A court in the Netherlands has ruled that Royal Dutch Shell can be held partially responsible for pollution in Nigeria's Niger Delta region and ordered it to pay damages to one farmer.
The court dismissed on Wednesday four out of five allegations against the oil company. The amount of damages to be paid was to be announced at a later date.
Activists say the case could set a precedent for damage claims related to the foreign activities of multinational companies.
Four Nigerians and interest group Friends of the Earth filed the suit in 2008 in The Hague, where Shell has its joint global headquarters, seeking unspecified reparations for lost income from contaminated land and waterways in the Niger Delta.
The Nigerians - fishermen and farmers - said they could no longer feed their families because the region had been polluted by oil from Shell's pipelines and production facilities.
The pollution is a result of oil spills in 2004, 2005 and 2007, they said.
"The significance of the case is that at least there is an international agreement, if you like, in an international space where money and corruption do not come to play the way it does in Nigeria,” Annkio Briggs, a Niger Delta activist, told Al Jazeera’s Yvonne Ndege in Port Harcourt.
“This is a great victory even though we still have the issues of the other ones that have been thrown out. It is very important for us and very encouraging that we will have to take these cases outside of Nigeria for Nigerians to have justice.
“Ironically we have to take the cases out to the counties where these oil companies come from. So it shows what we've been saying for years - that oil companies are doing [things in Nigeria] illegally what they will never dare to do anywhere else in the world.”
Al Jazeera’s Simon McGregor-Wood, reporting from the Hague, said: “There will be a bit of a shiver going through the corporate world because all along the environmental companies have been arguing that companies like Shell do not necessarily act with the same level of responsibility in places like Nigeria which are a long way from home.
|Shell has rejected claims by four Nigerian farmers that it should pay compensation for damage to their land [EPA]
"When things go wrong, when there are these catastrophic pollutions or these systematic pollutions occur, they are not as quick to clear up as if a tanker would spill its oil off the channel for the coast of Netherlands,” he added.
“It was the idea of this case to set the precedent that these big companies have to take care wherever they are operating in the world,” McGregor-Wood said.
Speaking to Al Jazeera, Channa Samkalden, a lawyer acting on behalf of the Nigerian farmers, said: “Overall it’s actually quite a good outcome for us.
“At least Shell was held liable for one of the cases. That’s a good start. Also, a very important fact is that the court has said that Shell has a duty to take measures to prevent sabotage, which is of course a principal issue."
It is the first time a Dutch-registered company has been sued in a domestic court for offences allegedly carried out by a foreign subsidiary.
The suit targets Shell's parent company in the Netherlands and its Nigerian subsidiary, Shell Petroleum Development Co (SPDC). It is the largest oil and gas company in Nigeria, Africa's top energy producer, with an output of more than one million barrels of oil or equivalent per day.