2 minute read
Vivienne Walt

In the global scramble for energy, Nigeria is blessed. Its resources earn billions of dollars each year, and it bobs atop enough oil and gas reserves to ensure wealth for generations. Yet try telling that to impoverished villagers in the country’s Niger Delta region, where Royal Dutch Shell has drilled for nearly 50 years. “Look at thisthe crops are stunted, the water is polluted,” rails Bari-Ara Kpalap, grabbing a wilted stalk of cassava as he stands ankle-deep in oily water. For Kpalap, a local activist, there is one obvious culprit: “A great part of our problems have been caused by Shell.”

Ten years have passed since Nigerian soldiers hanged activist Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight others after protests targeting Shell’s operations turned violent. Today, the companywhich has long maintained that pollution from its oil operations in the Delta is due largely to sabotageis still struggling to regain the locals’ trust. Shell has a new strategy. After seeing millions of dollars from its contributions to development funds vanish in the hands of corrupt officials, Shell last month signed a four-year contract with village leaders that puts $7.7 million at their direct disposal. There is no shortage of worthy causes. The region is plagued by malaria and AIDS, and does not have enough schools or health clinics. “We have to do our part,” says Emanuel Etomi, who heads Shell’s sustainable-development unit in the Delta. Shareholders should be pleased, too: Etomi says winning friends is essential to safeguarding Shell’s pipelines and wellheads. Indeed, oil prices soared last week after the Delta’s rebels kidnapped four Shell workers and attacked three Shell facilities, shutting down more than 200,000 barrels a day of the Delta’s output.

Winning hearts and minds could take years, however. “We still do not trust Shell,” says Ledum Mitee, who runs the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People, which Saro-Wiwa founded before being hanged. Mitee claims his members aren’t responsible for the latest attacks. He says Shell must apologize for its practices of the past and begin direct talks with activists. Until then, “this is a situation which is really prone to violence,” he says. With global oil supplies still tight, that’s a warning that producers and consumers around the world would do well to heed.

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