Farmers sue Shell over oil spills in Niger Delta

Four Nigerian farmers will launch a ground-breaking pollution claim against oil giant Royal Dutch Shell in a court in The Hague today.

The farmers' case alleges that three separate oil spills from Shell's operations contaminated fields and fishing ponds in villages in the Niger Delta, destroying the claimants' livelihoods. But today's hearing is to consider the more arcane question of whether a Dutch court has jurisdiction over activities in another country.

The plaintiffs, who are supported by Friends of the Earth Netherlands, maintain that the Shell parent company should take responsibility for the activities of its foreign subsidiary and provide compensation.

If the court rules that the Nigerian activities are within its legal remit, it could set a significant precedent, according to Ben Amunwa, who is a campaigner for the Platform lobby group in London.

"This is the first time that a Dutch court has considered the question of whether it has jurisdiction over a company's environmental abuses abroad," Mr Amunwa said. "Until now these claims could only be made locally, and there are enormous barriers to justice in Nigeria, not least that most of those affected by oil spills are villagers who simply cannot afford to bring legal claims."

Shell's defence is expected to focus on three main arguments. First, that only a Nigerian court can rule on claims arising from events in Nigeria and affecting Nigerian people. Second, that not only were the spills caused by sabotage, but that the clean-up was obstructed by local people denying the company access to the affected land. Third, that the group's Nigerian arm – the Shell Petroleum Development Corporation (SPDC) – is a separate company, in which the parent holds only a 30 per cent stake while the majority shareholder is the Nigerian government's Nigerian National Petroleum Company.

A source familiar with the situation said: "Shell is a shareholder but does not operate SPDC. That company has a set of responsibilities and accountabilities to Nigeria and the Nigerian people and, as such, if there is a case to answer it should be in a Nigerian court."

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