“The village that stood up to big oil – and won”
by Jess Craig
The Guardian, June 1, 2022
I am writing to pitch a reported feature that tells the story of four Nigerian farmers and the legal team who successfully sued Shell earlier this year for wide-scale environmental pollution. Their unprecedented court win has major implications for the global oil industry and its environmental impact.
In 2003, Eric Dooh was seeing his entrepreneurial dreams come true. In a small village in southeastern Nigeria, he and his father owned a bakery, a chicken farm, several fishponds and acres of farmland. They had 30 employees. Dooh might have become one of the wealthiest men in the whole region, he says now, if it weren’t for the oil that ran underneath his land. Shell, one of the largest oil companies in the world, had arrived to Dooh’s village in the 90s, and by 2003, they were harvesting more than 1 million barrels of oil per day and leaking hundreds more into the nearby farmland and waterways. “We were eating, drinking, breathing the oil,” he recalled.
Within a few years, all the fish and crops died; cancer rates were 3 times higher than in other parts of the country. By 2006, armed groups mobilized and started attacking Shell facilities and employees. The region became one of the most polluted places on Earth, and without fresh water and farmland, descended into poverty and conflict. This is the legacy of the oil industry in developing countries.In 2008, two major oil spills prompted Dooh and three other farmers to file lawsuits against Shell. Thousands of others had done the same but to no avail. And then, earlier this year, Dooh and the other farmers won an unprecedented victory in a Dutch court that held the oil giant responsible for the overseas pollution and ordered them to compensate Dooh and the other plaintiffs. In the months since, Shell has announced it is ending all onshore oil operations in Nigeria and has vowed to pull out of other developing countries. But thousands of people in Nigeria and hundreds of thousands more across Africa and the Middle East are still living in “oil hell.”
For the piece, I will travel through Goi and other affected villages to interview the four plaintiffs and other residents. The piece will shed light on the ongoing environmental, public health, and sociopolitical impact of the oil industry in the region as it undergoes what it has vowed to be a paradigm shift following the court hearing. I will also interview members of the legal team and other experts and analysts.