Port Harcourt, Nigeria – Pastor Christian Lekova Kpanddei wears his camera like a weapon, slung over a T-shirt telling oil giant Shell to “Own Up. Pay Up. Clean Up”.
He was a fish-farmer in the Ogoniland town of Bodo, in the oil-rich Niger Delta, before a rusty 55-year-old pipeline owned by Shell ruptured twice in 2008-2009, churning roughly 100,000 barrels of crude into the surrounding creeks.
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Overnight, his ponds were slathered in oil, his fish killed, and his livelihood eradicated. Since then, he has been living hand-to-mouth, armed with a camera from Amnesty International used to document other misdemeanours by oil firms in the Ogoni creeks.
“Life was so hard, not only for me but for the entire community,” he said.
That changed in January when Shell announced it would dish out $83.2m in compensation for the spills, thereby dodging a high-profile court case in London.
The payout was the largest in Nigeria following an environmental disaster. It is also the first time that money has been paid directly to the affected citizens, as opposed to chiefs who cannot always be trusted to see it safely home.
Lawyers from Leigh Day, the firm that represented the 15,600 Ogoni claimants, have spent the early part of the year helping them set up local bank accounts.
Most have now received compensation of roughly 600,000 naira ($3,000) – more than they could otherwise hope to earn over the course of several years.
“Forcing Shell to come to terms with the idea that it is the people on the ground who should actually be compensated is a very important development,” said Martyn Day, a partner at the firm.
“For the community, the prospect that the money was going to go into their individual bank accounts was really delightful. I’ve never seen so many happy people in my life.”
Shell’s Nigerian subsidiary, the Shell Petroleum Development Company, said at the time of the settlement it was “pleased to have reached agreement”.
“We’ve always wanted to compensate the community fairly,” stated Managing Director Mutiu Sunmonu.
As the money trickles in, Bodo has come alive again. “There was nothing before – people had nothing to invest,” said Pastor Kpanddei.
“Now everywhere you look they are doing one thing or another.”
Women, who were mostly periwinkle pickers before pollution put them out of business, have bought goods to sell at market. Clothing and food shops have popped up across the town. Piles of breezeblocks line the roads, where workers are busy constructing new housing and mending rooftops that had crumbled after years without maintenance.
Agbibel Mkpee, previously a fisherman, proudly shows off his half-built home – a huge structure perched on the oily waterfront, which is big enough for his 15 children.
“The dreams that were troubling me of how to take care of my children have gone,” he said. “I’m constructing a home and they are back in school.”
Date with death
For most Bodo residents, however, this is not a sustainable solution. They want to return to their old jobs on the creeks.
We are still drinking hydrocarbons, breathing hydrocarbons. We all have a date with death.
That is almost impossible because, more than six years after the spills took place, the waters surrounding Bodo remain covered in crude oil.
Mangrove forests that once served as fish nurseries are reduced to blackened stumps, and crabs wash up dead onshore. The air still stinks of oil.
Shell’s subsidiary is obliged to conduct a clean up to international standards. But progress is painstakingly slow, and the operation is yet to begin.
Shell officials met with Bodo representatives last weekend and pledged the clean up would start in July or August.
Many of the fishermen in B-Dere, a filthy-polluted village a few kilometres outside of Bodo, have migrated towards cleaner waters, leaving a string of deserted houses.
Celestine Akpobari is a campaigner with Social Action, an NGO in Port Harcourt. “This is supposed to be for fishing,” he said pointing to a bleached net hanging in the sun. “Not for decoration.”
Down the road, Pastor Kpanddei’s newly dredged fish ponds sit empty while he awaits the clean-up.
The wells in Nisisioken Ogale, in western Ogoniland, were laced with a carcinogen called benzene, at levels more than 900 times above World Health Organization guidelines.
“We are still drinking hydrocarbons, breathing hydrocarbons,” said Sylvester Kogbara, a Bodo chief, alleging the town’s mortality rate has soared. “We all have a date with death.”
The clean-up will not solve the underlying problems of Nigeria’s opaque oil industry.
The sector is beset by corruption and by industrial-scale theft that is said to involve politicians, security forces, oil industry staff and traders.
Pipelines are regularly sabotaged by bandits, or fall apart because of poor maintenance.
Oil slicks occur with catastrophic regularity. Last year alone, Shell and the Italian hydrocarbons giant ENI recorded more than 550 spills in the delta, according to Amnesty International. That compares to an average 10 each year across Europe between 1971 and 2011.
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“In any other country, this would be a national emergency. In Nigeria it appears to be standard operating procedure for the oil industry,” said Audrey Gaughran, Amnesty’s global issues director.
“The human cost is horrific.”
“The Niger Delta is probably the most polluted place in the world in terms of oil spills,” said Inemo Samiama, country head of the Stakeholder Democracy Network, a civil society organisation based in the region.
“No one can even imagine what it is going to take to clean up the place, either in terms of time or money.”
Leigh Day is now investigating the cases of other potential claimants in the delta.
That is a comfort to residents here. But it does nothing to undermine the feeling that life would have been better if Nigeria had never struck oil at all.