A Dutch court has largely dismissed a bid by Nigerian farmers to hold oil and gas company Royal Dutch Shell responsible for pollution in their villages in the Niger Delta.
The court in The Hague said only the company's subsidiary, Nigerian Shell, will have to pay damages because it did not adequately protect against sabotage in one case. It rejected all claims against the parent company, saying that under Nigerian law, Shell was not responsible unless it operated with negligence.
The farmers first brought the case in 2008 along with the environmental group Friends of the Earth, seeking to force Shell to clean up the pollution from oil spills that devastated vegetation, water supplies and fishing ponds.
But Shell said it was doing all it could to contain the impact of its operations, and that the spills are largely the work of sabotage by armed gangs who hack into pipelines.
Allard Castelein, Shell's vice president for environment, says the company is pleased with the ruling.
"It is clear that both the parent company, Royal Dutch Shell, as well as the local venture, Shell Petroleum Development Company in Nigeria, has been proven right in the sense that neither the parent company is liable nor responsible," said Castelein.
Activists had seen the case as a test of whether international companies can be held liable for alleged offenses by their foreign subsidiaries.
Nigerian lawyer and activist Ebun Adegboruwa said the one ruling against Nigerian Shell may make it easier for farmers to pursue claims in Nigerian courts.
"Farmers, land farmers in a host of communities who on a daily basis are subjected to the eclipse of their farmland and the environment have the opportunity now to challenge Shell not only in the Hague but particularly in Nigeria, because now the Nigerian courts will have courage," said Adegboruwa. "If it can be done in a foreign land, there is no reason why our judges should be afraid to do it in our land."
The level of damages for Nigerian Shell will be established at a future hearing.
Meanwhile, Friends of the Earth says it plans to appeal.
The farmers are from the Ogoniland region of southern Nigeria, which for decades has been a major source of crude oil. Shell is the top multinational company operating in the area.
In 2011, the United Nations published a report blaming the Nigerian government and multinational companies - especially Shell - for devastating environmental impacts in the Niger Delta. It said cleaning up the area would take $1 billion and 25 years.