Crude oil spills from the plants of oil companies like Shell and Eni have been contaminating the waters of the Niger Delta for years, harming local populations


© Adrian Arbib / Eyevine

On 10th November 1995, in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, the intellectual Ken Saro-Wiwa was sentenced to death by hanging, along with eight other activists of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People. The military leadership of General Abacha handed down the sentence after a summary trial based on trumped-up charges. Saro-Wiwa's crime was fighting for his homeland, disfigured for decades by the oil giants. Only two years previously, Saro-Wiwa had in fact led a peaceful protest of 300,000 people, actually forcing SPDC, a state-aided Shell subsidiary, to abandon exploration and extraction operations in Ogoniland. According to Amnesty International, Shell was the moral instigator for the writer's execution.
Not a lot has changed since then. Now a democratic nation, Nigeria remains among the top 15 crude oil producing countries. 90% of its exports depend on crude oil. And yet, most of the population has never enjoyed the benefits of such wealth, so much so that 40% of people are still living below the poverty line.
The most devastating impact is, however, measured in environmental terms. It is calculated that in 60 years of crude oil extraction operations, more than 20 million barrels of crude oil have been discharged in the Niger Delta region, because of a badly-maintained infrastructure, illegal spills and sabotage. Theft and accidents are everyday occurrences, yet the inertia of the oil giants and the corruption of institutions have hindered clean-up operations and compensation processes.
The health and subsistence of the Delta's inhabitants are thus compromised by contamination of the ground and water sources. The situation is further intensified by the illegal practice of gas flaring, whereby the oil companies every year burn 8 billion cubic metres of unwanted methane gas, releasing millions of tons of climate-altering gases and dangerous pollutants into the atmosphere.

Alessandro Braggion