Shell in court over Nigeria oil spill compensation

Boy stands near an abandoned oil well head leaking crude oil, 11 April 2007, in Kegbara Dere, Ogoni Territory Ogoni people say their land has been devastated by pollution from the oil industry over many years

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Lawyers representing a Nigerian fishing community are taking the oil firm Shell to court in London over alleged unpaid compensation for recent oil spills.

Shell has accepted responsibility for the spillage of about 4,000 barrels in Ogoniland in the Niger Delta.

But Bodo community representatives say they are having to resort to legal action after negotiations broke down.

The head of Shell Nigeria said that with different lawyers representing claimants it was difficult to resolve.

Nigeria is one of the world's major oil producers, but the oil-producing Niger Delta region remains one of the country's poorest and least developed regions.

The Ogoni people have long complained about the environmental damage to their communities, but they say they have mostly been ignored.

'Delta complexities'

The High Court case is said to be the first time Shell has faced claims in the UK from the developing world for environmental damage, the BBC's world affairs correspondent Peter Biles reports.

Start Quote

It looks like a World War I scene, where the oil has totally destroyed much of the local environment and the fish”

End Quote Martyn Day Lawyer

When Shell accepted responsibility for the oil spills, which happened in 2008 and one of which continued into 2009, it said they had been caused by operational failures.

The company promised it would pay compensation according to Nigerian law and would clean up the oil and restore the land.

Martyn Day, of the solicitors Leigh Day, who is representing the Bodos, said the spills had devastated a once-thriving fishing community of some 50,000 people.

"I've been around Bodo on a number of occasions and you just have to walk round, it looks like a World War I scene, where the oil has totally destroyed much of the local environment and the fish, which particularly thrive in the mangroves, have basically disappeared from the area," he told the BBC's Today programme.

Shell has argued that much more oil has been spilt as a result of illegal activity in the Niger Delta, such as sabotage and theft.

Mutiu Sunmonu, managing director of the the Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria (SPDC), said it was important to understand "the complexities of the Niger Delta" when dealing with these compensation payments.

"There are a lot of people who've claimed to be impacted and a lot of intra-communal strife which is making it difficult for anyone to have meaningful negotiations with different lawyers claiming to represent them," he told the BBC.

"We did do everything possible to make sure that we pay compensation to the affected communities, but we also have to make sure that this compensation is paid to the right people. The trouble is you cannot do that as long as [different] lawyers are representing them."

Shell would "not give up" trying to identify those who should be compensated, Mr Sunmonu said.

Last year, a UN environmental assessment of Ogoniland said the region would take 30 years to recover fully from the damage caused by years of oil spills.

The issue of the environmental damage in Ogoniland was highlighted by the writer Ken Saro-Wiwa, who was executed in 1995 by Nigeria's military government, sparking international condemnation.

The campaign forced Shell to stop pumping oil out of Ogoniland but it continues to operate pipelines in the region.

Ogoniland

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