The international oil and gas company Royal Dutch Shell was in court Thursday facing charges of polluting Nigerian villages. The case has been brought in a civil court in The Hague by four Nigerian farmers and the environmental campaigners Friends of the Earth.
The farmers are from the Ogoniland region of southern Nigeria and say they can no longer work or feed their families because oil spills in the area have damaged crops and fish farms.
"Communities in Ogoniland had been badly contaminated," said Eric Dooh, one of the Nigerian plaintiffs. "Some communities are deserted, like my community, Goi, in Ogoniland, has been deserted as a result of devastation of the ecosystem and our environment. My father had four big fish farms."
Ogoniland in the Niger Delta has been a major source of crude oil for decades and Shell is the top multinational operating in the area.
The plaintiffs say the oil operations have resulted in major pollution that has devastated vegetation, water supplies and fishing ponds.
They want Shell to clean up the pollution and ensure pipelines are maintained and kept secure to prevent future leaks.
But Shell says it has done what it can to contain the impact of its operations. Spills, it says, are largely the result of sabotage by armed gangs who hack into pipelines.
"We went in, we stopped the leak, we cleaned it," said Allard Castelein, vice president for environment at Shell. "There is a process that involves a joint investigation, of government officials, community officials and company officials, they jointly signed off on the fact that it was caused by sabotage."
Last year the United Nations
published a report that blamed multinational oil companies - and especially Shell - along with the Nigerian government for devastating environmental impacts in the Niger Delta.
The report said cleaning up the area would cost $1 billion and take 25 years.
The environmental group Friends of the Earth says it hopes the court case in The Hague will mark a precedent.
"What we expect today is that outcome of this case will be that Shell is convicted for polluting the environment, for not properly maintaining its pipelines in Nigeria and for harming millions of people, polluting their drinking water, depleting their fish stocks, ruining their crop lands as a result of oil pollution," said Gerrit Ritsema, a coordinator at Friends of the Earth.
The case has been filed against the Nigerian subsidiary of Shell - the Shell Petroleum Development Company - and against Royal Dutch Shell, the parent company with global headquarters in the Netherlands. A verdict is not expected until next year.