Alagoa Morris sped toward Ikarama as soon as he got word of the fire. He took a taxi from Yenagoa, the capital of Nigeria’s Bayelsa State, to the Imbiama Junction, where he rented a motor bike and raced down the narrow roads to Ikarama. From miles away, he saw a column of smoke towering above the small rural community.
It was March 1, 2009, and Morris, a project officer for Friends of the Earth Nigeria, had received an urgent message that a fire had broken out at the site of a major oil spill. The spilled crude, which had streamed from a Shell Petroleum pipeline into the nearby Oya and Obrun lakes, had been sitting for months. When Morris arrived in Ikarama, he found that the site he had been pressing Shell to clean up was in flames. “The fire gutted all the plants and trees around the two lakes and was burning even on top of the water,” he recalled.
Since June 2008 Morris has documented nine spills from Shell facilities in Ikarama. The spills have contaminated the town’s main source of water, sickening children and killing many of the fish the local fishermen rely on. The March 1 blaze, said the Rev. FearGod Kologa, a pastor and respected community elder, destroyed plantains, cassava and cocoa yams on his property.
Ikarama is consumed by finger-pointing. Shell Petroleum, the Nigeria-based subsidiary of Royal Dutch Shell, blames the spills on sabotage by community members, an explanation that has been confirmed in several cases by formal investigations. Morris and Ikarama residents accuse Shell of ordering its contractors to set the spills ablaze instead of conducting real cleanups. “They tell contractors to come and burn the area,” said a longtime Shell contractor in Ikarama, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of losing his job. “Every time there is an oil spill in Ikarama, whether sabotage or no sabotage, the contractor normally sets fire on the oil.”
The damage in Ikarama is part of a swath of environmental devastation surrounding the operations of Shell and other multinational oil companies throughout the Niger Delta, the oil-rich southern region of Nigeria. Brushing aside regulation by a government that depends on oil extraction for 80 percent of its revenues, the oil majors act with impunity as they employ methods long since abandoned in the developed world. In turn, the government, a majority stakeholder in many joint-venture agreements with energy firms, fails to enforce the law as it spirits vast oil profits out of the Delta. Local communities, mired in poverty and pollution, have increasingly resorted to crime and militancy characterized by destructive attacks on oil facilities. The result has been the wholesale contamination of a region that is home to some 31 million people, most of whom depend on the natural environment for their livelihoods.
In recent years, the toxic combination of poverty, pollution, corruption and the federal capture of oil revenues has spawned a violent rebellion led by the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND). Last summer MEND’s attacks on the oil industry crippled production and threatened to bring the Nigerian economy to its knees. In August, the shaken government launched an amnesty program for rebels and opened negotiations on the militants’ demands, which included a greater share of oil proceeds for the Delta. The amnesty led to several breakthroughs: in October the government proposed to grant a 10 percent stake in oil revenues to Delta communities, MEND declared an indefinite cease-fire and Nigerian Defense Minister Godwin Abbe told reporters that more than 15,000 rebels had registered to demobilize and turned in their weapons.