Goi is now a dead village. The two fish ponds, bakery and chicken farm that used to be the pride and joy of its chief deacon, Barrisa Tete Dooh, lie abandoned, covered in a thick black layer. The village’s fishing creek is contaminated; the school has been looted; the mangrove forests are coated in bitumen and everyone has left, refugees from a place blighted by the exploitation of the region’s most valuable asset: crude oil.
Last Thursday, a long-awaited and comprehensive UN study exposed the full horror of the pollution that the production of oil has brought to Ogoniland in Nigeria over the past 50 years.
The UN report showed that oil companies and the Nigerian government had not just failed to meet their own standards, but that the process of investigation, reporting and clean-up was deeply flawed in favor of the firms and against the victims. Spills in the US are responded to in minutes; in the Niger delta, which suffers more pollution each year than the Gulf of Mexico, it can take weeks or more.
“Oil companies have been exploiting Nigeria’s weak regulatory system for too long,” Audrey Gaughran of Amnesty International said. “They do not adequately prevent environmental damage and they frequently fail to properly address the devastating impact that their bad practice has on people’s lives.”
Goi, 64km from Port Harcourt, is a typical case. Just a few kilometers from where Shell first found oil in Ogoniland in 1958, it is only 32km from Bane, the ancestral home of Ogoni writer and leader Ken Saro-Wiwa. People from Goi joined the great Ogoni protest march of 1994, when one in three people from the small kingdom of 900,000 rose peacefully against the company, preventing it from working any of its 30 wells in the area. Two years later, Saro-Wiwa and eight Ogoni leaders were tried on a fabricated murder charge and executed.
A quiet fishing community of fewer than 100 people, Goi was steadily weakened and then broken by a series of oil spills that, over 20 years, made the network of swamps, lagoons, rivers and creeks around it unusable.
“People used to drink the water in the creek, fish, cook and swim in it. It was a perfect place,” Dooh said. “We wanted for nothing, but the spills came, the tide washed in pollution from elsewhere and in 1987 a massive oil fire burned uncontrolled for weeks. By 2008, most people had left.”
Dooh and the last people of Goi then finally gave up.
“We kept being polluted. We could not stay any longer,” said his eldest son, Eric. “Shell said they would fix things, but a contractor came and scooped some of the oil up and that was it. The spills just got bigger and bigger.”
In 2009, a third large spill made the last house uninhabitable.
Whether Dooh or anyone ever returns now depends on a court case in the Netherlands. Together with Friends of the Earth Netherlands, Dooh is suing Shell in The Hague for negligence. The Shell pipeline close to the village pumped 120,000 barrels of oil. It burst in 2004 with devastating consequences. The company claims that it was sabotaged by youths stealing oil to process in rudimentary home-made refineries — a process called bunkering. Dooh blames corrosion of the 50-year-old pipeline.
Last week Wednesday, Shell formally accepted responsibility in British law for two significant spills in nearby Bodo. Those were rare victories. More than 1,000 court cases have been taken against Shell for pollution in the last 30 years, but almost all are rejected, settled for a few dollars or remain mired in the legal system for years. Even when the courts rule against the company and fine it millions, it is possible for it to appeal, with legal delays draining communities of cash. One case against Shell taken by people in Goi is still in the courts after 14 years.