Ken Saro-Wiwa 20 years on: Niger Delta still blighted by oil spills

Story highlights

  • Oil pollution remains a huge problem in the Niger Delta
  • Amnesty says oil companies are not restoring land affected by oil spills

Mark Dummett is a Business and Human Rights researcher at Amnesty International. He writes for CNN on the 20-year anniversary of writer and environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa's execution. Saro-Wiwa and eight other activists led the movement against Shell's activities in the Niger Delta and were executed by the military in November 1995. The views presented here are Dummett's own and do not reflect those of CNN.

(CNN)The sad truth is that twenty years after the execution of writer and environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, Nigeria's oil producing region remains a blighted land.

There are hundreds of oil spills in the Niger Delta every year and Shell and the other oil companies operating there are still not doing enough to either prevent spills, or clean them up. The impact on the hundreds of thousands of people unfortunate enough to live next to the oil wells and pipelines where spills occur is catastrophic.
    Shell, the largest operator, likes to blame local communities for the pollution, accusing them of cutting open the pipelines to steal oil. This is indeed a problem, but Shell overstates the issue to deflect criticism of its own failings, such as the poor state of its pipelines, and its terrible record on clean-up.
      Ken Saro-Wiwa, who was hanged by the country's military regime after a grossly unfair and politically motivated trial, wrote that oil pollution had turned the Niger Delta into an "ecological disaster."
      His claim -- described by some at the time as an exaggeration - was vindicated in 2011 by the United Nations Environment Programme. Its researchers found that the people of Ogoniland, Saro-Wiwa's homeland, had "lived with chronic oil pollution throughout their lives." This pollution had contaminated the fields where they grew food, the water where they fished and the wells from which they drank.
      Amnesty International campaigns for a proper clean-up of the Niger Delta because of this clear link between the oil pollution and the impact it has on the health and the livelihoods, and therefore the human rights, of the people living there.
      Mark Dummett is a Business and Human Rights researcher at Amnesty International.
      Talk to anyone over the age of 60 in the Niger Delta and they talk wistfully of swimming as children in the clean waters of the creeks, which meander through the region -- one of the world's most ecologically-important wetlands.
      Visit these creeks today and you see signs warning people not to go close, you see dead mangrove trees lining the shore, and mud that is black with oil.
      The people are understandably angry, and have refused to allow Shell to pump any more oil from its wells in Ogoniland.
      But tragically, the pollution continues. Shell, which has been operating in Nigeria since the days of the British Empire, transports hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil a day along pipelines that cross the villages, fields and creeks of Ogoniland from neighboring oil fields.
      These pipelines are old and leaky. We know this because of internal Shell documents that the company was forced to disclose during a recent legal action in London. The court papers include an internal memo by Shell based on a 2002 study that states that, "the remaining life of most of the [Shell] Oil Trunklines is more or less non-existent or short, while some sections contain major risk and hazard." In another internal document dated 10 December 2009 a Shell employee warns that, "[the company] is corporately exposed as the pipelines in Ogoniland have not been maintained properly or integrity assessed for over 15 years."