Milieudefensie and Nigerian farmers not permitted to get the truth about Shell

Amsterdam, 14 September 2011 – The court in The Hague has today decided not to grant Milieudefensie (Friends of the Earth Netherlands) and the Nigerian farmers access to internal Shell documents which could shed more light on the circumstances surrounding leaks from Shell pipelines in Nigeria and the involvement of the Shell parent company in the Netherlands.

The request for inspection was part of a legal case that four Nigerian farmers and Milieudefensie are bringing against the oil concern for causing severe oil pollution in the Niger Delta and bringing about serious damage to the farmers’ agricultural fields and fishing ponds.

The lawyer for Milieudefensie and the farmers will be permitted to view only a number of reports by subcontractors. These are reports by one of Shell’s subcontractors in Goi, one of the villages named in the legal case. Access was denied to documents which could reveal the degree to which the Dutch-based Shell parent company is liable for oil leaks in Nigeria. The reason given by the court was that access would only be granted after sufficient grounds are established that Shell could be liable for damage as the result of leaks. Milieudefensie pointed out that some of that proof consists of evidence contained in the requested documents but that other significant evidence for this liability can be produced later in the case. The court also ruled that Milieudefensie and the farmers can continue to jointly take action: Shell was unsuccessful in protesting Milieudefensie’s role as party in the process.

Milieudefensie regrets the decision by the court but is still convinced that both Shell headquarters and its subsidiary in Nigeria ultimately will be found liable for the oil pollution the company has caused on the land and in the fish ponds of the Nigerians, even without the requested documents. Geert Ritsema of Milieudefensie: ‘Today’s verdict makes it more difficult for us to show that Shell’s headquarters in the Netherlands was jointly liable for the leaks in Nigeria. But it does nothing to alter the growing stack of evidence showing that Shell is polluting the environment on a grand scale and violates human rights in Nigeria.’

Milieudefensie points to a recent report from the UNEP – the United Nations Environment Programme – on Ogoniland, a significant portion of the oil-rich Niger Delta. It states that two thirds of the places Shell says it has cleaned up are still severely polluted. Moreover, the UNEP concludes that Shell does not comply with legal standards and its own internal procedures for cleaning up oil leaks.

Milieudefensie believes today’s decision shows that transparency in large corporations is still greatly lacking. Multinationals such as Shell hide behind smokescreens of subsidiaries and obscure corporations to prevent being held liable for the damage they do to the environment and for human rights and labour violations. Ritsema: ‘Dutch legislation evidently makes it possible for large corporations to conceal pertinent evidence.’ For years, Milieudefensie has argued for greater transparency. For example, information about which multinationals own which subsidiaries and who their directors are should be made public.

The legal proceedings of Milieudefensie and the four Nigerian farmers versus Shell consist of three cases of oil leaks in the Nigerian villages of Oruma, Goi and Ikot Ada Udo. The cases were started in November 2008 in the court in The Hague, also the location of Shell’s international headquarters. The Nigerian plaintiffs, who lost their livelihoods after oil from leaking Shell pipelines streamed over their fields and into their fish ponds, demand that Shell properly clean up the remaining oil and want compensation for the damages suffered. Milieudefensie anticipates that a court sitting on the substantive proceedings will be held in the second half of 2012.