Nigerian environmental lawyer Chima Williams has been named the Africa recipient of the 2022 Goldman Environmental Prize, known as the “Green Nobel Prize for grassroots advocacy to protect the environment.
The top environment prize, annually awarded to six grassroots activists – one from each of the world’s continents save for Antarctica – was announced on Wednesday.
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Williams, executive director of Friends of the Earth Nigeria (Environmental Rights Action), was recognised for his role in helping the Goi and Oruma communities of the oil-rich Niger Delta region get justice.
In January 2021, after 13 years of litigation, a Dutch court awarded damages to the communities for oil spills which happened between 2004-2007 due to exploration by a subsidiary of by oil conglomerate Royal Dutch Shell. It was a landmark ruling as it marked the first time a parent company was being liable for acts of its subsidiary in the delta.
Oil and gas are vital to the economy of Africa’s largest oil producer and account for almost half of the country’s GDP. However, the delta where Shell first began commercial exploration in 1956, suffers from penury and up to 70 percent of the population encounter gas flares and polluted sources of water on a daily basis.
Life expectancy in the region is estimated to be 49 years, 10 years lower than the rest of the country.
Al Jazeera spoke to Chima Williams about the prize and how the court ruling paves the way to address environmental issues in the region.
Al Jazeera: How bad have things in the Niger Delta been since Shell first found oil commercially there in 1956?
Williams: Before the advent of oil in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria in commercial quantity, the area used to be known as the most peaceful, the most hospitable, and the most luscious part of the country.
Little wonder that Port Harcourt, seen as Nigeria’s oil capital, was christened the garden city. Majority of the Niger Delta were scenes and landscapes that were a beauty to behold. The people were fishing folks and farmers, doing their fishing activities and supplying aqua needs in terms of proteinous supplies to households and families in the Niger Delta and across Nigeria.
Before the advent of oil, this was a region that had all varieties of aqua lives. Fishes from the Niger Delta were relics in other parts of the country. Today, the story is different from 1956 till date.
All those cherished memories of the Niger Delta people have been consigned to the dustbin. Today, the narrative from the Niger Delta is that it’s a restive people and its heavily polluted environment where people can no longer do fishing activities because the fishes they catch are now poisonous.
The most common fish known across Nigeria that comes from the delta – the Bonga fish – can no longer be seen, and where you see them, they are very exorbitant in cost. People no longer have the pristine environment to enjoy. All the things that used to give comfort to the people of Niger Delta have been destroyed.
Port Harcourt which used to be a garden city, is now christened the soot city. A hitherto land of merry has transformed into a land of misery and the delta is now a shadow of itself. Is it the resource curse?
Pollution has ravaged every nook and cranny of the Niger Delta; with Bayelsa state becoming the world capital of oil pollution, with Ogoni land as a metaphor for the pollution of the Niger Delta, we think the narrative should change.
If you cannot leave the people the way you met them, please don’t worsen their situation. It is high time for all hands to be on deck to restore the Niger Delta to its glory days.
Al Jazeera: You briefly mentioned representing Goi and Oruma communities without compromising their position? Has there been an occasion where a legal team compromised the community they represented at the court?
Williams: If you ask a community across the Niger Delta, you will discover it’s true. It is what is seen and felt in the Niger Delta, which has created a crisis of confidence in some communities with interventionist groups.
Some communities resent people who want to work with them – either from civil society or from legal teams – because they have witnessed firsthand how they have compromised their position in the past.
At Environmental Right Action (ERA)/Friends of the Earth Nigeria, we have been with the communities – they still have confidence in us. They believe in our ability to stand with them, and we have not given the room to doubt our sincerity of purpose in working with them to correct the ills in the region.
Al Jazeera: Oil spills routinely happen in the delta, affecting the livelihood of people there. What is special about the Goi/Oruma community case against Shell?
Williams: For us, it is not what we like about the community; it is about the situation we meet on the ground. And a story I need to narrate about Oruma and Goi is before we commenced an action against the Shell, we investigated.
I visited about 20 communities across the Niger Delta and interacted with about 20 people or more, and visited the sites [polluted areas] because at ERA, even though we believe the community people in their stories, we equally understand that at times the situation can be exaggerated to curry sympathy.
We pride ourselves as thorough, and for close to 30 years plus, we have been producing reports against the government and the multinationals. None has ever challenged us and proved us wrong. We conducted a due diligence investigation on the cases, and this is how the communities, in this case, were selected.
At ERA, even if we have taken your case and we find out you misguided us or misled us with false information, we will expose you because what we are looking for is justice.
Al Jazeera: Why did you decide to hold Shell accountable at The Hague, instead of the Nigerian judiciary?
Williams: The simple reason is precedent. We have been in a Nigerian court against multinationals including Shell, on the issue of gas flaring.
We secured a favourable ruling against Shell in 2005 that was not respected either by Shell or the federal government. What is the reason or the beauty of going to court to secure a favourable judgement when people cannot reap the benefit of judgment?
The problem is not from the Nigerian judiciary because they have delivered their own decision, which is the purpose of the law.
The challenge and the problem are often the implementations of the judgement outcomes. Multinationals [often] behave as if they are bigger, stronger than third world countries’ governments, and the government behaves as if they are subservient to the multinational in what we have termed regulatory capture.
When the regulator becomes regulated, the dictator chooses which judgement to obey or not to obey.
We now decided to test the waters in their home country, where they respect the laws and institutions and comply with court judgments. It is purely a result of giving effect to the favourable judgement secured by the people that led us to litigate against the multinationals in their own countries.
Al Jazeera: In 2013, the court initially ruled that Royal Dutch Shell can’t be held liable for the actions of its subsidiary Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC) in Nigeria.
Williams: We were convinced that the lower court was wrong in that decision and that judgement was perverse. That was why we appealed against that decision, and of course, the rest is history because the court of appeal held Royal Dutch Shell liable for breach of duty of care.
For me, the judgement of 29 January 2021, is novel.
Once the court of appeal has made a pronouncement, until the Supreme Court agrees or disagrees with that judgement, it becomes an enforceable precedent that other lower courts are bound to follow.
So a precedent has been set with this decision. But most importantly, within the nitty-gritty of that judgement is the court order on Shell to install a leak detection system on their facility in Oruma.
If it works, the campaign can extend to other parts of the Niger Delta and wherever they operate in the world. This is something they have never done in so many years of operations in Nigeria, with all the enormous profits they have been making.
And if this is installed, it will drastically reduce oil spill incidents, which means recovery can begin to happen gradually in the Niger Delta environment – one of the most beautiful aspects [of the judgment] for me. So this judgement was celebrated as a Niger Delta victory.
Al Jazeera: The operations of oil companies have led to environmental degradation in the region. How would this ruling inspire other communities to seek redress at the court?
Williams: Even before this judgement came, our other successful cases had inspired a lot of communities in the Niger Delta to seek legal redress. This is also the time to deconstruct the narrative of militants, vandals, and oil thieves to the narrative of a people who persevere, are organised and believe in the rule of law.
In the Niger Delta, since this case started happening, the focus on self-help has reduced drastically … people from the communities and victims of environmental destruction by the multinational are seeing the beauty of embracing the application of the rule of law.