The long-awaited report from the United National Environmental Program (UNEP) on oil damage in the Ogoni area was presented to President Goodluck Jonathan on August 4 in Abuja. This important study, the first of its kind in the Niger Delta, was conceived well before 2006 by the Federal Government as part of the Ogoni reconciliation and peace process led by Father Matthew Kukah (recently named Bishop of Sokoto). Intended as a major assessment of the impacts of oil production in the Ogoni region, UNEP in an early statement described the aim as to “clarify and de-mystify concerns expressed by local communities.” [Audio Below]
Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC) suspended active production in Ogoniland in late 1993 as a response to growing resistance to industry presence led by the martyred freedom fighter and writer Ken Saro-Wiwa. However, the company remained responsible during its withdrawal for monitoring and maintaining its installations, and especially the critical Trans-Niger pipeline serving Bonny Terminal. It also left behind a number of spill sites.
Over the years the company had mixed success in negotiating with local communities access to spills sites or achieving their complete remediation. The impoverished local population also pursued informal oil production that centered on bunkering (oil pipeline tapping) and bush refining – increasing opportunities for further spills and pollution. In keeping with the “polluter pays” principle, the operator SPDC joint venture funded the U.S. $9.5 million UNEP study.
Last week the press had a field day with the freshly unveiled report.
Journalists whisked together highlights and added spice from the region’s contested history. Some articles cooked in the press kitchen missed key ingredients or simply got them mixed up. The best among them focused on the findings from the study’s careful scientific analysis, which led UNEP to the conclusion that “pollution has perhaps gone further and penetrated deeper than many may have previously supposed.”
This forceful opinion stated in the foreword by UNEP’s executive director Achim Steiner represents a long step beyond the study’s original technical terms of reference or the limited policy aims supporting reconciliation and “de-mystification.”
Now in 2011, UNEP’s thoughtful recommendations, while not assigning blame, point clearly to the need for a genuine shift in the priorities and practices of the oil industry and governmental regulatory agencies operating throughout the Niger Delta. The muscular sub-text rippling throughout the report makes clear that nothing less than ending pollution and full remediation of Ogoniland (and indeed the whole Niger Delta region) should be accepted as an end point.