The oil industry in the Niger Delta of Nigeria has brought only impoverishment, conflict, human rights abuses and despair to the people, says Amnesty International.
In its report Petroleum, pollution and poverty in the Niger Delta, published Tuesday, the noted human rights organisation points out that oil pollution kills fish, their food sources and fish larvae, and damages the ability of fish to reproduce, causing both immediate damage and long-term harm to fish stocks. Oil pollution also damages fishing equipment.
"People living in the Niger Delta have to drink, cook with and wash in polluted water," said Audrey Gaughran, who co-authored the report . "They eat fish contaminated with oil and other toxins -- if they are lucky enough to be able to still find fish. The land they farm on is being destroyed.
"After oil spills, the air they breathe smells of oil, gas and other pollutants. People complain of breathing problems and skin lesions, and yet neither the government nor the oil companies monitor the human impacts of oil pollution."
Oil spills and waste dumping have also seriously damaged agricultural land. Long-term effects include damage to soil fertility and agricultural productivity, which in some cases can last for decades. In numerous cases, these long-term effects have undermined a family's only source of livelihood.
The destruction of livelihoods and the lack of accountability and redress have led people to steal oil and vandalize oil infrastructure in an attempt to gain compensation or clean-up contracts.
Armed groups are increasingly demanding greater control of resources in the region, and engage in large-scale theft of oil and the ransoming of oil workers. Government reprisals against militancy and violence frequently involve excessive force, and communities are subjected to violence and collective punishment, deepening anger and resentment.
The report also details how the Nigerian government is failing to hold oil companies to account for the pollution they have caused.
"Oil companies have been exploiting Nigeria's weak regulatory system for too long," said Audrey Gaughran. "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."
The Niger Delta is one of the world's 10 most important wetland and coastal marine ecosystems and is home to some 31 million people. It is also the location of massive oil deposits, which have been extracted for decades by the government of Nigeria and by multinational oil companies.
It consists of nine oil-producing states. It has a land area of about 46,500 square miles (75,000 square km) -- about the same size as the Czech Republic or the U.S. state of Pennsylvania, according to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP).
An area of rich biological diversity, the region contains the world's third-largest wetland with the most extensive freshwater swamp forest. More than half the area contains creeks and small islands, while the rest is rainforest, the UNDP says.
At the same time, the Niger Delta produces the oil wealth that accounts for the bulk of Nigeria's foreign earnings, the UNDP says. Oil has generated an estimated US$600 billion since the 1960s. Still the area remains desperately poor.
The UN agency describes the region as suffering from "administrative neglect, crumbling social infrastructure and services, high unemployment, social deprivation, abject poverty, filth and squalor, and endemic conflict." This poverty, and its contrast with the wealth generated by oil, has become one of the world's starkest and most disturbing examples of the "resource curse".
"More than 60 per cent of people in the region depend on the natural environment for their livelihood," said Audrey Gaughran "Yet, pollution by the oil industry is destroying the vital resource on which they depend."
The scale of pollution and environmental damage has never been properly assessed. The figures that do exist vary considerably depending on sources, but hundreds of spills occur each year. According to the UNDP, more than 6,800 spills were recorded between 1976 and 2001. According to the National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency some 2,000 sites require treatment because of oil-related pollution. The real total may be higher.
The oil industry in the Niger Delta involves both the government of Nigeria and subsidiaries of multinational companies. The Shell Petroleum Development Company (Shell), a subsidiary of Royal Dutch Shell, is the main operator on land. The majority of cases reported to and investigated by Amnesty International relate to Shell.
"Despite its public claims to be a socially and environmentally responsible corporation, Shell continues to directly harm human rights through its failure to adequately prevent and mitigate pollution and environmental damage in the Niger Delta," Gaughran said.
A Shell spokesman said the company shares Amnesty's concern for the people in the Niger Delta but disputes the group's assessment of its corporate accountability.
"We feel that the root causes of the Niger Delta's humanitarian issues are poverty, corruption, crime, militancy, and violence. This report does not acknowledge these issues to any substantive degree, but concentrates on oil and gas issues in isolation, and as such, its value is limited," said a spokesman at the company's headquarters in The Hague, Netherlands, who asked not to be identified per company policy.
"This report brings no new insights or analysis to help oil companies such as SPDC improve managing the issues of the Niger Delta," the Shell spokesman said. "Instead, in parts it draws wide-ranging and superficial conclusions from a number of these deeply complex issues, offering little underlying analysis to support those conclusions."
Shell said it is not responsible for some 80 percent of the pollution in the oil-rich area, because that pollution is the result of attacks and sabotage of Shell operations in the Niger Delta.
"Over the past four weeks alone we had eight attacks," he said. "These attacks had a substantial impact on the environment, and assets, and most importantly for the people that live and work there."
About 85 percent of the oil spills from Shell operations are the result of attacks and sabotage, he said.
Nigeria's state oil company called the Amnesty International report "inaccurate."
It was local communities who cause much of the environmental damage by vandalizing pipelines for monetary gain, asserted Levi Ajuonoma, a spokesman for Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation.
For its part, Nigeria's main militant group, the Movement for Emancipation of the Niger Delta
, or MEND, has claimed responsibility for numerous attacks on the region's oil infrastructure in recent months.
Last year MEND attacks forced Nigeria to cut its oil exports by as much as 40 percent.
Amnesty's report acknowledged that armed groups and communities have worsened the pollution problem by vandalizing oil infrastructure or stealing oil, but it said the scale of the problem is not clear.
The report also pointed the finger at governments and said they have failed to be held accountable for the situation of the people.
The Niger Delta covers 185 different local government areas, according to the United Nations Development Program.
"The government must address the human impact of oil industry pollution," said Gaughran of Amnesty.
"They have a duty to protect their citizens from human rights abuse or harm by businesses and they are failing in that duty."
Shell supports "collaborative solutions" between communities, governments, corporations and non-profit groups as the only way to address the problems listed in the Amnesty report, the spokesman said.
"The SPDC definitely shares Amnesty International's concern that the people in the Niger Delta haven't benefited from the extraction of the oil and gas as they should," the spokesman said, "but this has been the opinion of the SPDC for a number of years."
Shell said plans are under way to deal with the problem of gas flaring, which happens when crude oil is brought to the surface along with the large volumes of gas that have been trapped with it.
The gas used to be burned off safely in a process called flaring, but that process is now considered a waste of resources and revenue for the government, Shell says. A $3 billion program to reduce the gas flares has already been able to cut them by 30 percent, the company said.