The Depletion of Niger Delta and Human Rights of the Ogonis Population

by Larissa Brito de Senna


Niger Delta is equivalent to 853 km of coastline shared with the Mud Coast, the Barrier-Lagoon Complex, the Arcuate Niger Delta, and the Strand Coast. The British-Dutch multinational oil and gas corporation found crude oil in a village near the Niger Delta in 1956 and after exploring the area and settling by the river, Shell began commercializing oil from the area in 1958.

This event only opened doors for several other multi-corporations to start exploring the country, as a whole new instrument of enrichment and profitable production at low costs. Nowadays, Nigeria is largest oil producer in Africa, being the sixth biggest producer in the world and the first country in the list of the most powerful nation when it comes to potential in oil and gas producer. From the initial 5,100 barrels per day during the oil discovery in 1956, this number absurdly increased to 2.5 million barrels per day.

Increasing oil extraction and production lead not only to profitable results to Nigerian government and international corporations, but caused a series of damages to the environment and to the society as a whole. Exploration and exploitation of the land near the Niger Delta disastrously performed by careless companies and unregulated activities improperly supervised by authorities resulted in several events of oil spills and oil well fires in areas around the Niger Delta.

Predominant negligence in addressing the situation and the impacts these events caused to the environment made several groups of Nigerian citizens to protest against federal agencies and against foreign corporations. As a consequence, the industrialization of the Niger Delta is considered the main responsible for several civil war conflicts that have been happening in Nigerian territory. This article aims to make an analysis of the impacts of oil production between 1956 to 2014 on the environment and in the Nigerian society as a violation of the community’s property rights.

Nigeria currently holds a population of approximately 195,000,000 habitants. In the area of Niger Delta, there are 30 million people actively living in the area, which makes 23% of the national population. The densest area with higher number of population is located at Ogoniland, in the southeast of Niger Delta, referred as the Ogonis. These people are the most affected by atrocities committed through the oil exploration. It is also important to remember that oil production has negatively affected the country as whole – not only the habitants of Niger Delta areas.

Rapid development of the oil industry led to the decline of other less favorable sectors in the economy such as agriculture practices, in which the population heavily relied upon as means of livelihood.

Such practices counted for almost 80% of the exportation of goods. Activities such as cotton, cocoa, rubber, and groundnuts altogether have been reduced by 65% since oil industry has been the main focus of Nigerian government since 1960. Although many people who live outside the African territory would comment on the benefits of oil production brought to Nigerian economy, it is undeniable to see the damages directly affecting the labor force which became unemployed and without mean of production since their lands have been contaminated and the fruits of their labor have been extinguished by the negligence of these multi-million business in the Niger Delta territory. This study will explore violations on the right to property, right to life, right to air, and the right to enjoy food and abundance of land.

In 2011, the United Nations (UN) and United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) conducted an investigation called the Environmental Assessment of Ogoniland that took three years to be completed. This report aims to investigate the impacts that oil damages have caused in the environment, as a vast area have been physically affected by these chemicals from several spills since 1958. The abstract part of the damage is seen through societal defects leading to violence and cruelty against Ogonis communities.

The investigation was conducted by a group of international experts in contaminated land, water, forestry and public health in order to provide accurate information about the environmental and public health impacts of oil contamination. An area of 122 km was studied along with 4,000 samples of land, 69 oil-spill sites, 5,000 medical records, and 260 recorded meetings with the community.

This process being repeated over and over resulted to infertile soils and destruction of agricultural activity, a profound violation of property rights of the Ogonis community. In addition, lack of safety measurements and law enforcement facilitated the activity of illegal refineries that distilled crude oil on temporary locations without proper maintenance and regulation.

The Nigerian government owns a duty to preserve and promote the rights of its people; the right to property is an inherent right tied with basic human rights. The negligence in addressing this environmental problem and avoidance in taking necessary steps to remedy disposals of oil chemicals in the nature violates the property interest owned by these communities, in special the indigenous groups living near by the Niger Delta.  The infringement against their lands goes beyond that of property rights; it reaches and disfranchise their religion since their lands are connected with their cults and beliefs.

At this stage, the UN calculated an estimate of 30 years and $600 million to clean up the damage caused by oil corporations. 

Looking at cases such as Wiwa v. Royal Dutch Shell Co. (Ogoni families suing Shell for complicity and human rights abuse against communities, such as torture, inhumane treatment, arbitrary death), Social and Economic Rights Action Center & the Center for Economic and Social Rights v. Nigeria (lawsuit brought by two organizations in behalf of Ogonis communities against Nigerian government for oil spills that lead to violation of fundamental rights- right to life, property, water), and Aguinda v. Texaco (lawsuit against oil corporations for pollution of soil and waters of Ecuador and Peru), it is clear that allowing such rights to be violated brings irreversible negative effects in a society.

The main issue is not who is going to pay the bill but, how are they going to recover all the abstract losses affecting these indigenous communities? In what extent can money buy the advent of the indigenous souls who were displaced and murdered throughout five decades? There is no material remedy to reverse the damages caused by these industries to the extent that will return the lives to millions of people and save the future generations form the harm caused by the pollution. As it has been shown through by the UN it will take many decades to reverse the environmental damage, which means that future generations are already being affected by this greedy system of oil production.

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