Shell Told to Pay out for Nigerian Oil Spill in Landmark Court Ruling

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Farmer living in Delta devastated by pollution wins compensation after activists bring case

A Dutch court has found a subsidiary of Royal Dutch Shell partly to blame for an oil spill in the Niger Delta - a ruling hailed as a small but important step in holding multinational oil companies to account for environmental damage.

The Hague district court ruled that Shell Nigeria was responsible because it failed to take adequate measures to prevent sabotage, and ordered it to compensate a Nigerian farmer. The amount it must pay will be determined later. However, the court dismissed four other claims against the parent group, and Royal Dutch Shell said this meant no legal precedent had been set. The lawsuit was filed by four farmers, represented by the Dutch arm of Friends of the Earth, and centred on spills in the delta villages of Goi, Oruma and Ikot Ada Udo between 2004 and 2007.

The plaintiffs alleged that the spills poisoned their fish ponds and land. The court found that the pollution was not the result of a lack of security or upkeep by Shell, but was caused by sabotage. The case was seen by green activists as a test for holding multinationals responsible for the offences of foreign subsidiaries: it was the first time a Dutch-registered company had been sued in a domestic court for alleged damage abroad.

Whatever the legal position, there is no dispute about the extent of devastation caused by oil production in Nigeria's coastal region, which once supported thriving communities of farmers and fishermen, many of whom now find their livelihoods impossible because of pollution. The Niger Delta is regarded as the most oil-polluted area on Earth. Fifty years of spills involving millions of barrels of crude oil would need the biggest clean-up in history to put right, according to a report.

The UN Environment Programme said any environmental restoration "could prove to be the world's most wide-ranging and long-term oil clean-up exercise ever undertaken, if contaminated drinking water, land, creeks and important ecosystems such as mangroves are to be brought back to full, productive health". …