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Shell oil exploration and extraction, Nigeria


(Español, abajo) Summary of the case The corporation involved in the conflict is Royal Dutch Shell, based in the Netherlands, for the actions carried out by its subsidiaries in Nigeria, namely those of Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria Limited (Shell Nigeria). Shell Nigeria has been violating Nigerian laws prohibiting gas flaring since 1984, and with its leaks has transformed the once fertile wetlands of the Niger delta into the world’s largest oil disaster. Several studies point to the devastating effects of gas flaring on people and the environment, first and foremost the United Nations Environmental Programme 2011 Assessment Report, especially referring to the 1 million people affected by hydrocarbon pollution in surface water in Ogoniland, where benzene, a known cancer-causing chemical, was found in drinking water at a level 900 times above the standards of the World Health Organization. Fisheries in the area are completely destroyed, affecting at least 5 million fishermen who lack resources to pursue court cases, as well as crops and vegetation from the effect of acid rain, which has also caused miscarriages, deformed births, respiratory illnesses, and cancer. The consequences of the activity of Shell Nigeria are in violation of Article 24 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, which recognizes the right of all peoples to a satisfactory environment favourable to their development, and of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Government of Nigeria, which recognizes a number of fundamental rights including the right to life and dignity of the human person.

History of the conflict Royal Dutch Shell has been present in Nigeria since 1937, although the first oil exports started roughly twenty years later. Ever since, the country has depended on oil as its leading export source, with Shell being responsible at times for up to one-half of the total oil production (1). The contamination to which Shell has submitted the Nigerian population and environment can be traced to two main sources: gas flaring and oil spills.

Gas flaring has been prohibited since 1984, however oil companies can still flare with a special permit, the requirements of which are unknown. Furthermore, the fines for this practice are too low to deter companies from doing it, thus Shell keeps wasting a gas that could be used for other, more efficient purposes. The quality of life of the population, not surprisingly, is greatly affected. For instance, several studies have linked the appearance of acid rain to gas flares, which harms not only the Nigerian population but also the harvest and the fish from which they depend on. Shell has promised several times to end with flaring, but nevertheless it keeps pushing the deadline year after year.

An even more harmful devastation is caused by the estimated 1.5 million tons of oil spilled over the last 50 years in a region where 60 % of the people depend on the natural environment (2). There have been more than 7,000 spills between 1970 and 2000, and there are 2,000 official major spillages sites and thousands of other smaller ones. More than a thousand spill cases have been filed against Shell alone, although few have been resolved. These malpractices have destroyed the farmlands and fishponds of the estimated 30 million people living in the Niger Delta. Nevertheless, Shell avoids the responsibility of the spills and continues to blame them mostly on sabotage even though they personally admit that the pipelines are obsolete (3).

The pollution caused by Shell’s activities has been thoroughly documented. A 2011 UN Environment Program (UNEP) report evidenced the hydrocarbon pollution of up to 8 cm existing in the surface of the water creeks of Ogoniland and in groundwater that supplies drinking wells at 41 sites. In 49 of the examined sites, the soil was found to be polluted with hydrocarbon up to a depth of five meters, while benzene, a known carcinogen, was found in drinking water at a concentration 900 times higher than the acceptable levels defined by the World Health Organization (WHO). As it can unfortunately be expected, hardly none of the UNEP’s recommendations have been implemented.

Attempts to access to justice As it was said, hundreds of cases have been brought against Shell, who constantly disregards environmental laws and utilizes all its influence to avoid responsibility. Many of these were successful in obtaining a winning outcome, but getting the company to comply with the sentence has proved to be an almost impossible mission. For instance, in regard to gas flaring, for instance, a campaign led by Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth Nigeria (ERA/FoE) filed a national court case, together with the Iwherekan community in Delta State, on 2005 that ordered to stop gas flaring. However, Shell keeps pushing the deadline.

The most prominent case brought against Shell’s oil spills started in 2008. Milieudefensie/Friends of the Earth Netherlands took Shell to court in The Hague to seek clean up and compensation for the affected people. Shell was found guilty of negligence in one of the cases. Now the case has been appealed on the grounds of the parent company’s responsibility and the integrity of the pipelines, but again, as it often happens, technicalities have got on the way.

Shell often prefers to reach a settlement instead of going through with a case. At the beginning of 2015, the company avoided a London High Court case by offering a £55m settlement to the Bodo community for two large oil spills, which, according to Shell, amounted to 4,000 barrels, but that were calculated to be up to 60 times as much (4).

Not all cases are related to oil spills. Since 1990, the Ogoni have organized a resistance movement that has gathered thousands of people to request appropriate clean up. The Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum Co. (Shell) lawsuit in the US accused the company of aiding the Nigerian government in the execution of 11 activists in the Ogoni region. The lawsuit was dismissed after the Supreme Court ruled that the Alien Tort Claims Act does not apply extraterritoriality, blocking other lawsuits against foreign multinationals for human rights violations that have occurred overseas from being brought in U.S. courts (5).

Likewise, the family of Ken Saro-Wiwa, Shell’s fiercest critic who was assassinated by the Nigeria’s military regime, sued the company for its involvement in the financing and silencing of human rights violations. Days before the start of the trial, Shell agreed to pay $15.5 million as a settlement (6).

The role of the Architecture of Impunity Shell’s enormous power and influence, it being the 11th biggest corporation in the world, makes this a perfect example of how transnational corporations are able to work their ways around legislation and avoid accountability. Shell’s top executive in Nigeria admitted, in a Wikileaks cable released in 2010, that the company had “seconded people to all the relevant ministries [in the Nigerian government] and [...] consequently had access to everything that was being done in those ministries”. That may explain why after hundreds of oil spills cases in Nigerian courts, only a handful of these have had definite judgements (7).

Shell has among its shareholders some of the biggest firms in the world, thus expanding their influence globally. Where Shell has had to face cases for their activities – namely, US, UK and Netherlands, aside from Nigeria –, they put in full functioning their extensive network to try to block the proceedings. Among their board members are two former Ministers of Finance and Minister for Economic Affairs for Netherlands, former UK Cabinet Office Defense and Overseas Secretariat and a former British ambassador to the US.

What Justice could do: a say from the PPT In a hearing that was held in Geneva in June 2014, the Permanent People’s Tribunal (PPT) listened to the testimony of Goodwin Ojo, from Friends of the Earth Nigeria. Considering the evidence brought before the judges by this witness, the Tribunal recognized the actions of the transnational corporation as another example of violations of human and people rights. In line with its full judgement of Madrid, in May 2010, and just a few months before the session that was held in Mexico in December 2014, the PPT underlined once again how transnational corporations, including Shell, systematically violate human and peoples’ rights to their own profit. In the same line, the PPT recognized in this widespread practice the current shortcoming of international law, namely the impossibility of accessing justice and obtaining a remedy that is increasingly becoming an unbearable burden for affected communities, as well as for the laws that are supposed to give them shelter. In the same spirit, the PPT acknowledged the necessity to improve international legislation, including through a binding treaty on transnational corporations, and a Peoples’ treaty, in order to hold transnational corporations accountable for their actions.

Español Resumen del caso La empresa en conflicto es la holandesa Royal Dutch Shell, por las actividades de su subsidiarias en Nigeria, en particular las de la empresa Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria Limited (Shell Nigeria). Desde 1984 Shell Nigeria ha violado constantemente las leyes nigerianas sobre quema de gases, y con sus vertidos de petróleo ha transformado la fértil área del delta del Rio Niger en uno de los desastres ambientales más grandes del mundo. Muchos estudios, incluyendo el Informe de Asesoramiento de 2011 del Programa de Naciones Unidas para el Ambiente, confirman los efectos devastadores de la quema de gases tanto sobre las personas como el medioambiente, destacando los daños causados sobre más de 1 millón de personas por la contaminación de hidrocarburos en Ogoniland, donde se encontró benceno (un agente químico cancerígeno) en una cantidad 900 veces superior a la permitida por la Organización Mundial de la Salud. El sector pesquero de la zona está completamente destruido, así como la vegetación y las cosechas debido al efecto de la lluvia ácida, responsable también del aumento de abortos, deformaciones congénitas, enfermedades respiratorias y cáncer. Las consecuencias de las actividades de Shell Nigeria, son violaciones del Articulo 24 de la Carta Africana de Derechos Humanos y de los Pueblos, que reconoce el derecho de todos a un medioambiente favorable para su desarrollo, y de la Constitución del Gobierno Federal de Nigeria de 1999, que recoge diversos derechos fundamentales, como el derecho a la vida y la dignidad.

Historia del conflicto Royal Dutch Shell ha estado presente en Nigeria desde 1937, aunque las primeras exportaciones de petróleo comenzaron unos veinte años antes. Desde entonces, el país ha dependido del petróleo como fuente de exportación primaria, siendo Shell responsable en determinados momentos de hasta la mitad de la producción petrolífera total (1). La contaminación sobre la población nigeriana y el medioambiente de la que Shell es responsable puede explicarse por dos fuentes: quema de gas y vertidos de petróleo.

La quema de gas ha estado prohibida en Nigeria desde 1984. Sin embargo, las empresas petrolíferas todavía pueden continuar la quema con un permiso especial, cuyos requisitos no son públicos. Es más, las multas por continuar con esta práctica son demasiado bajas como para evitar que las compañías lo hagan, y por tanto Shell continúa malgastando un gas que podría utilizarse para otros propósitos más eficientes y menos nocivos. La calidad de vida de la población, como se podía esperar, se ve gravemente afectada. Por ejemplo, varios estudios han relacionado la aparición de lluvia ácida con la quema de gases, que daña no solo a la población local sino también las cosechas y la pesca de la que dependen los habitantes. Shell ha prometido en varias ocasiones que dejará de quemar gases, pero continúa posponiendo la fecha límite año tras año.

Aún más dañina han sido las más de 1,5 millones de toneladas de petróleo vertido durante los últimos 50 años en la región, donde más del 60 % de la población depende del medioambiente (2). Hay evidencia de más de 7.000 vertidos entre 1970 y 2000, y existen 2.000 zonas de vertido oficiales y otras miles de menor tamaño. Más de mil casos de vertidos se han presentado contra Shell, aunque pocos han sido resueltos. Están malas prácticas han destruido terrenos y aguas de las que dependían las 30 millones de personas que, se estima, viven en el Delta del Níger. En cualquier caso, Shell niega la responsabilidad sobre los vertidos y continúa culpando de la gran mayoría a casos de sabotaje a pesar de que admiten personalmente que las tuberías están obsoletas (3).

La contaminación causada por las actividades de Shell ha sido ampliamente documentada. Un informe del Programa de las Naciones Unidas para el Medio Ambiente (UNEP, en sus siglas en inglés) evidenció la presencia de hasta 8 cm de hidrocarburos en la superficie de los arroyos de agua en Ogoniland y en las aguas subterráneas de las que emanan hasta 41 manantiales. En 49 de las fuentes examinadas, se encontró contaminación de hidrocarburos hasta cinco metros bajo tierra, además de concentraciones de benceno (un agente químico cancerígeno) en una cantidad 900 veces superior a la permitida por la Organización Mundial de la Salud. Como es de esperar, prácticamente ninguna de las recomendaciones del informe han sido implementadas.

Intentos de acceso a la justicia Como se ha mencionado anteriormente, se han llevado a cabo cientos de caso en contra de Shell, quien constantemente desoye las leyes medioambientales y utiliza toda su influencia para evadir la responsabilidad. Muchos de estos casos fueron exitosos en sus veredictos, pero conseguir que la empresa respetara las sanciones se ha tornado una tarea prácticamente imposible. Por ejemplo, respecto a la quema de gases, una campaña llevada a cabo por Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth Nigeria (ERA/FoE) denunciaron a la empresa en una corte nacional en 2005, junto a la comunidad Iwherekan del Estado del Delta, que obligó a la empresa a parar la quema de gases. Sin embargo, a día de hoy, Shell continúa retrasando la fecha.

El caso más emblemático contra los vertidos de petróleo comenzó en 2008. La organización Milieudefensie/Friends of the Earth Netherlands llevó a Shell a juicio en La Haya para reclamar la limpieza del área contaminada y compensación para las personas afectadas. Shell fue declarada culpable en uno de los casos. El caso se encuentra ahora en apelación en base a la responsabilidad de la empresa matriz y de la integridad de las tuberías, pero de nuevo, y como normalmente ocurre, supuestos detalles técnicos están obstruyendo el proceso.

Shell normalmente prefiere llegar a un acuerdo económico o avenencia en vez de seguir adelante con un proceso judicial. A comienzos de 2015, la compañía evitó ir al Tribunal Superior de Londres al ofrecer 55 millones de libras a la comunidad Bodo por dos vertidos de petróleo, los cuales, según cifras de Shell, correspondían a 4,000 barriles, aunque otras cifras hablan de 60 veces más (4).

No todos los casos tienen que ver con vertidos de petróleo. Desde 1990, la comunidad Ogoni ha organizado un movimiento de resistencia que ha reunido a miles de personas reclamando por la limpieza de la zona. El caso Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum Co. (Shell) llevado a cabo en Estados Unidos acusó a la compañía de apoyar al gobierno nigeriano en la ejecución de once actividades de la región Ogoni. La demanda fue desestimada después de que la Corte Suprema concluyera que el Alien Tort Claims Act (Estatuto de reclamación por agravios contra extranjeros) no aplicaba la extraterritorialidad, bloqueando así otras demandas en cortes estadounidenses contra empresas multinacionales extranjeras por violaciones de derechos humanos llevadas a cabo fuera de su territorio (5).

De igual manera, la familia de Ken Saro-Wiwa, uno de los mayores críticos de Shell, asesinado por el régimen militar nigeriano, demandó a la compañía por su relación respecto a la financiación y silenciamiento de las violaciones de derechos humanos. Días antes del comienzo del juicio, Shell acordó pagar $15,5 millones como avenencia (6).

El papel de la Arquitectura de la Impunidad El inmenso poder e influencia de Shell, siendo la 11ª corporación más grande del mundo, hace a este caso un perfecto ejemplo de cómo las empresas transnacionales (ETNs) son capaces de sortear la legislación y evitar la responsabilidad. La persona con mayor poder de Shell en Nigeria admitió, en un cable de Wikileaks en 2010, que la compañía había “secundado gente en todo los ministerios relevantes [del gobierno nigeriano] y […] consecuentemente tenía acceso a todo lo que ocurría en esos ministerios”. Esto puede explicar por qué de los cientos de casos sobre los vertidos de petróleo presentados en tribunales nigerianos, solo un puñado han obtenido veredictos finales (7).

Shell tiene como accionistas a algunas de las firmas más grandes del mundo, ampliando su influencia de manera global. Allí donde Shell ha tenido que enfrentarse a procesos legales – es decir, EE.UU., Reino Unido y Holanda, además de Nigeria –, han puesto en funcionamiento su red de influencia para bloquear los procedimientos. Entre los miembros de su directiva se encuentran dos antiguos Ministros de Finanzas y de Asuntos Económicos holandeses, un antiguo secretario del Gabinete Británico de Defensa y un antiguo embajador británico en EE.UU.

Lo que la justicia podría hacer: una opinión del TPP En la sesión en Ginebra de junio, 2014, el Tribunal Permanente de los Pueblos (TPP) escuchó el testimonio de Goodwin Ojo, de Friends of the Earth Nigeria. De acuerdo a lo expuesto ante los jueces del tribunal, éste reconoció las acciones de la corporación transnacional como otro ejemplo de violaciones de derechos humanos y de los pueblos. De acuerdo a la sentencia de Madrid, en mayo de 2010, y unos meses antes de la sesión que tuvo lugar en México en Diciembre 2014, el TPP resaltó de nuevo cómo las corporaciones trasnacionales, incluida Shell, violan sistemáticamente estos derechos para su propio beneficio. El tribunal reconoció en esta extendida práctica la evidente limitación del derecho internacional. La imposibilidad del acceso a la justicia y a obtener remediación está convirtiéndose en una carga cada vez mayor para las comunidades afectadas, así como las leyes que deberían protegerlas. Así mismo, el TPP reconoció la necesidad de mejorar la legislación internacional, incluyendo un tratado vinculante para las corporaciones transnacionales y un Tratado de los Pueblos, para que así estas empresas sean consecuentes con sus acciones.

Basic Data

Name of conflict:Shell oil exploration and extraction, Nigeria
Location of conflict:All exploration concessions in the country
Accuracy of locationLOW (Country level)

Source of Conflict

Type of conflict. 1st level:Fossil Fuels and Climate Justice/Energy
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Oil and gas exploration and extraction
Gas flaring
Oil and gas refining
Transport infrastructure networks (roads, railways, hydroways, canals and pipelines)
Specific commodities:Crude oil

Project Details and Actors

Project details

The estimated 1.5 million tons spilled over the last 50 years is approximately equivalent to the total Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska in 1989 taking place every year . More than 7,000 spills between 1970 and 2000, and there are 2,000 official major spillages sites and thousands of other smaller ones. The amount of gas flares that are kept burning day and night can produce as much CO2 as three million cars driven on roads in Europe .

Las más de 1,5 millones de toneladas de petróleo vertido durante los últimos 50 años en la región equivale aproximadamente a la cantidad total vertida en el desastre de Exxon Valdez en Alaska en 1989, cada año. Hay evidencia de más de 7.000 vertidos entre 1970 y 2000, y existen 2.000 zonas de vertido oficiales y otras miles de menor tamaño. La cantidad de gases que se queman día y noche pueden producir tanto CO2 como tres millones de coches en las carreteras de Europa.

Type of populationRural
Affected Population:30,000,000
Start of the conflict:01/01/1937
Company names or state enterprises:Royal Dutch Shell (Shell) from Netherlands
Relevant government actors:Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), London High Court (UK), US Supreme Court, District Court of the Hague
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth Nigeria (Nigeria), Friends of the Earth Netherlands (Milieu Defensie), Global Campaign to Dismantle Corporate Power, Permanent Peoples Tribunal

Conflict & Mobilization

IntensityHIGH (widespread, mass mobilization, violence, arrests, etc...)
Reaction stageMobilization for reparations once impacts have been felt
Groups mobilizing:Indigenous groups or traditional communities
International ejos
Local ejos
Local government/political parties
Social movements
Fisher people
Forms of mobilization:Blockades
Creation of alternative reports/knowledge
Development of a network/collective action
Development of alternative proposals
Involvement of national and international NGOs
Lawsuits, court cases, judicial activism
Media based activism/alternative media
Official complaint letters and petitions
Public campaigns
Street protest/marches
Arguments for the rights of mother nature
Boycotts of companies-products
Presentation to the case to the Popular Peoples Tribunal


Environmental ImpactsVisible: Air pollution, Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity), Fires, Food insecurity (crop damage), Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation, Noise pollution, Soil contamination, Soil erosion, Oil spills, Deforestation and loss of vegetation cover, Surface water pollution / Decreasing water (physico-chemical, biological) quality, Groundwater pollution or depletion, Reduced ecological / hydrological connectivity
Health ImpactsVisible: Exposure to unknown or uncertain complex risks (radiation, etc…), Violence related health impacts (homicides, rape, etc..), Deaths, Other environmental related diseases
Socio-economical ImpactsVisible: Increase in Corruption/Co-optation of different actors, Displacement, Increase in violence and crime, Loss of livelihood, Loss of traditional knowledge/practices/cultures, Militarization and increased police presence, Violations of human rights, Land dispossession, Loss of landscape/sense of place


Project StatusIn operation
Conflict outcome / response:Compensation
Court decision (failure for environmental justice)
Court decision (undecided)
Court decision (victory for environmental justice)
Criminalization of activists
Deaths, Assassinations, Murders
Strengthening of participation
Institutional changes
Violent targeting of activists
Proposal and development of alternatives:The devastating environmental and humanitarian impact of the oil industry in Nigeria has pushed scholars and activists to search for alternative ways to halt this degradation and redirect the benefits towards the Nigerian people. For instance, ERA/FoE Nigeria submitted a proposal in 2009 under the name of Leave new oil in the soil. This alternative aimed at stopping the opening of new oil fields, secure the current production that is being stolen and sold on the black market and set up a “crude oil solidary fund” to keep the revenues of the oil industry in Nigeria.
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:No
Briefly explain:Despite the many achievements of the organized resistance and the NGOs involved in the defense of the local communities, Shell still perpetrates most of the human rights violations and environmental crimes without taking responsibility nor accountability.

Sources & Materials

Juridical relevant texts related to the conflict (laws, legislations, EIAs, etc)

African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights

Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria

References to published books, academic articles, movies or published documentaries

United Nations Environmental Programme 2011 Assessment Report

[1] Human Rights Watch (1999). The Price of Oil: Corporate Responsibility and Human Rights Violations in Nigeria’s Oil Producing Communities, page 7

[2] Brown, J. (2006, Oct. 26). Niger Delta bears brunt after 50 years of oil spills. The Independent

[3] Vidal, J. (2014, Nov. 13). Shell ignored internal warnings over Nigeria oil spills, documents suggest. The Guardian [Digital edition]

[4] Vidal, J. (2015, Jan. 7). Shell announces £55m payout for Nigeria oil spills. The Guardian [Digital edition]

[5] Chatterjee, P. (2013, Apr. 17). U.S. Supreme Court Dismisses Lawsuit Against Shell in Nigeria. CorpWatch

[6] Mouawad, J. (2009, June 8). Shell to Pay $15.5 Million to Settle Nigerian Case. The New York Times [digital edition]

[7] Milieudefensie (no date). Oil Spills in the Niger Delta in Nigeria


Testimony of the case in the Permanent Peoples Tribunal Hearing - Corporate Human Rights Violations and Peoples Access to Justice. Geneva, 23 June 2014

Global Campaign to Dismantle Corporate Power

ERA/FoE Nigeria

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Meta information

Contributor:Global Campaign to Dismantle Corporate Power, Transnational Institute - TNI
Last update18/08/2019
Conflict ID:2003




Contaminated land and flares