Threats to the livelihood of communities by the operations of multinational oil corporations in the oil-producing areas of the Niger Delta.

1. Immediate effects of pollution

a) Gas flaring

Testimonies to wasteful oil industry operations, gas flares are a distinctive feature of the Niger Delta landscape. Most of these flares burn 24 hours a day and some have been doing so for over 40 years. Communities near these flares are deprived of even the comfort of night's natural darkness.6

Natural gas is a by-product of oil extraction; it is removed from the earth's crust along with the crude oil. Natural gas does not have to be flared off, and in many countries there is little flaring. Other options for managing natural gas include reinjection into the subsoil, storage for use as a source of energy by local communities, and transportation for use in other projects elsewhere. Yet companies in the Delta opt for flaring because, even with the minimal fine per barrel of gas burned that has to be paid to the government, it is by far cheaper than the alternatives. Though these "savings" may appear rational to companies, the reality is that local communities are being forced to pay the very high cost of losing a potential valuable resource, and living with the resulting pollution.

Though it hasn't been fully assessed, the impact of gas flares on the local ecology and climate, as well as people's health and property, is evident. The extremely high levels of CO 2 and methane gases that are released to the atmosphere also impact climate patterns beyond the local level.7

We witnessed many such flares in our visits to communities: their heat was so intense it was impossible to get near them. A constant loud roar accompanied the thick column of smoke emanating from them, fouling the air. The associated gases could be smelled from hundreds of meters away.

Yet, the oil industry seems blatantly oblivious to the conse-quences of this wasteful practice. We met with Mr. Bobo Brown, Shell Nigeria's Eastern Division public relations offi-cer, who denied that communities were harmed by gas flare pollution, and even claimed that local residents benefited from these flares because they could dry their foodstuffs for free by setting them near the burning gases, a visibly ridiculous cost-benefit estimate.8

b) Acid rain

Acid rain, a direct result of gas flaring, is taking its toll on the Niger Delta. Acid rain not only deprives people of drinkable rainwater9 and stunts crop growth (as we found in Eket and other communities in Akwa Ibom State), it is also affecting people's homes. In Iko, Eket, and Etagberi we were told that zinc roofs, which formerly lasted 7-10 years (and were a good alternative to labor-intensive thatched roofing), are now destroyed within one or two years by acid rain. This has led many home owners to resort to asbestos roofing, which although is more resistant to acid rain, it is also more expen-sive and hazardous to health.

c) Pipeline leaks

In addition to the grave problems associated with gas flares, on-site oil leaks and ruptured pipelines are a serious problem in the Niger Delta. Decrepit pipelines, some reportedly over 40 years old, criss-cross villages and land, some of them above the ground. These pipes are rusty and in obvious need of repair.

On average, three major oil spills in the Niger Delta are recorded each month. In the first quarter of 1997 alone, Shell recorded 35 incidents of oil spills in its operations.10 In June 1998, it was reported that a leak near the Otuegwe 1 commu-nity that had been going on for months had spilled over 800,000 barrels of crude from a 16-inch buried pipeline belonging to Shell. The resulting ecological devastation seri-ously impacted the residents of Otuegwe 1 community.11 Villages in many areas claimed that when pipelines corrode and leak, oil workers will inspect but not repair the leak. Instead, villagers say, oil companies often claim sabotage.

Under Nigerian law, companies are not obliged to clean up or compensate for the effects of spills caused by sabotage.12

Incidents have continued into this year. On September 17, 1999 there was an explosion at the fishing and farming community of Ekakpamre, in Delta State.13 Residents in the Etche area told us about a recent spill that went untended for weeks, even though, villagers said, Shell had been alerted as soon as the leak was discovered. According to the secretary of the local Community Development Committee, Shell's work-ers repaired the leak the day before the arrival of our delega-tion to Etche.14 In describing Shell's reported sluggishness to repair leaks, Chief Thankgod Albert of the Etagberi village, where Shell has 44 wells, said: "They [Shell] don't treat us like humans. They treat us like animals."15

The threat of pipeline explosions puts people at risk of death or injury. In October 1998, a pipeline leak that flooded a large region near the village of Jesse exploded, causing the death of over 700 people, mostly women and children. In Ogoni, Rivers State, we saw above-ground pipelines that crossed right in front of people's homes. In the community of Umuechem, Rivers State, we saw above-ground rusty pipelines that stretched as far as the eye could see. Some of these pipes appear to be greatly corroded, which increases the risk of spills.

2. Long-term effects of pollution

a) On health

The delegation has reason to suspect that serious respiratory problems witnessed in many communities can be linked to environmental pollution. Respiratory problems, coughing up blood, skin rashes, tumors, gastrointestinal problems, different forms of cancer, and malnourishment, were commonly reported ailments in many communities. Many children have distended bellies and light hair, which are evidence of kwashiorkor, a protein-deficiency syndrome. Residents repeatedly attributed the spread of kwashiorkor in their communities and the drastic decline in fish catch and agriculture to the pollution of rivers, ponds, sea waters and land by oil industry operations.

Another problem facing the people of the Niger Delta is the illicit use of land by oil companies. In the community of Umuebulu, Rivers State, hardly 50 meters away from its perimeter, there is an unlined chemical waste pit belonging to Shell. The company reportedly acquired this land under the pretense of building a "life camp"—Shell's lingo for an employee housing complex. We were stunned to see this site through a chainlink fence in the concrete wall surrounding the facility. The wall keeps people out but doesn't serve as a protection against the noxious fumes coming from the site. Some members of our delegation who live near similar waste sites in the United States immediately recognized the smell of industrial waste. The community said that requests for disclosure of information about the source of the smells and their possible effects on health, as well as compensation for already visible symptoms (such as skin rashes) attributed to pollution, have gone unheeded by Shell.16

There was an oil spillage that occurred in Epubu community that was discovered and reported on the 5th and 14th of December, 1998. The operators of the current burst [pipe] . . . is Nigerian Agip Oil Company. And up till this moment of this interview that spill has not been cleaned. The flora and fauna and the entire ecosystem of the place is destroyed. To be candid, I don't know what Epubu community has done to Nigerian Agip Oil Company. We are contributing to the growth of Nigerian Agip oil company. We know that the operators of the . . . oil [com-panies] are there to maximize [their] profit. But you don't maximize your profit to the detriment of the people. [This] oil spillage that has occurred since December 1998 to 9th of September 1999 has not been cleaned. The government of the state is also aware of that. You can see the level of injustice the community is going through. We have approached Nigerian Agip Oil Company on several occasions to go and clear this spill. We have written [a] series of letters guaranteeing the secu-rity of their personnel. Yet Nigerian Agip Oil Company has refused and the ecosystem of the place is destroyed.

Excerpts from our interview with His Royal Highness, Chief Nikuman Ebe Obom, the Paramount ruler of Epubu, Sept. 9, 1999, Port Harcourt.

In Umuakuru, Rivers State, we heard of a similar example of misleading practices by the same company. Residents told us Shell had approached the community to obtain approval to build a recycling plant near the village. The community agreed, and the site was fenced all around; nothing else happened for several years. An indepen-dent environmental impact assessment commis-sioned by residents of Umuakuru later revealed that Shell intended to build an incinerator and a composting unit to process sewage sludge for industrial and medical waste from its employee hospital in Port Harcourt.17 Despite the commu-nity's efforts to halt the process, community residents fear the construction will proceed. 18

b) On the environment

Loss of biodiversity

The Niger Delta has the third largest mangrove forest in the world, and the largest in Africa. Mangrove forests are important for sustaining local communities because of the ecological functions they perform and the many essential resources they provide including soil stability, medicines, healthy fisheries, wood for fuel and shelter, tannins and dyes, and critical wildlife habitats. Oil spills are contaminating, degrading, and destroying mangrove forests.19 Endangered species—including the Delta elephant, the white-crested monkey, the river hippopotamus, and crocodiles—are increasingly threatened by oil exploitation. 20

Destruction of habitats

The construction of infrastructure for oil facilities is done with little or no regard for environmental considerations. To facilitate road construction, waterways are frequently diverted, to the detriment of fish populations.21

Sudden and drastic changes to the local environment by oil companies are sometimes accompanied by direct loss of human life. For example, the Egi community has reportedly lost five children in the last few years who during the rainy season drowned in "burrow pits" dug by Elf to extract sand and gravel for road construction.22