Thursday, October 23, 2014

UNEP Report on Ogoniland is a Good Start

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The late Milton Friedman, a Nobel Prize free market economist once wrote that the only social responsibility business corporations have is to increase profits. Thank goodness this is not the prevailing view of business’s social responsibility today. If it were, Shell International’s Nigerian subsidiary, Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria (SPDC) could have chosen to ignore the United Nations Environment (UNEP) report on oil spills and the environmental damage caused in Ogoniland.

The final UNEP report itself bears no resemblance to widely reported comments made by Mr Mike Cowing, a senior UN official in August 2010 at a briefing in Geneva. Cowing, at that time suggested that the UNEP report will exonerate Shell, as that company is responsible for about 10% of the oil spills in Ogoniland. The remaining 90%, was due to the activities of local thieves “bunkering” activities and saboteurs. John Vidal, the Guardian’s environment editor had a headline, “oil giant blamed for 10% of 9 million barrels leaked in 40 years.” Vidal and many other commentators were surprised: thieves and saboteurs guilty of the majority of oil spills in Ogoniland? The online blogs tell the rest of the story.

Cowing’s comments at the time seem to have caused UNEP some embarrassment. The organisation distanced itself from his comments when the activists and other environmental groups waiting for the report made their thoughts known to the world’s press. But now the UNEP report is out. The investigation team seem to have been thorough wherever they worked. The details in the report prove this. Indeed, the investigation team did not visit all sites of oil spills in Ogoniland; it is probably fair to say that over the two or more years that they conducted their inspections and collected samples for analysis, they gained a very clear picture of what had happened in Ogoniland. They had a front-seat view of the devastation that oil spills had caused and the ensuing poverty. They observed how the Ogoni have lost a way of life, why they were better off before the discovery of oil on their land. The Ogoni have experienced first-hand, the curse of oil and enjoyed none of its financial and development blessings. UNEP recruited a team of international experts, in public health, contaminated land and water pollution. They surveyed 122 miles of “pipeline rights of way”; they worked at 69 sites selected for the levels of contamination and conducted groundwater and soil analysis. They collected samples of community drinking water, air, rainwater, and fish. They collected more than 4,000 samples for analysis in laboratories worldwide. They also collected water from 142 groundwater wells that they drilled to monitor groundwater movement. The exceptional work done has made this report a unique paper on the effects of oil pollution. Other African countries due to produce oil in the next few years must study this report and strengthen their regulatory authorities. They have to ensure that these regulatory bodies have the capacity and the funding.

The Ogonis have suffered, and are still suffering. Some of them have blasted the UNEP report as biased, the result of collusion between Shell, the government and the UNEP (there is some uneasiness about the fact that the report was paid for by Shell); others have said it’s a fair report confirming what they already knew.

Achim Steiner, UNEP’s executive director has said that Shell funding the report did not affect the impartiality, rigour and independence in their work. Indeed, the report speaks for itself. What happens next in this tragic story is in the hands of Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan and Shell and its joint venture partners. There is much to be done. Somehow, these institutions have to win the Ogoni people’s trust. It will take time. Part of this will involve implementing the recommendations in the UNEP report to show the Ogoni people that the authorities are serious and that this time it will all be different.

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