Royal Dutch Shell is facing a lawsuit from four Nigerian villagers in a case that could set a precedent for damage claims against international companies.
Filed in a local court in The Hague, where Shell has its joint global headquarters, the case seeks to make Shell and other corporations responsible for pollution from three oil spills between 2004 and 2007 in the Niger Delta region of Africa's top energy producer.
Plaintiffs are four Nigerian farmers and fishermen and campaign group Friends of the Earth. The four seek unspecified compensation and argue they can no longer feed their families because the area has been polluted with oil from Shell’s pipelines and production facilities.
"My community is a ghost land as a result of the devastation. We had good vegetation. Today people have respiratory problems and are getting sick," said Eric Dooh from the Goi community, which lies between two pipelines. "Shell is aware of the whole devastation. I want them to pay compensation, to clean up the pollution so we can grow our crops and fish again."
Shell says the pollution was caused by oil thieves and believes it has played its part in cleaning up.
"The matter has been resolved as far as we are concerned and we do not properly understand why Friends of the Earth has submitted the case," said Allard Castelein, Shell’s vice president for environment.
The biggest pollution problem in the Niger Delta was caused by thieves who steal oil from Shell’s installations, he said. Around 150,000 barrels of oil are stolen every day in the Delta. That is worth about $6bn a year.
Friends of the Earth said it hoped the case would set a precedent and lead to "an end to the corporate crimes committed by oil giants like Shell in Nigeria and around the world".
The case is set to last a day. Attorneys for both sides will present arguments before the judges retire to give their verdicts next year.
With around 31 million inhabitants, the Niger Delta is one of the world's most important wetland and coastal marine ecosystems. It is an important source of food for the poor, rural population.
It's not only environmental groups that have been critical of Shell’s Nigerian operations. Last year, the United Nations said in a report that the government and multinational oil companies, particularly Shell, were responsible for 50 years of oil pollution that had devastated the Ogoniland region, part of the Niger Delta.
Shell also faced legal action this month in the US, where the Supreme court is hearing a case in which Nigerian refugees accused it of aiding the Nigerian military in the torture and killing of environmentalists in the 1990s.
The government and oil firms have pledged to clean up the region and other parts of the Delta, but residents say they have seen very little action.
Royalty payments from oil firms and the sharing of federal oil revenues mean state governments in the Niger Delta have larger budgets than many West African nations, but endemic corruption has meant little gets spent on development.
Shell Petroleum Development Co (SPDC) is the largest oil and gas company in Nigeria, with production capacity of more than one million barrels of oil equivalent per day. It operates a joint venture in which state-owned Nigerian National Petroleum Corp has a majority share. Total SA subsidiary Elf Petroleum Nigeria Ltd. also has a stake.