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US, Nigerian Citizens Take on Multinational Corporations - 2002-08-16

Corporate accountability is expected to be spotlighted at the U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development later this month in South Africa. Some of the delegates will be comparing the situations in a southern town in the United States and in Nigeria's oil-rich Niger Delta region. English to Africa reporter James Butty takes a look at how the U.S. town of Norco took on one of the largest multinational corporations - and won. He also looks at the struggle of the Ogoni people of southeastern Nigeria against corporate pollution in their region.

Norco is a mostly African-American town located 25 miles west of New Orleans, Louisiana. It is sandwiched between a Shell chemical plant and an oil refinery, also partly owned by Shell. Margie Richard has been living in the community since the plants were built in the early 1950s. Her frustration led her to found an organization called Concerned Citizens of Norco.

"My family was tremendously affected by the pollution because my sister died of an allergenic disease, which was called sarcoidosis," she explained. "There isn't much research on the exact cause. But it's caused by bacteria, and I always knew it was in the air. And then it's just the history of respiratory diseases, not just in my family in my family but also in my hometown. Everytime we go to church, or every time we go to picnic, or community gathering, or whatever it was, people would talk about how sick the plant was making them."

Ms. Richard and her community sought the help of environmental groups to make the case that the air was polluted. They worked with Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, and the local environmental group, the Louisiana Bucket Brigade. They also called on the Congressional Black Caucus, an organization of black members of Congress.

At first, Shell, which declined our request for an interview, proposed a partial buyout. It offered to purchase the property of a number of people who wanted to leave the area. And then, because of the nationwide publicity generated by the story, the company extended the offer to the entire community.

"We were able to do it by commitment, faith, and belief and determination in God that right shall triumph over might, because we knew that we had some facts and the evidence was there that we had been oppressed and depressed with pollution since we've been in the world, and that is since I was born," explained Ms. Richard.

Also facing well-publicized pollution problems are the Ogoni people of the oil-rich Niger Delta region of southeastern Nigeria. The community is based mostly on agriculture and fishing. For more than 40 years, the Ogonis say they have been losing their farmland and fishing areas because of pollution by Shell Petroleum. Margie Richard, who spent two weeks in Nigeria on a fact-finding tour, said she found similarities between her community's struggle and that of the Ogonis.

"I saw a pattern of pipelines that were running in front of the people's houses or in the fields. I also saw the running noses of children who were affected by the flare that was on the ground," she said. "I saw a similarity of people struggling for justice and equality; I saw people struggling for an end to the economical oppression and depression. I saw people who may have had a different culture, but I saw people who were still crying out for help, as we were."

For years the Ogoni people have been protesting both the Nigerian government and Shell Oil about damage to their environment. They have also been demanding that the company re-invest part of the oil wealth into the community.

"The struggle has entered into a phase that what has been lacking has been the international attention on the issues," said Ledum Mitee, the president of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP). "All the things we've wanted to do, they've not done any. More importantly, we want our environment to be respected; we want our environment to be cleaned of the pollution that they have caused for several years." "We also think that they should treat us as responsible citizens," added Mr. Mitee. "There's no reason why our sacred forests should be filed down because of their oil. We should have a say as to if oil is going to be produced, it has to be done more responsible."

The Ogonis' protests have often been brutally suppressed. In 1995 nine Ogoni activists were executed, among them playwright and environmentalist Ken Saro Wiwa. They were convicted of involvement in the murders of four people, but many believe the government of the late Nigerian leader Sani Abacha wanted them out of the way because of their activism.

Ken Saro Wiwa's brother, Doctor Owens Wiwa, praised the Norco community's victory over Shell Oil. He said the democratically elected government of President Olusegun Obasanjo has done very little to address the concerns of the Ogoni people.

"Right now, as I speak, it doesn't appear as if the democracy we have in Nigeria will be able to solve the challenges that the Ogonis face," he said. "Secondly, we noticed that the answer to our problems by this government appears to be one, a symbolic apology. Two, the setting up of the Niger Delta Development Commission. The apology was well accepted. The Niger Delta Development Corporation, however, we were shocked to see that no Ogoni person was appointed to the Board, or in any of the senior management levels in that corporation. So our next question we asked was who is going to represent our interest?"

Anne Rolfes, the founder of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade which helped the Norco community by taking air samples to help determine the level of pollution, pointed out there is one key distinction between the struggle of the Norco community and that of the Ogoni people of Nigeria.

"I think one of the big differences is that as poor as the laws are here in the States to protect the citizens, is that at least Shell can't hire police to shoot people," she said. "Whereas in Nigeria, they can do that. So in Ogoni land, when they organize, they're subject to torture and arrest and even murder. And I think that really inhibits their organizing." Ms. Rolfes said she and a number of activists from Norco will go to South Africa this month to attend the U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development. She said while there they will talk with representatives of the Ogonis about how the lessons learned in Norco can be applied to the struggle of the Ogonis.

Margie Richard of Concerned Citizens of Norco says there is a lesson the Ogoni people can learn from the Norco community's victory over Shell.

"I do believe that the only way we can solve conflicts, problems, we must all be at the table face-to-face," she said. "You cannot win a victory if you are not talking to the people who are involved."

Mike McGarry, Shell media relations manager in New York, says the company's dispute with the Ogoni people involves pending litigation that Shell is not willing to discuss publicly.

Doctor Wiwa says he's not sure whether there will ever be a resolution to the dispute. He says it depends on the willingness of the three main parties to negotiate: Shell, the Ogoni people, and the Nigerian government.