Written by:
Lazarus Tamana

The struggle for climate justice in the Niger Delta

Climate emergency
Read time:
7 minutes

The struggle for climate justice in the Niger Delta

Colonised by Britain in 1884, Nigeria was an important site for the expansion of British oil interests. This has had a seismic impact, particularly on the Niger Delta, where decades of hazardous environmental pollution by Shell – a British multinational headquartered in London – have devastated the region and its communities. The ongoing fight for compensation and remediation underscores the urgent need for a global commitment to environmental justice, writes Lazarus Tamana, president of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP). 

In 1939, the British colonial authorities granted Shell and BP an oil exploration licence for the whole of Nigeria, establishing a near-monopoly that persisted throughout the colonial era until the country gained independence in 1960. The preferential treatment did not change much after independence, as Shell and BP had already consolidated their dominant positions. This helped to make Shell one of the richest oil companies in the world.

The discovery of vast oil reserves in the Niger Delta in the 1950s marked a turning point for Nigeria’s economy, contributing significantly to the country’s GDP. Located on the west coast, it is a unique region with rich biodiversity and abundant natural resources. The Niger Delta is home to numerous ethnic groups, including Ijaws, Ogonis, Ibibios, Urhobos and Isokos, who rely heavily on these natural resources for their livelihoods.

In the late 1950s, Shell and BP began taking over land belonging to Indigenous farming and fishing communities in the Niger Delta, a previously serene environment. The Ogoni people, who inhabited the rich coastal plains north-east of the region, had an abundance of agricultural produce from subsistence farming on fertile land. Migrant and nomadic fishing was also practised, enabling them to be self-sufficient. Neighbouring regions referred to Ogoniland as the food basket of the area.

But the commercial discovery of oil in Ogoniland in 1958 brought drastic changes. Decades of hazardous environmental pollution by Shell devastated the once-pristine region, leading to food scarcity and health issues among local communities. The landscape now represents environmental degradation and despair. Prominent Ogoni activist Ken Saro-Wiwa described it as ‘an ecological war’. 

Saro-Wiwa led the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), which galvanised international support for the Ogoni cause in the 1990s, putting pressure on multinational corporations and governments to address environmental and human rights abuses. The execution of Saro-Wiwa and eight other Ogoni leaders in 1995 drew global outrage.

‘The devastation continued’

In 2011, the United Nations Environmental Programme published a comprehensive report on the environmental situation of Ogoniland. It was highly critical of Shell’s operations and the company agreed to clean up hydrocarbon pollution in Ogoniland. But the devastation continued. In 2008, two major oil spills in Bodo, Ogoniland, destroyed the fishing industry. The Bodo community sued Shell in London and won a £55 million settlement in 2014. Shell was ordered to clean, remediate and restore the environment of the seven affected communities. Despite the ruling, it has been slow to fulfil these obligations.

Shell is now planning to divest from the Niger Delta without addressing its environmental responsibilities. This includes cleaning-up all the pollution sites, decommissioning old equipment and compensating communities whose livelihoods have been affected. The Nigerian Upstream Petroleum Regulatory Commission (NUPRC) must ensure that Shell meets all regulatory conditions before any sale proceeds. 

Last year, the Ogale and Bille communities in the Niger Delta, who have also been devastated by oil spills, filed claims against Shell in the High Court in London, urging the company to clean up the damage it has caused and compensate them for their lost livelihoods. The cases are ongoing: the Bille case has been scheduled for February 2025 at the Royal Courts of Justice in London; we are still waiting for a confirmed date for the Ogale case.

‘The Ogoni struggle has broader implications for environmental justice movements’

The Ogoni struggle is emblematic of the broader environmental challenges faced by Indigenous communities worldwide, an issue highlighted in the 2022 Runnymede Trust and Greenpeace report Confronting Injustice. The Ogoni people have endured the devastating impacts of oil spills, gas flaring and reckless resource exploitation by multinational corporations. These activities have polluted waterways, destroyed farmlands and adversely affected the health of the Ogoni population.

Despite these hardships, their ongoing fight highlights the urgent need for environmental justice and sustainable development in resource-rich regions globally. It calls for robust regulatory frameworks and corporate accountability to ensure the protection and sustainable development of vulnerable regions. 

The Ogoni struggle also has broader implications for environmental justice movements worldwide. It emphasises the importance of local community involvement in decision-making processes related to natural resource management. Empowering Indigenous communities to protect their environment and livelihoods is crucial for achieving sustainable development, a healthy environment and sustainable livelihoods. 

Governments, corporations and international organisations must work together to address the environmental and social impacts of resource extraction, ensuring that economic development does not come at the expense of human rights and environmental sustainability.

The international community must support the Ogoni people and other affected communities in their quest for justice, sustainability and the preservation of living heritage. Through collective action, it is possible to achieve a more equitable and environmentally responsible approach to resource management, ensuring a better future for all.

The Runnymede Trust believes racial justice to be at the heart of climate justice. We are working as secretariat of the Race and Community All Party Parliamentary Group to raise these important issues in parliament, and have launched an inquiry into the relationship between global systemic racism and the climate and environmental emergency. 

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the Runnymede Trust.

Join the fight for racial justice: support the Runnymede Trust’s work by making a donation.

Photo: The aftermath of an oil spill in the Niger Delta © Nwinbari Koate from Bodo, Ogoniland

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