date back to the 1990s, when Nigerian security forces that provided security to oil companies cracked down on Shell protesters in Ogoniland. Ken Saro-Wiwa, a writer and activist, and eight other environmental activists, dubbed the Ogoni Nine, were hanged. Two decades later, Amnesty International claimed they had found “thousands of pages of internal Shell documents, government reports, witness statements,” and more which “point to the Anglo-Dutch company’s complicity in murder, rape, and torture committed by the Nigerian government.”

Allegedly, Shell was aware of its environmental impact. Shell’s 1994 head of environmental studies Bopp Van Dessel even stated, “Shell managers were not meeting their own standards; they were not meeting international standards … it was clear to me that Shell was devastating the area.” Supposedly, they knew the risk of calling for military intervention and of the human rights violations in Ogoniland, and went as far as to urge the government to stop the Ogoni protests; in a letter to government officials, Shell executives asked that they resolve the “problem” that the Ogoni protests had on their business. Amnesty also noted that Shell encouraged the intervention by security and military forces, provided logistical support for those forces, and in these actions, “was complicit in the execution of the Ogoni Nine.”

Despite rejecting all culpability in the execution of the Ogoni Nine, in 2009, the company reached a US$15.5 million dollar settlement to the families, making it one of the largest payouts by a multinational corporation for human rights violations.

Shell, for its part, has made commitments to sustainability in Nigeria. Shell also claims to contribute to local economic growth in the countries it operates in through “direct employment, through [their] supply chain activities, by working with governments and partners to help create jobs, and by supporting the development of local businesses or suppliers.” Strikingly, they pledged, in 2019, to fund the US$1 billion cleanup of the oil spill with the backing of the UN. If successful, the effort would have marked a new chapter for Shell in Nigeria. However, far from solving anything, the cleanup process left Ogoniland more contaminated than ever before. The effort was led by the Hydrocarbon Pollution Remediation Project (Hyprep), whose governing council and board of trustees both sit in Shell’s local subsidiary Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria (SPDC). According to UN reports, the group’s mismanagement, waste, and lack of transparency, as well as botched storage attempts of oil-soaked soil, allowed chemicals to seep into previously uncontaminated grounds and creeks, meaning that, in the end, the cycle of devastation went unbroken.

Destruction of Both Land and Body

“[Bayelsa] used to be green, you could go to farm or fish. We used to have a very impressive harvest. You would spend just an hour in the water and you would have a lot of fish,” said Udengs Eradiri, the State Commissioner of Bayelsa in 2019. Now, the fish have abandoned the water, following, according to one estimate by the Rise For Bayelsa campaign, 40 million liters of oil spilled every year across the Niger Delta. Ecological destruction is one of the most obvious byproducts of drilling in the Delta. Oil contamination clogs wetlands, and is often difficult to remove without causing further damage. The tides sweep the oil onto vegetation, causing asphyxiation of plants. Consequently, the death of mangrove vegetation disturbs the delicate balance of the ecosystem, bringing harm to both plant and animal life. The contamination further sabotages the farmer, who sees a reduction in the nutritional content of staple foods, such as cassava.

Oil contamination is especially hard on the human body. Studies have linked it to heavy metal exposure, and the increased levels of chromium, lead, and mercury raises the risk of diseases like Alzheimer's, Parkinson’s, cancer, diabetes, and kidney damage. Other studies show the devastating effects on maternal health, with women living in highly contaminated areas being more prone to experience premature rupture of membrane—in other terms, early water break—postpartum hemorrhage, and cesarean sections compared to their non-exposed counterparts. Contamination also increases infant mortality, as infants in Nigeria have “double the risk of dying before they reach a month old if mothers lived near the scene of an oil spill before conceiving.”

Beyond spillage, another industry practice threatens the life of residents every day. Gas flaring—the process of burning off the excess natural gas that is released while drilling for oil—releases the carcinogenic chemical benzene and naphthalene into the air, as well as black carbon, which can cause difficulty breathing, heart and respiratory disease, and strokes.

Outbreaks of violence and unrest:

Oil has perhaps even transformed Deltan society beyond recognition. In Bayelsa, three-quarters of the population relies on farming and fishing to survive, two industries traditionally hit by oil contamination. The poverty is abject, with some of the Delta’s peoples living on less than a dollar a day. Despite oil playing a massive role in the Nigerian economy—making up 90 percent of the nation's earnings—Niger Deltans are yet to see improvements from the revenues. Only a small fraction of Niger Deltans are engaged in the process of oil production as the majority of manpower, technical knowledge, machinery, and equipment are imported. And funding generated from Deltan oil finds itself spent in other regions of the nation.

For some youth, the lack of opportunity, the absence of policing infrastructure, and access to weaponry, make crime a lucrative option that contributes to the region’s epidemic of violence.

Looking Ahead

While the current situation seems bleak, local advocacy groups have been celebrating a turn in the tide against major oil corporations like Shell. In one case, four farmers sued Shell in its home country for oil spills that blighted their farmland. After a thirteen-year court battle, and a landmark court ruling, the Hague Court of Appeals found Shell liable, making it the first time the parent company had been sued in its home jurisdiction for the actions of its Nigerian subsidiary. The victory came after a ruling from a lower court decided the parent company could not be held liable for its subsidiary's actions in 2013. Shell’s local subsidiary was then ordered to pay damages to the farmers, as well as carry out an intensive cleanup of the communities.

More recently, on March 14, 2022, a Nigerian court forbade the sale of any of Shell’s assets in Nigeria, following a 2020 High Court order to pay 800 billion Naira (US$1.95 billion) to 88 communities in Rivers State, where an oil spill occurred, allegedly damaging farms and waterways. The ruling was joined by a February 2021 decision from the UK Supreme Court that  allowed oil-polluted Nigerian communities to sue Shell in English courts.

Deltans have also developed a rich protest culture. In the 1990s, protestors pressured oil companies to spend more on community development, and as recently as December 2021 protesters rose up in light of what activists such Professor Monday Godwin-Egein described as “...the biggest oil spill disaster in the history of oil and gas exploration and exploitation in Nigeria.” Godwin-Egein is President of the Nembe Se Congress, a local interest group that “stormed the Nigeria Union of Journalists’ (NUJ) press center with placards,” calling on the oil company, Aiteo Eastern Exploration and Production Limited, to stop the contamination.

It goes to say that though tragic, the Delta is not an abandoned cause. As companies like Shell increasingly face justice, and breakthroughs occur in foreign courts, perhaps the pleas of Deltans will be heard at last. And perhaps, one day, the Delta will be green once more.